If you’re only going to Afropunk in the hopes that Lenny Kravitz has another wardrobe malfunction, let’s stop you right there. In addition to this year’s incredible headliners, which run the gamut from the iconic (Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill) to the infamous (Suicidal Tendencies, Death Grips), there’s a whole host of smaller-font names just as worthy of your attention. At any given moment in the fest’s three-day run, Fort Greene’s Commodore Barry Park will be exploding with new talent from all over the globe — but since scheduling is a thing, we’ve made a list of the top ten lesser-known acts that are absolutely not to be missed amid this impeccably curated lineup.
Playing Saturday, 8/22:
It’s a rare thing to find a true original these days, but if anyone qualifies as such, it’s Petite Noir. Born Yannick Ilunga in Belgium, his family left the Democratic Republic of the Congo to escape political persecution and settled in Cape Town, South Africa, where his growing interest in Eighties synthwave began to meld with the Pan-African sounds of his childhood. He’s a vocal chameleon, virtually dueting with himself on his latest single, “Chess” (from debut LP King of Anxiety), alternating his arresting low register with an equally intoxicating falsetto. Counting Yasiin Bey (a/k/a Mos Def) and Solange Knowles as fans, Ilunga also has a unique stage style. As part of creative collective Drone Society, he dabbles in designing everything from fashion lines to limited-run art objects. Those intentions are reflected in the way he crafts his own sound, which he’s branded “noirwave,” a genre that sounds like no other.
One single was all it took for Adia Victoria to cement her reputation as one of Nashville’s most promising songwriters. Her searing debut track, “Stuck in the South,” has all the bluesy gothic flourishes of a Flannery O’Connor story in song form, and her most recent tune, “Howlin’ Shame,” is nothing short of haunting. That’s likely a result of her strict Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing in South Carolina, but with a scorching guitar riff, Victoria’s exorcising every last one of her demons. With no official word on when she’ll finally release her first record (though it has been announced that it will be produced by Roger Moutenot, who’s famous for his work with Yo La Tengo and Sleater-Kinney), Victoria’s Afropunk set is the best way to see what she’s truly made of.
Cakes da Killa
Taking as many cues from ballroom culture as he does from old-school gangsta rap, Cakes da Killa is anything but shy. Spitting saucy rhymes a mile a minute, Cakes quickly earned a reputation as one of rap’s raunchiest in a new vanguard of openly queer artists pushing boundaries in hip-hop. He’s got a degree in fashion, so it’s only fitting that two of his three mixtapes were released by Mishka NYC, purveyors of cartoonishly grotesque streetwear and skate gear. They also put out his most recent EP, #IMF, a five-track concept record detailing a whirlwind love affair over spacey beats, his lustful lyrics enough to make Cakes’ biggest inspiration, Lil’ Kim, blush.
As the first female artist signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, SZA has collaborated with labelmates Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, but these mash-ups don’t even begin to define her eclectic songwriting style, which pulls from r&b, hip-hop, synthpop, and sampled soul. Her most recent effort, Z, features intriguing production techniques courtesy of Mac Miller, Toro y Moi, and Felix Snow, among others, often hinging on deconstructed loops of SZA’s sensual vocals. But she’s also a seasoned live performer, gracing stages at this summer’s biggest festivals, from Pitchfork to Bonnaroo to Lollapalooza, creating serious buzz along the way.
Ceddyjay, Klipa Beats, The BoysOnQ, Johnny Based, and David Lee may not be much older than sixteen on average, but together they’ve formed music collective RAAA to showcase their individual strengths and styles. The moniker stands for Rebellious Against All Ahead, and the first thing they’ve bucked is an easy definition affixing them to any one genre. Ceddyjay spouts old-school rhymes one minute; the next, they’re jumping into moshpits that they’ve instigated. Their performance may wind up being a little rough around the edges — or it could be one of Afropunk’s most transcendent — but if their Twitter account is any indication, these kids are so excited that their set is guaranteed to inject a little youthful energy into Saturday’s crowd.
For those lamenting Erykah Badu’s absence from Afropunk this year, Lion Babe is the best remedy. Singer Jillian Hervey might just be the heiress to Badu’s throne, her jazzy vocal rhythms channeling the Queen of Neo-Soul on Lion Babe’s breakout hit “Treat Me Like Fire.” The group formed in New York, when Hervey, then pursuing a career in dance, met producer and multi-instrumentalist Lucas Goodman. Their fresh take on funk caught the ear of Childish Gambino, who collaborated with the duo on the ecstatic “Jump Hi” after they supported him on tour.
Playing Sunday, 8/23:
Though Harding’s debut LP, Soul Power, was released on Burger Records, he’s hardly the scrappy garage rocker the label is known to tout. The name of the record says it all; Harding might’ve been transported from a different era, so smooth is his take on classic r&b. He earned his vocal chops in gospel choirs and performing as a backup singer for Cee Lo Green. Calling him a crooner doesn’t even begin to do this voice justice.
If there’s one thing Trick, the second solo record from Kele Okereke, makes clear, it’s that he was the driving force behind Bloc Party, the seminal early-Aughts indie band he fronted until they went on indefinite hiatus in 2013. Though his latest songs are decidedly more minimal, they harness the same urgency as Bloc Party’s best tracks, updated with heightened electronica influences. And there’s still that sense of rebellion against alienation, more hopeful in Kele’s solo work than ever before. Having DJ’d all over the world, Kele makes the influence of club music felt solidly in these dance-floor-ready anthems.
Though he released his debut, The God Complex, anonymously, D.C.-based rapper GoldLink couldn’t keep his identity a secret for long once the collection of skittering, rapid-fire tracks was loosed on SoundCloud. Though his music is kindred to that of another masked figure of hip-hop, Madvillain, in that it draws on unlikely influences — check the Britney Spears sample wafting in and out of “Dance on Me,” or the J Dilla–meets-EDM moments throughout — GoldLink is becoming more and more distinctly visible every second. His through-the-roof energy and bounce-inspired dance moves earned him a supporting slot on SBTRKT’s fall tour, followed by a successful run of SXSW performances earlier this year. While there are plenty of riotous moments, GoldLink’s contemplative party-boy persona truly shines on “Sober Thoughts,” his collaboration with producer Kaytranada, who also plays Afropunk on Sunday.
Young Paris might be the truest embodiment of “Afropunk” as a concept, rapping over sampled African drumbeats and traveling with a crew of his siblings, who dance behind him. He and his ten brothers and sisters are the progeny of Andre and Pamela Badila, world-renowned Congolese dancers, and together, they pay tribute to their heritage by donning traditional dress and body-paint, updated for modern impact. The video for “The Haus” is a testament to that; each performer wears white paint, symbolic of the memory of the siblings’ father, who passed away in 2012, and Young Paris opens the track with the line “Africans make me so proud/My people make me get loud” — a mantra for the festival as a whole if ever there was one.
Afropunk Festival takes over Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park August 22–23.