Afropunk Started With a Documentary. Ten Years, Two Websites, and Eight Festivals Later...
It's only Monday, but shit has already hit the fan at Afropunk HQ. A second wave of performers was supposed to be announced on the festival's website on Wednesday, but this morning one miscommunication led to another, and now they've accidentally been posted two days early. Twin Shadow is one of the second-batch artists; his management saw the post, and are now sending very unhappy texts to Afropunk showrunner Matthew Morgan.
"'Why is Twin Shadow's name showing up on your website?'" Morgan, 44, reads aloud from his phone when a young staffer sticks her head in. He's wearing several days' scruff and a pair of oversize glasses that glow in the dim light of a desk lamp and computer screen. She explains that she thought Morgan had wanted the lineup updated today. He didn't. Ten minutes later, his eyes drop to his phone and he pauses mid-interview to sigh heavily: Twin Shadow is out.
This Matthew Morgan is markedly more subdued than the charismatic charmer who jokingly offered me a bite of a mostly melted Twix bar a week ago, when I met him in his cool cave at the back of his organization's offices on Atlantic Avenue in Fort Greene. He is now understandably tense: His and partner Jocelyn Cooper's eighth festival goes up on August 24—in 19 days. Considering the exponential growth it's seen in the decade since the release of Afro-Punk, the documentary that inspired the movement, missteps are more consequential than ever.
"Twin Shadow's management was concerned about flooding the local market, since he just played Governors Ball," he explains. Sheets of white poster paper line the wall behind his desk, elaborate brackets in marker sprawling all over them. Names are circled and crossed out, and arrows pinball them around the two-day schedule. Ziggy, a staffer's Boston terrier, darts in and out of the office, occasionally planting front paws in laps. "I tried to explain to him that Afropunk isn't the same market, at all . . . but you know how it goes."
Many know how it goes. The Twin Shadow scenario could have taken place in the offices of any festival in America; what's important is that it is happening here. While Afropunk deals with the same lineup struggles as other festivals, those struggles are compounded by the fact that it's a festival celebrating black alternative culture; not only is that a vast and complex topic, but many rising black alternative artists shy away from aligning their music with the race conversation (it's already tough enough to get signed). For another, Morgan and Cooper—a veteran A&R queenpin who signed Nelly and Cash Money Records in the early '00s and now runs Afropunk's sponsorship operations—are also dealing with potential brand sponsors who hesitate or downright refuse to partner with an explicitly racialized festival, often because they view it as an "urban" (read: black, poor, profitless) demographic.
While those factors might have slowed the organization's rise, its managers are doing well, all things considered. Since James Spooner's 2003 documentary (the festival itself began in 2005, and its 2011 installment was canceled last-minute due to the city's preparation for Hurricane Irene), Afropunk has grown from a DIY passion project into a full-fledged, brand-sponsored, free festival, complete with a massive skate/BMX park, local vendor marketplace, and, of course, a musical bill with artists ranging in style from the high-brow electrofunk of Janelle Monáe, to the best punk band that ever lived, Bad Brains, to the revolutionary poetry-rap of Saul Williams, to the raging middle-school metal of Unlocking the Truth. (This year's cornucopia features Chuck D, Danny Brown, Living Colour, Jean Grae, the Coup, Big Freedia, and Le1f.) Brooklyn's 88th Precinct places the festival's attendance last year at 60,000—Morgan and Cooper suspect that number was generous; they tally 40,000—and confirm that, in the three years it's been held at Fort Greene's Commodore Barry Park, the festival has been incident-free (playing nice with the cops: unpunk or extra punk?).
Still, the punks who have historically been Afropunk's core supporters, largely because they actively need its community, have a hard time finding much in common with festival organizers' expanded approach, especially since the 2008 departure of documentarian and de facto festival godfather Spooner.
Then again, that argument doesn't compute for the 12-year-old kid from East New York with a skateboard who just watched a black guy shredding a guitar for the first time.
Which leads to the main issue the festival, the organization, and the international black alternative community are still grappling with, a decade (or a century, take your pick) later: What is Afropunk?
Afropunk showrunner Matthew Morgan.
It started with a lost kid. James Spooner, a biracial boy who grew up listening to punk music in the predominantly white desert town of Apple Valley, California, had moved to Manhattan for high school. He found a home in the city's underground punk scenes and stuck around, living as a show promoter, DJ, and sculptor in the West and East villages. In his early 20s, as one of the few black kids he knew who was into punk and hardcore, he had an identity crisis.
