As I approached the entry gate to the 10th annual Afropunk festival at Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park, I found myself feeling a bit nostalgic. I had a temporary moment of longing for the days when the festival took place on a tight stretch of Clinton Avenue in Fort Greene. Festival set-up crews would wake me, setting the tone for a high-energy weekend right outside my door. For a second I was missing that festival and that Fort Greene but Afropunk—while it remains true to its mission of being “authentic”—is not about remaining the same. It’s about expansion and elasticity, the ability to grow beyond, almost to a breaking point.
Afropunk is the premiere, all-inclusive music festival. Its attendees reflect its performances and vendors: multifarious, raw, vanguard. In addition to introducing us to new and exciting music, art, and fashion, the Afropunk festival serves as a reminder that any and all attempts to pigeonhole blackness and Black culture is a worthless endeavor.
Immediately after passing through the entry gates, my nostalgia was gone. With so much happening on site, there was no time or reason to linger in the past. The present was far too invigorating.
In between stages and in front of vendors, there were impromptu dance-offs that included everything from voguing, trap dancing, and the “Nay-Nay.” On the periphery, surrounding the more bold and flamboyant, were the usual head-nods and bodies swaying to the beat. There was a site-specific graffiti wall, bikers, skaters, and an “activist row” with people representing various organizations, speaking with festivalgoers about the state of the world and ways to change it. Ever present at every Afropunk is also fashion and lots of it, thus spontaneous photo sessions everywhere.
Afropunk lovers comprise a multi-generational, multi-ethnic (and richly brown) amalgam of individuals whose remixed identities bend, split, and create their own norm. It’s a human mélange of anything but the mundane.
Though I observed a few social media posts about Afropunk becoming “too commercial” (surprise, surprise), I find that each year feels as if festival producers Matthew Morgan and Jocelyn Cooper throw a bigger and better party for the people. Of course there are more commercially known, mainstream artists, yet they still bring fresh new talent to Brooklyn—those who elude radio station playlists across the country.
Over the course of the two-day festival, here’s a glimpse of performance we caught:
The Bots. “We play rock music. People try to call it punk rock, but it’s rock music,” stated a confident, 21-year-old Mikaiah Lei, frontman and guitarist of the duo that includes his brother and drummer, 18-year-old Anaiah. Both brothers are self-taught musicians citing their parents’ inventiveness and musical interest as part of their inspiration. “Our parents are very creative people. We grew up listening to a lot of reggae and oldies that they played,” said Mikaiah. Anaiah chimed in with his own personal interest in The Carpenters, Al Green and Curtis Mayfield as some of his musical interests.
The Bots’ performance exuded the energy of youth. Despite a few technical setbacks, Mikaiah maintained his stage presence dancing, tossing his body around the stage, and switching guitars. The crowd was most responsive to “All I Really Want” and “Blinded.” The audience danced and cheered for the duration of the set, with one fan screaming “You! Are! F*ing Amazing! A-mazing!!”
One of their goals is to “reach anyone from infant to 100 who likes to enjoy music,” said Mikaiah, and based on Saturday’s audience, they’re on their way, because the majority of the audience was a bit older than the band: gender-blended, but mostly female. However, there were some younger, new fans present. “I look at them and they’re like 18 and 20 years old, and I’m thinking, ‘Hey, that could be me,’ ” said Dautchley “Max” Desmarais of Brooklyn.
When asked what’s next, Mikaiah answered, “I would love to make a living playing music with my brother around the world. We’re living our dream; it could just be a little bit sweeter.”
Shabazz Palaces. If you have been sleeping on Shabazz Palaces, please wake up right now. “Their performance was really dope,” said Reggie Ross of Manhattan. “I like their sound and the improvisation, they’re like the new Sun Ra for me.”
The Seattle-based duo is made up of brilliant talent, with Ishmael Butler (yes, ex-Digable Planets Ishmael) serving lead vocals and Tendai Maraire as co-producer and beatmaker. Their talents infuse and sync while complementing one another, which allows for the deliciously sweet funk that makes for a powerful performance.
Mr. Butler’s stage presence affords him the unique ability to perform with a youthful physical swagger, that when combined with his lyrics makes clear: he is a grown man, an artist and intellectual.
When asked about the titles of their albums (Black Up and Lese Majesty), Mr. Butler replied, “We try to have titles that have some meaning and to evoke something specific that will also set your mind off on its own journey of understanding.”
