Over the last five years, the AfroPunk Festival has become one of the most unique events on New York City's bounteous outdoor musical calendar. Held at Commodore Barry Park in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, usually in late August, the festival boasts a musically varied lineup and a visually striking audience of more than 30,000 stylish and young daily attendees. A visitor last year, for example, could have grooved to the righteous retro-funk of D'Angelo or the off-kilter hip-hop of Seattle's Shabazz Palaces; banged her head to newcomers like teenage Brooklyn speed-metal trio Unlocking the Truth or old-timers like Ice-T's 1990s band Body Count; or just gazed in wonder at the dancers contorting onstage at the tribute to the late Chicago footwork pioneer DJ Rashad, not to mention the bassist from Sacramento hardcore punk quartet Trash Talk scaling the scaffolding to play his instrument from high up in the rafters.
Add to that antic tableau an assortment of booths devoted to political causes, community activists, and African-American entrepreneurs; a space for skateboarders and BMX bikers to show off their skills; another stage devoted to DJs spinning dance music; and a crowd featuring a colorful cross-section of contemporary Black Bohemia (whether American, Caribbean, or African), and it's no empty boast when AfroPunk co-founder and programmer Matthew Morgan proclaims,"We pride ourselves on being the most diverse festival in America."
It was these wildly eclectic sounds and a truly multicultural audience that led Lincoln Center Public Programming department's Jill Sternheimer to invite Morgan and his partner Jocelyn Cooper to bring the AfroPunk experience to Lincoln Center Out of Doors for the first time. A showcase on Friday, July 31st at Damrosch Park will serve as a sneak peek of the festival itself (which takes place on August 22 and 23 back at Commodore Barry Park). "We so much love what they do at their festival in Brooklyn, we felt that the best collaboration for our initial partnership year was to open our doors and let them bring us a show," says Sternheimer. "We are thrilled that they're going to bring some of that vibe to Lincoln Center Out of Doors."
The AfroPunk evening at Damrosch Park is typically all over the map. The Skins, a past winner of the AfroPunk Battle of the Bands program, are a peppy pop-punk quintet signed to Rick Rubin's American Recordings and led by three siblings from Bed-Stuy barely out of their teens. LION BABE is an electronic-augmented neo-soul duo from New York City (vocalist Jillian Hervey is the daughter of former Miss America and actress Vanessa L. Williams) currently working on a debut album for Interscope, with production by Pharrell Williams and TV On the Radio's Dave Sitek. Vintage Trouble is a Los Angeles based high-octane throwback to the early 1960s Who-termed maximum R&B. "[Vintage Trouble lead singer Ty Taylor] is one of the most energetic performers I've ever seen in my life," says Sternheimer. "He sweats through an entire suit! I've never seen anyone sweat that hard!" (Also on the bill is a screening of the segment of the documentary The Triptych that explores the work of Kenyan-born, Brooklyn-based artist and filmmaker Wangechi Mutu, a nod to AfroPunk's origins as a film festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2005.)
Given the disparate musical genres and approaches on display, as well as AfroPunk's expanding brand identity—festivals in New York, Paris, and Atlanta as well as talks and events across the country and a website, blog, and online store—it's sometimes hard to pin down the organization's mission. So what exactly is AfroPunk? "It's a platform for freedom, particularly for people of color," offers Cooper. "It's really a way of thinking. We are definitely a platform for discovery. The festival and the events we produce are great, but the place where the community lives is on AfroPunk.com and on our social platform."
To Morgan, an AfroPunk performer is marked by "a sense of freedom within their music and within their attitude, who went left in their genre, or as musicians of color, when other people were going right." The guiding principle in his programming is to introduce his young audiences to these artists who push the boundaries. "I was exposed to things which enabled me to do the things that I'm doing, and I loved them," says Morgan of his youth, "and if I can expose these kids, I hope that will influence them to do things a little bit differently, change their tracking a little bit. I love that we can get black skate kids and punk kids and hip-hop kids and R&B kids and LGBT kids together in one space. That itself is a massive triumph for us and we can only achieve that by mixing the genres of music."
AfroPunk's creative variety reflects its leaders' backgrounds. Cooper has spent more than 25 years in the music industry, starting her own publishing company (her clients include D'Angelo) and running the A&R department at Universal Records for almost a decade; among the signings she oversaw were Nelly and the rappers on the Cash Money label (including Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and B.G.). Morgan managed bands in his native England after having left school at age 13, and his aesthetic is informed by a childhood growing up as a mixed-race working class kid in a council flat in London, the son of a black Guyanese father and a white Jewish mother. "I feel more like the kids in the audience," says Morgan, "which is why we do the festival at Commodore Barry Park, opposite the projects, because I grew up in exactly the same way."
In the beginning, AfroPunk was simply the title of a 2003 documentary film produced by Morgan and directed by James Spooner, which chronicled the tribulations of blacks in punk rock—a minority within a minority—and featured interviews with members of bands like the Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, and Fishbone. Morgan and Spooner set up a website where folks who wanted to screen or discuss the film could gather, and through this chat room a community blossomed. From the roughly 100 people who showed up at the first Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) gathering 10 years ago, AfroPunk has grown to include an estimated four million web visitors a week, in the process broadening the definition of "punk"—which is just fine with its co-founder. "The name always meant something that was very different to me than it did to everybody else," says Morgan, who grew up in 1970s England watching the U.K. punk rock movement borrow the rebellious anger of young West Indian immigrants protesting against the police. "Toussaint L'Overture, Miles Davis, Grace Jones, Bootsy Collins, Malcolm X, Spike Lee—they embody punk rock. Not the music, but the essence, what it's all about."
In the decade since the film's release, finding that essence has become much less rare, and these days it's not unusual to see musicians of color throughout the rock and punk subcultures, as well as far greater opportunities than were afforded their predecessors. Indeed, for a young band like The Skins, AfroPunk has been a game-changer. "It was an amazing experience being able to play for our community and our fellow local artists," says Bayli Mckeithan, The Skins' lead singer, who describes the energy of the AfroPunk audience as "deliciously genuine and indescribably uplifting."
That sentiment is certainly uplifting to AfroPunk's founders. "The diversity in the music now, and then what happens to people, is the punk side without it being the spikes and the mohawks and the 150 b.p.m. and whatever the typical ideas of what punk rock was or is," says Morgan. "The AfroPunk idea has evolved and continues to evolve, and I'm happy with it continuing to evolve. The acts have to change and the people have to change; it has to be constantly moving."
Afropunk @ Lincoln Center takes place on Friday, July 31 at 7pm. Admission is free and no tickets are required.