"Being involved in a white community most of my life, I wanted to figure out what it meant to be a black person who moves outside of black stereotypes," says Spooner from his home in Los Angeles, where he operates his own tattoo studio. He's 37 now and has a four-year-old daughter, Hollis. "In a certain way I had a hypothesis I was trying to prove, that mine was also a very valid black experience."
Sculpture had grown increasingly unsupportable, and anyway, Spooner says his unrest was far too important for the medium. So in 2001, he came up with a new, more straightforward plan: He'd make a movie.
Of course, he'd never made a movie before, but expertise doesn't usually faze DIY artist-punks. Buying equipment and software, he rounded up the black punk friends he did have, and, dipping into their circles as well, captured the testimonials of over 70 black musicians and fans in punk, hardcore, and metal scenes around the country. The subjects—including Kyp Malone and Jaleel Bunton of TV on the Radio, New York punk singer Tamar-kali, Fishbone's Walter Kibby and Angelo Moore, and black members of bands like Cro-Mags, Swans, Afghan Whigs, and the Dead Kennedys—corroborated what Spooner already felt: a sense of double alienation, as a minority within a minority, in a subculture that was supposedly built on more progressive ideology than the mainstream. It took a little over a year to collect interviews and string them into the 2003 DIY documentary he eventually called—realizing his original title, Rock 'n' Roll Nigger, pointedly referencing the iconic-yet-privileged Patti Smith song, didn't exactly slide off the tongue—Afro-Punk.
As Spooner showed Afro-Punk at film festivals around North America, his audiences grew exponentially, with kids of color from subcultures all over coming forward to share their own experiences. Afro-Punk had exposed a little-explored nook of an already depressing truth: Over the years, the history of rock, much like that of countless other institutions, had been whitewashed almost entirely, especially in outsider subcultures where black musicians and fans—drawn to the same rebellious, fuck-you attitude as any other punk, only with twice the reason—were met with surprise at best, outright aggression at worst.
Around the same time, Matthew Morgan had recently moved to the U.S. Morgan, a London-born, mixed-race child of West Indian and Jewish immigrants who dropped out of school to sell from a King's Road stall, had managed artists in the U.K. music industry for 15 years. Now he was stateside, representing black alternative artists like Santigold (back when she was the frontwoman of Philadelphia punks Stiffed) who, while not exactly hardcore, were coming up against the same wall as the one faced by Spooner's friends.
"I came to America wanting to get out of the little boxes the industry had set up, particularly for black music," Morgan says. "But I got here and found the same boxes."
With Afro-Punk, though, Morgan and his then-mentor, American executive David Passick, found a potential solution to their problem. Here, as they saw it, were kids who had been thrust to the edges of culture and were begging to see more of themselves in the music they loved. There was an audience for these artists they had. They approached Spooner.
"At first I was kind of wary about [sharing Afro-Punk] with industry people, especially one [Passick] who was white," says Spooner, explaining his hesitations about the cost of leveling up the community he had already found. "But ultimately they seemed like they wanted the same things as I did, so I said OK."
For a few years, the pairing worked. Morgan invested his own money into the project, telling Spooner he would only start taking a cut when Spooner felt the results warranted it. In 2005, the first Afropunk festival was born: an indoor, weeklong series of relevant films and bands at the Brooklyn Academy of Music they called the Liberation Sessions. Morgan took care of the business end; Spooner designed signage and merchandise. They booked the entertainment together. On an unprogrammed Monday mid-fest, word was passed around that everyone was welcome at a nearby park for a picnic.
"We just hung out all day," Morgan remembers. "Everyone—anyone who wanted to join—just sat around and talked about the music we liked. I never thought a punk show full of black kids, like the Japanese punk shows I stumbled upon at CBGB, would ever happen. With Afro-Punk I found everything I was looking for, a community and more."
They repeated that blueprint the next year; in 2007, they upped the music component, transplanting the performances to the BAM Café. They supplemented the festival with events year-round, like screenings, art shows, concerts, even an Afropunk prom in 2006.
But things evolve. As it gained popularity, the festival inevitably became more about planning, finding money, and selling the brand, things Morgan knew how to do and Spooner knew he didn't want to. Spooner was a DIY punk and an artist, not a showrunner. Being the face of Afropunk was not his goal. Still, at that time, the Afropunk trademark—and, effectively, its community's loyalty—still belonged to him, a fact that kept him in operational, if now stressed, conversations. He eventually moved out to Los Angeles to be with his then-girlfriend, working on the festival's poster designs remotely. He had a half-baked idea to start Afropunk in L.A., but soon he realized Afropunk, as the grassroots network he'd incited and as the working industry model it had become, was "no longer a priority."
