// by Vanessa Willoughby

One of the most powerful, awe-inspiring feelings that a music fanatic can experience is a sense of gratitude that sometimes resembles entitlement. You have found a way to unlock closed-off parts of yourself, taking shelter in the way your favorite song wraps around cold nights and your soft heart grown masochistic. It’s the way a fan develops an intimate relationship with a band or an artist that hinges upon the belief that fan club membership is exclusive. You have discovered magic in the form of auditory transmission. The ability to claim ownership (or pride) of your admiration that predates mainstream popularity and hit radio singles that even your mother can’t help but sing along to in the car.

It’s the ability to brag: “I was there.”

I went to Afropunk in the summer of 2013. This was two years before the festival made headlines for charging an entrance fee since the inception of the festival, ten years prior. Justifiably, long-time advocates of Afropunk and devotes alike wondered about the true intentions behind charging admission. It seemed to be completely counterproductive to the core beliefs of the organization. Vice declared in a damning headline: “Is Afropunk Fest No Longer Punk?” Writer Brian Josephs, a self-identified Black man, starts off the piece by asking, “Has the current vision of Afropunk deviated from the vision that it sprang from?” Sitting down with co-founder Matthew Morgan and co-organizer Jocelyn Cooper, Josephs discovers that Morgan isn’t interested in giving a soundbite friendly clip, that he refuses to condense his answer into something simple. He’s not looking to provide a lecture that defends his actions about ticket prices. Rather, he’s looking to foster a dialogue with Josephs that forces the writer and the audience to think about the worth of black art, and how we define it. Morgan wonders, “There's a whole value proposition that we have to invest in ourselves. What is it that people like about the festival? What is unique? What is important? How does it make you feel? And if that experience collectively isn't worth $70, then we don't deserve it. Then go to Pitchfork. Go to Lollapalooza. Go to Bonnaroo. Go support them with your money. Or, stay home.” In a press release, the promoters explained that the ticket fee was inevitable: “Due to the amount of attendees (60,000 last year) the festival has now moved to an affordable paid and earned ticket program to the event to assure entry. AFROPUNK has been long known as an advocate of cultural change as well as change directly in the Brooklyn community.”  

In 2013, my dreams of post-college success and freedom, marked by my own apartment dotted with candles and complete with a queen-sized bed, were nothing but rootless fantasy. I’d graduated with a Master’s degree and assumed that this would elevate me in the eyes of employers, that clearly this two-year dedication to the pursuit of literature and my authorial voice, would impress these recruiters. In addition to various internships and a consistent pattern of part-time jobs dating back to my high school days, I naively believed that this was all the evidence needed to ensure confidence, to make people want to hire me without a second thought. I stressed that I was a fast learner, thought I was being slick by responding to the question of What’s your biggest weakness? with a carefully rehearsed smile, the words flowing like an apology buzzing behind my lips: “I guess my biggest weakness would be that I’m a perfectionist!” My methods failed to secure any job offers. Unable to find work, I returned to my suburban hometown shortly after graduation from The New School. I continued to apply for publishing jobs without much luck. Sometimes I never got a response. Sometimes I never got a response and didn’t realize I’d been rejected until I came across the job ad, re-posted on Monster or Indeed. I was back in the town I’d been attempting to escape since middle school, overeducated, underpaid, and utterly bored. It was a reverse culture shock. When I learned about Afropunk, I was determined to attend. The lineup for 2013 included: Rye Rye, Danny Brown, Saul Williams, Death, Unlocking the Truth, Mykki Blanco, Le1f, Big Freedia, and Chuck D. Although I hadn’t watched the documentary, the chance to go to Brooklyn for the weekend and be around a mostly black crowd was a form of socialization that was impossible in my town, that part of New England in general. On their website, the genesis of the movement is stated as follows:

“When Matthew Morgan and James Spooner joined forces in 2002, their focus was giving a voice to thousands of multi-cultural kids fiercely identifying with a lifestyle path-less-traveled. Morgan, a visionary with 15 years in the music industry, instinctively understood that the indie rock/punk/hardcore scene had powerful appeal beyond the predictable Caucasian audience; the passion evident in writer-director Spooner's hours of riveting hand-shot footage was the indisputable proof. The result: 2003's 'Afro-punk', the seminal cult classic film spotlighting Black Punks in America.

