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Last Friday, just as a string of temperate summer days turned hot and humid, singer/songwriter Janelle Monáe made her way to the outdoor stage of The Today Show in a white jumpsuit with black accents, her signature pompadour floating effortlessly. She was there to promote The Eephus, a new EP featuring members of her Wondaland label.
Near the end of the set, Monáe launched into an energetic performance of her 2010 hit "Tightrope," wearing a sparkling black cape. As her band blasted the song's final note, Monáe got down on one knee and launched into a short speech.
"God bless America. God bless all, all the lost lives to police brutality," Monáe called out to the crowd of about a hundred onlookers, plus the nearly 5.2 million viewers who tune in to Today every morning. "We want white America to know that we stand tall today. We want black America to know that we stand tall today. We will not be silenced—"
And then a news anchor cut in, and the camera panned away.
"I thought that was punk rock," says Hanif Abdurraqib, a 32-year-old poet and, most recently, the essayist behind Pitchfork's "I Wasn't Brought Here, I Was Born: Surviving Punk Rock Long Enough To Find Afropunk." "I think Janelle Monáe is wholly punk rock."
Anyone associated with the Afropunk festival, where Monáe has performed three times, would agree. This weekend, the black-centric fest will celebrate its eleventh year in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood, proving that it's not a blip, but a movement — one that's needed more than ever before. It was borne from the documentary Afro-Punk: A ‘Rock and Roll N****r' Experience. The 66-minute film, titled in a sort of loathful side eye to Patti Smith, who in 1978 put out a song of the same name, was shot between 2001 and 2003. For the first time, it brought to light a generation of young black people enamored with punk music and its aesthetics, but who had been rejected by the scene and fellow blacks for loving something that seemed so inherently white.
"I wanted to make a movie that I felt I needed to see when I was 14 and it was all starting," James Spooner, the now-39-year-old director of Afro-Punk, told Racked from his home in LA. "I just came at it with this punk rock attitude, like, fuck it. Other people make movies, why can't I make a movie?"
When the idea for Afro-Punk began forming in Spooner's mind, he was 23 and settled in Los Angeles after a childhood split between Flatbush and various small towns in Southern California. Spooner became fascinated with the punk rock scene as an eighth grader, listening to classic bands like the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, and The Misfits to drown out the racial epithets hurled at him on a daily basis (Spooner is mixed race). When his family moved back to New York City during his high school years, Spooner felt more at ease in the "racially diverse punk scene," though even that comfort proved short-lived.
"I stopped hanging out in the New York hardcore scene because it was just so tough-guy and violent," says Spooner. "And I was finding out more about the DIY punk scene that was a lot more political and what I thought was thoughtful."
"I was just like, fuck punk rock. Fuck them for not helping me."
Thoughtful, yes, but still very, very white. By the time he began filming Afro-Punk, interviewing black musicians like Tamar-kali and members of critically-acclaimed punk rock bands Fish Bone and TV on the Radio as well as black punk rock fans, Spooner had become deeply frustrated with the DIY scene and its adherents for presenting themselves as progressive, but never making room for a conversation around race and identity — a conversation he desperately wanted to have.
"I was just like, fuck punk rock," he says. "Fuck them for not helping me, for getting me all amped about all these politics. I was never really asked to think about race."
Still, rejecting the DIY scene proved easier than finding a community of like-minded black punks who were ready and willing to discuss the harsh realities of being black and loving "white music." How did Spooner tap into the black punk scene?
"That question is not a real question because that's suggesting that there was a black punk scene, you know? That didn't exist," he says, mentioning that a Google search of the term "black punk rock" in 2001 turned up an article about prison rape. "The whole reason that Afro-Punk mattered was because there was nothing."
"It was just like the mothership was calling me home," Shaunna Randolph says, taking a slow sip of her wine. "A George Clinton, Parliament/Funkadelic, awesome mothership." Decked out in a white tank over a pair of skinny patterned jeans, her hair a beautiful cloud of miniature ringlets, she recalls exactly how she felt at the very first Afropunk Festival in 2005.
