I went to Afropunk in 2013 with my then-boyfriend, T., who was a white guy a few years older than me. He was into rap but more so into reggae. He’d been to Jamaica and showed me slightly fuzzy photos of fields of weed. He could easily have been one of those white guys who challenges one’s blackness, assuming that photographic memory of hip-hop’s history acts as a measure of racial “authenticity.” I have met those men, and those women, too. T. was not one of those people, though he was not free of mistakes or ignorance. Love filters a beloved’s actions through a sympathetic eye, the lens generously blurring the ragged edges. I didn’t think that going to Afropunk with this obviously white guy would cause any trouble, but I wasn’t anxiety-free. Would people stare at us, wondering why I’d brought this white boy to an overtly pro-Black music festival? T. was a little nervous too, but he was committed to going. I bought Fast Passes ($20 per pass) to ensure that we wouldn’t have to wait in any lines.
We took Metro-North into Manhattan and then navigated the subway system to get to Brooklyn. I felt a sense of relief when we got into the city, to re-visit a landscape I’d trained myself to memorize. I missed the comfort of the city’s anonymity and its simultaneous openness, the zig-zagging lines of cultures and customs and rituals contributing to the city’s natural vibrancy.
We arrived at Commodore Barry Park without getting lost. Upon entering the park, T. and I were both struck by the turnout: a mass of laughing, smiling, joyful Black people, spread out and covering just about every inch of the green. Black girls with doorknocker earrings, Black girls with box-braids and Marley twists and dreads and elaborate and dyed Mohawks and Black girls with hair covered in headwraps. Black girls in black Doc Martens and Nikes and white platform boots. Black girls with natural hair and laid edges that I envied from afar, girls so beautiful that their beauty was like a shock of main-lined sugar, a beauty I rarely, if ever saw in my town. I saw Black boys with long hair, with no hair, with fades, with nose rings and eyebrow rings and entire sleeves of tattoos that snaked out from the fabric of their tank tops. Punks and hipsters and skateboarders and hippies and clothing designers selling shirts with Malcolm X.
“I feel so out of place,” T. confessed.
“Because I’m like the only white guy here,” he said.
I had to smile.
“Now you know how I feel,” I said.
Later, T. struck up a conversation with one of the vendors. The vendor was a Black guy selling original wood carvings, some of the carvings done on cell phone cases. Being someone who was quite skilled with woodworking, T. was deeply impressed by the craftsmanship of the vendor’s pieces. While we were near the front of the stage and watching Mykki Blanco perform, a guy next to us passed us a joint. It was like T. and I were orphans getting gifted with rich parents. T. was surprised by the atmosphere of the festival, which encouraged a comradery that T. would most likely summarize as “One Love.”
Afropunk in 2013 was a revelation for me. I instantly felt like I belonged at the festival, that I was accepted and enfolded into the community without much question or protest or judgement. I danced without worrying about onlookers. I smiled as though I were a newly-wed strolling down a Hawaiian beach, watching the sun dip below the horizon. In this safe space, my Blackness was not a target or a label of Otherness. My Blackness was a heavenly blessing, something special to honor and celebrate. I could not live in a world that ignored my Blackness with colorblind thinking, but I would not live in a world where my Blackness was a liability. Afropunk presented a vision of an identity where whiteness and white supremacy did not determine my Blackness, had nothing to do with my Blackness. I danced, I (struggle) twerked, I shouted along to songs I knew, I let myself feel electric.
I was in love with the music and the atmosphere, the spirit of resistance, the faces, the girls who exchanged smiles with me as we passed, an affirmation specific to Black girls who run across one another in public and revel in this brief current of Black Girl Magic.
I’ve always been in love with New York City, but that had been mostly based on my trips into Manhattan. Now I was in love with Brooklyn and those who had made the pilgrimage to unite in the name of music, grassroots activism, and the infinite manifestations of Blackness.
Afropunk in 2015 would, due to circumstances, would be a different Utopia. This time I would be attending as a member of the press. I also knew that the shift in atmosphere was bound to happen sooner or later. Hasn’t it happened to just about every major music festival to cross into the cultural mainstream? Even the ones Morgan cited, Coachella especially, have been accused of selling-out, becoming puppets of corporate sponsors, eager to overcharge for bottled water and watery beer. T. was not going this time and I was relieved, a pleasurable anxiety brewing at the thought of being alone at such a large event. The lineup included, but was not limited to: Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Kelis, and SZA. On the surface, not much had changed. The park looked the same, the stages were set up the same, the vendor booths were laid out in the same fashion. There were certainly more people, and more people who had painstakingly planned out their outfits and were hungry for instantaneous recognition, short-lived fame snapped by a street-style photographer.
I’ve always been interested in fashion, but the suburbs lack sartorial creativity. The New England suburbs demand conformity, stuffy, heritage labels and brands that announce your class and allegiance to power via assimilation. After living in NYC, my appreciation of street style has grown immensely. Yet in my current living environment, such street style is impossible to find and could even incite the suspicions of nosey, white neighbors who think that calling a Black person “so articulate” is a huge compliment. If I’d had my own camera that day, I would’ve been snapping pictures left and right. The variety of expression via clothing was awe-inspiring.
I tested the limits of my wristband, floating in and out of roped-off areas, managing to worm my way into the front when SZA took the stage, only to be kicked out ten or fifteen minutes later. Kelis put on a career-spanning set, which naturally included “Milkshake.” Everyone eagerly anticipated Lauryn Hill. Her voice was as clear as any track off a Fugees record or The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Unfortunately, the lighting and sound technicians couldn’t seem to get their act together, spoiling her performance.
Concert patrons were no more or no less friendly than they were in 2013. On the other hand, I did notice that a lot more white people were in attendance and the age range was baffling. At one point, I walked by a huddle of white girls in bright tank tops with the same haircut. One of them was wearing a tiara. The other was wearing a bindi and didn’t notice my look of repulsion. They looked like they had woken up after partying at Coachella or Electric Daisy and happened to go to Afropunk for lack of other options. Later on in the day, I walked by an older white couple who must have been in their sixties. The man could’ve been in his early seventies. They were both wearing outfits that had to have been purchased from an LL Bean catalog. The man wore boat shoes and shuffled behind his wife, drink in hand. I wondered if the couple had come to the festival out of perverse curiosity or if they thought of themselves as “enlightened” and “liberal” and “young at heart.” During one of the performances, I looked over at the white couple and their expressions were blank, bored even, like they wanted to leave but clung to the small hope that it would get better, that some superstar would pop up and save the entire production.