Afropunk Festival returns to London for its second year in July, bringing with it an eclectic mix of genres, artists and creative types. In this feature, GIGsoup takes a quick look back at this extraordinary festival’s history. From Brooklyn to Joburg, this modern trailblazer is certainly not just about the music; Afropunk also broadcasts important messages of community, activism and openness across its many platforms.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Afropunk began its story as a cult-documentary. Directed by James Spooner, the 66-minute film follows the young black people involved with the punk and hard-core scene across the United States in the early 2000s. Spooner came from a particularly personal perspective when creating the documentary; he spent most of his time growing up within the DIY punk scene in NYC. Perhaps the most striking notion that the documentary explores is the conflict of feelings that it’s participants experience, in the predominantly white scene that they occupy. Many of the interviewees relate strongly to the power of the non-conformist notions that punk promotes. However, they are also strongly aware that they are a minority in their beloved scene. Spooner very much saw the audience as the subject in Afropunk:
“Just like the punk scene that I grew up in, the people off the stage are just as important as the people on stage”. This notion of bringing down performative barriers started to sow the seeds for what would be Afropunk: The Festival, which now welcomes in volunteers, artists and community groups from all over the world.As the film began to circulate, Spooner quickly came into contact with a large amount of like-minded individuals that related with The Afropunk experience; the strong feeling of being a minority in a majority white space. As the film started to gain legs (landing a slot at the International Toronto Film Festival in 2003), Spooner began to create an online presence to accompany the film; Afropunk.com. Spooner relates in an interview for The Fader how the addition of a forum to the site created a life-changing snowball effect:
“I also started a website that was based around the film, but the last link was a message board. That year, it got a few thousand members. In those days, there was a band that was before Bloc Party, before TV On The Radio, before any black bands that were making waves or getting the spotlight. Before the Santogoldproject, Santi White was in a punk band called Stiffed. Stiffed was starting to get popular and I was like man, it would be great to get her band to play a concert after a screening.”
Spooner’s initial contact with White was the catalyst for a multi-faceted media experience that would embody the values and safe spaces that Afropunk sought to promote. Enter Mathew Morgan, who at the time managed White, and would become the current co-coordinator of Afropunk: the festival. Spooner and Morgan saw the concert/screening format as a method of promoting artists like White, who had been dismissed by the mainstream music scene as an artist that didn’t have a market available to her.
In it’s original form, Afropunk’s Brooklyn debut in 2005 featured a free-ticketing system and recruited a large volunteer army to make it all happen. The festival placed community firmly at it’s heart and has, to date recruited over 16,000 volunteers into it’s midst. After four years of the festival running in Brooklyn, Spooner decided to transfer creative control over to Morgan, and now currently works as a tattoo artist in Los Angeles California.
Current co-organiser Jocelyn Cooper describes Afropunk today as: “a platform that allows people of colour a space where they can do anything they want to do, be who they want to. Express themselves and their art. Come together with like-minded folks who feel free and cool in the world.”
An important thing to note is that the “punk” in Afropunk is not so much related to a genre, but more to a kind of underground, DIY culture that the festival embodies. Morgan and Cooper wanted to design a space that:
“…would create something for ourselves that exemplifies all of us, something that puts different parts of our community in the same space together” and the festivals official statement certainly gives the impression of an all encompassing, welcoming scene that everyone can enjoy.
Check out the festival’s mission statement below.WE THE PEOPLE:
We, the people built this land. Our flesh and blood is present in its buildings, its roads and its bridges. Our souls are its spiritual cornerstone. Our culture is its foundation. Our being nourishes this land – as our ancestors’ beings nourished it before us – yet the land has not always reimbursed us.
We, the people recognize the bullshit of the powerful. The injustices they committed in the past have never disappeared from view. The inequalities they perpetrate are there for all but the blind. The inadequacies they’ve paid forward to a future age are appearing over the horizon. Unless…
We, the people have a code: No Sexism No Racism No Ableism.
No Ageism No Homophobia No Fatphobia No Transphobia.
We, the people commit ourselves to uphold and fight for the rights enshrined in our code. Let us honour those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom, and hold accountable those who curtail our liberties. Let us walk in the footsteps of warriors who came before us, and strive to create a society based on fundamental human rights. Let us rewrite the universal laws and educate the errant minds.
We, the people have the will to heal the divisions that threaten to reduce our dreams to ashes. We believe in resurrecting the creative power of our diversity. We open our hearts and minds, and dance to the rhythm of a brand- new future. Together. Brave and compassionate. And beautiful.
May the Goddess protect we, the people.