Before Erykah Badu and Mos Def blessed the Afro-Punk Festival’s green stage with an impromptu collaboration of “Love Of My Life,” New York City councilwoman Letitia James appeared before 10,000 anxious fans with a message: “It’s not about race, it’s not about gender, it’s not about sexuality,” she said. “It’s about Afro-Punk!”
With that verbal acknowledgement, any lingering barriers from the festival’s premiere eight years ago were dismissed — when it was based on a premise of communal celebration for ‘weird, alternative black kids’ who enjoyed punk music.
After last year’s cancellation due to Hurricane Irene, the Afro-Punk Festival returned this year with an evolved identity, catering to a cultural amalgamation of young folks — defined least of all by “afro” or by “punk” but at best, a burgeoning, all-inclusive youth culture of freedom, individuality and acceptance.
“It’s not afro-centric at all,” said Toro Y Moi, self-proclaimed ‘experimental pop’ artist and first-time Afro-Punk performer. “[Afro-Punk] is a celebration of cultures combining and making this one thing. It’s nice to be able to not be boxed in.”
Lack of labels and judgment were thematic throughout the weekend, exemplified by the performance roster—featuring the likes of Gym Class Heroes, TV On the Radio, Reggie Watts and Spank Rock—and the fashionably expressive Tumblr crowds, largely composed of black hipsters (affectionately called blipsters), skaters, artists, and their friends and families.
“I’m out here to support the movement,” said Nefferarti Davis, a 20-year-old filmmaker who traveled with friends from D.C. to attend the festival. “To be who I want to be, without being judged. It’s beautiful. We’re not conforming, we do what we want.”
Under a melancholy sky, not unlike the one that hung over Brooklyn just before Irene made landfall last year, the festival was anchored by two concert stages featuring concurrent performances throughout the weekend. Also incorporated into the experience were elements of art, family and sports.
A live art wall was set up, on which several artists produced a moving mural over the course of the weekend. There was a skating park, for those festival guests who preferred to spend the majority of their day airborne, competing in Nike’s street skating competition. A biker zone, thrift markets, food trucks and a play area for kids completed the layout of the festival – with any remaining real estate filled by the 20,000+ visitors that would eat, mosh, dance and Instagram their way through the weekend.
The expanding, cross-cultural appeal of AfroPunk was as evident to visitors as it was to the performers. It was one of the reasons Janelle Monáe, Sunday’s headliner, returned to the festival.
“That’s the beautiful thing I love about AfroPunk—not only is it about […] people of color—but it’s very inviting,” she said. “It’s like that hippie mentality—as long as it’s love and peace, do you, and you can be a part of this.”
Monáe is testament to the festival’s evolution — being a successful product of the movement herself. Since performing at Afro-Punk in 2008 as a relatively unknown artist, Monáe has hit it big, signing a major record-deal with BadBoy/Atlantic Records and recently becoming a CoverGirl spokeswoman, joining the ranks of black iconic celebrities Queen Latifah and Halle Berry.
“I will forever consider Afropunk and this movement, this culture, a part of my life,” Monáe said. “It’s mind blowing but every time I think about them, I laugh and I’m like, Afro-Punk made it to Covergirl! With my nappy hair!”