Everyone knows that New York is one of the world’s most important cities for music, entertainment, and the arts. A quick walk down the Bowery, Bedford Ave, or Jackson Ave will remind you of that fact in a heartbeat. Once in a while, though–once a year, to be exact–a festival comes along that highlights how art, music and politics can–and do–come together in seamless, essential and glorious ways in this city. Afropunk is that festival.
AfroPunk began as a movement in 2003, around the release of the movie AfroPunk, a documentary detailing the role of African Americans and black people in punk and alternative music scenes. The first festival (always all weekend long) was held in 2005 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For the last few years, it was thrown at Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park, bringing together African American and black artists spanning genres like rock, hip-hop, dance, and everything in between. This year, the festival descended at the park again on August 24 and 25.
My first day at Afropunk began EARLY. I checked in at around noon, as the talent, event managers, and vendors were all still setting up. Getting to Afropunk by train is the simplest way to go. You have to walk for 13 minutes, but it’s a nice stroll, and enlightening at times because you get to go through beautiful gentrification before entering Commodore Barry Park next to Brooklyn Navy Yard…and the projects (never forget our city’s great dichotomy!).
Immediately upon arriving through the entrance on Navy St between Flushing Ave and Tillary St, you’re welcomed by Food-Truck-Vana (copyright 2013 Indie Band Guru). Food trucks are parked on either side of two blocks, selling everything from gourmet and creative tacos, to steaks, to Turkish and Malaysian, and of course, clam chowder. Yes. Clam chowder. In New York. In August.
The pavement separating the two stages of Afropunk are usually lined with people with causes, since the far ends of both stages are where the vendors set up. In this section, there are desks set up with free books from anarchist publishing companies, the Village Voice, Greenpeace, and even a table from a black studies professor, answering questions about black history and politics.
I first made my way to the Green Stage (the other, smaller stage is the Red Stage) to catch a set from The Skins. I’d only heard of the Skins before, but never actually heard them. And it was a revelation. It’s a flavor of rock that may not be in short supply, but oftentimes it’s not done nearly as well as these guys do it. Sounding like a Black Sabbath led by a blend of Janis Joplin, Janelle Monae, and a tiniest bit of Gwen Stefani, the Skins played rock so straightforward and pure that they transcended both the stamps of “hard” and “classic” and moved over into friggin’ great rock. All that, and none of them are even of drinking age.
Then it was off to the Red Stage. This side is where all the more fashionable vendors congregate. Various independent boutiques set up selling designer t-shirts, bandannas, scarves, and other items of flawlessness. Small Axe was on stage, blowing minds by delivering thrash and hardcore metal, all while a hype man named Rick James went around screaming and whipping the crowd up into a frenzy. The guys were also very nice, and distinctly Brooklyn. Singer Uriel told me “Brooklyn is my everything.”
The Red Stage is also where this year you found Redd’s Stage, the bar sponsored by Redd’s cider. This bar was important for two reasons: 1) This is where all artists entered backstage at the Red Stage. 2) The bar was also a shuffleboard! You could win prizes! Simple trick, but effective.
Then it was back to the Green Stage to catch the London Souls, from Brooklyn, and NOT London. This is where I was able to sneak into the photo pit myself (I needed a “photo” pass), and snapped a couple of awesome shots with my less-than-ideal cameras. As for the band, it was all your favorite bands of the late 1960s and 1970s put together in a package that is unmistakably from Brooklyn.
After being rocked by the classic era of…rock, it was down to meet my photographer friend. However, since he didn’t have a photo pass, we needed to charm a cop to let him cross the police line. Miraculously, sometimes fighting the powah can be just as simple as asking politely, and soon my friend and I were back at the Green Stage for Theophilius London.
Now, I’m a fan of Theophilius. I love his blend of hip-hop and alternative dance-tinged songs. But the dude promised to play at least 90% of his new album, with only three of his original songs. Granted, that is always a risky move, and it was amazing to see an artist take that risk. However, not one song was played in its entirety, and the new songs that he attempted he stopped halfway through, saying if it didn’t sound right to him, he’d stop it. The entire set bordered on a chore, and I knew what it’s probably like to rehearse with Theo.
For the rest of the night we were at the Red Stage, because influential poet/singer Saul Williams was supposed to close out that stage. However, Rye Rye took the stage, 30 minutes after she was scheduled to come on. She was a delight, blending classic 90s flow with a DJ who threw in just the right amount of European dance. It was also a sign that the entire show schedule was thrown way off, especially when, in what would’ve been midway through Williams’ set, the secret guest was welcomed on stage: Dead Prez.
Yo, lemme tell you, that was a call to arms. Dedicating many songs to Trayvon Martin, Dead Prez launched into a blazing set of classic and new songs that prove that the raw power of classic hip-hop has never gone away. It was political, literate, insightful, and absolutely badass. We were floored, just floored.
It’s a sad fact of AfroPunk that you can never see all the acts you want to, and sadly, while I was entrenched by Dead Prez, one of my favorite bands, The Heavy, rocked the Green Stage. I heard they killed it.
So it was the end of the first amazing day of AfroPunk. And while we were all following the procession out of the park, we heard the Green Stage come alive, and unmistakable lines from Saul Williams. We rushed back, asked security (again, nicely) to let us in, and ran way up front. The man had only gotten even more energetic and furious at 42. The set was even more memorable after out of nowhere, a group of dancers in Guy Fawkes mask made space in the crowd and launched into a choreographed number that was beautiful and haunting. It was two hours later, but worth it, totally worth it, firing me up for Sunday at AfroPunk.
(-to be continued)
*coverage of Afro Punk Fest 2013 by Anatole Ashraf