"Fauxhawks, locs, piercings, studs, jean jackets with patches, and everything that I had seen the white kids do that I wanted to be a part of, but I just couldn't make that cross," Randolph, a freelance corporate marketer says, listing the styles she saw that weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "I finally saw black kids doing it and owning it and making it their own. It was just everything that I ever wanted to be, but couldn't figure out how to be." As a gifted, black youth growing up outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Randolph often felt lonely. Through Afropunk — now a full-blown movement in its own right — she says she's finally found something meaningful.
"Afropunk shows you that you're not alone, there's nothing wrong with you, and here's how other people do it and why don't you share with us?" she adds thoughtfully, mentioning a stint as an Afropunk intern. "It's an incredibly empowering community."
Randolph recalls approaching Spooner at the Brooklyn Museum shortly after his film's 2003 release. Moved by the fact that she recognized him, he gave her a copy of the documentary. By the time Randolph met the director, the film was making headlines in major newspapers following a well-received screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was an official selection. Spooner returned to Brooklyn no longer a party promoter, but an artist and filmmaker in his own right. Meanwhile, screenings of Afro-Punk were regularly selling out around the country, earning the fledgling auteur enough money to turn Afro-Punk into a more full-time affair, while a growing legion of young black punks connected on the message boards of Afropunk.com.
"I seriously thought that I would show the film twice in New York and once in LA, and that would be it and the whole conversation would be over," says Spooner. "But with the help of some of the people in the film and some of the founding members of the website, we were able to grow it to where people were really active. There was no way to access these people before."
On the occasion of the film's hundredth screening, Spooner planned to go all out, hoping to book Stiffed, a Philly-based punk band fronted by Santi White (now more widely known as alt-pop scion Santigold). White agreed to participate, connecting Spooner with her manager, Matthew Morgan, a British-born exec based in Manhattan. According to Spooner, Morgan called him down to his office for a discussion about what Afro-Punk was — and what it could be.
"I went in and sat with him and his partner and they basically were like, ‘Look, we want to partner with you because we have someone like Santi who we can't sign,'" recounts Spooner. "'She's amazing, she's already written records for other people, but no one's interested in a black female punk singer.'"
(Through a rep, Morgan's only comment was, "We just qualified over 9,000 people for our earned ticket program this week.")
"They're like, ‘Yeah, we'll help you promote your film and build the scene up,'" Spooner continues. "‘I think that if we can prove that there's an audience that we can make this thing happen.'"
Believing that Morgan would relieve him of the less creative aspects of running Afropunk, Spooner gladly brought him on. Together, the duo began a series of Liberation Sessions. Held over three-day weekends, they featured an Afro-Punk screening and a black-alt band or DJ. Pictures from the sessions — sparkling images of black people gathering in celebration — began making their way onto the Afropunk.com message boards, where Spooner says AP-OGs, as they called themselves, became restless, hoping for a major event where they could finally meet one another in person.
"These kids from all over the country and parts of Europe are forming friendships, forming relationships, getting crushes, and they all want to meet each other," says Spooner, laughing. "I was like, 'Shit, I gotta get ahead of this. I don't want the meet-up to be in Wisconsin.'"
Following a screening at the Pan-African Film Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Morgan and Spooner reached out to administrators at the cultural space with a proposal. "He and I went to BAM and had a meeting with them and basically we walked out of there with the first Afropunk Festival," says Spooner. "It was going to be four days of films, which myself and one of the curators from BAM curated, and three days of bands."
"It was like the mothership was calling me home."
The weekend went off without a hitch, drawing a small but exceedingly loyal contingent of alternative black people of all ages. Films screened inside BAM, while outside in the parking lot and at venues like the late CBGB and The Delancey, a handful of musicians performed — including, in those early years, a then-unknown Janelle Monáe — while black skaters and bikers flexed and flew for a group of onlookers under a cloudless sky.
The first festival bordered on idyllic. But Spooner says a very particular moment, a call for an informal picnic at the nearby Fort Greene Park to mark the end of the festival, proved to be the perfect end.
