Where do alternative minded black folks go in a city that prides itself on being different? For roughly the past seven years, it’s been Brooklyn’s Afro-Punk festival. The free, two-day affair made its triumphant return over the weekend after a freak hurricaine made landfall in New York City last year. Black skaters, artists, hip-hop heads, and self-described nerds joined some of the industry’s most celebrated alternative black singers like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monaé at what’s become one of the city’s premiere summer music showcases. And all of it leads to the question: Has being black and different sorta become the norm?
Of course, it depends on who you ask — and where you ask the question. But the absense of an affirming enviornment for black kids who grew up reading comic books, wearing Converse, and standing out at punk rock shows is what led to Afropunk’s development in the first place. In 2003, music industry veteran Matthew Morgan teamed up with writer and director James Spooner to produce the film Afro-Punk, a documentary that followed a handful of black folks in the punk scene. The point of the film wasn’t just to show their trials and tribulations, but to showcase their pressence as legit participants in, if not originators of, punk, hardcore, and metal scenes across the diaspora.
The film became something of a cult classic. “Alternative urban kids across the nation (and across the globe) who felt like outsiders discovered they were actually the core of a boldly innovative, fast-growing community,” according to Afro-Punk’s website. In 2005, that explosion of energy led to the first Afro-Punk music festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
This year was my first time at the festival. And I’ll admit, I was critical when I walked through the gates. I’m fussy about lines and this one stretched about three blocks around Major Commodore Park in downtown Brooklyn. Friends who’ve called Brooklyn home for years did what city dwellers tend to do: reminisced about how great things used to be.
And, in a way, they were right. Headlining acts like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monaé — a fraction of the nearly two dozen acts present — aren’t exactly the epitome of punk. Badu may talk about being a vegan and a doula, but she’s a Grammy-winning fan favorite. Monae is nearly three years removed from an album about love and androids, but she’s garnered enough critical acclaim to win a slot as a new Cover Girl spokesmodel. Both represent a sort of mainstreaming of an alternative black aesthetic.
And that’s the point. Some of it is basic math: when you get a bunch of outliers together, they become the norm. But what they also do is affirm something that’s been plainly obvious to black folks since the beginning of time: we’re different. There is no living, breathing black monolith. We’re vegans and divas, nerds and cover girls. What Afro-Punk does is remind us that that’s how things are supposed to be.
I caught up with some Afro-Punk attendees, and here’s what they had to say:
“Everybody is just like me [at Afro-Punk]. I fit in, this is my home.” — Josie (L), 19. Long Island.
Michael, 22. Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
“[Afro-Punk] isn’t just mainstream R&B and hip-hop. It’s another way to be black.” — Carrie, 33.
“I love supporting live music.” — Ever, 20.