Grace Jones, Death Grips, and a Pregnant Kelis Embody AFROPUNK's Eccentric Glory

Grace Jones at the 2015 AFROPUNK Festival, August 22, 2015
Grace Jones at the 2015 AFROPUNK Festival, August 22, 2015
Kathleen Caulderwood for Village Voice>

It’s no secret that music festivals do not always provide the safest of spaces for all those attending. In a lot of cases, they’re even something of a powder keg. Rampant drug use, a suspended sense of reality, isolated facilities, aggressive music and even more aggressive fans can add up to some pretty terrifying possibilities that most festival organizers have no policies in place to address. And that’s to say nothing of the overwhelming lack of diversity among acts, which doesn’t exactly welcome diverse crowds of festivalgoers. But this weekend’s AFROPUNK Festival, now in its tenth year, is a perfect antidote to all of that, proof that there is a better way. That’s easily identifiable from the moment fans walk through the gates. AFROPUNK’s central tenets are emblazoned on two towering banners that flank either side of the main stage. No sexism. No racism. No ableism. No ageism. No homophobia. No fatphobia. No transphobia. No hatefulness.

AFROPUNK began as a way to showcase black counterculture, highlighting artists whose work subverted ideas about the way black culture is represented and reflecting these visions back to the people who needed to see them most. Punk music, in its beginnings, was about rebellion against societal norms. And yet, decades later, it still misses the mark too often. What could be more “normal” than the insidious white supremacy that still plagues this country? What institutionalized structure is more deserving of being totally dismantled? While it makes sense that punk rebellion should go hand in hand with anti-racist action, the same structures that disenfranchised blacks in society at large were also at play in overwhelmingly homogenous punk communities, making hip-hop a more desirable outlet for black creatives. But that didn’t mean black punks didn’t exist, and when festival founders Matthew Morgan and James Spooner set out to make a documentary on the subject (2003’s seminal AfroPunk, from which the fest gets its name), they ended up coining a term that would launch an entire movement, in turn giving voices to the punk scene’s multi-cultural members and showcasing the richness of black identity.

AFROPUNK has ballooned in the ensuing decade, moving from humble beginnings at BAM to accommodate tens of thousands at Commodore Barry Park, the oldest in the borough. Its dusty collection of baseball diamonds were transformed this weekend into three stages, a 200-foot live art canvas, a collection of booths selling everything from unique jewelry inspired by traditional African looks to ‘loc socks and cheeky tees, as well as several stalls dedicated to activism around racial equality, mass incarceration, HIV/AIDS prevention, and voter registration. Arriving midday on Saturday, a line stretched from the park’s entrance around the block. Inside on the main stage, Ab-Soul had just made a guest appearance during his protégé SZA’s performance, while a stormy hardcore set from letlive. pummeled audiences at the smaller Green Stage.

SZA performs at AFROPUNK 2015
SZA performs at AFROPUNK 2015
Kathleen Caulderwood for Village Voice

Not long after, a march for Trans justice wound its way through the grounds, shutting down the main stage while protesters chanted “Black Trans Lives Matter!” These words held a particular resonance in light of the fact that nearly twenty transgender women, mostly women of color, have been killed in 2015 alone, including six since the beginning of August. The march was not just about honoring those lives, but, in the words of protesters themselves, “celebrating Trans lives while we’re here.” Two representatives ran through a list of demands that, really, should extend far beyond AFROPUNK to all festivals, such as the inclusion of trans artists and performers in festival lineups, and the blacklisting of performers who exhibit or promote transphobia in order to create safer spaces for trans people. ShaGaysia Diamond performed two original songs followed by Janelle Monáe’s recent, provocative single “Hell You Talmbout” which lists the names of victims of police violence; Monae debuted the song last week at rallies in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Veins of protest ran deep throughout the fest. Though it was a decidedly different angle, Suicidal Tendencies invited skate punks onstage for their final numbers, who thrashed along with the Cali punks on headbangers like “Institutionalized” and “Cyco Vision.” Lead singer Mike Muir was very vocal between sets, calling out cops on police brutality and demanding that diversity be more than just a trite word easily tossed around, but an active lifestyle. And despite the aggressive nature of Suicidal Tendencies’ music, everyone in the circle pit remained respectful of each other. It wasn’t exactly a miracle, but was certainly nice to see what can happen in an environment that embraces rebellion yet rejects violence toward its own.

While skate punks thrashed on one stage, a very pregnant Kelis belted “Baby I Got Your Money” and “Milkshake” unironically. The pregnancy was a bit of a shock to fans, as Kelis had not previously announced that she was expecting. But she positively glowed on the main stage in a flowing, hot-pink dress. Her set did feel a bit short but was packed with vocal acrobatics, her operatic range almost as surprising as the baby bump she sported.

Danny Brown kept things moving on the smaller stage as the sun dipped below the skyscrapers of downtown Brooklyn, performing “Smokin & Drinkin” to a very hyped crowd. Both stages were running a bit behind schedule, which added to the anticipation of two acts who are both rather notorious for canceling performances last-minute or showing up late: Lauryn Hill and Death Grips. Ms. Hill took the main stage as scheduled, but for whatever reason the sound didn’t reach far past the first dozen rows; in the farthest reaches of the crowd it was hard to tell she had started her set. The booming drums signaling Death Grips’ arrival on the adjacent stage was enough to completely overpower her, though fans who had been lucky enough to be nearer the stage raved on social media that she was in fine form.

Audience members take in the performances at AFROPUNK 2015
Audience members take in the performances at AFROPUNK 2015
Kathleen Caulderwood for Village Voice

Death Grips also gave a fiery performance; in the context of AFROPUNK, their fierce blend of assaulting percussion courtesy of Zach Hill and the antagonistic rhymes of rapper MC Ride seemed to resonate more solidly than it ever has. Though in the past they’ve played over a backing track, producer Andy Morin was also in tow. The band’s rabid fanbase of (mostly) white message-board trolls were blessedly absent, again highlighting the importance of the spaces that AFROPUNK has created for this community.

Pink clouds rippled across the night sky as Grace Jones took the main stage. There is a reason she is considered a legend, an icon, and a visionary. Her presence is commanding, and not just for the depth and power of her voice; truly, what she does on stage is rooted in performance art more so than simple vocal exercise. Her costumes were impeccable, appearing first in a dark cloak and shimmering gold facemask, part skull, part sunburst. As her set went on she removed these pieces, eventually wearing not much more than bodypaint, a corset, and a chainmail headdress, while hula-hooping continuously through her final songs. Vivid, awe-inspiring, and totally unique, Jones made for the perfect headliner, embodying the embrace of eccentricity, body positivity and acceptance that AFROPUNK espouses. And hits like “My Jamaican Guy,” “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Pull Up to the Bumper” saw her meld her Caribbean heritage with dance trends that have endured in pop music as long as she’s been a part of it.

While some have bemoaned the switch from free festival to paid ticketing, AFROPUNK’s value isn’t even quantifiable. That black artists from such diverse approaches can come together, support one another, and revel in the celebration of multi-cultural identity is worth far more than the ticket price. It’s also an investment in the future of music festivals for the example it sets by creating a safe space for attendees from all walks of life. Let’s hope they take note: there’s no more room for haters.

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