Afropunk Brooklyn began at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2005, and now attracts highly anticipated artists like Solange, Kaytranada, and Anderson .Paak. All three artists (and plenty more from the festival’s lineup) enjoyed immense mainstream success and critical acclaim, but by and large, Afropunk has remained a two-day celebration for and by Black audiences. Thirteen years beyond its very humble beginnings, the festival has grown while continuing to celebrate Black arts, fashion, activism, beauty, and love.
An idea originally conceived by Matthew Morgan and James Spooner, Afropunk made its debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 2005. In its earlier years, the event was free to attend—a modest and unornamented version of its present self, taking place in Commodore Barry Park. Twelve years later, the festival has burgeoned in popularity, securing enough ticket sales to fill the 10-acre venue. Though tickets now cost about $100 for a weekend pass, Afropunk has managed to attract much bigger acts, which has raised public awareness of its brand and mission. The festival is now synonymous with some of the most recognizable names in music, the fiercest looks in fashion, and a vibrant culture of social and political activism.
In spite of Afropunk’s growth as a festival, it has not turned its back on its message of inclusivity. Nor has it strayed from the notion that the event is intended to be a space for Black and Brown bodies to congregate, celebrate, and raise one another up.
We can compare this to Gay Pride celebrations that take place annually around the globe. In a number of cities, including New York and San Francisco, it has become unclear as to whom Pride parades aim to cater toward. Of course, they are confetti- and float-filled extravaganzas where queer-identifying people rally behind love and tolerance, but it’s also not uncommon to see straight teenagers in crop tops that attend for the sheer excuse to party. And why wouldn’t they? Pride is a blast, but we veer into murky territory when positing whether Pride is centrally for queer people anymore—especially when we see a Bank of America Merrill Lynch float cruising down Fifth Avenue during NYC Pride.
Afropunk doesn’t face this problem yet. Festival-goers as a whole still remain overwhelmingly non-white, and it’s evidently not because the musicians on the lineup are niche. It’s because Afropunk is intentional in its commitment to its audience and a need to celebrate and promote Black artists, whose contributions to music and fashion, especially, have not received due credit.
This is a core mission of the festival that has been in place since its conception. The alternative and punk movements, as well as skate culture, have always been more associated with white key figures. Afropunk sought to permeate that racial boundary by creating a festival that would stand at the cross-sections of music, art, skate, and, now, activism.
Today, there is less of an immediate alignment in listeners’ minds between an indie/alt music scene and whiteness, but it certainly still exists. Most people probably still link whiteness with that brand of artsy/alt quirkiness that we associate with the liberal arts kid in the glasses. But there are weird Black girls, and weird Black boys, and weird non-binary people. There always have been, even before Arthoe Collective and BUFU. Afropunk, in part, is a solid testament to that.
On two panels beside one of the festival stages are the Afropunk Fest rules: no sexism, no racism, no ableism, no ageism, no homophobia, no fatphobia, no transphobia, no hatefulness. In today’s political climate, these rules need to be appropriated and internalized with emphasized importance. With the recent events in Charlottesville, where a young woman was killed for standing against white supremacists, and the pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who dedicated much of his career to infringing upon the rights of alleged undocumented immigrants in Arizona, Afropunk preaches tolerance, respect, and love over anything.
As a woman of color at Afropunk, it was extraordinarily powerful to witness a sea of beautiful Black and Brown bodies—fierce, outspoken, and fearlessly different from one another expressing their truest, most vibrant selves. In a time when viewpoints characterized by bigotry and hate are permitted to be emboldened, there’s light in knowing that the arts can assume a reactionary role. Words of love drown out words of hate. And isn’t that often just what music is?