“We want free, positive thoughts,” added Tendai Maraire.
The audience was both in awe and entranced because those two men did a lot, musically and lyrically, in their half-hour set. They weren’t able to get to their most recent release, “Cake,” off their current album. However, they did perform “Swerve… The Reeping of All that Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)” with their collaborators THEESatisfaction, also part of Seattle’s Black Constellation, which Mr. Butler describes as “artists, musicians, thinkers and makers of all disciplines.”
Shabazz Palaces don’t compromise on what they bring to the stage or in their lyrics. “We were raised by people that didn’t ever really consider compromising,” said Mr. Butler.
So Shabazz Palaces audiences will receive lyrics that make them think about the state of the world (evidenced in song titles such as “Colluding Oligarchs”) and beats that make them move. Shabazz Palaces is that safe space that counters the dangers of mass media and radio byproducts.
SZA. This young lady (née Solana Rowe) has an amazing following, a strong voice, and amazing tresses. Although SZA’s set started a half-hour late (she explained that she had a late night in D.C. and had been napping), her fans were completely unfazed. They gave her a fantastic welcome, and she generously thanked them before breaking right into her Fleetwood Mac cover, “Dreams.”
Songs such as “U R” and “Babylon” kept the audience on their feet. Both male and female fans were singing and not missing a word. “I love her vibe!” exclaimed Sydney Pratt of New Jersey. “It’s chill, soulful music.”
SZA stated in a Billboard interview that she “literally” started singing a year ago, which makes it very cool that her fans are not only loyal but know her path to the Afropunk stage. “I heard about her when she signed to TDE, which is Kendrick’s [Lamar] label,” said Austin Gray of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, fully informed. “She did songs with Isaiah Rashad and Kendrick, and ever since then I’ve been following her.”
SZA’s definitely one to watch. It’s great to see she has young ladies feeling like they have a place in music, while appealing to both men and women by talking about life and relationships in a way to which they can relate. “I love ‘Babylon.’ Vocally, lyrically, it’s real romantic, it’s poetic,” said Jovel Roystan of Houston.
The Internet. Frontwoman Syd the Kyd (born Sydney Loren Bennett) has a delicate frame with the voice to match, both of which bring to fore so much power—power to seduce, tease, play… power to love.
The Internet’s music conjures feelings of a sexy lounge groove or a fall walk through her native Georgetown, D.C., with a long-term lover or a lover of the moment. The Internet is the backdrop or the soundtrack for either of those moments.
As Syd the Kyd danced onstage and continued to sing, her feather-like voice seemed to touch all the right spots with her fans, leading her audience to touch each other. They were dancing, many engaged in some same-gender snuggling, or singing along.
The audience paused for respect when she took a moment to acknowledge Michael Brown: “Rest in peace, Michael Brown, you were too young to die,” she remarked. The moment was somber, followed by applause before she continued. Syd was contemporary sexy; that “knowing without knowing.” The Internet’s performance brought back that Love Jones vibe, even though Syd was barely 3 when the film dropped.
D’Angelo, period. That’s almost all I want to write. His set started almost one hour after the listed time, but when he showed up, he showed out. D’s performance was something of a modern-day blues-funk set, but even that’s too confining. In total, D’Angelo’s performance displayed his musical versatility as a genre traipsing artist.
D played a crisp, seamless set, including a couple songs from his 2000 Voodoo album. The one that really got the crowd moving was “Greatdayindamornin’/Booty.” He also covered “Burnin’ and Lootin’ ” by Bob Marley, which led to lighters in the air and arm waving, as well as “Our Love Has Died” by the Ohio Players, a moody and powerfully painful song done beautifully and dedicated to the recently departed Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner of the Ohio Players.
The lawn was thick with fans as well as festival-goers who knew little or nothing about D’Angelo. When I asked one audience member her favorite song, she replied, “I don’t know, but I love his vibe.” I thought she was a diehard because she’d convinced the man she was with to hoist her onto his shoulders so she could get a better view.
The set closer, Prince’s “She’s Always in My Hair,” was the hottest cover of the evening. All the musical fire contained in D’Angelo’s body, all of that ancestral spirit energy, exploded in that performance.
Wherever D’Angelo goes when he’s away from the public eye, whatever he’s done that the public witnessed and frowned upon, can never take away from D’Angelo the artist, the performer.—Una-Kariim Cross