Brooklyn Boro

Afropunk is back, with a new message for its critics

August 22, 2019 Ariama Long

A year after controversy engulfed Brooklyn’s Afropunk, the annual music festival aimed at uniting the African diaspora and celebrating blackness is back with a new slogan: #AfropunkWeSeeYou.

The festival is this weekend, Aug. 24-25, at Commodore Barry Park on Flushing Avenue and North Elliot Place. Performers like Jill Scott, FKA Twigs, Leon Bridges, Gary Clark Jr. and Santigold are slated to take the stage.

Afropunk came under scrutiny last year by some of its supporters for leaving behind the communities for which it was created. Ebony Donnley showed up in a T-shirt that read “Afropunk sold out for white consumption” to Afropunk 2018. Donnley and his partner, Ericka Hart, were told to leave the festival and escorted out of the VIP section.

“I just wore the shirt,” Donnley told the Brooklyn Eagle. “This is supposed to be a festival that welcomes resistance and activism as a part of it.” The idea came from his experience of the previous year’s festival, which he felt was a corporatized affair catering to white audiences and a palatable non-punk music lineup.

Shortly after the incident, longtime editor-in-chief of Afropunk’s online media outlet Lou Constant-Desportes announced his resignation, citing years of insincerity from the festival’s organizers.

This year’s theme, #AfropunkWeSeeYou, seeks to address the criticism with positivity, instead of the usual punk-rebel marketing used in the festival’s branding.

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“I appreciate the effort of a mainstream company with varied negative publicity now saying ‘Hey, disenfranchised people, we see you,’” said James Spooner, one of the festival’s co-founders who stepped down in 2008. “But I am typically skeptical and pessimistic of a limited corporation’s true intentions.”

These days, Spooner runs a vegan tattoo shop in Los Angeles and promotes his own line of original graphic novels.

Afropunk may have begun as a small gathering in Brooklyn, but it has since become an international brand running events in five cities across four countries. It has moved beyond its punk roots in the same way that rap, hip hop, classic rock or jazz grew beyond their own —  a departure that some say has led Afropunk astray from its original mission.

“The silver lining is that it is so mainstream that the underground has actually, actively, rebelled against it,” said Spooner. “So now there is a more vibrant people-of-color punk scene with independent shows and festivals happening all over the country. One only has to look. Which is how the underground works.”

Not everyone shares Spooner’s skepticism towards Afropunk’s evolution. Participants and organizers of the festival this year seem happy to have a cultural space of their own, even if it’s outside the intended scene of the first few festivals.

Singer-songwriter and activist Denarii Grace, one of this year’s speakers, told the Eagle she hopes the organizers “will continue to learn from our ancestors’ triumphs and mistakes, and grow in their building of a validating, empowering space for black folk across cultures, generations, and experiences.”

Cheraé Robinson, founder and CEO of travel company Tastemakers Africa (which has entered a partnership with Afropunk) said that while the festival has become more mainstream, that’s not all bad. “It’s just become a champion for all the strokes in the black experience instead of just one particular stroke,” she said.

“I see it as a natural progression. Becoming mainstream and losing your core values is often seen as hand-in-hand but it’s not always the case — and ultimately that’s a leadership and internal culture problem to solve.”

Organizers of this year’s Afropunk did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

For a full list of acts and more information, see here

Ariama Long is a freelance multi-media journalist born and raised in Brooklyn.

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