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Afropunk Is Officially a Brand and That's a Good Thing

From the poster for The Most Wicked Party

There is a large community of alt-black folks out there, and Afropunk has given them a big tent to party under.

A most eclectic line snaked its way around the block.

There were regular bro types, young ladies dressed to party, a hipster or two in the mix. It seemed to be evenly split between black and white, a proportion which surprised me a little. By the time I took my place at the end of the line, I’d even spotted a couple of older brothas like myself; the rest of the crowd was around the same age as my daughter and her crew.

We had gathered at Thalia Hall in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood for “The Most Wicked Party” a June evening of music, comedy and free samples of Redd’s Wicked Ale, a higher-octane version of its fruit-flavored malt beverage. But we weren’t there for the booze. For us, the main attraction was summed up with these three little words: “Curated by Afropunk”.

I could go on for days about how the word “curate” in the Instagram era has come to mean “assembling with at least some degree of thought a lineup or collection of whatever”, as opposed to its prior usage as “using my MFA in art history to oversee exhibits and collections at an art museum”. But seeing that Afropunk, of all entities, had curated anything out in the hinterlands beyond New York City, that was a bit of a novelty.

But it wasn’t news. If anything, it was the latest manifestation of how a film about a bunch of scattered cultural outsiders had given rise to a community, and had evolved from there into a full-fledged countercultural brand.

* * *

Once upon a time, so the thought went, black people did only “black” things: listened to R&B or hip-hop and not rock; watched basketball and not hockey; played bid whist and not bridge; smoked menthol cigarettes and not Camels. Stuff like that. But by the late ‘80s, a curious dynamic had emerged. It was no longer strange to see black kids doing “non-black” things like showing up at punk concerts and tooling around on skateboards. Mind you, this wasn’t a mass movement; black rockers like Bad Brains, Living Colour and Fishbone had a fair number (such as it was) of blacks at their shows, but couldn’t have gotten arrested in the ‘hood, except maybe for their extreme hairdos. But the dynamic was there, in numbers just barely large enough to be just barely noticed.

That “just barely” part became the problematic part for those intrepid alt-black souls. They were coming of age in a time, years after the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and societal upheavals in general, when it was far less inevitable for a black person to grow up in a world informed only by “black” things. Still, they weren’t likely to have a whole lot of other blacks in their universe who liked the same stuff. Worse, they often encountered racist reactions from white people who shared their tastes (see White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race for a thorough unpacking of that). They found themselves in something of a no-man’s-land between the races. They were being true to themselves, but (especially before the Internet) didn’t have a broader world in which they could feel totally at ease.

Film: Afro-Punk

Director: James Spooner

Cast: Ralph Darden, Matt Davis, Mariko Jones

Year: 2003


Enter James Spooner, biracial punk. After years of attempting to reconcile his punkness with his blackness, he took up a movie camera and interviewed dozens of his fellow travelers. The end result was Afro-Punk (2003), an acclaimed documentary which gave voice to the legion of punks of color throughout the country, each thinking they were but an island onto themselves.

The film tapped into a passion far deeper than anyone who wasn’t a punk of color would ever have anticipated. An online community was soon formed, eventually becoming Afropunk. Its tagline is "…the other black experience, the one you don’t see in the media." Over the years, that has come to encompass not only forward-thinking music by and about black people, but also similarly flavored art, fashion and politics.

In 2005, Afropunk launched its first music festival, with acts that were way outside the black pop mainstream at the time, such as Janelle Monae, J*Davey and Saul Williams. Subsequent festival lineups read like a who’s-who of the black pop cutting edge: bands you’d expect, like the aforementioned Living Colour and Bad Brains; acclaimed iconoclasts like Erykah Badu and TV on the Radio; and a wide world of black punk and alt-R&B bands beneath them. Last year’s lineup saw D’Angelo, Body Count, Shabazz Palaces, Valerie June, and numerous DJ sets on the bill.

As Afropunk – both the community and the festival – grew, a funny thing happened. The people you’d think least likely to notice such an amalgamation of black otherness, took notice. Then they bought in. Afropunk’s founders sought corporate sponsorship in order to grow, and they got it.

An article in Forbes by marketing guru Rob Fields, published at the time of last year’s festival, noted that the black consumer market is actually much more diverse than most marketers realized, with Afropunk being Exhibit A. ("Afropunk and Black Diversity, and What Marketers Need to Know", August 21 2014) Fields quoted festival co-producer Jocelyn Cooper who described the Afropunk community as not just a bunch of black folk with weird hair but, in marketing-speak, “an influencer community”. Said community is highly educated: Fields cited a 2012 survey Afropunk commissioned of its members, in which 90 percent of respondents reported having at least some college, compared to 57 percent of the population at-large. And it’s also a highly loyal one: nearly half of the study’s respondents said they recommend cool things to others. That’s exactly the kind of stuff most corporate marketers like to hear.

This year’s Afropunk Fest, happening in Brooklyn 21-23 August, has music from every corner of the alt-black world. The headliners are Lenny Kravitz and Grace Jones, former cultural outliers-turned-international stars. The second tier includes Kelis and Suicidal Tendencies, two acts with well-established alt-bonafides. Further down the list are Thundercat and Curtis Harding, who have their own, growing caches of name recognition, especially among cool-hunting music critics and those who follow them. Note that none of these acts are all that similar to each other.

There will be art, in collaboration with Mocada and Act/Art. There will also be opportunities to check out activist organizations and various DIY and maker vendors. And there will be an evening ball, for those inclined to dress to the alt-nines.

