No offense to the lovers of hippie-chic – the seemingly required attire of summer concert attendees from coast to coast – but the gals and guys who grooved to the tunes at Brooklyn’s 11th annual Afropunk festival just took the season’s fashion crown. Brilliantly colored dashikis, exquisitely painted hands and legs and faces (whether from one of the onsite spray-paint artistes or the steady fingers of a trusted friend), golden septum piercings glittering alongside jangling ear adornments, and innumerable messages of righteous empowerment brought together 60,000 music lovers over the course of the scorching weekend.
Whether black or white, gay or straight, round or thin, or anything in between, Afropunkers descended on Commodore Barry Park to mingle with like-minded souls and enjoy the stellar lineup. This year, with seemingly a new allegation of brazen police brutality popping up on a weekly basis, the shouts of joyous musical delight sometimes found themselves blending with the more urgent declarations of “Black Lives Matter”. While the fest wasn’t overly political itself, banners draped across the grounds made sure there would be no mistaking the basic expectations Afropunk placed on its audience: “No sexism. No racism. No ableism. No ageism. No homophobia. No fatphobia. No transphobia. No hatefulness”. In other words, don’t be an asshole to your fellow man.
Arriving around 5:30pm on Saturday (or, more exactly, arriving around 5pm, noting the cost of a beer and immediately leaving the fest to find the nearest bodega, entering the cruel paradox of New York City life in which everything is available on every street corner except when you need it, finally locating before mentioned beer, guzzling like a college freshman who doesn’t yet have a lifetime of hangover experience to prevent him from acting like a loon, stuffing more beer in pants, waddling, and then returning to the fest), I was able to catch a few raucous songs from letlive., a bunch of hardcore punkers who force music editors around the world to double check that, yes, they do stylize their name just like that. While much of the crowd attempted to stay hidden under the scant shade of the stage’s few fences (Note: picket fences are terrible sources of shade, unless that is your only option. In that case, a picket fence is LIFE.), the band was able to incite a dedicated bunch of punks into the kind of melee I prefer to watch from a distance.
Next up, I headed over to the main stage where I met up with some friends in V.I.P. who thought it would be a good idea to ply me with drinks. I happened to agree (shocking, right?), and somehow the pain of not being allowed in the V.I.P. section and failing to have the opportunity to purchase $15 cocktails (completely a guess, I actually have no idea how much they cost) was lessened at the hands of free booze.
R&B-soul-dance-popper Kelis strode on stage about 20 minutes late (the late theme would unfortunately affect many others over the weekend) in a bright pink dress and with an extra surprise for the audience – she’s pregnant! Unless this is the longest gestation of all time, we will have to assume the father is not Nas, with whom she was married in 2005 and divorced by 2010. After an early crowd sing-along of “Got Your Money”, the classic Ol’ Dirty Bastard track on which she guests and which still ranks as one of the goofiest music videos ever, she ran through her numerous crowd-pleasers. “Acapella” off her excellent electro-pop focused album, Flesh Tone, even bumped hard enough to get a young woman sitting amidst the sea of bouncing legs to look up from her needles and yarn and occasionally crochet in time to the music. Sweet!
Switching things around a bit, Kelis melded together the distinctive beats from Madonna’s “Holiday” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” for the night’s rendition of mega-hit “Milkshake”. It’s still unclear if Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo could feel their song being dismantled from whatever beach or luxury high-rise apartment in which they were residing.
Lauryn Hill can act wacky for the next hundred years, and that still won’t diminish the fact that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is one of the best albums of all time. She’s reached a point in her career where her fans will go to her concerts and actually expect her to be horrendously late and to act disinterested. That kind of ultra-dedication is pretty impressive in a fan base.
So, yet again, as we waited for Hill to arrive on stage and to see which amongst our group would correctly guess her exact set time, we reflected on which of our favorite Miseducation songs we would most likely not hear that evening. Forty-five minutes after she was scheduled to begin, Hill – acoustic guitar in hand – made her entrance. She did seem to be more impassioned than other recent performances, but our patience (and our attention) began to wane with each track she belted out that wasn’t off her classic LP.
