Live: Janelle Monáe, TV On The Radio, And Toro Y Moi Break Boundaries At Afro-Punk


Afro-Punk Festival
Commodore Barry Park
Sunday, August 26

Better than: Sitting at home, waiting for Breaking Bad to start.

Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley were some of the original architects of rock and roll. Jimi Hendrix pushed it forward in the late ’60s. Then came Prince. And Bad Brains. And Living Colour. And the Black Rock Coalition. Plus, what’s more rock than “Rock Box”? Or “Maggot Brain”? Making the same claim is New York’s annual Afro-Punk Festival, which wrapped its eighth staging on Sunday night. Over two consecutive nights in Fort Greene’s Commodore Barry Park, the festival showcased an array of black artists who were punk in spirit if not always in musical aesthetic.

On Sunday—I was sadly unable to attend on Saturday—my Afro-Punk experience began with Toro y Moi, the foursome fronted by South Carolinian singer-keyboardist Chaz Bundick. The band played music that was jammy, lush, and dreamy, with Bundick conjuring up pillowy electric piano harmonies from his Nord Electro. “New Beat,” from the band’s second album, Underneath the Pine, was disco to the core, all thick, popping bass lines and unrelenting drums. “Still Sound” also benefited from a strong, propulsive bass line, one which snaked in between glassy guitar chanks and Bundick’s soothing chords and riffs. The leader’s smooth, temperate vocals were often swallowed by the mix, but that shortcoming worked in the group’s favor, adding an air of mystery to the set.

On a smaller stage adjacent to a series of half-pipes—the festival was also home to a skateboarding competition—singer Janelle Monáe gave a thrilling performance bolstered by brass, strings, and an energetic rhythm section. From underneath her trademark pompadour, which would droop when she was working especially hard, Monáe tackled originals like “Cold War” and the Stevie Wonder-influenced “Locked Inside” with precision, her powerful vocals on key and always in the right place. The bold, speedy “Tightrope” was indebted to James Brown, and Monáe was transparent about it—towards the end of the tune, she donned a cape, Godfather of Soul-style. Monáe also worked in brief but arresting takes on pieces by Hendrix (“Little Wing”) and the Jackson 5 (“I Want You Back”).

The evening culminated in an hour-long set from TV on the Radio, a band that manages to be both cerebral and unpretentious. Its music is loud and pummeling, but only in pursuit of catharsis, and ecstasy. After an introduction from comedian W. Kamau Bell and a hello to “fucking beautiful Brooklyn” from lead singer Tunde Adebimpe, TVotR launched into Dear Science opener “Halfway Home,” which, in its first few moments, places Beach Boys-like background vocals on top of the blasting twin guitars of Kyp Malone and Dave Sitek. “Young Liars,” from the 2003 EP of the same name, was a slowish, celebratory romp that kept returning to the line “thank you for taking my hands.” “Repetition,” off of 2011’s Nine Types of Light, arrived in the form of just drums and a few thumping bass notes, and climaxed with Adebimpe screaming a lyric about repetition over and over. That song transitioned into the powerful “Wolf Like Me,” a dark, pounding revelation that finished with the word “forever” ringing out into the Brooklyn night.

More than just a satisfying concert experience—save for the forty-minute wait to get in that prevented me from catching the appealingly absurd sounds of Reggie Watts—night two of Afro-Punk was an important reminder that black music includes, and has always included, rock. Genres just box artists in, but there’s no reason to box anyone out.

Critical bias: I’ve always loved Monáe’s hook on Big Boi’s “Be Still.”

Overheard: “Were people getting busy in the grass?” asked one concertgoer in reference to a seemingly used prophylactic on the ground.

Random notebook dump: Monáe’s “Come Alive” definitely owes something to “Rock Lobster.”