AfroPunk Festival Emerges Victorious With Janelle Monae, TV on the Radio - Rolling Stone
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AfroPunk Festival Emerges Victorious With Janelle Monae, TV on the Radio

Decade-old gathering rocks hard and eclectic in Brooklyn

Das RacistDas Racist

Das Racist

Margarita Corporan

AfroPunk’s slogan, “The Other Black Experience,” is outdated. In the decade since founders Matthew Morgan and James Spooner set out to document the burgeoning scene of black punk and hardcore kids across the country, that binary understanding of black youth culture – once observed through the distinction between baggy jeans and skinny jeans – has blossomed into a writhing ecosystem of cultural and digital exchange, sprouting bohemian sects of young minorities in any and every major city.

Sprawled across Fort Greene’s Commodore Barry Park this past weekend were black kids with guitars and skateboards, sure, but also Dominican girl-goths spinning frantic trap samples, Filipino synth-funk nerds using reverb as an instrument and tatted-up British fashionistas streaming neo-soul through ukulele folk. Not to mention the over 20,000 attendees wafting between the main stage and the skatepark, spiking incense in the grass like tiki torches and substituting moshpits for airtight dance-battle circles.

Trying to catch the dozens of acts spread across two stages and two days was damning. Exhilarating DJ sets by Roofeo and the Supasonics filled gaps well (where else could you hear the Who blended into Kirko Bangz?), but at any given stage one couldn’t shake the feeling you were missing something awesome at the other end. The Green Stage boasted the great lawn and catalog artists Erykah Badu and TV on the Radio, while the Red Stage was a hybrid performance lot/skatepark that housed BMX demos as well as edgier acts like Das Racist and Janelle Monae.

Genre was a fluid concept at AfroPunk. Most of the lineup was yoked together not by similar scenes or sounds, but a certain stylistic rarity that set them apart. Burgeoning BK crews Phony Ppl and Flatbush Zombies couldn’t be farther apart in sound, but the local-heavy audience raced to cheer them both on as the latest triumphs of the borough. Spank Rock’s blonde DJ sported an oversized hoodie at the top of their set, only to strip down to the G-string beneath and twerk the night away to the band’s blistering Baltimore bop. And Reggie Watts and Bad Rabbits both employed milky falsettos to deliver completely different energies.

Diversity was just as prevalent on stage as it was off. Around the park’s perimeter, black bikers showed off Harleys and graffiti artists wore bandannas over their faces to filter toxic fumes. Merch booths stocked apparel and accessories, shilled by local celebrities from the dense, colorful world of Tumblr fame. Raised to notoriety on a diet of infinite selfies and feverish reblogs, a couple of these mini-scenesters (few out of their teens) have already cracked through to the big leagues: eyewear-designing twins Coco and Breezy have graced the faces of Nicki Minaj, Kelly Osbourne and Serena Williams, and Glyn Brown’s heart-shaped pins had the city in such a frenzy he landed a collaboration with Nike. If music was AfroPunk’s main draw, fashion was the sideshow act: attendees sported tie-dyes, studded leather, neon hair and spastic prints. Editors and A&Rs scoured the park, taking notes as next year’s trends whisked by at every turn.

On Saturday, the political and polarizing Das Racist wasted no time getting down to business. “So the cops shot nine people in front of the Empire State Building?” hypeman/comedian Dapwell shouted in mock-disbelief as soon as the trio hit the stage. “This song is about the NYPD – just kidding,” Heems quipped between hair-flips before leading the large crowd in a singalong: “It’s a brand new dance, give us all your money/ Everybody, love everybody,” a chorus that really could be about the NYPD if you squint just so.

Across the field, downtown staple Venus X spun hardstyle and trance to prep the crowd for Badu, but sound issues bested them both. Badu’s set, faintly audible to those farther out on the lawn, received a much-needed boost when Yasiin Bey (whom she still called Mos Def) appeared to spit a 16 over “Love Of My Life,” but her interpolation of Texas-trill beats and an impromptu cover of Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap” fell flat for conservative Baduists. 

Janelle Monae provided one of the festival’s biggest moments when Pharrell Williams (undeniable forefather of the AfroPunk ethos) emerged from backstage Sunday evening to introduce her. “When I heard her album, I had to contact her and let her know how special her body of work was,” Skateboard P professed of the alt-pop firecracker. Monae is an electric performer, bringing theatrics to the stage along with a full band and background dancers: hooded men stalked the singer until she shot them down with a phallic thrust of her striped cane. When the band cued up a cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” the entire park deservedly lost their collective shit.

South Carolina’s Toro y Moi was delightfully chill, belting shy falsettos over dreamy funk and opening with a loopy, stuttering R&B gem “Roses Quartz,” much in the vein of their acclaimed debut Causers of This. And at the weekend’s finish, TV on the Radio blanketed the park with their trademark blend of post-punk, electro and jam-band soul. Of course they were called back for an encore, because who wanted this night to end?

“You are AfroPunk!” hosts beckoned to the crowd between acts. “Who’s ever been called an Oreo for no reason? Who’s ever been told they talked ‘white’?” Later, a councilwoman took the stage to implore fans to re-elect Barack Obama. “This isn’t Ozzfest or one of those big jams,” another host rallied. “This is by the people, for the people!” But despite this legitimate rhetoric, AfroPunk didn’t feel revolutionary. For these digitally native, culturally insatiable kids, it felt normal – which means, in so many ways, it was victorious.


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