So, we’re all stoked for the Afro-Punk Festival coming up this weekend, because the line-up includes some of our good friends who happen to be really talented and fun to see live. But have we stopped to ask, “Hold up, what is Afro-Punk? And why aren’t these bands actually punk?”
Afro-Punk is term coined by James Spooner, director of the 2003 documentary entitled, “Afro-Punk.” The film followed young black people in punk scenes throughout the nation and also included testimonials and interviews from black members of punk bands and punk scenes everywhere.
The film didn’t come out to create a scene, or a subculture but to cultivate awareness in a primarily white subculture where the existence of black goes unnoticed or unmemntioned. Afro-punks in 2003 were people just aknowledging that they weren’t “any less black” simply because they were “less normal.” But somewhere that was twisted and manipulated and the current Afro-Punk festival and “genre” was created. Now they’re galavanting around the internet and wheat-pasting all over the four important boroughs about having Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu and Gym Class Heroes supposedly representing every black person who’s ever felt like an outcast in a room full of white guys in black shirts beating the shit out of each other.
Growing up in Connecticut, I specifically remember going to hardcore shows and feeling like an uber punk, because I was an outcast among outcasts. And sure, it sort of felt like shit to be one of three black people (shout out to Deante and Shovel Face) in an American Legion, but at least I knew I was being original. I could relate to punk fundamentally because I was always a loner, always pissed off and always a square even in a room full of people who claimed to feel the same way.
Saboatage performing in Wallingford, CT circa 2008
But for some reason, Afro-Punk is no longer about solidarity for the few black people in a particularly white community, but it’s about an aesthetic and becoming more and more of a gimmick. Tattoos, piercings, dyed hair, asymmetrical haircuts do not make someone “look punk.” In fact, nowadays, those things seem to make people cool, and that by principal is that shit I don’t like. I love Das Racist a lot, but I’m fully aware that they’re trendy as fuck and probably wouldn’t even consider themselves true representations of the punk rock milieu.
So if the festival isn’t actually a collection of punk bands, then what do all of the bands on the Afro-Punk lineup have in common?
Well, they have at least one member who is a descendant of the African diaspora and they don’t look like your “normal” black performer. But then, what is a normal black performer? Wasn’t the point of Afro-Punk to not make anyone feel anymore black than anybody else, and encourage more than one interpretation of the black experience? Apparently now there’s two interpreations–the weird one, and the regular one, big deal.
The festival lineup forces me to question the counter-cultural integrity of artist based on their appearance–are they strange enough to be called punk (in a Hot Topic sort of understanding of the word)? It’s like the festival organizers said, “Fuck their music, but are they weird?”
If it’s not about the music, then where do you draw the line between supposed Afro-Punk and regular black people?
But taking this into consideration leads us to put Wacka Flocka and Beyonce in a category pitted against Cerebral Ballzy and Flatbush Zombies who apparently are the pioneers for black individuality; and we all know that ain’t right.
Zombie Juice of Flatbush Zombies, performing at this year’s Afro-Punk Festival
Since Afro-Punk began in a way that was a lot like Riot Grrrl or Queercore, it felt right, it felt necessary. It was a nod to the under-represented, like a call for black people to raise their freak flags in way that let us know it was okay to do so. The documentary that started the movement was about the only black kid in Compton with purple hair, or the only kid in the pit with an afro in Omaha, the D.H. Pelligro‘s, the Poly Styrene‘s and the Chuck Treece‘s.
That experience, can’t be encapsulated in a festival. Especially in a festival full of cool kids. Face it, there’s nothing punk about Afro-Punk. So, change the name. How about ‘Chutzpah Festival’ or ‘Funky Fresh Fest’ or perhaps, ‘the Blipster Festival.’ Something that has nothing to do with the controversial concept of race, or the enigmatic concept of punk.
I’m not trying to be the punk-police. But you know you’re wrong.
-Symphony A. Spell