It is clear that Afropunk has been bastardised and its original mission has been degraded into nothingness.
I remember my first concert like it was yesterday. I was sixteen and my best friend and I were in love with Jackson Rathbone of Twilight fame. Learning that he was the frontman of a short-lived folk band named 100 Monkeys was almost too much for our teenage hearts. Of course, her mother was fine to drive us an hour to Allentown, on a school night, to the bar where the concert was held. My grandmother was less keen. It took weeks of begging, pleading, promising to never ask for anything again, and outright sobbing before she finally gave in. But she did give in. That single concert began a tradition for Aneesa and I. Every year we set off to whatever dive bar 100 Monkeys landed at and screeched our lungs raw on the off-chance that Jackson would sweep us onstage and off to our fantasy life. Eventually, they disbanded, but I remember those concerts and I remember how I felt in the front row, screaming my heart out alongside hundreds of fans.
I also remember feeling distinctly alone. Standing next to my best friend, dead center in a heaving mass of sweat-drenched bodies, and not seeing a single face that looked like mine. Even now, ten years later, as I regularly attend concerts on my own I feel singularly alone and isolated whenever I choose to see bands I love. I consider my music tastes to be somewhat eclectic, and I have playlists ranging from classical to country to 808-heavy trap, but my first loves are metal, punk, and rock. Throughout high school and the early years of college, concerts were something of a minefield. I wanted nothing more than to be front row, tossed side to side in mosh pits while Avenged Sevenfold and Disturbed prowled the stage in front of me, but I never felt quite safe. There was always an underlying current of fear, despite vague assurances that “punk is for everyone” and “racism isn’t punk”.
While recent media coverage has shed a brighter light on the problem, alt genres of rock and metal music have always had a problem with race. Varg Vikernes, of the one-man band Burzum, has espoused anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic ideology since the early 1990s. Hendrik Möbus, of Neo-Nazi band Absurd, has served multiple prison terms for his part in a murder and continued violent acts motivated by Nazi ideology. In 2016, Phil Anselmo, frontman of Pantera, was filmed giving a Hitler salute and yelling “White power!” to a crowd. And while Corey Taylor of Slipknot, offers milquetoast platitudes about metal being “a tribe of misfits,” the honest truth is that overwhelmingly white spaces have always bred contempt for non-white people.
I was resigned to this unfortunate truth and opted for lawn or general admission seats over pit tickets for much of my concert-going experience. But when I first heard of Afropunk, I felt a faint bit of hope. I mean… it was right there in the name. Afro-punk. I remember James Spooner’s eponymous documentary. It felt like home to see and hear people with skin, piercings, and hair like mine talk candidly about their discomfort and fears in the punk scene. It gave a name to the dual consciousness that forms as a Black person in the punk world. It was 2015. I scraped together my few post-undergrad coins for the $75-weekend admission price and went online to look at the lineup. I expected to see Alice in Chains, Suicidal Tendencies, Hyro the Hero, Sepultura, Suffocation, or any number of Black-fronted metal and punk bands. While Suicidal Tendencies was listed, the bulk of the lineup consisted of artists like Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Kelis, Danny Brown, Cakes da Killa, and Kaytranda. Fantastic performers and powerhouses in their own right, to be sure, but not… exactly what I expected from a festival titled Afropunk. Where was the punk?
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What I remembered of Spooner’s documentary was distinctly and intentionally anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, and anti-establishment. Why were massive, internationally recognised R&B and pop superstars headlining? Why did it cost money to attend what had been a free and open art and music festival for the last ten years? For whatever reason, I ended up not going to Afropunk that year, but I wrote it off as a fluke. Maybe they were experimenting with something else? Maybe I had found the wrong website? But then 2016 was more of the same. Ice Cube, Janelle Monáe, Tyler the Creator, Angel Haze, and the Internet. Surely this was a joke? This couldn’t possibly be the legacy of a film subtitled “Rock N’ Roll Nigger”. There was nothing subversive or punk or rebellious about a festival headlined by Kelela.
And then it made sense. Matthew Morgan, the not-so-silent financial investor, was the man behind the machine. Afropunk had become a money grab. It wasn’t about the music or the community anymore, but the “economic impact” and driving ticket sales. Following Spooner’s departure in 2008, Afropunk had morphed into a capitalist behemoth with corporate sponsorships from MillerCoors, Toyota, Pantene, and Nike. MIA, the Sri Lankan Tamil-English rapper famous for her anti-establishment anthem Paper Planes, was dropped from the London Afropunk roster after her comments on Black Lives Matter were recalled.
But it begs the question, why was MIA ever called to the fore as a headliner in the first place? Sure, her lyrics are anti-government abuse and ostensibly pro-people, but there’s nothing particularly punk or Afro-inspired about them. What niche does she serve that Tommy Vext of Bad Wolves cannot? What does Ice Cube, in all of his formerly anti-cop, misogynistic glory, have to offer that Project Black Pantera does not? What’s so punk about Tyler the Creator being given a platform to spew violent pro-rape fantasies at audiences while Chikwata 263 hopes to tour abroad? What was the rationale for inviting Cee Lo Green, an accused rapist, to headline the festival while Fire from the Gods is right there?
But I’ve already answered my own questions. The rationale is money and greed. Spooner’s departure opened the floodgates and allowed corporate sponsorships, tiered ticket sales, and musical figures antithetical to everything punk to invade the Afropunk space. What began as a festival for subversive film, fashion, and music to flourish among like-minded souls in a safe haven had become Coachella-lite, rife with appropriative, boot-licking, bullshit complete with guides for white people on how best to participate. The name “Afropunk” feels grossly inappropriate for a space where white feelings are protected at the cost of black expression. As stories of a space replete with abuses and perversions of all that punk is trickled forth, it is clear that Afropunk has been bastardised and its original mission has been degraded into nothingness. Under Morgan’s stewardship, Afropunk has devolved into little more than a capitalist show for investors and sponsored partners — a far cry from the haven for freaks, weirdos, and misfits James Spooner envisioned.
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In 2019, I finally had the opportunity to go to Afropunk in Brooklyn. Despite my misgivings, I didn’t want to miss my opportunity to come together with my fellow oddballs in what was supposed to be our space. I toyed with the idea of putting in the minimum eight volunteer hours for a free ticket but ultimately decided to shell out the money instead. I found a sitter for my cat, purchased my Megabus ticket, reserved my AirBnB in Queens, and studied the New York metro map. Two days before I left, I downloaded the lineup from the Afropunk website and I was admittedly disappointed. FKA Twigs, Santigold, Jill Scott, Lianne La Havas, Masego, Rico Nasty, and Nao were headliners. Buried deep, almost an afterthought, was Fire from the Gods and Hyro the Hero.
I still went because I had sunk almost $300 into a weekend trip, not including food and missed work. While I enjoyed spending two days wandering through Commodore Barry Park and being swallowed by crowds of black- and brown-skinned people adorned with body piercings and multi-coloured hair, something felt off. Maybe it was the knowledge that I had spent almost $100 for the privilege. Maybe it was the corporate logos emblazoned on tents hawking $4 and $5 bottles of water and soda and similarly overpriced snack foods. Maybe it was the dulcet tones of rap, R&B, and soul music over the sound system at what was supposed to be a celebration of Black contributions to the driving sounds of punk, metal, and rock. Whatever it was that upset my spirit that weekend, it resolved into a promise to myself. I will never again support the dumpster fire that Afropunk has become. I won’t spend any more money supporting a sham that claims to be by and for Afro and Indigenous contributions to alt culture while ultimately lining the pockets of corporate interests.