The central question of fame and recognition—that is, whether a cultural phenomenon’s growth and prominence inevitably means sacrificing what was originally good about the phenomenon in the first place—anchors an immersive new piece on the Afropunk Festival in Racked by Nikita Richardson.
The piece uses quotes from Afropunk Festival organizers and participants to illustrate a chronology of the festival’s growth from a free community and alt-culture-celebrating event to a global phenomenon (this year, there will be satellite festivals in Atlanta and Paris). It also sheds light on the peculiar circumstances of black artists enmeshed in and marginalized from mainstream punk or rock scenes. The whole article is worth a close read—especially for those who intend to go to the festival this weekend at Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park—but here are a few choice passages that illustrate what Afropunk means, despite (or because of) it’s immense growth into a global movement.
On the topic of marginalization from punk scenes:
When the idea for Afro-Punk [the original documentary that spawned the festival] began forming in [documentarian James] Spooner’s mind, he was 23 and settled in Los Angeles after a childhood split between Flatbush and various small towns in Southern California. Spooner became fascinated with the punk rock scene as an eighth grader, listening to classic bands like the Sex Pistols, Black Flag and The Misfits to drown out the racial epithets hurled at him on a daily basis (Spooner is mixed race). When his family moved back to New York City during his high school years, Spooner felt more at ease in the “racially diverse punk scene,” though even that comfort proved short-lived.
“I stopped hanging out in the New York hardcore scene because it was just so tough-guy and violent,” says Spooner. “And I was finding out more about the DIY punk scene that was a lot more political and what I thought was thoughtful.”
Thoughtful, yes, but still very, very white. By the time he began filming Afro-Punk, interviewing black musicians like Tamar-kali and members of critically-acclaimed punk rock bands Fish Bone and TV on the Radio as well as black punk rock fans, Spooner had become deeply frustrated with the DIY scene and its adherents for presenting themselves as progressive, but never making room for a conversation around race and identity — a conversation he desperately wanted to have.
“I was just like, fuck punk rock,” he says. “Fuck them for not helping me, for getting me all amped about all these politics. I was never really asked to think about race.”
On the importance of Afropunk as a community for alternative displays of blackness:
“It was just like the mothership was calling me home,” Shaunna Randolph says, taking a slow sip of her wine. ”A George Clinton, Parliament/Funkadelic, awesome mothership.” Decked out in a white tank over a pair of skinny patterned jeans, her hair a beautiful cloud of miniature ringlets, she recalls exactly how she felt at the very first Afropunk Festival in 2005.
“Fauxhawks, locs, piercings, studs, jean jackets with patches, and everything that I had seen the white kids do that I wanted to be a part of, but I just couldn’t make that cross,” Randolph, a freelance corporate marketer says, listing the styles she saw that weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “I finally saw black kids doing it and owning it and making it their own. It was just everything that I ever wanted to be, but couldn’t figure out how to be.” …”Afropunk shows you that you’re not alone, there’s nothing wrong with you, and here’s how other people do it and why don’t you share with us?” she adds thoughtfully, mentioning a stint as an Afropunk intern. “It’s an incredibly empowering community.”