Picture this. A green field of happy black people swaying on the melody of being for a time, carefree.
On a Sunday in August, I stood in a field in Commodore Park, Brooklyn with 70,000 people, mostly black—all kinds of black—and sang in one accord with The Electric Lady herself, “Highly melanated. ArchAndroid orchestrated. Yeah, we highly melanated.” Erykah Badu, the high-priestess of black neo-soul consciousness sang against an all-white backdrop, her face obscured by a veil perhaps because it wasn’t as important for us to see her face as it was for us to hear her voice.
But the Afropunk Festival is not a black-only event. It’s just a black-mostly event. The term “Afro” is not merely a fly hairdo, it encompasses the breadth of the African diaspora, from continental Africans to their children, sisters, fathers spread—by force and then by free will—from the cradle of civilization to the far reaches of the globe. Similarly, the Afropunk Festival holds events on a global scale, in Paris, London and Johannesburg though it is Brooklyn born. From the mind of tattoo artist and documentarian, James Spooner, Afropunk was created to be “a safe space for black alternative-minded punks to freely express themselves and build a community with one another.” James Spooner’s 2003 documentary Afro-Punk for which the festival was named, explores the lives of four black youth trying to make space for themselves in the overwhelmingly white punk scene, punk being the specific point of entry.
The film opens with an anecdote about the song “Rock n Roll Nigger” by Patti Smith, a song where she equates the struggle of African-Americans with that of white feminists. The film is dedicated “to every black kid who has ever been called a nigger…and every white kid who thinks they know what that means.” There’s nothing more punk than being black in America. In an interview with AJ+, Sacha Jenkins, who along with Honeychild Coleman and Chuck Treece form the band The 1865, remarked, “When you’re black you’re punk rock all the time.” He continues, “We are punk rock without even trying,” Punk is subculture. Blackness is subculture. The Afropunk Festival was meant to celebrate the intersection of these subcultures, a subculture within a subculture but in the intervening years, it seems to have abandoned its punk origins. Afropunk moved from the margins of cultural consciousness and into the mainstream–the subculture has become the culture–but it has not been an easy assimilation.
James Spooner parted ways with Afropunk in 2008 because of creative differences and how much the festival had strayed from its original creed, an inclusive space for [black] people in the punk world to exist where they are not marginalized or exploited. The new Afropunk has moved beyond punk and the subcultured that birthed it. Ever since, the festival has grown to include an online magazine, fashion blog, publishing house, and cultural thermometer. Ten years after Spooner’s exit, Afropunk experienced another public, high profile departure. Editor in Chief Lou Constant-Desportes a week after this year’s Brooklyn festival ended, denounced their practice of “performative ‘activism’ dipped in consumerism and ‘woke’ keywords used for marketing purposes” in a public Facebook post.
What happens when a subculture is consumed by the mainstream? A more pertinent question might be, what happens when protest is commodified? Assimilation necessitates the loss of integral cultural characteristics. Commodification necessitates performance. “Woke” is now a brand that has been commodified, and commodification transforms subcultural ethics and belonging into a performance. The brand of “woke” is indeed performative and insufficient to producing institutional change. #Staywoke is insufficient. When someone tells me that they’re “woke,” I promptly distrust them, but I don’t know that I distrust Afropunk yet.
Though the festival and its environs have cast off their punk origins, the sentiment of alternative communities having a space of their own persists insomuch as it destabilizes the myth of monolithic blackness. And punk has not been completely erased. At this year’s Brooklyn festival, we celebrated the Black Women Rock Legacy with performances by both legends and the new generation they inspired. British punk duo Nova Twins electrified the green and red stages with their pure, uncut black girl magic challenging that the face of rock n’ roll has to be a white one. Banners with festival rules hung from stages, lampposts and tree branches reminiscent of the rules posted to the entrance of 924 Gilman Street, a collectively-run punk venue in Berkeley that has promoted diversity and inclusiveness in the scene since 1986.
To move in the space of Afropunk is to move among a collective lived experience of people who have to navigate the world in a black body and the consequences of that reality. For many black people, having black skin means, for a time, mitigating the otherness that defines us. On this day, however, a collective breath could be felt as festival goers embraced the black diasporic fashion: dashikis from West Africa, kangas from the East, Harlem uptown flavor, and the spirit of pre-gentrified Brooklyn. It must be noted that Afropunk is not the only alternative space where non-white punk thrives. The Black Alternative Music Festival and The Universe is Lit Festival remain in the margins of mainstream consciousness, perhaps resembling what Afropunk once was, or what it could have been.
I can’t tell you whether Afropunk has “sold out,” nor what it should or should not be. I can tell you what I felt. Overwhelmed. And yet even as bodies pressed close to me in our yearning to be closer to the stage, I felt cocooned instead of suffocated, in my blackness, in our blackness. I was not an outlier in the crowd or the token black girl in a classroom. The only thing I had in common with the body pressed behind me, beside me was our blackness, and that was enough. I cannot diagnose performative activism. I do think that our presence was a form of protest and our being was not a performance. I felt Blackness as art as music as civil disobedience as protest as being.