Diversity and tolerance were major elements of this year’s Afropunk in New York City. It was a kaleidoscope of musical styles that oscillated between rap and electronic dance music sampling heavily from traditional African drumbeats and popular music. During the weekend of 22-23 August 2015, Afropunk took pace at Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn — a park wedged between the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Clinton Hill’s predominantly black and working class community.
For two days, musicians, artists, and their spectators engaged in a festival with quirky and alternative people from various walks of life. One could find an attendee with green hair, metal chains, and nothing else. This was an outdoor festival for the queer, awkward, and radical people of color who congregated on a late summer weekend. Afropunk had three stages with an arrangement of musical styles and settings. One stage was secluded, grassy, and had a black bohemian Woodstock spirit. The main stage was immense — showing the grandeur of the Brooklyn sky and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. In addition to local vendors that were selling dashikis and handcrafted jewelry, this year, Afropunk had Activism Row that featured such groups as Black Lives Matter and Progressive Pupil.
Afropunk New York City featured a range of popular black artists including Ms. Lauryn Hill and Lenny Kravitz. Yet, Jamaican born artist Grace Jones captivated the audience with her experimental demeanor and unconventional humor. She appeared on stage svelte with body paint and a costume change for every song. Grace Jones’s performance and her ability to hoola hoop during an entire song was indelible for those who had a chance to witness this sexagenarian. Her poise and agility was also met with an avant-garde performance art that awed her onlookers.
While many people came to see the headliners, alternative musicians provided another dimension to the festival. British born musician Kele incorporated his speech-talk with the electronic beats at times revealing the emotional complexity of modern love. New Jersey based rapper, Cakes Da Killa quick lyrics was upbeat and somewhat raunchy for the faint of heart. Atlanta-based musician, Raury, had eerie sounds mixed with drum heavy that is a great marriage of indie folk and soul. Young Paris, a Congolese descendant musician, blended percussion with the propensity of techno music. Another layer to these musical acts was the incorporation of the LGBT DJs such as Brooklyn based DJ group Papi Juice. These local and international acts demonstrated the depth of creativity musical styles within the African diaspora.
Despite the diversity of music, this year’s Afropunk was more exclusive in the past because of the cost of attendance, which was $80 for the weekend pass. In the past, the festival was free and took place in Fort Greene Park which leant itself to having a higher concentration of working class people who could enjoy the musicians as an outdoor picnic. In addition, this year, patrons were not allowed to bring their own food or drinks but instead had to purchase food from the assigned vendors. Nonetheless, there was an earned ticket program that allowed volunteers and some of the participants of the Transjustice march to attend the festival for free or at a reduced cost.
Although the cost for entry and food prevented a huge number of the local residents from attending, Afropunk fostered a safe space by not tolerating hate in the space. A huge banner hung from the main stage highlighting, “No to sexism, transphobia, homophobia, or fatphobia.” In addition to this rhetoric, a contingent of about one hundred festival attendees mobilized for Trans Justice and marched from the Gold Stage to the main stage. The purpose of the action was to stand in support of the seventeen trans women killed in America since January 2015. A multiracial march — mostly led by black transgender and gender non-conforming activists — held signs reading “I stand for Justice for Trans People” and “Black Trans Lives Matter.” This level of solidarity and action in a festival was one example of the ways that musical venues can be more inclusive of LGBT people.
For many participants, Afropunk in New York City was an opportunity to be among the latest Black and queer artists and legends and its strength was that it was a cornucopia of people that harmoniously reveled in musical performance, art, and dancing.
Edna Bonhomme is an activist and scholar in New York City.