With “Ex-Factor” leading us on (forty or so minutes after Hill strummed her first chord), we slipped through the crowd and headed over to the second stage for a complete change-up: the brutal, aggressively hypnotic, machine-gun assault of hip-hop noise punks, Death Grips. There’s something about seeing a shirtless, bearded muscular ball of musical fury explode across a stage that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. (It could also be because I was dropped on my head as a child, but who knows?) Lead vocalist MC Ride sounds like the devil on a bad day and drummer Zach Hill never takes a second to slow down and think about all of the impressionable punks he’s influencing with his breakneck bombast. It’s a nonstop attack on the system. Death Grips have no time for silly things like stage banter or introducing themselves or even pausing for thirty seconds to have a sip of water. No, instead of those normal concert attributes, Death Grips take it upon themselves to throw a tidal wave of abrasive energy onto our heads. The only thing left to do is to pray to these deities of noise for mercy, and to hope that you will make it out of the mosh pit with most of your limbs still attached to your torso.
Soaked in sweat, stoned, and drunk on aggression and free cocktails, we traipsed back to the main stage to watch Grace Jones make us feel uncomfortably lethargic. Ms. Jones is 67 and sprints across the stage like an Olympic athlete. Is she actually a robot? Did the real Grace Jones die 30 years ago and the powers that be keep cloning her again and again? These questions and more kept running through my head as I watched the stunning (and topless) Jones bust out her ‘80s pop hits and do concert stunts like keep a hula hoop spinning around her waist for ten minutes.
Sunday. A day of religion and a day of rest for most people. But for the lovers of Afropunk, it’s another chance to mingle within an impressively welcoming community and enjoy an environment free from the collective bullshit that inhabits much of the outside world.
Entering the fest’s second day to the sound of South African Petite Noir’s electronic-influenced pop rock, I didn’t take long to fall back into the rhythm of the weekend: beautiful people dancing to a genre-blurring mix and any negative judgments left sitting on the blacktop outside the park grounds.
But even with festival-goers enjoying the collective freedom of the weekend, the interior of the park was no haven for the kind of drug-induced genial chaos that takes over multi-day events such as Bonnaroo and Firefly. Uniformed police officers strode through the grounds in packs of twos and threes, eyes shifting from side to side searching for errant puffs of smoke (illegal in any New York park) or open cans of beer (alcohol was banned except in designated areas).
And yet, barely thirty feet from a group of chattering cops stood a man holding a sign emblazoned with the wholly conspicuous question “Do you smoke weed?” and handing out business cards. No need for the pot-phobics to fret, it turned out the man was only promoting his religious cult. Ah, doesn’t it make you daydream about the good old days when your neighborhood cult would only poison its members via Kool-Aid rather than distribute that darn leafy green devil, marijuana?
I had seen budding rapper Raury struggle through technical difficulties and inexperience at a show just two months beforehand, and he was still so good that I anticipated his set to be one of the best of the weekend. I wasn’t wrong.
Tearing through favorites like “Higher”, “Superfly”, and “God’s Whisper”, as well as the politically charged “Fly” (Marked by a moment of silence for the victims who have helped to inspire the Black Lives Matter movement), the 19-year-old worked the audience into a frenzy with the experience of a road-tested vet (and he’s still only a teenager)!
By the time Kelela took the stage, the sun had dropped behind the stage and the crowd was plunged into shade – all the better to let the almost uncomfortably sexy electro-R&B tunes drip over the audience. Where am I? What am I doing? Who am I with? Questions flashed unanswered through my brain as I let myself drown under Kelela’s sultry spell. We’ll still have to wait another nine months to find out how many babies were immaculately conceived during that concert.
The rest of the evening was a blur of Gary Clark Jr.’s virtuoso guitar playing, Kele – the lead singer of Bloc Party – throwing down a thumping house dance party, and Lenny Kravitz rocking so damn hard that you thought his pants were going to split again. With the last drops of beer gone, the familiarly-suspicious puffs of smoke wafted away into the clouds, and the amps clicked off, the audience shuffled back to their nearest exit and steeled themselves for the outside world – that all-too-cruelly-familiar-place centuries behind Afropunk’s accepting society. Until next time.