Afro Punk expands narrow vision of black authenticity

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

On a sunny day at the corner of Lafayette and Flatbush, thrashing punk rock is heard flowing out of the Brooklyn Academy of Music parking lot. Skateboarders of all ages are doing tricks on half-pipes, and seasoned BMX bikers are flipping over ramps. Graffiti artists are spray-painting murals. This is the fourth annual Afro Punk festival. What makes it unique is that the attendees and musical artists are largely black.

When I was a sixth grade student I was preoccupied with being an authentic black youth and acceptable to my peers. I pretended to be enamored with Chris Brown, but I really was in love with Kurt Cobain. As middle school continued, the façade faded, and I was forced to confront my identity. I was indeed African American, but I did not feel I belonged.

Being in a majority white and rather affluent school added to my growing sense that I was betraying my own race. Already, being middle class and coming of age in the suburbs tarnished my authenticity; my image was unlike those on T.V. It was getting harder and harder to relate to young black icons in the media.

With little contact with other black kids my age I felt alienated. My interests in what I thought were authentically and truly African American was waning, while what I perceived as white interests were taking root. I was conflicted. How can I be black and still be myself?

Adrienne Tarver, a student at the Park School of Baltimore, felt similarly growing up, “To the white kids at school I felt pressure to be more like them, and to the black kids at school I felt pressure to be ‘more black’. I would always get called ‘Oreo’ because of the music I used to listen to and the way I talked.”

Max Wiggins, another student at The Park School, was also affected growing up in a majority white school.

“The more insecure and confused I felt about myself, the more I gravitated towards that sort of pre-fab persona,” he said. “So during periods in which I was having trouble with ‘figuring out myself’ – or whatever cliché phrase like that – I would sort of turn to that as something that was easy and safe, and also glorified in the community I was in. I always felt sort of pressured, but I didn’t always resort to it.”

During my freshmen year in high school I learned of the documentary, “Afro Punk”. After viewing the trailer online, I promptly ordered it. I was enthralled with the idea of seeing other black people in my situation. What I found was an entire community of young African Americans who, like me, seemed to transcend categories, and in turn, find solace in punk rock. Seeing others like myself, a sense of relief washed over. I realized I had been searching for confirmation that I was normal.

At Brooklyn’s Afro Punk festival this summer, my heart sang as I watched black girls with silver studs and combat boots, dancing in the mosh pit. Seeing young African American adults and pre-teens visibly comfortable with their unconventional lifestyle and appearance, I felt I had come full circle. Actually participating in the festival was a confirmation that it was okay to be a different kind of black person.

Though less extreme than going totally punk, it is becoming commonplace for young African American’s to embrace white musical artists, skateboard, and dress in varied fashions, without being shunned by their peers. In recent years I have observed a change in what it means to be an authentic African American teen. Popular icons like Lupe A. Fiasco and Pharrell are breaking the mold for black youths. Both condone skate boarding and don’t romanticize gangsters. The criteria for “acting black” are expanding to allow a variety of personalities to shine through, rather than a narrow box that does not encompass enough identities.

Afro Punk isn’t the first movement of its kind. In 1985, the Black Rock Coalition was founded “in reaction to the constrictions that the commercial music industry places on Black artists.” The BRC provides a service not only to the black community, but demonstrates to all groups that there is no such thing as an authentic black person. The coalition is still active, and produces many concerts in New York City.

There are still constraints when it comes to being black. We are still surrounded by negative stereotypes, and dissent often comes at a cost. Many depictions of African Americans are still narrow, and those who defy common images are hard to find. Despite this, the definition of authenticity is dissolving and leaving room for variation and diversity.