Jun 28th, 2019, 12:15 PM

Afropunk Festival

By Moumi Camara
Afropunk Festival 2015. Image credit: B.C. Lorio
What do you know about the origins of Afropunk ?

When most people think about punk culture they think spunky hairstyles, rock-themed music and white culture. Yet African Americans have heavily influenced punk style and music since the late 1970s, carving out their presence and calling it Afro-punk. This movement in turn sparked black-centered music production and festivals, and styles in the punk genres.

Some of the earliest black punk bands include Death, Pure Hell, and Bad Brains. All three challenged the societal notion that specific genres are exclusive to certain races. This can be seen in recent news when artist Lil Nas X released his song “Old Town Road,” which initially caused controversy when Billboard pulled the song from its "Hot Country Song" chart.

Afropunk festival New York. Image credit: Versus and Company 

Afro-punks have continuously had to carve out their presence in punk culture in order to combat either invisibility or racism and criticism from punks and dominant social culture. In 1976, the Rock Against Racism (RAR) music movement was created in Britain in order to combat the racism and prejudice that black people endured within punk and rock cultures. This movement organized festivals and concerts with the goal of communicating and promoting anti-racist ideals.

RAR bands performed a mix of punk and reggae to represent Afro-Caribbean perspectives on oppression, as well as to bridge the gap between white and black youth. Within the year 1978, the RAR organized 300 events in Britain, and five carnivals that attracted more than 100,000 people. Eventually the movement took down the fascist political appeal that the UK National Front had created.

Black women also challenged preconceived notions of the music and lyrical content they could produce. Artists like Karla Mad Dog and Betty Davis both participated in punk culture during the 1970s and through the '90s. Betty Davis released her first album, which she name after herself, in 1973. Her music was a mix of funk and rock: many of her songs celebrated her singularity and sexual liberation. In 1982 Karla Mad Dog started her own band in the U.K., called the Jimmy Hoover. She later returned to U.S. in 1990, and joined several punk bands such as Legal Weapon, Leaving Train and Skull Control. 

Afropunk festival New York 2015. Image credit: Fuseboxradio

Afro-punks also go beyond racial activism to use their music to resist against social restrictions on gender performance and women’s rights. Afro-punk women have used their music to highlight the racism, sexism, and homophobia that is overlooked within a society that promotes white, heterosexual, male-centered views. Because African American women have experienced oppression through race and gender, Afro-punk women formed Riot Grrrl bands to provide a space in which they can support one another and challenge the patriarchal practices within society.

ln 2003 artist James Spooner directed a documentary called Afro-Punk, centering on African Americans who were involved in punk music but felt invisible within that community. The documentary later gained attention and notoriety, which led black punk fans to call for a space to express themselves and share their interest. After creating a website and message board for Afro-punks, and a few years after the release of Spooner's film, the first Afropunk Festival took place in Brooklyn Commodore Barry Park. Since 2005 the festival has taken place in the United States, Great Britain and recently has broadened its locations to  Paris and Johannesburg.

Afropunk Paris 2018. Image credit: Ruth Jonasson

During the three-day festival, masses of people gather to share black thoughts, arts and music. The festival has become a form of activism through its encouragement of new music and fashions that African Americans were not exposed to in mainstream black culture and media. Former Afropunk intern Shauna Randolph explained the allure to Racked in an interview: “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.” She explained that the festival became a space for black people to express their individual styles and tastes.

“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.”

Mixtures of contemporary styles can also be seen at the festival - you may spot dots painted on faces, in an attempt to resemble African tribal prints, and colorful bright clothing will abound, often with tribal prints as well. Those who attend make an effort to wear their hair in styles associated with their race by wearing dreadlocks or keeping their Afros.

Afropunk is a festival that you cannot pass up this summer ! It's an opportunity to be among people who enjoy and share the beauty of many types of black culture. This summer, Paris is be hosting another festival at La Seine Musicale, during the month of July. Day pass tickets, now selling for €65, give access to this summer's lineup of artists like Solange, Janelle Monae, Masego, Ricko Nasty and many more. During the weekend of July 13-14, Afropunk festival will be celebrating blackness, creativity, art and music within a space allocated as an escape from perpetual oppression.