Last week I wrote a critical article
about the Afro-Punk music festival, which opened up a dialogue about the meaning of the name. What exactly was this music festival trying to represent with its use of both “Afro,” and “Punk?” My critique of the festival was about semantics. It’s different than what “Afro-Punk” signifies, so they should call it something else. Basically, it seemed that the festival was marketed towards alternative black people – so maybe they should call it the “Alternative Black Music Festival.”
Even James Spooner, the documentarian who coined the phrase Afro-punk in his 2003 documentary, joined the dialogue in the comments thread.
“Well said. I just wish you would have mentioned that I [James Spooner] haven’t been involved in the festival in 6 years. Just sayin. [...] I have always been of the mindset that real punks are always living in the underground. Real punks dont give a fuck about bands that play at festivals because the bands they like put out 7-inch records with 1000 pressings. Real punks don’t think to complain about afropunk not being punk enough because they are putting on their own shows in a basement some where.
If you are a real punk rocker do what real punk rockers do, DO IT YOURSELF. Like I did to back in the day to start this whole thing.
Otherwise go watch the show, get a pair of free nikes and hang out with a bunch of eclectic black folks who may or may not know what Drake sounds like.”
Anyway, I went to the festival. Almost as soon as I got there, ‘Militia,’ the winged, on-stage emcee for Saturday’s performance introducted herself to the crowd. She made a point to say, and I quote, “Some people are saying that we sold out because we have corporate sponsors, but that just means we have monaaay!” It seemed like maybe I wasn’t the only person there with concerns about the degree to which the festival had sold out. Between every performance, she reminded the crowd of who these sponsors were, as if we could forget. It was like Militia was letting us know how much of a favor Afropunk was doing for the community. But what community? Considering Afro-punk was the least communal concert I had experienced in a long time. What’s the point of claiming to have a community within a “community” that doesn’t have any solidarity? The DIY ethics that underly every alternative community and black community alike were missing. I get it, it’s free, but at what cost?
Militia, the hostess
As I wandered through the festival, I was bombarded with people wearing bright yellow shirts with stencil-like font that says AfroPunk. When, hostess Militia, started throwing the them into the crowd, I caught the first one. What I had failed to notice, was the shirt was a printed on a Nike t-shirt, and even worse, there was a nike logo following the Afro-Punk. It was really the perfect souvenier to confirm what I thought about the commodification of Afro-Punk.
I wrote the piece because ‘Afro-Punk,’ the documentary resonated with me, and I know it resonated with a lot of other people as well—I expected the festival to be the manifestation of comradery that I felt through documentary. For years, I thought that going to Afro-punk would make me feel like I was apart of something. I was extremely excited to go to the festival, however, it let me down big time. There was a serious lack of a bond between me and my fellow “Afro-punks.” That was lost in the overbearing presence of corporate sponsors, media outlets, and mythical ramblings about a “community” which clearly does not exist within the fences of this festival.
Yours truly sporting my free Nike shirt.
When Spooner made the documentary he was holding a mirror to a subculture, but in the time that he has not been apart of the culture of the brand, “Afro-Punk” the mirror broke, and the bits have been picked up by corporations and sold back to what used to be a community, photographed and posted on blogs all over the internet.
I’m not saying that the festival was all bad. I lost my voice from Spank Rock’s set alone and broke a sweat twerking to Roofeo’s music but I just thought I would be able to say that I went to a festival that stood for something. Being the center for black weirdos of color and the people that like them just doesn’t seem to be enough.
As my friend Max pointed out when the festival was over, this appeared on the official Afro-punk website. It just goes to show that corporate sponsorships will always continue to cannibalize and react to anything that questions their legitimacy. So I guess the following statement is pretty much brought to you by Nike, Vitamin Water, AfroPunkMusicFestival Inc., etc. (In an effort to capture your demographic in a full and authentic way):
“Nearly 20,000 people showed EACH DAY! All for love, community and jams. No pretension or “hipsterness” that you can feel at other festivals. Your love and participation is what AFROPUNK is all about.”