Afropunk Brooklyn 2023: new venue, new attractions, same vibes

Afropunk Brooklyn: Circus of Soul featured performances by Teyana Taylor, Baby Tate, Joey Bada$$, and more as the annual festival moved its location for the first time in over a decade. 

Afropunk has expanded from a modest collective of societal misfits and outcasts looking for a communal and artistic outlet to becoming a multimedia business, with festivals in Brazil, South Africa, Minneapolis, and Miami, for instance. But Brooklyn is always Afropunk’s home, evident in the 2023 Afropunk Brooklyn: Circus of Soul on Aug. 26 and Aug. 27.

Teyana Taylor, Joey Bada$$, Flying Lotus, and more were the draw for some. Still, for others, it was the annual opportunity to cut loose with dynamic costumes and outfits and partake in delicious food and purchase from Black-owned businesses. The hallmark of Afropunk is inclusion, welcoming patrons, artists, and artisans regardless of sexual orientation, creed, or otherwise. This year’s edition was no exception, although there were a few new things to consider.

A lot has changed over the years for Afropunk Brooklyn. It’s no longer free; attractions like the ramps for BMX bikers, and skaters are gone, but this year, more significant changes happened. For this year’s Circus of Soul theme, fans got glimpses of fire jugglers, trapeze artists, and stilt walkers to give off the circus motif.

Attendees of Afropunk Brooklyn dancing the Electric Slide to Cameo’s “Candy” during Afropunk Brooklyn: Circus of Soul on Aug. 26, 2023, at Greenpoint Terminal Market in Brooklyn. (Photo by Matthew Allen)

The most significant difference is the location switching from the familiar Commodore Barry Park near Fort Greene to the Greenpoint Terminal Park in Greenpoint. Patrons were sprawled out on the hard concrete ground of the terminal with their blankets and folding chairs rather than the grassy knolls of Commodore Barry Park’s baseball fields.

What the festival lacked in seating comfort, new activations, and a stellar view made up for it with Greenpoint Terminal Market pressed against the East River waterfront, with the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline ever present, making for a fantastic vantage point at sunset.

Sip N Spades provided much-needed shade from the sun under a tent and some fun engagement. Tables with custom playing cards and notepads for spades games, UNO, large-scale Jenga blocks, and Connect Four were a welcome addition to Afropunk. There are few occasions more fun and raucous than Black game nights.

Afropunk has always promoted alternative lifestyles and safety for all those doing so, in whatever capacity. The vendors for Afropunk Brooklyn 2023 included healthy alternatives like vegan dishes and drinks and selections from the African diaspora. Patrons could sample Southern food like fried catfish sandwiches, African dishes like jollof rice, or Caribbean plates like rasta pasta with shrimp.

Artisans of the Spinthrift Market, once again all Black-owned, allowed attendees to purchase homemade jewelry, sunglasses, artwork, vinyl, and fashion. All Ways Black Books provided free books, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture had a tent for virtual exhibitions on Black music and film that was enlightening and interactive.

While Afropunk Brooklyn 2023 had more than enough attractions to keep the crowd busy and engaged for over eight hours a day for a weekend, the musicians proved to be the superstars again.

(Left to right) Singer Jack Freeman and DJ-songwriter Bryan-Michael Cox perform onstage at Afropunk Brooklyn: Circus of Soul on Aug. 27, 2023, at Greenpoint Terminal Market in Brooklyn. (Photo by Matthew Allen)

As is the case every year, the lineup consisted of an eclectic mixture of rap, rock, R&B, world, and sometimes, a variety of all of the above. Durand Bernarr, only months removed from a superb appearance on NPR’s “Tiny Desk” online series, rocked the main stage Saturday afternoon with outrageous stage presence over slick funk, with songs like “Leveled” and “Company.” Singer Madison McFerrin treated fans with her signature brand of soul and pop, with fanciful renditions of fan favorites like “Try.”

Flying Lotus, Saturday’s main headliner, performed with his idiosyncratic mystique, playing his songs behind an LED platform projecting moving images of flame and lightning. FlyLo played songs like “Black Balloon Reprise” with Denzel Curry and “Dragonball Durag” with Thundercat before Smoke DZA joined him onstage to perform selections from their upcoming collaborative project, “Flying Objects.”

Sunday’s assortment of performances took things up another notch. Singer Jack Freeman delivered his infectious R&B tracks, backed by a distinguished guest DJ — award-winning songwriter-producer Bryan-Michael Cox. Cox is executive producing his forthcoming project, “Nina,” dropping next month, and he increased the anticipation for the release with each song.

Beatboxer extraordinaire Rahzel delivered as he could, recreating a medley of Wu-Tang beats close to the records; it’s uncanny. However, joining him was an assortment of young beatboxers who showed that beatboxing is in good hands for the future. Baby Tate gave an explosive performance as the sun went down, rapping with reckless abandon and then singing with heart and resiliency.

Afropunk Brooklyn’s final day ended with a bang with Joey Bada$$ and Teyana Taylor, respectively. Joey, a notorious Brooklyn native, stood solo for his set, giving power and energy to songs like “Temptation” and “Devastated” and poignancy to songs like “Head High,” which he dedicated to deceased rappers like Juice Wrld, XXXtentacion, and Nipsey Hussle.

Taylor, who replaced a grieving Jazmine Sullivan, emerged from retirement to end the night. After riveting choreography from her and her elite dancers, sexy stage presence, and numerous costume changes, you’d never be able to tell she’s retired. Songs like “How You Want It?,” “Bad,” and “Issues/Hold On” sounded and looked great. Her family, husband Iman Shumpert, and their daughters Junie and Rue joined Taylor on stage, with Shumpert and Junie each performing their own raps.

The memorable part of Taylor’s set came toward the end when she failed to fight back tears as she thanked the audience. Saying that Afropunk is, at last, her last ever live show, she cried as she expressed gratitude to the fans and her hometown of New York, as Junie came from backstage to hug her mom during her emotional moment. Pulling herself together, her last songs, “Gonna Love Me” and “Rose in Harlem,” provided a proper and fitting climax to her set and Afropunk Brooklyn 2023.

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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