AfroPunk 2015: Rising Above the Norm

Text and Photos by Rico Noguchi

Grace Jones headlines Afropunk

Grace Jones headlines Afropunk

The 2015 edition of AfroPunk, the annual music festival held in Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park that since its inception in 2005 has catered to “Black Punks” and “alternative people of color;” has drawn a wide range of attention from the media this year including The New York TimesVogue and other national publications like Fader and The Huffington Post  given that there really isn’t any other festival quite like it in the entire country. After all, this is a music festival / fashion show; described as “built by people of color, run by people of color,” obviously attended by a large majority of people of color— that for the first time in ten years ended its generous “FREE” admission and instead, joined the ranks of capitalism to start charging $75 for regular weekend admission with VIP tickets going at $250 for the weekend. In return, AfroPunk brought headliners Grace Jones and Lenny Kravitz, in what is obviously a clear move to attract a wider audience. The festival program reads “It’s time to Bow Tieshift the status quo, for more.”

That “more” has already alienated some core fans as reported by Vice  while screams of “gentrification” were shared online and picked up by The New Yorker.  AfroPunk co-founder Mathew Morgan, however, talking to Next Magazine  believes that “the idea is to really empower, not to segregate. So, as [the festival] has grown”, he continues “the notion has been to include people that don’t necessarily look like us but that think like us.”

For someone like me, a South American immigrant living in New York for nine years (I’m made up of indigenous Peruvian, European and Japanese blood), Morgan’s words sounded like an invitation, a calling. I however, had decided to attend the festival the moment I saw that Curtis Harding and Gary Clark Jr. were also part of the bill; not because I thought I could finally “fit in” here. After all, the list of music festivals I’ve attended include Glastonbury in the U.K., Fuji Rock in Japan and Coachella in Palm Springs, California among others. In my worldview, it is the passion for music that brings people together, it is not a matter of race. But I digress, I certainly do not know what Hindu goddessit must be like to grow up black in America.

I got a glimpse of one aspect of the African-American experience in the 2003 documentary film Afro-Punk; which as a matter of fact was the seed that gave birth to the now annual AfroPunk Festival. Directed by James Spooner (who was fourteen when he made it) the film acts as a bridge for those African-American youths who liked the music the white kids were listening to. The trailer for instance https://youtu.be/5uXCvbIcg58 starts with several black kids saying “Usually, I’m the only black person in the shows.” These comments immediately rang a familiar bell. Back in 2006 I dated a black guy for a few months. I was living in Brooklyn at the time and it happened that a friend from Japan was coming to visit. We used to go to concerts together when I lived in Tokyo so the thought of taking him to see a show was top of the list. I found a cool party in Williamsburg  organized by the now seemingly defunct Modular Recordings, where London’s New Young Pony Club were making its New York debut appearance. So we went and my boyfriend said he’d join us later. The vibe was great that night as my Japanese friend and I quickly felt like we were in the right place. And then my boyfriend arrived, looked around and said to me: “I’m the only black guy in this place.” He paused and continued: “You guys enjoy yourselves” and with that, he left.

If anything, AfroPunk was born out of the necessity to unify those people of color who decided not to leave a party, a show or a concert simply Wheelchairbecause of their race. Those who are currently complaining about the changes in the direction of the festival, in my opinion, are falling short of the wider vision that AfroPunk needs to embrace. One that is not exclusively about people of color coming together to party— but a music festival that thrives in its diversity, openness and inclusiveness.

The high number of beautifully dressed, well-mannered and creative folks that packed the festival over the weekend; were indeed the highlight of this unusually friendly and laid-back festival— that is not to say, however, that it was all sunflowers and rainbows. The number of police officers spread around the park seemed high to me compared to much larger festivals like Governor’s Ball (there was even one permanent police officer in the VIP area all day long! ) and I noticed a couple of altercations in the VIP viewing area of the Green stage; but the energy of the performers (for me Grace, Lenny and Gary were extraordinary) and the friendly attitude of most, kept the Afro-Punk spirit alive and well.

Photos by Rico Noguchi: