Last week, for the first time in years, I missed the Afropunk festival. The musical movement began as an extension of a 2003 documentary of the same name, a wonderful film conceived and directed by James Spooner. The festival has grown considerably since the days it was held on a small street across from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
While Spooner himself has been long gone from the scene, Afropunk continues to grow under the watchful eye of music industry vets Matthew Morgan and Jocelyn Cooper. Although the two have gotten flack from some who think that most of the acts included lately aren’t punk enough, criticism hasn’t stopped the festival from becoming one of the most popular NYC summer events, attracting crowds from across the world. Whereas these folks might be considered freaks and outcasts in their schools, jobs and communities, Afropunk has become the place where they can be themselves, wear what they want without ridicule, and listen to loud music two days straight. The fact that the festival is free is also commendable.
Maureen Mahon, author of Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race, once said of the Afropunk community, “These are young people who refuse to be put in a box, but are still trying to make sense of themselves. Over the years, the concept of Black rock has been rejected by both Blacks and whites. Afropunk shows that there are other types of Black experiences. It’s exciting to see Blacks who are unafraid to go a different way.”
This year, while the line-up included soulful favorites D’Angelo, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Alice Smith and Meshell Ndegeocello, “real punk” was truly represented in the music of the Cro-Mags, Tamar-Kali, Fishbone and Bad Brains (with Living Colour vocalist Cory Glover subbing for bugged-out front-man H.R.). Of course, there were younger artists in attendance (SZA, A Sound Called Red, and others), but it’s nice to see a musical movement that has no problem giving props to our esteemed elders.
Back in 1980, when Bad Brains was just four Chocolate City jazz fusionists more into Herbie Hancock than the Clash, group members H.R. (singer), Darryl Jenifer (guitarist), Dr. Know (bassist and Earl Hudson (drummer) were turned out by the audio angst of original Brit-punks the Sex Pistols, and never looked back. Performing regularly at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., merging hardcore, dub and metal, this rhythmic revolution was the beginning of the Afropunk generation.
The brutal influence of the Bad Brains inspired many other artists who wanted to take their music, literally, to the next level. One of my musical mentors, the late writer/DJ Tom Terrell, told me one night in the early 2000s, “Before the Bad Brains, no other band had been able to combine white noise with Black spiritualism and make music sound so powerful.”
Decades after first jumping on stage at the 9:30 Club, where they plowed through songs like “I and I Survive” and “ReIgnition,” the Afropunk influence of Bad Brains can be heard in countless artists, including even my least favorite, Body Count. As cultural critic Greg Tate raves in the liner notes to Bad Brains’ Banned in D.C.: Bad Brains Greatest Riffs, “…the Brains were lightning rods, heat conductors, charged particles capable of changing the atmosphere in a room simply by being in it.”
Fishbone lead singer Angelo Moore was also changed by the black noise of the Bad Brains. “Originally, I was a hip-hop kid with a Jheri curl, a green metallic suit from Merry-Go-Round,” Moore told me in 2005. “I had appeared as a dancer in the movie Breakin’. When I first heard the Bad Brains, I thought, ‘Those White boys are bad!’ When I found out they were Black, my world just stopped."
Indeed, the same thing happened to me when I first saw Fishbone live playing at the Ritz back in my youthful Black Rock Coalition days. (The BRC formed in 1985 by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, writer Greg Tate and artist rep Konda Mason as a means to promote the full scope and spectrum of Black music.) As an uptown boy attracted to the decadent (or so I thought) downtown Black music world, I was already a fan of cutting edge groups like Living Colour, J.J. Jumpers, PBR Streetgang, Faith, Eye & I and numerous others. But the wild boys in Fishbone played with more intoxicated vigor than their East Coast brothers.
Those Cali kids, while touring behind their self-titled EP, performed like they were drunk on bum wine, just having fun times. As they performed their anthems “Party at Ground Zero” and “Cholly,” which they jammed frantically while a porn film played on the screen above the stage, Fishbone was unstoppable. Many were offended while others like myself thought they were brilliant.
However, while the group put out seven studio albums, their biggest hit came in 1988 (the same year Living Colour’s solo debut Vivid dropped) on the Truth and Soul album, when they cover Curtis Mayfield’s junkie ode, “Freddie’s Dead.” Joining forces with Brooklyn rocker Tamar-Kali (who I wish would’ve blazed the song with her guitar deconstruction), Fishbone played the track a little bit slower than they did 26 years ago, but they still had that spark.
Unlike any other festivals I can think of, Afropunk is truly a beautiful mixture of millennials and elders exchanging ideas about music, fashion and God knows what else. In the words of Sly Stone, the original Afropunker, it’s truly a family affair.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.