Afropunk Fest 2013
(25 Aug 2013: Commodore Barry Park New York)
Afropunk is all about the freedom of expression. Expression through music, expression through attire, expression through sloganeering or branding (both corporate and personal). Afropunk is promoted as the most multicultural music festival ever and it just might be true.
Aside from the ubiquitous music from two stages and the unexpected “Dub-Stuy” DJ stage, there were a wide variety of sensory simulations to indulge in. One street on the side of Commodore Barry Park was lined with a variety of niche food trucks and never seemed to clear of people, while the park grounds contained several beer gardens and some other food options. Those who came for people watching likely found the experience reached the apex of satisfaction as every manner of dress, every racial type and every age (with a heavy youth bent) was present. Merchants of clothing and other wares had a section on the back of the main field in case you didn’t feel suitably attired but hardly anyone seemed out of place. Then there were the burgeoning hip-hop artists walking the grounds promoting their own albums and shows and the political activists, anarchists, political campaigners and more attempting to convert new followers (or distribute condoms). There was a rock climbing wall for which the line of people never seemed to dwindle. There was a BMX bike trick area where riders did some runs. Basically, you could come to Afropunk for so many reasons other than music and still have a great time.
But it’s the excellent music and diverse lineup that brings in the crowds. This year’s lineup had such heavyweights like Questlove, Chuck-D and Living Colour (that we didn’t get to take in unfortunately) across the two days of wonderfully moderate weather. Here’s a recap of some of the acts from both days, so be sure to see our pictures from Day 1 of Afropunk Fest 2013 here if you haven’t.
The three sixth graders who make up Unlocking the Truth, a heavy metal band were performing in front of their biggest crowd to date. And the crowd was eager to receive them because who doesn’t love children performing? The Truth didn’t come across as a novelty act by any means however. The boys showed skills well beyond their age (and much of got recorded, so check out this youtube clip for some footage) and more weight to the heavy metal than one would expect.
Wicked Wisdom is a metalish/punkish band led by Jada Pinkett Smith, the wife of actor Will Smith (I had hoped he would be the “special guest” that evening but that was not the case though he did greet the audience briefly) and could have been considered a vanity project if not for the fact the group has had longevity; they have performed together since 2002 and despite her more prominent cultural status, Smith doesn’t play any more prominent a role in the band than her musicians. There was more prominent security in the photo pit because Smith was ‘planning’ to come over towards the crowd, which forced photographers to sort of mash together. She only reached out to the crowd after several songs, when the pit was empty. It wasn’t really punk music, but it was fun to watch.
As mentioned, there was supposed to be a surprise act on the main stage Saturday. What ended up happening was sort of a confusing mess, as Saul Williams’ set was moved from the smaller stage to the larger, a group called CX Kidtronik performed before Williams. It was Dead Prez who were the guests rocking out now on the smaller stage. But I was already locked into the main stage photo pit, where I witnessed the madness of CX Kidtronik’s set, which began with some dancers’ whose booties were hanging out and Spiderman on the side banging on a single cymbal. This devolved further into something the audience clearly was not into, and ended with Kidtronix smashing a sampler. At some point the rapper M.O.P. came on stage and gave a more traditional performance with “Ante Up”, but the band had already squandered any goodwill. A total waste of time, even more so because the day’s schedule was running behind.
It didn’t help that the main stage seemed to suffer sound issues throughout the day. I believe it was Theophilus London who was saying they wouldn’t start a song until it sounded just right, and it took a couple tries before it sounded just right. It didn’t sound right when it was announced a famous character would be taking stage. Michael K Williams, more famously known as Omar Little of The Wire attempted to whistle his catch-phrase from the show for the audience, but with the stage in darkness and no sound reaching them (or even the photo pit), it took a moment to figure out who it was. Williams ended up introducing the final act, the other Williams.
Politics and music converged when Saul Williams closed out the main stage with a group of dancers wearing Guy Fawkes masks. His set was a terrific finale for the first day, and it was great they moved him to the main stage. The aggressiveness of his music shows why Trent Reznor worked with him and though the sound wasn’t working properly at times, Williams gave his best with “Amethyst Rock”, “List of Demands” and a “Sunday Bloody Sunday” closer.
Knowing I had less time on the grounds, I spent a bit more time checking out sets on Sunday at the main stage. I began with Pyyramids, or actually, just the very end unfortunately. The band is made up of Tim Nordwind from OK Go and Drea Smith from He Say, She Say, the former or which I know I like so it would have been interesting to see. The Coup was next on the main stage and after several songs, frontman Boots Riley turned things over to a lady whose name I missed.
K-os followed after, and he performed “Electrik Heat”, which sounded like it was built on a bed of Radiohead (other parts reminded me of Moby). The familiarity of the music didn’t end there as the next (?) song sounded like it was built from Dre/Eminem samples. It was a well informed reach to other artists, and I appreciated the references, but I, like so many others, wanted to hear “Superstarr, Pt. Zero”. K-os stated that fellow rapper had Andre 3000 encouraged him to perform (sometime in the past), and it was what he chose to close his set with to great applause.
Over on the smaller stage, Big Freedia expressed how she helped originate bounce music over 15 years prior, an unknowingly preemptive dig at one youthful star’s antics later that day during a performance at the nearby awards show. Freedia was singing about “ass everywhere” having invited about 15 random fans up on stage to twerk alongside her. All the booty-shaking bass created concern the stage would break Freedia said, and it was apparent as the security was struggling to keep the monitors from falling to the ground. A most entertaining and deafening performance.
Detroit’s Death, a group made up of the three Hackney brothers, was up on the main stage. Their 1975 music was sidelined for many issues, including the brothers’ race, until a release in 2009. They have some new music in the works and a lot of people in the audience were eager to catch this rare act and the band didn’t disappoint, providing some heavy rock to the sun-drenched audience.
My Afropunk weekend ended with a set from Vintage Trouble, a retro revival rock band that had opened for the Who earlier this year. Vintage Trouble are a group of dapper gents from Los Angeles who exuded soul and funk. Lead singer Ty Taylor strutted, danced, jumped and kicked across the stage and his thighs occasionally embraced the microphone stand. The he informed the audience that one of the songs was for all the couples in a long term relationship. Trouble were the closest to soul and R&B that I saw at Afropunk and one of the most captivating sets of the day as well.
Basically, if you had been to Afropunk, you were guaranteed to have fun. You were free to enjoy yourself in many possible ways amongst many different bands. You either had your ass shaking, your body grooving or your hands up in the air (while you ducked to avoid the crowd-surfer coming towards you). Being an afropunk means expressing yourself after all.