He was a punk grown up.
"James and I are two very, very different characters," says Morgan wryly. Cooper, who sits on the couch opposite Morgan's desk, chiming in every once in a while, lets out an understatement-of-the-year laugh. "He came into Afropunk still sorting out his identity issues, whereas I'd already gotten through mine. And he was an artist creating art, trying to sell his art the DIY way. I don't like that [approach], because for all that talk about punk rock and community and whatnot, it's really about the self. If you're really trying to touch people, then you have to be selfless and the people have to be the stars of the show. They have to run and develop this, or it doesn't work."
In other words, Morgan was just getting started.
A 2006 Afropunk show at CBGB.
With Morgan and Cooper's expanded definition of Afropunk—"anything its fans need it to be," says Morgan—they began employing a classic opener-headliner strategy: Use comparatively popular alternative black artists like Monáe, Erykah Badu, and Saul Williams—the faces of Afropunk—to boost awareness and chops of younger, lesser-known acts like Unlocking the Truth, Meatloaf Muzik, and the Skins. The bill includes hip-hop artists every year, too, but they're mostly disruptive rappers who embody the rebel-punk ethos in other ways.
"Without Afropunk, the 'cool black artists' all go to the SPINs and Noiseys and Pitchforks of the world, and the majority of black kids don't see it," says Morgan. "I'm excited for [Jada Pinkett Smith's band] Wicked Wisdom. I don't care that critics think it's contrived celebrity stuff, because some little girl is going to see Will Smith's wife fronting a metal band. That's what matters."
Still, even after 10 years, no one who came to the first Afropunk festival—namely, black punk, hardcore, and metal fans who found a community, as Spooner did, in moments like that picnic day—is interested in artists like Monáe or Twin Shadow: certainly black alternative artists (totally Afropunk, by Morgan and Cooper's definition of the word, and perhaps by the definition of more contemporary fans of the fest) but ones whose music is popular enough to also get them booked at a mainstream fest like Governors Ball, where Kanye West headlined this year.
"One of the things that drew me to Afropunk in 2003 was that people were talking about black musicians, especially in harder genres, having a difficult time being accepted as not just a novelty act," says Laina Dawes, a music journalist and metal-head, and the author of What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. "They needed that community of like-minded people to complain to, because there was nowhere else."
It's not necessarily how Afropunk leverages the bands they do book; it's what's getting shaved off. The root of the issue: As with all underground movements that reach a certain level of recognition, amplification for Afropunk has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without concessions, and those concessions are usually the minority voice. With Morgan and Cooper—two seasoned industry professionals with a demonstrable knack for selling an idea, even a grassroots, anti-capitalist one—at Afropunk's helm, and without an uncompromising ideologue like Spooner alongside, getting his feet dirty to keep the faith, many original fans have reasonably accused Afropunk of getting away from core issues, watering down the essence of what it means to listen to punk and metal as a black music fan, trading their empowering community for a little more mainstream notice.
"Kudos to Matthew for expanding the brand, but people still need that community spirit that came from the Afropunk of 2003," says Dawes, 43. "I understand why he doesn't want to delve too deep, but if you watch the documentary, that's deep. People feel good at the festival, but it's a brand, and as a brand, that cultural authenticity you had back in the day is gone."
"We used to have this saying about Afropunk that 'the bands are the fans and the fans are the bands,'" agrees Spooner. "It used to be a community. That's not the case anymore. Afropunk [today] is a company, not a scene."
Morgan waves such criticism away with the look of someone who hears it every day. "My worst critics are people who either don't know, or they want to be involved but I don't like their music, so I don't book them," he says. "They're the ones that cry the loudest."
For him and his staff, it's better to expose more people of color who are music fans to an alternative than to coddle or curate to a stricter minority, even though that was the movement's original framework.
"Do we ignore artists because they've gotten some big shows and people know who they are? Or do we use them to our advantage to help smaller bands get noticed?" he asks. "You also have to take into consideration how truly different our lives are. What is mainstream for people of color? If it was so mainstream, we wouldn't have one festival like Afropunk. We would have as many festivals like Afropunk as we do Lollapalooza, Hard Fest, Coachella, Bonnaroo. There would be one in every city."
These issues are uniquely complicated by the fact that no one wants to see the project fail. Afropunk as a brand is better than no Afropunk at all. As veteran drummer Jacqui Gore told Dawes last year when she covered the festival for Bitch magazine, "It is a bit confusing about what exactly this festival is about, but it does provide us with an opportunity to teach the younger generation about rock 'n' roll."
