“So many faces, so much hair and so many colors!” she gasps from the stage, breathing into the microphone in amazement. It’s Kelis’ birthday, and she couldn’t be happier to celebrate on such an extraordinary occasion. It’s 6pm on a sunny Saturday in Brooklyn, and Afropunk Festival’s New York leg is in full swing. She’s laying the lyrics of Milkshake over Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun when her best friend David steps onto the stage to present her with a huge cake. The rap turns into a husky cackle as she shouts, “anyone want cake?” The crowd responds enthusiastically.
This is no ordinary festival, and this is no ordinary crowd. Its origins go back to 2003, to the release of a cult documentary. Through its portrayal of black punks in the US, ‘Afro-Punk’ shattered contemporary stereotypes and turned notions of identity and culture into a spectrum. Mavericks and misfits around the country responded to the film in droves, connecting on forums and cultivating an activist sensibility that quickly grew into a movement. In 2005 it put on its first ever festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. 11 years later, with a festival in Paris under its belt and an inaugural event in Atlanta launched just last weekend, it’s gone global.
Eschewing age, genres and trends, the festival draws an eclectic band of artists working from a seemingly bottomless well of musical and artistic influences. With pioneers like Grace Jones and Lenny Kravitz sharing the bill with emerging acts such as Kelela and Lion Babe, each performance fuels the sense of collective freedom penetrating the air. Vibing off each other’s energy, crowd and performer become one, and everyone loses themselves in the moment.
No one is here as a passive observer. On Activism Row, local non-profits working for social change spread their message. Almost every one of the 60,000 or so attendees has some kind of elaborate hairstyle, bold tunic, daring outfit or statement jewelry on display. Braids, flowers and gold chains cascade from top to toe. A shock of pink hair dances atop a bobbing head in the crowd. Intricate tattoos blend into patterned fabrics. Flesh meets metal, meets glitter. But it’s not just about being unique, and it’s certainly not a surface projection. Each look asks questions about gender, sexuality, culture and society. Each look is an embodiment of its creator’s very own identity. Each look stands for something, says something. Like the person wearing a t-shirt saying GENDER IS OVER, or the sea of I AM VERY BLACK badges pinned onto hundreds of audience members, the message is loud and clear: I’m fighting for a better world.
So when Grace Jones takes the stage, the audience is primed. The force of nature emerges from the wings in a long black tunic that drapes from a headpiece down to the floor. A gold skull masks her face. The tunic doesn’t stay on very long; before the first song ends it’s been whipped off, revealing little more than body paint. The distinct stripes are a reference to a 1984 photoshoot with Robert Mapplethorpe, when Keith Haring painted her bare body. She performs topless for the remainder of the set, though there is more than enough going on to keep the audience distracted. Stepping into a hula hoop, she performs Slave to the Rhythm in its entirety while gyrating through tempo changes and breakdowns without once dropping it. She’s as powerful, confident and unapologetic as ever, and at 67 years old, she’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Later, on the subway ride back home, I’m rummaging in my bag when my hand closes around a little booklet. It’s the official festival programme. And there it is, on the second page, in black and white. WHAT THE FUCK HAVE YOU DONE? it asks. A reminder to search for the Afropunk in all of us.
Words: Zosia Swidlicka