“These criticisms come from love": Reviewing the 8th Annual Afropunk Festival

Despite the impressive amount of revelers who came out to enjoy last weekend’s 8th annual Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park, there were looming criticisms about how this year’s festival deviated from the nonconformist and anti-consumerism philosophy at the heart of the Afropunk scene.

two fans dressed in black at the festival two fans wearing bright colors at the festival
Fans at this year’s Afropunk Festival

Afropunk Fest’s public relations team organizers aggressively utilized social media to pre-promote the festival and were monitoring their Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook pages throughout the weekend, which meant that both positive and negative online feedback was abundant. The immediacy of the online criticisms about the festival were publicly (and surprisingly) acknowledged by both the mistress of ceremonies, singer MilitiA Vox, and musician/producer Pharrell Williams, who made a surprise appearance to introduce headliner Janelle Monáe on Sunday evening. William’s comments were interesting, as he seemed to defend the presence of the R&B songstress by saying that it was her ability to create unique music and shape her career outside of the norm that made her an excellent choice to close out the Festival.

Jacqui Gore, the veteran drummer for her son’s band, Philly’s Joe Jordan’s Experiment who played on Saturday took it all in stride. “It is a bit confusing about what exactly this festival is about, but it does provide us with an opportunity to teach the younger generation about rock n’ roll.”

Jacqui Gore
Jacqui Gore on the drums.

Though there was little punk in Afropunk Fest, there was still a bevy of emerging and veteran artists. Hip hop duo OxyMorrons won the 2012 Battle of the Bands contest for good reason, as they tore up the stage during their brisk, 30-minute set. Folk singer Toshi Reagon and songstress Alice Smith brought some acoustic soul to the mix, but veteran Erykah Badu, who closed out the first evening, was another controversial headliner. She teamed up with the electronic group Cannabinoids (their band description is “8 laptops, 3 turntables, 6 keyboards, 4 drum machines, a Theremin, live onstage production”) who served as her backup musicians. The once-sultry neo-soul singer was now surrounded by a stage full of laptops. Despite her fantastic performance, the fact that not one stringed musical instrument was onstage with her at a live music festival was a disappointment.

Badu on stage
Erykah Badu on stage with Cannabinoids.

Another point of contention among fans was the contradiction between the efforts that Afropunk as a brand put into promoting cultural and sexual equality among all of their members, and the hip hop artists and DJs chosen to perform at the festival. Earlier this year, Afropunk Fest teamed up with Mursi Layne and Alexis Casson of the all-female production company The Architects who produce the popular LGBTQ webseries, The Peculiar Kind. Despite that collaboration and apparent mindfulness, the hip hop groups that performed at the skate park (and were literally mobbed by the audience, photographers, and videographers) spouted some seriously misogynist and homophobia-tinged lyrics. The selection of music played by the DJs between sets at the green stage (there were two stages), was again, questionable—but not as concerning as the legion of underage audience members who, in unison, chanted lyrics about hoodrats and various sexual escapades in a weird monotone. There was definitely more booty-clapping than head-banging, which was a disappointment for many members of the Afropunk scene.

While at the festival, I was reminded of these Ani DiFranco lyrics: “We have to be able to criticize what we love, to say what we have to say ‘cause if you’re not trying to make something better, then as far as I can tell, you are just in the way.” My own criticisms of the Afropunk Fest come from love. The fact that the festival has expanded threefold in its eight years of existence should be celebrated. The friendly and extremely diverse crowd was respectful, and save one rude man who harassed Janelle Monáe from the photo pit, well behaved. A lot of people came out in support of not only the bands, but the myriad of local community organizations and independent black artists selling their merchandise.

fans sitting on a blanket at the festival wearing facepaint
Fans at this year’s Afropunk Festival

A handful of veteran black punk and metal musicians at the festival told me they were frustrated by the fact that Vox (who fronts the all-female tribute band Judas Priestess), Brooklyn’s Cerebral Ballzy, and Tennessee’s Straight Line Stitch were the only punk and metal artists out of the 26 musical acts that performed, but they understood the limitations as well. In order to put on a two-day, free festival, sacrifices had to be made, and it was generally thought that sponsors wanted artists who could guarantee a return on their investment. However, these fans also wished that the festival had retained the DIY outsider philosophy that once made Afropunk enticing to kids who didn’t want to, or couldn’t afford to buy the mainstream brands now sponsoring the festival. But despite their reservations, they were there, hoping to distribute their CDs and business cards to those who might be interested in harder music than what was performed on the stages.

by Laina Dawes
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