Spooner no longer holds idealistic illusions, either. "If Afropunk wasn't what it is today, it wouldn't exist at all," he says, "because I didn't want to keep it going myself. I don't want to say that just because it's not being done the way I would do it, that it's not effecting change."
Especially since maybe it is.
"Initially, I thought moving to the East Coast would be different, that I'd see more of us, but honestly, I'm still the only black kid at the white shows," says Ashley MaGee, 28, an Indianapolis native living in Brooklyn who discovered Afro-Punk the year it was released and makes a point of attending the fest every year. "The only time I see more than three black weirdos in one place is at Afropunk Fest."
MaGee—who is also the office manager at Pitchfork, a website often indicted for an overwhelmingly white, male editorial perspective—specifically cites the Afropunk aesthetic as having gained popularity ("Now it's more cool to be the black kids looking like they're going to see Deafheaven than it is to actually go see Deafheaven"), but while that visibility hasn't erased the problems in the scenes she frequents, she says it's at least given her and her friends an anchor.
"I still deal with hipster racist douchebags [at shows] every now and then, but at least now I'm not afraid to slap someone in the mouth if I have to," she says. "If anything, Afropunk has made us weird black kids more comfortable being weird black kids."
And that—whether it works the way his critics want it to or not—is still exactly Morgan's goal with his version of the festival.
Certainly, critics say, Morgan could afford to take more risks with more abrasive, less hip, still largely white-dominated music—metal and hardcore, for example—and tailor the fest's vendors, which, as one fan wrote last year, increasingly resemble "my hometown's African Festival of the Arts," toward a more out-there punk crowd. Though organizers say they're all but broke, rumors in the community say there's a fair profit—enough, at least, to specialize a little more deeply and satisfy a core audience who are now a minority within a minority within a minority.
But as Morgan and Cooper have made clear, they've put themselves on a delicate tightrope, one that balances a desire to keep the festival free (they tried charging in 2010, but reverted to the free model, claiming that even the lowest price point would diminish Afropunk's overall influence on potential fans) and a dedication to proving a point: African-American stereotypes in marketing are social constructs that flatten and devalue the diverse experiences and tastes of the black community.
And in subcultures like punk or hardcore, which already host regular squabbles over their definitions (see: the punk-themed Met Gala earlier this year) and are pronounced dead every time their core group ages out and can't identify its successors, Afropunk's tightrope approach might be the key to an enduring, if fraught, relevance.
Of course, while Afropunk has become synonymous with a black alternative community, it's hardly the only, or even the first, organization at work. Prominently in New York, there's the Black Rock Coalition, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit started 28 years ago by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, Dk Dyson, Kondra Mason, and the Voice's own Greg Tate, which focuses largely on promoting black rock musicians as well as exposing the black community and beyond to the contextualized past and present (and, eventually, the future) of black rockers.
Other festivals have sprung up in a similarly grassroots fashion. There's Detroit's Cosmic Slop Festival, an "intentionally multicultural" rock fest hosting its second installment the same weekend as Afropunk this summer. There's the Black Dot Music Festival in Chicago, which was born last year with nine acts but has had to cancel its second iteration "until further notice" due to funding issues. And those don't even include the teenage and twentysomething people of color, like the Skins and Unlocking the Truth, who, thanks to the Internet's proliferation of DIY over the past decade, have to dig far less deep to find both a wealth of source material to fuel their own musical development and the tools to expand their own revolutionary community.
Instead of looking for an identity in Afropunk, Spooner advises disenfranchised kids of color in fringe scenes to pick up the torch themselves.
"Today, there are the same straightedge scenes, the same DIY punk scenes that have always existed, but now they happen simultaneously with Warped Tour," Spooner explains. "Those bands playing Warped Tour today used to play this DIY scene, and the kids who are playing the DIY scene now will play future Warped Tours. This generation of underground promoters will be the festival organizers in 15 years. The important thing is to constantly have new generations of kids doing the thing."
This is all provided, of course, they know they can do the thing. And that's a major part of what's still left to do, for all parties.
"Black kids always used to ask me how they could get more black people at their shows," says Spooner. "All I said was, 'Invite them.' I went to places where black kids hung out and I handed them flyers. It's not hard to get 50 people in a room. Three hundred comes next. Kids are doing this stuff around the country. The only difference is that I did it for black people."
Afropunk Fest runs August 24–25 in Commodore Barry Park. Find more info at afropunkfest.com
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