On Twitter Sunday night, a friend asked how Brooklynites felt about MTV’s Video Music Awards taking place in downtown Brooklyn. My reply was simple. “Eff the VMAs. We at Afropunk.”
It was hard not to notice the dichotomy between the two events. The MTV Video Music Awards, a corporate event that put “clumsy White appropriation of Black culture” on display was just getting started as the Afropunk Festival—an annual celebration of a broader, multifaceted Black culture—was winding down. On display was the proto-punk of Death; veteran hard rock gate-crashers Living Colour; the New Orleans bounce of Big Freedia; the hardcore punk of Trash Talk; the blues rock of Vintage Trouble; the classic rock of The London Souls; and hip-hop courtesy of Danny Brown, Jean Grae and Chuck D, to name only a few.
The ninth Afropunk Festival played host to nearly 60,000 people. The free event’s come a long way from where it all started in 2003, with director James Spooner’s Afro-Punk documentary exploring the Black presence in the American punk music scene. Since then, it’s blossomed into a platform for both the alternative and the experimental.
The Afropunk movement builds on the work of the Black Rock Coalition (the progressive arts organization formed in 1985 by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, cultural critic Greg Tate and filmmaker Konda Mason), expanding the music industry (and general public) perception that rock is the sole province of White males.
Afropunk’s growth benefited from great timing, specifically advances in technology and the advent of social networking. Just think back: in 2004, MySpace launched, followed by YouTube in 2005. Facebook opened to the public in 2006. Geography was no longer a factor in keeping “Black weirdos” from connecting with each other. Bands and other creative types connected with each other around the country and internationally, sharing music and images, and building community.
The scene continues to evolve. If you came expecting only ’frohawks and studded leather jackets, you’d be slightly disappointed. The audience of a great cross-section of the country today—especially Black folks—all find individual ways to express solidarity within the idea of Afropunk. Doc Martens stomp alongside expensive, limited edition Nikes, flip-flops and well-worn Chuck Taylor All-Stars. The crowd was filled with high-top fades reminiscent of Kid ’n Play, dredlocks that would make Bob Marley proud, caftans, daishikis, shorts and T-shirts.
The crowd skewed young and Black, but was definitely racially mixed. In fact, comedian W. Kamau Bell, on hand to introduce icons Living Colour, boldly asked the crowd, “So how many of you have mixed race kids?” and a good number of hands shot up. And though there was a custom motorcycle show, rock climbing, an art wall, a marketplace and tattoo services all on hand, the Afropunk Festival’s draw was the 40 music artists performing.
Of these, here some impressions:
Saul Williams. What a rock star! There’s incredible stage presence here, combined with fantastic writing and explosive energy. Supported by his longtime collaborator, DJ CX Kidtronik, and backed by the art-rock trio Dragons of Zynth, it was good to be reminded just why his last musical effort, Volcanic Sunlight, was such an excellent album, and just how much he’s evolved as an artist since his 1990s slam poetry days down the block at the Brooklyn Moon Café.
Living Colour. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the group’s groundbreaking debut, Vivid. But time has only made these guys better and cemented their legacy. Greg Tate once likened these guys to the Coltrane Quartet playing rock. And yes, they’re that good.
Mykki Blanco. Mykki Blanco is the gay transvestite MC stage persona of Michael Quattlebaum, Jr. His mic skills are impressive; ditto for the way he so easily moves back and forth across the gender line. It’s a great time for an artist like this to bring something different into the hip-hop mix, especially as acceptance of LGBT folk is increasing. There’s a bright future ahead for this guy.
Vintage Trouble. These blues-rock revivalists are led by charismatic frontman Ty Taylor, who effectively channels Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. This band occupies a similar space to Black Joe Lewis, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and The Mighty Fine. They made a welcome addition to Afropunk.
Unlocking the Truth and The Skins. On the other end of the age scale, sixth grade metal trio Unlocking the Truth and The Skins (a soulful rock group comprised of the three McKeithan siblings, aged 14-19) were impressive. Expect much more to come from these two groups.
Jean Grae. The criminally slept on MC gave the festival’s most emotional performance, appearing with longtime collaborators Pharoahe Monch, DJ Mr. Len and golden-voiced singer Mela Machinko just days after the passing of her mother, South African jazz musician Sathima Bea Benjamin.
Jada Pinkett Smith/Wicked Wisdom. This was my first time seeing Wicked Wisdom, and I didn’t want to dismiss the band as just another celebrity vanity project. (Hubby Will Smith spectated backstage, beaming.) So while I did feel there was something missing in the music—all rock, no groove—Jada has plenty of stage presence, and the band itself is clearly talented. If they stick with it, I’d be open for another look.
Chuck D. It was almost as if Public Enemy frontman Chuck D was the icing on the Afropunk cake in its pro-indie positioning. Between rock treatments of the PE songbook courtesy of a killer backing band, Chuck hasn’t slowed his roll in the least. (Producer Rick Rubin has called the band’s 1987 debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show as much of a punk album as a hip-hop album.) He railed against what he called “hate music” coming from the major hip-hop stations and admonished the crowd for not holding its artists accountable. “Be smarter than your smartphone,” he said. He also urged people to support his Occupy Free Air movement, which pushes for radio stations to devote 40% of their playlists to local artists.
Honorable mentions: Up-and-coming rap-rockers Small Axe and Rebelmatic; props to their stage presence and the fact that both bands were clearly having fun. Detroit’s Danny Brown put on a great show (tongue and all), and the crowd was with him the moment he stepped on stage.