Afropunk ABCs

A Primer on the Media, the Festival, the Visual Aesthetic, the Movement

Diana McClure

Afropunk film adThe Afropunk Festival debuted in 2004 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The music and cultural festival is the brainchild of music industry vet Matthew Morgan and filmmaker James Spooner. In 2003, with their first collaboration, afro-punk, a documentary film spotlighting black punks in America, the duo tapped into a cultural phenomenon nestled under the radar of mainstream culture. 

Mambu Bayon, Philly, 2014 Afropunk Fest via bysuchandsuchThe film was followed by a series of musical showcases, The Liberation Sessions, at alternative music/film/tech festivals — CMJ in New York City and SXSW in Austin, Texas.  The two projects laid the groundwork for the Afropunk Fest and its embrace of what describes as, “...thousands of multi-cultural kids fiercely identifying with a lifestyle path-less-traveled...alternative urban kids across the nation (and across the globe) who felt like outsiders.” 

Mambu Bayoh captured these kids' wide-ranging personas — a veritable art of the body — at the 2014 Afropunk festival.  Philly, shown here, is from a montage of Bayoh's Afropunk photos on bysuchandsuch.

Coby Kennedy, Coat of Arms, In the Service of the Villain seriesIndie rock, punk and hardcore music, film and skate represent the core cultural matrix of the festival’s roots and continue to provide ample space for growth, experimentation and freedom of expression. The Afropunk platform curatorial/production team now also includes Jocelyn Cooper at the festival and Lou Constant-Desportes, online.

After attending the August 2014 Afropunk Fest in Brooklyn, New York, I felt compelled to share some thoughts via email with one of my closest artist friends who was on sabbatical in India:

Just had to share these thoughts on Afropunk:

This experience was really significant for me. Few days of processing. Not quite as epic as Larry Levan street party, but similar. Larry was about my past only. This was about my past and now and future. Emotional connection to a large segment of culture. A sense of belonging and comfort on a human scale.

That's what hip-hop was for me. A pre-co-opted cultural space to be oneself within.  A space/identity I lost all recognition of...

The energy at the festival revealed a culture of expressing rage alongside love, peace alongside political activism, and a general sense of an ability to embrace contradiction and still aim to be true to the self, which suggests a certain emotional maturity...and there was no real sense of folks on drugs. I think this year’s festival will go down in history as a huge turning point. Bklyn Independent media filmed the whole thing. It was run so professionally too.  Four stages, and a refurbished back side of the park.  

Coby Kennedy, Bedford Nostrand, From In the Service of the Villain seriesCoby Kennedy, Nemises from the In the Service of the Villain seriesI have attended the Afropunk Fest in several incarnations over the years, including performances at BAM’s parking lot and performances at the intersection of Clinton Avenue and Myrtle Avenue in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.  Most recently, the festival has moved to Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park, a location at the intersection of two public housing communities, the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Fort Greene (the setting of early Spike Lee films), and the wealthy, artsy waterfront neighborhood of Dumbo. 

All of these locations are within walking distance of my home and a larger community of multicultural creative explorers throughout the borough. This fertile ground watered the roots of the Afropunk movement, but is now one of many nerve centers for the community.  

Now based in Paris,’s editor Lou Constant-Desportes told IRAAA+ via email, “The culture we showcase on Afropunk stems directly from the African diaspora across the world. We focus on alternative voices, the ones the establishment often neglects. We tend to focus on glorious representations but to be honest, I editor Lou Constant-Desportes. Photo: Lou's collectiondon’t over-analyze, the choices are very spontaneous. Sometimes they show a darker side too.” 

Coby Kennedy, Borough Nationalist, from the In the Service of the Villain seriesIn retrospect, what was significant about my particular experience at the 2014 Afropunk Fest was its ability to construct a space of imagination.  Although Afropunk does not particularly identify with any intellectualized artistic frameworks, it has many parallels to concerns in performance art, conceptual art and afrofuturism, in particular conversations around space, both literally and figuratively. 

The festival’s physical location within a fenced in park divided into distinct areas represented a dream world for many festival attendees.  Its setup included four stages, two on ball courts and two on grassy lawns, as well as a marketplace with crafty entrepreneurs, food trucks, drinking hubs, activist information hubs, and live art by graffiti/mural/street artists. 

Afropunk’s core values revolve around the experience of freedom and consciousness. Its conceptual framework is often associated with non-conformity, unconventional expression and open-minded acceptance. The spatial setup of the festival reflected this flexible multidisciplinary approach and gently encouraged a laboratory of action and experimentation. It allowed for multiple experiences to co-exist within one space without a sense of antagonism or polarity.

Mambu Bayon, Queens, 2014 Afropunk series via bysuchandsuchPunk music’s association with the expression of anger and an impulse to expose societal defects were present with bands like BLXPLTN and Bad Brains. However, they functioned in solidarity with the stage hosted by House of Marley. A company founded by some of the children of Bob Marley with the guiding principles of superior quality, earth-friendliness and a commitment to global charitable causes.  On other stages, poetic sounds of love could be heard from singers like Alice Smith and the band The Internet. 