AFROPUNK became a touchstone of a cultural movement strongly reminiscent of the early days of Hip-Hop. Alternative urban kids across the nation (and across the globe) who felt like outsiders discovered they were actually the core of a boldly innovative, fast-growing community.”

Black girls stranded in areas where the majority of the population is white are my brethren. It seems that I have been searching all my life for these people, this band of creative outliers, Black music fans who may have been accused of “acting white.” I like hip-hop and rap but it was a preference that did not originally exist. I relinquished much of my adolesence as a teeny-bopper, plastering bedroom walls with Tiger Beat and Teen People cut-outs, glossy pull-out posters of NSYNC, Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, and Christina Aguilera. I didn’t really start listening to rap, really appreciating the beats and the lyrical gymnastics and the transformative potency of say, someone like Nas declaring that The world is yours.   

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.

Although I cannot fault the organizers of Afropunk for wanting to start generating revenue for such a massive festival, I question the sudden ease at which white ticket buyers have wedged themselves into not just a festival, but a Black-centered movement. Sure, it would be a generalization to say that all white people who attend Afropunk are insincere culture vultures, but the increase in mainstream media exposure combined with the ticket prices seem to have encouraged apathetic white people to adopt Afropunk as a fad, or the latest trend, a bragging right to throw out at parties and dive bars where all the men wear flannel and grow bushy beards. These particular white people don’t know the history of Afropunk, nor do they really care about the social causes tied to Afropunk. For people like the older, male WASP, it’s a chance to gawk, to infiltrate a “foreign” community like going on a safari. For people like the bindi-wearing white girl, it’s a chance to be seen, to chase short-lived viral fame, not a chance to support Black artists. When I attended my first Afropunk, the fact that it was relatively free of white people was a comfort. In 2015, Afropunk is still a safe space, but it is threatened by ill-informed consumers who want a spectacle. I don’t think that Afropunk has been ruined, but I am nostalgic for its earlier incarnations.

The highlight of the evening, without a doubt, was Grace Jones. She performed songs such as “My Jamaican Guy,” “Nightclubbing, “Private Life, “ and “Pull Up To My Bumper.” She was absolutely stunning, talking to the audience, flirty and at ease, comfortable in near-nakedness. She was like your cool Aunt dressed in avant-garde couture, stalking the stage like a territorial panther. This was no mere pop star but a cultural icon, an inspiration to Black weirdos and Black women who followed the will of her passions rather than consumer hivemind or the need to be universally liked. Throughout her set, some of the Black men and women around me shouted out praise in the form of YAAAASSS and I thought about how happy I was to be in the crowd, watching moments that would later be documented and polished to consumable think pieces and blog posts for the public. Even though I was getting tired and my feet hurt, I couldn’t move. A security guard near the front of the stage was handing out water bottles and I managed to get the last one. I danced songs by Jones I’d never heard before. I felt consumed by the crowd, but this was not an act of erasure, but total acceptance and belonging. Writing for Jezebel, Hillary Crosley Coker reflects, “The legendary Grace Jones hit the AfroPunk festival stage with theatrics bold enough to make Lady Gaga take a step back. In one performance, the Jamaican icon brought the idea of alternative blackness full circle and encouraged weirdos to get even weirder. It was everything.”

Perhaps Afropunk 2015 had modified aspects of its business model, and maybe the ticket prices had kept out deserving fans and maybe its heightened popularity and visibility has shattered some of its early hype, thus allowing for Becky and her boat-owning parents to gain access, treating it in the way that gentrification invades ethnic neighborhood and permits Columbusing, commodifying what was once feared into a trend. Regardless, my second time at Afropunk did not disappoint. In that vast assembly of Black people, my naturally anxious temperament cooled, slowed like molasses creeping through a strainer. The music, the moment---they were like Romeo, hours that felt like minutes living in his glow, only to bid farewell before sunrise.