Only a force of nature could stop the cultural movement that Afro-punk embodies. Hurricane Irene had the dubious honor of slowing the movement last year. This year, sunshine and smiles were all that greeted the 40,000 attendees that made their way to Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn. After its absence last year, you could sense the energy from the organizers to prove how far the movement had come from its humble beginnings. Afro-punk has always been about showcasing artists on the fringe of conventional Black music. Since Lil’ Wayne and Lupe Fiasco have embraced elements of the subculture, the mission of the festival has adapted to be even more inclusive. The overarching connection between the 30+ bands and DJs that performed this year has to be that they each are making art on their own terms.
As always, the festival highlighted all elements of the culture. In addition to the music, festival goers were treated to skateboarding and BMX demos. A custom bike show also greeted visitors. And in showing the growth of the movement, there were even dedicated family activities. Children darted through the crowd on scooters and skateboards throughout the weekend. The vibe of the affair was palpable during the whole event.
St. Joseph, MO based Radkey had the honor of kicking off the festival. With a youthful brand of power pop punk, they were an excellent way to kick off the event. Afro-punk had their own Battle of the Bands leading up to this year’s festival and two of the winners got to show off their skills. Day One featured the hip-hop outfit The Oxymorrons who displayed an energetic flow. Day Two featured Tess, who displayed an awesome talent at songwriting and a powerful voice that certainly awakened the surrounding neighborhood.
Afro-punk has not strayed too far from its original mission. There were certainly mosh pits to be found during the festival. Cerebral Ballzy and Straight Line Stitch fulfilled concertgoers hungry for hardcore. Party rappers Ninjasonik and Flatbush Zombies traded days rocking the “rowdy cubicle” that was the Skate Park stage, encouraging crowd surfing amongst a throng raising their skateboards in support. Das Racist and Spank Rock each brought their personal brands of brash hip-hop to the people. Each artist had a sense of freedom that made their connection with the crowd that much more real.
That realness was also felt in some of the other diverse artists that performed during the weekend. Toshi Reagon brought her bluesy brand of rock to the festivities and Alice Smith performed her own transcendent and seemingly effortless soul. Phony Ppl, Body Language, Toro y Moi, and Reggie Watts each captivated the crowd with amazing and innovative use of instrumentation. Bad Rabbits invoked the funk of 80s bands, even displaying synchronized choreography during their set. The Memorials, based out of the Bay area, rocked out emotionally wrenching power ballads as well.
Saturday’s headliner Erykah Badu took a newer approach to her performances with her band The Cannabinoids. Surrounded by tons of laptops and a drum machine, she weaved through a largely improvisational set that ran through a medley of her hits. During “Love of My Life”, she was joined by Yasiin Bey who rocked a verse from original feature Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.” Her set was cut short by a late start and she breezily bid the crowd adieu with “Just believe in yourself.”
Perhaps Badu’s biggest contribution was encouraging the crowd to support her “little sister” Janelle Monae on the next day. Those who heeded her advice were treated to the set of the weekend. Pharrell made a surprise appearance to introduce her and she wasted not one ounce of the good will her contemporaries provided for her. She immediately dived into “Sincerely Jane” and did not stop for her hour long set. Janelle Monae is quite simply a reincarnation of the spirit of James Brown. From the outset, you know that her band is devoted to her and within a sheer moment, she wraps the crowd around her finger as well. If you weren’t a fan before, you certainly left as one as she covered hits like “Tightrope” and “Cold War”. Janelle Monae might be the encapsulation of the Afro-punk movement. Her music ranged from her brand of hip-hop tinged electrosoul to punk to a cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. Her famed pompadour came undone a number of times during the set, yet she remained composed. In fact she seemed even more energized.
Indie rock heavyweights TV On The Radio closed out the weekend with a rollicking set that had the crowd in a frenzy. After an introduction by W. Kamau Bell, they powered through a set of their psychedelic funk rock. When they returned for their encore, they made the point of dedicating their performance to “all of Brooklyn.” That statement was a great summation of the entire weekend. Brooklyn has again become a mecca for creatives, touching off a renaissance of innovation that first came to light in the 1990s. Afro-punk set out to display the wide range of musical styles and mashups that have come to fruition in the last 20 years. Mission accomplished.