AFROPUNK: Can We Still Call It That?

Since I was 15 years old and first transitioning to my natural hair, I’ve been dying to attend AFROPUNK ATL; as a high school sophomore Iwas mesmerized by exhaustive photos of eclectic fashions, big, colorful,natural afros, and an overall beautiful collection of people that, for once, made me feel normal for wearing black lipstick and combat boots in the summer. 

Fast forward 4 years, I’m now a college student with a car (finally), $60 bucks to spare, and the privilege of experiencing the event firsthand. From October 12th-13th I will be entering the world of Afropunk for the first time, and though I no longer wear boots and sweaters under the scorching summer sun, I’m extremely excited for all the festivities in-store for me.

AFROPUNK is not just the festival of my dreams; its a political and cultural advocacy group, an online publication, a media hosting platform, and an international collective of black and brown creatives operating from a place of radical expressions and anti-establishment sentiment. The organization was founded in 2005 by James Spooner and Matthew Morgan, based on Spooner’s 2003 documentary of the same name, Afropunk: The Movie. The documentary follows four African-Americans struggling to navigate the predominately-white punk rock and alternative music scene in New York City. It highlighted issues pertaining to inter-racial relations, isolation, fear, and acceptance from within the punk community as well from within the greater black community. Following the success of the documentary, Spooner and Morgan went on to debut the first AFROPUNK Festival in Brooklyn, New York as a free music and film festival in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Since those humble beginnings the festival has exploded with popularity and mainstream appeal, and while this is great for the visibility and normalization of black people in alternative circles, this progress doesn’t come without scrutiny. With mainstream appeal comes commodification and the abandonment of key elements that may be un-marketable, but are essential to the original vision for AFROPUNK. Over the years the festival began incorporating and privileging more mainstream genres alongside their punk performers such as neo-soul, hip-hop, and R&B. As the vision for AFROPUNK got hassier, James Spooner became  distant from his brain-child project and in 2008, finally left the organization for good. As he told MTV: “We will have succeeded when Afropunk is no longer relevant. Clearly we are not there yet, but I would like to believe that we are on our way. When that day comes, there will no doubt be a 14-year-old kid who flips off Afropunk and says, ‘I’m starting my own thing’, and that’s what they should do. Since his departure AFROPUNK has experienced exponential growth and expansion, and now hosts festivals in 5 cities world-wide including Paris, France; Johannesburg, South Africa; and London, England; the Atlanta festival was added in 2015. 

While skepticism of AFROPUNK from black people in alternative space is fair and well-deserved, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the organization has become a complete commodification of the scene; my reasoning centers on the way I felt upon discovering the images coming out of that first Atlanta festival on Tumblr in 2015. AFROPUNK as it is today may no longer be the black, punk rock fantasy that it was intended to be, but it has become an important site of radical black thought. The online publication of the chain is the embodiment of this today. It hosts a variety of creators that champion racial empowerment, self-love, black power, queerness, anti-capitalist ideology, and prison abolition. Mostly pertinent to me, are the collection of creators featured on the site, from up and coming bands to graffiti artists and rappers. In terms of the festival itself, the arrays of people in crazy costumes, African fabrics, ornate jewelry and accessories, and of course big, beautiful, colorful, natural hair are what originally piqued my interest 4 years ago and continues to be appealing to me. This year’s performers include Anderson .paak, Mahalia, Masego, and Smino, who are all prominent neo-soul and hip hop artists today. Regardless of whether or not it’s an authentic punk experience I’m excited to go to AFROPUNK this coming weekend to fulfill my adolescent dreams.

-Morissa Wisdom