"So, we did it and there were probably like 40 people who came," he says. "It was just a bunch of kids hanging out, but it was so memorable. And I think that it's almost prophetic because I was there, Matthew wasn't."
"When I left the last Afropunk festival I went to, I remembered that I wasn't alone," writes Hanif Abdurraqib in his essay "I Wasn't Brought, I Was Born." "Afropunk alone isn't going to save us, or dismantle a racist world, but if punk rock was born, in part, out of the need for white escape, Afropunk signals something provided for black escape for what the actions of white escape breeds."
Abdurraqib has spent most of his life in Columbus, Ohio, a reluctant member of the city's punk rock scene. As he explains over the phone, Afropunk provided him with a chance to escape "a very specific and real type of violence that exists in a lot of punk scenes and a lot of DIY scenes."
"Because that is so often a rite of passage on a lot of punk scenes," he continues. "If you're never invited or you don't want to take part in that for very valid reasons, you kind of end up on the outskirts."
Just as Abdurraqib was finding his way back to the center, attending his very first Afropunk in 2009, James Spooner was already on the outskirts of his own festival. Living in LA and with little to no involvement in the creation of Afropunk 2008, the first iteration of the festival to have corporate sponsors, Spooner and Morgan's relationship began to unravel.
"The selfish part of me that made Afropunk was because I am an artist and I never respected myself as a party promoter," says Spooner. "I found myself right back in being a party promoter and I used to get into these big arguments with Matthew."
The arguments ranged from questions of corporatizing the festival — which, by 2008, was drawing thousands — to where they should draw the lines on "black," "punk," and "rock" when booking bands. Spooner claims Morgan wanted to bring in more prominent acts with black members who weren't necessarily frontmen or women while, at the same time, revamping the Afropunk website so there was less emphasis on the film. (Today, the Afropunk lineup remains overwhelming black, while the site's popular message board is less prominently featured.)
The final straw, for Spooner at least, seemed to be the performance of anti-gay track "Boom Bye Bye" by an Afropunk act at the 2008 gathering. Incensed, Spooner climbed onstage and interrupted the set and pointed out the festival's large LGBT+ contingent. Morgan was livid; Spooner was out.
"I wanted things to be small and authentic," explains Spooner. "And it was just like all these things were happening where we were just definitely going in different directions."
He's the first to admit that he left Afropunk on a sour note, adding that if we'd spoken in the last few years, he would have "spewed out a bunch of shit." Part of that, Spooner says, is because he still gets pulled into the ever-churning waters of Afropunk, be it through Facebook messages blaming him for the festival's current direction (admission is no longer free), or interview requests by journalists, or moving essays on the lasting power of Afropunk.
"I read an article last week in Pitchfork about this kid and after reading it, I realized that it's not all just bullshit, it does still matter," says Spooner, in reference to Hanif Abdurraqib's essay. "And whether they're there to see Lenny Kravitz or they're there to see one of the opening bands or they're there just to be around a bunch of black people who aren't laughing at them, that's why I did it. That's why I made the film."
Shaunna Randolph, who has only missed one Afropunk since it all began, believes that Afropunk and its faithful community are standing in Spooner's place, actively ensuring that the festival remains the sanctuary for alternative black kids it was meant to be.
"I can understand why James is torn about it, because the punk movement is all about DIY and community-based and anti-establishment," says Randolph, noting that, for only the second time in its history, Afropunk won't be free this year. "But I also would have to say that the members of Afropunk are smarter than that. The movement is the movement."
In its eleventh year, the movement has hit its stride, with the festival spreading its roots to Atlanta and Paris while continuing to enlist some of the biggest names in alt-black music, including Lenny Kravitz, Ms. Lauryn Hill, SZA, Grace Jones, and others across the musical spectrum. Some might say that Afropunk is moving away from its underground punk-rock ethos, but, as Abdurraqib points out, that all depends on your definition.
"I think anything that rebels against expectations, normal expectations, is punk rock," he says. "Living and finding joy as a person of color or a person from the creative community or a person in any marginalized group in America is an act of resistance, an act of radical resistance. There are few things more punk rock than that."