Coby Kennedy, Malcolm, from the In the Service of the Villain seriesIn reference to the emotive and expressionistic curation of the Afropunk platform, Constant-Desportes told IRAAA+, “We’re not always stuck in anger, there are other ways to inspire and create change. However, anger is definitely part of the process. Anger is a very useful emotion that pulls you out of powerlessness. It’s part of the cycle. But we shouldn’t stay stuck there, as what’s after the anger is worth exploring and necessary to create lasting change.”

In 2014 Afropunk Fest producers reflected this curatorial instinct with the site selection of Commodore Barry Park. The airy diamond shaped black fence that surrounds the three-block radius of the park, had multiple entry/exit points and allowed attendees to breathe without a sense of claustrophobia or fear.  It’s winding paths, park benches and varied landscape accommodated a variety of sensibilities and varying sensory experiences for an audience comprised predominantly of bodies of color.  The possibility of this type of collective experience within physical space is quite rare in the United States in general, and particularly now in the wake of Ferguson, Missouri and recent cases of violent breakdowns in police community relations. 

Coby Kennedy,The Fighting Mulatto, from the In the Service of the Villain seriesIn the seminal work Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, author RoseLee Goldberg comments, “The seductive appeal of oneself becoming an art object, which resulted in numerous offshoots of living sculpture, was partly the result of the glamour of the rock world of the sixities.” (p.169).  Inevitably, the so-called spectacle of the visual styles of a portion of the bodies that participate in Afropunk provides ample ground for a superficial relationship to the culture. The culture shock of pierced faces, tattooed bodies, out of the ordinary fashion, and dissonant emotional expressions, as a form of social change often associated with punk culture, has increasingly permeated mainstream culture. This year, even the Afrocentric styling of Afropunk Fest attendees became fodder for Vogue magazine. This surface co-optation has weakened the political power of the spectacle of fashion in the context of Afropunk, but not dismantled the potentially transformative power of the core values of the movement.  At the heart of punk and central to Afropunk are a particular de-prioritization of consumer culture and a critical view of capitalism.  

Coby Kennedy, Marcus, from the In the Service of the Villain seriesConstant-Desportes commented on this phenomenon, “The rebellious visual expression has been somewhat co-opted by consumer culture but only in a superficial way for the most part. By definition consumer culture tends to lack authenticity. When profit is the main priority, the essence gets lost in translation.” This orientation is very similar to early ideas in performance art as noted by Goldberg in Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, “...performance - in this context – became and extension of such an idea: although visible, it was intangible, it left no traces and it could not be bought and sold.” (p. 152)

Afropunk Fest 2014 graphicAs the Afropunk movement grows in its strength and ability to hold space and create platforms that value creativity and freedom of expression above profit, it navigates difficult terrain.  Through its aesthetic and curatorial choices, at both an organic and an organizational level, it models an advocacy for individuals that question and think for themselves, as well as a community that is accepting of the diversity found within humanity. 

It is within this context that the physical presence and occupying of space by a collective body of people both at Commodore Barry Park and online increasingly manifests imagined spaces of positive interaction, healing and growth.  This experiential quality of imagined future spaces and beings that exist beyond racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry, etc. ties the movement to various thought-streams in afrofuturism.  

Saya Woolfalk, Life products by ChimaTEK™, 2013, courtesy the artist. Photo: Adam ReichThe catalog for The Studio Museum in Harlem's 2013/14 afrofuturism exhibition, The Shadows Took Shape, notes that exhibiting artist Saya Woolfalk "in her own words, investigates how ‘re-imagining objects, bodies and landscapes are constructed to immerse us in the logic of another place.’ ” (p.26)  Her words offer an echo to Afropunk’s logic and presence in 2014 at both the edge and increasingly the center of cultural production in popular culture.

Diana McClure is a writer, photographer and cultural producer based in Brooklyn NY.

Coby Kennedy threw down on the 2014 Afropunk festival art wall. The artist told IRAAA+ how his series incorporating Brooklyn street signs reflects an Afropunk aesthetic:

The street sign machetes very much embody the struggle of an underclass rebellion. They imply the urgency of impassioned revolution with the use of whatever means are readily at hand. The re-purposing of these objects, that can at times be seen as governmental token gestures, into agents of rebellion is a core theme of punk movements; taking the tools of an establishment and turning their purpose on their head. This is one of the biggest thematic connections that I have when working with Afropunk. The morphing of black culture and black diasporic traditions into a contemporary context to challenge the societal norms that exist both within and outside of the black mainstream society.

—Coby Kennedy

 “When the apocalypse does come to Brooklyn (zombies, aliens, gentrifiers...take your pick), artist Coby Kennedy will be more than ready,” adds Andrew Lasane in this article for Complex.  

For more:

Larry Levan Street Party

Commodore Barry Park 

Bad Brains

The Shadows Took Shape