Is Afropunk Having an Identity Crisis?

Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

The first association most have with the term “Afropunk” is a weekend festival centering the freedom of blackness. Hashtagged pictures of attendees in extravagant outfits influenced by traditional African prints liken the fashion to that of a “Black Coachella” and rallies participants to be proud in their unique blackness. However, that idea was challenged during the 2018 Brooklyn festival in late August.

Criticism erupted when Ericka Hart, her partner, Ebony Donnely, and a friend claimed to be ejected from the VIP area of Afropunk by security due to Donnely wearing a t-shirt  that reads “Afropunk sold out for white consumption.” Although the festival later issued an apology regarding the incident, sporting a confrontational statement on a t-shirt is not against the festival’s rules, and what’s more punk than standing up to a festival through handmade fashion?

Ultimately, Hart’s twitter thread on the interaction has brought up the question: is Afropunk supporting the Black community or exploiting the culture of blackness it helped to propel?

The term Afropunk was coined in a 2003 documentary on the black experience in majority white rock circles through the eyes of bands like Fishbone and 24-7 Spyz. The director and producer, James Spooner and Matthew Morgan, respectively, founded the Afropunk festival later in 2005 in Brooklyn after the film’s release. Fans of the film created an online message board with the goal of connecting those with an interest in the Black underground. The inaugural festival featured black-fronted bands, an impromptu Sunday picnic, and open skate sessions, while charging donation-based entry to serve as the official safe haven for punks of color. With acts like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu taking headlining slots over Trash Talk and Bad Brains, sponsorships from businesses like Coors which has donated to anti-LGBT organizations such as Free Congress and the Heritage Foundation through their family-owned Castle Rock Foundation, and pushing volunteer service in exchange for discounted tickets, the festival’s growth in popularity has shown apparent, fundamental shifts that are at the expense of the punk ethos that originally informed it.

Criticisms of Afropunk have lingered for years. Donnely, in a recent essay, highlighted qualms with the festival booking M.I.A. (who expressed controversial opinions on Black Lives Matter), the issue of black photographers not receiving credit for photos, and a lack of American sign language (ASL) interpreters present at the festival. Additionally, independent vendors expressed apprehension in being associated with “selling-out” and founder James Spooner once calling out a band on stage for covering Buju Banton’s alleged call for homosexual murder, “Boom Bye Bye,” to the detriment of queer attendees. Some of these incidents showcase that the queer and disabled face potential discrimination within Afropunk’s safe haven, and black creators may not be able to trust the festival’s operations.

With all of the drama surrounding the festival–most recently Editor-in-Chief Lou Constant-Desportes’ departure from AFROPUNK online–it’s easy to wonder if Afropunk will ever return to representing the black alternative cultures and the marginalized within the Black community. The obvious bid for legitimacy in high-level festival status, Instagram-ready photos of attendees serving as publicity, and most alarmingly, a higher number of white people attending an event created for and by black people, prove that these changes might not happen anytime soon.

Afropunk now emulates the caricature of the utopia it once promised to be and will likely suffer the same fate as “nae nae,” “on fleek,” and even the n-word — the commercialization of blackness and wokeness. Put simply, Afropunk now centers around monetizing the festival’s popularity rather than the diverse community that built its foundation.

Despite international expansion and recognition, black punks of all shades, creeds, and identities that once found community in the label are now seemingly washed out of Afropunk’s brand. With a larger number of disillusioned participants, it seems Donnely’s claims of “white consumption” ring truer with every year the event continues. The festival comes across more as a showcase for performative unity and collective identity than it does a presentation of multifaceted blackness and rebellion against stereotypes and restrictions. Besides, if blatantly written statements on t-shirts are enough for Donnely’s removal from the festival, then can Afropunk claim to care about the interests of the festival-goers it serves? Does Afropunk truly stand for “No Sexism, No Racism, No Ableism, No Ageism, No Homophobia, No Fatphobia, No Transphobia” if it rejects critique?

Does Afropunk have the right to claim to be punk if black festival-goers are silenced in favor of corporations and capitalism? If independent punk musicians are shut-out in favor of easily marketable signed artists?

Only time will tell if Afropunk can change its ways and address the problematic reputation it has garnered. But with attendees scorned and a painted image of organizers caring only about the bottom line, it seems easier to allow Afropunk to take on a completely new identity with those looking for change to accept the consequences.

Don Crescendo

Don Crescendo is a Carolina-born musician, singer, writer, former college homecoming king, and twenty-something millennial finding his way through life one word at a time.

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