Nothing this expansive, of course, comes cheap. Corporate sponsors include Red Bull, Doc Martens, Coors Light and MailChimp. But they’re hardly alone; previous sponsors have included Absolut Vodka, Harley-Davidson of NYC, and Yelp.

One could look at all this and decide that Afropunk has gone far afield from its roots, and it’s lost something of its original specialness. One could also remark that Afropunk proves the elasticity of American capitalism, in that it’s been able to grow by attracting corporate sponsors who see the potential of reaching a clearly defined market – young blacks on the cultural cutting edge – and finding messages that will resonate with them.

The reality seems to be a bit of both. No movement remains viable by being static from its inception. But rest assured, Afropunk is still on the fringes of black pop culture. The festival’s undercard features a range of artists in a range of genres, primarily concerned with exploring their individual muses, and expanding the boundaries of how “black music” can sound. Some of them have been featured around and about – South African singer Petite Noir, for example, blew up at SXSW in 2014; his upcoming cd ’La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful is hotly anticipated. Nonetheless, they’re all likely to be unknown, mysterious beings to anyone not used to scoping the Internet for signs of alt-black life.

But Afropunk wouldn’t have grown if the artists the community embraced hadn’t grown, as well. If anyone doubts Afropunk’s impact beyond the alt-black universe, let’s take a look at that first festival roster. Monae has made some great records, and arguably even greater ads for Sonos and Cover Girl. Williams, who was already a fairly big thing in the alt-black world then, got a little bit bigger when his “List of Demands” became the soundtrack for a Nike commercial, and has continued doing searing work ever since. And J*Davey’s latest EP, Pomp, was recently previewed by that relentless troller of the underground known as NPR Music. Who’s to say that some of those different-sounding, barrier-pushing artists playing Afropunk Fest 2015 won’t soon find their way to a broader audience? And as they grow, they’ll only inspire others to follow in their wake, blazing their own trails.

Further, attracting corporate sponsorship only proves the sense behind the doc that started it all. There is a large community of alt-black folks out there after all, and Afropunk has not only given them a big tent to party under, it has likely expanded the ranks. And while being together en masse is validation in and of itself, there is a long history of black folk appreciating big business respecting their collective existence (and corresponding buying power) enough to market to them.

Pepsi-Cola was one of the first corporate brands to realize this, seizing a market advantage over Coca-Cola in the ‘40s and ‘50s among black consumers. Publisher John H. Johnson knew this too, and worked tirelessly – and successfully – to convince mainstream companies to reach an expanding black consumer market by advertising in Ebony magazine. Although large swatches of corporate America still haven’t grasped the point, Afropunk’s corporate supporters clearly have. They’ve understood a reality about American commerce and culture that transcends race: today’s left-field weirdo might be tomorrow’s global icon, and the crazy kids who support that weirdo are likely to spread the word early and often. They’re also likely to end up in decent-paying jobs, pursue distinctive lifestyles, and buy stuff to furnish their homes.

So I’m not in the least bit conflicted about Afropunk’s corporate-fueled growth. In several respects, I’m glad to see it. For a people so starved for any sort of official recognition of their humanity as black folk in America have been these last 400 years, many have gleaned a droplet of progress in being singled out for ads. Think of the phenomenon as “I am marketed to, therefore I am.” And I’ve always been pleasantly amazed to see an act that didn’t conform to the “things black people do/don’t do” norm break out of the alt-ghetto. If a few bucks from a few corporations make it more possible for Afropunk to continue uniting barrier-smashers of color and the people who crave them, I’ll be the last to complain.

* * *

In that light, the Chicago event struck me as a bit underwhelming. It seemed more like a cool night out at the club paid for by a beer company than a transgressive cultural moment supported by a savvy corporate marketer. The opening act, Holt, did some mildly interesting rock-type stuff, and comic Hannibal Buress’ set seemed strangely abbreviated. There was nothing going on inside the venue that came across as edgy or alt-anything. A Hebru Brantley painting was on display, and another artist was live-painting two large portraits, but that was pretty much it (aside from the folks taking selfies to score some Redd’s swag). At no point did I feel like I was in the company of a group of people no longer isolated by their cultural difference, or in the presence of any real cultural difference at all. Having had my fill of fruit-flavored alcohol, I cut my losses well before headliner Danny Brown (who’s also playing the Afropunk Fest) took the stage.

Maybe that’s just me, with my bar for cultural transgression being perhaps a bit higher than others. Years ago, I worked through my conundrum of being a black guy who liked bands like Sonic Youth and Public Image Ltd. And I never had too much of a problem discovering black acts who toiled beyond the black pop mainstream of the moment (admittedly, writing about music and black life at-large for an alt-weekly in a big city, as I did throughout the ‘90s, made that process a lot easier).

But there was only a handful of black folks like that in my town back then, and we all either knew or knew of each other through various circles. There was nothing like Afropunk to give us a name, or connect us with all the other like-minded handfuls around the world. Now there is, and it’s probably a godsend to the black kid who otherwise wouldn’t know s/he isn’t the only black kid into the War on Drugs or the Internet or Blk Jks or whomever.

I won’t be able to make it to Brooklyn for this year’s fest, but hopefully the next time Afropunk hosts an event here in the Chi, it will feel less like boys’/girls’ night out and more like a tribal gathering, raising its freak flag high. And I’ll happily have a taste of whatever freebies they’re shilling.

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