Punks. Skaters. Mohawks. Flat-tops. Mutton Chops. And of course, afros.
These are just some of the features you can find at the AfroPunk Fest, the annual weekend-long summer festival celebrating the roles of black people in punk, rock and alternative music, and vice versa. Every year promises to be fun, festive (obviously), and most importantly, free! This year was no exception, especially as I returned to AfroPunk for a second day of good vibes.
Sunday at AfroPunk was less than ideal, especially when compared to my first day there. I didn’t get down there as early as the day before, seeing as how there were mostly DJs performing during the day and early afternoon. As I checked in to the media desk, I was given a pass that suspiciously didn’t have “PRESS” printed on it, but I was assured that this pass was the press pass for the day. I was excited to be there, so I didn’t ask anything beyond that…something I would regret later.
Did I mention how AfroPunk can be a food-truck-vana (I WILL make “foodtruckvana” happen!)? I’d missed the food the day before, so I put on my foodie hat and sampled some of the wares. Some of the trucks like Waffles and Dinges, Korilla BBQ, and Phil’s Steaks are ubiquitous, so I stayed away from them. Some of the rare standouts were Palenque, serving Colombian fusion, Takumi Taco, with an awesome short-rib and Sriracha taco, and new-truck-on-the-blocks Mamu Thai Noodle, serving delicious Thai fare perfect for the August heat.
Then it was inside to the Green Stage for Death, Detroit’s legendary and influential protopunk band from the 1970s. Death has been enjoying some time in the news right now due to the release of a documentary about the band, “A Band Called Death.” Formed in 1971, the Hackney brothers (Bobby, Dannis, Bobbie, and recently-passed David) were playing a flavor of hard-rock that predated punk. By 1974, they’d gotten the attention of Clive Davis, who funded a few recording sessions, but ultimately passed on the band because of their name, sending the band back to obscurity. But the band had amassed a cult following, and you could see most of these people in the crowd, right up front, rocking out to a band that had come back from the…um…dead. It was pure rock, with just a bass, guitar, drums and vocals, with nary an effects pedal in sight.
And at a time when Detroit itself is suffering huge setbacks, it was therapeutic and hopeful to see a band from Detroit rock out for the city. Bobby said during the set, “The thing about Detroit is, we have a way of bouncing back!”
With my eardrums shot, I made my way back to the Red Stage to see Danny Brown, a rapper also from Detroit. Brown’s secret weapon is that no matter how amazingly filthy and bombastic as his rhymes can be, the man delivers it all with his tongue firmly-lodged in his teeth. He also lets the audience in on the joke, all leading to a great time.
Then it was time to actually hang out with some artists in the media tent. This is when I realized I should’ve paid more attention to my pass. Saturday, I was able to go in and out of the media area with no problem (and got to bump into Big Freedia, Theophilius London, and barely missed talking to Will and Jada Pinkett Smith). Today, I was stopped, and had to be cleared. Turns out some members of the press were issued “Vendor” passes instead, and so it was more challenging to get near the artists. But I was still able to spend some time with Chuck D, DJ Lord, and Death. Death were amazingly philosophical. Dannis Hackney said that AfroPunk was reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision for America. “I see faces of every color and nation here.” For a band called Death, they were awfully nice guys.
Chuck D floored me with his charming personality, especially because I thought I’d have to watch out for a founding member of Public Enemy. But he shook my hand, and told me that Queens is still important to him–“It’s where I’m from!”–and that music was happening everywhere, a fact that he tries to celebrate throughout his career, featuring new artists on his radio show and during his gigs.
After hanging with these celebrated artists, it was back to the Green Stage to see Living Colour. The funk-rock band formed here in the city in 1984 were in top form, and you wouldn’t know that 29 years had passed. They were rocking out with all their soul in every sense of the word, especially since the melodies are soul songs melded with late 80s and 90s rock. Most importantly, they weren’t afraid to ruffle some feathers, asking at one point “How many of you have been stopped by the police?” It was a stark reminder of some of the problems the city’s facing right now (and for the record, every raised hand was black). But ultimately, the band threw a party, and has hard as they rocked, they made sure to make the crowd dance.
Chuck D immediately followed on the Red Stage (professional AND punctual). Two highlights were DJ Lord’s masterful segment, spinning Nirvana in a way that made “Smells Like Teen Spirit” almost unrecognizable (Chuck D said “If you’re gonna have 1000 songs on your list, you better know every one of them inside and out). And of course, “Fight the Power” had lost none of its ferocity and strength in the 20+ years since the song’s debut. Naturally, a lot of the set was political, but poignant.
Over the at the Green Stage, Questlove closed out the festival with a DJ set. It was awesome and a lot of fun, of course, but to get the show on a weekly basis, just come out to Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday nights, when Quest takes the DJ booth around 10pm.
And so ended another amazing year at AfroPunk. As usual, the festival celebrated how African-Americans and black people have made powerful strides into genres like rock and punk where they have traditionally not been well-represented, and also how black culture had incorporated all these genres and made something unique. AfroPunk is a powerful statement to black identity, and it’s always an important opportunity to address political and racial issues that still plague our society today. But the best thing about AfroPunk is how welcoming it is everyone (the artists and bands are frequently mixed), championing new and independent music, food, art, fashion, and having powerful headliners shine a spotlight on it all. It’s a movement that theoretically could happen in other cities, but it can happen the way it does, with ceremony, reverence, and fun, only in New York. Only in Brooklyn.
Bands, be sure to get in touch with the festival for next year. They are VERY welcoming towards new bands, so make sure to try to get yourself on the bill.
*-reported for Indie Band Guru by Anatole Ashraf