Afropunk Is No More

Jill Scott is coming to the 2019 Afropunk festival in Brooklyn, New York. What’s wrong with that?

Jill is an incredible musician, soon to become legendary. She epitomizes what Dick Clark once pronounced: “Music is the soundtrack of our lives.” Jill is a not only a socially conscious and multi-faceted artist, but also a community-engaged human being.

 What’s wrong with Jill performing at the Afropunk festival is, she is a neo soul musician, not a punk musician.

 This has become the unfortunate trajectory of the Afropunk movement.

Afropunk was born to create a safe space for blacks to embrace their love of punk music and identity as punks without the marginalization and targeting of whites, which sometimes resulted in violent backlashes, from punk’s origins in the 1970’s in venues ranging from basements, to small dives to the legendary CBGB’s, and up through today.

 James Spooner, creator of the 2003 documentary Afropunk, and founder of this movement, left a few years after it began. Since then, it has morphed into something more akin to neo soul and afro futurism than true punk, evident when one peruses its website.

Punk is the grimy, gritty, abrasive, anti-establishment genre of rock and roll. It was one of the pioneers of underground DIY culture 40 plus years ago. It was never meant to be polished and mainstream. So, to incorporate neo soul, hip hop, and other genres black people for the purposes of amplifying and expanding audiences, diminishes what Afropunk really means.

One would naturally counter argue that everything progresses. What starts as underground eventually surfaces to the mainstream. Besides, Afropunk has become a global phenomenon. Why shouldn’t it expand by any means necessary?

If you go to Death Fest, all you are going to hear is death metal; nothing else. If you go to a country music festival, all you are going to hear is country music; at folk or bluegrass festivals, same thing. So why shouldn’t Afropunk be any different?

Jazz festivals has suffered the same fate. If you are a jazz purest, most likely you are despondent at the nature of jazz festivals nowadays.  R&B and neo soul artists have become the headliners, which of course benefits ticket sales, but sullies the tradition of the art form. At the Hampton Jazz Festival this year, they’re bringing in Maxwell, Kem, and Frankie Beverly. They are all great musicians, but they are soul musicians, not jazz musicians.

And yet, people will still attempt to retrofit other music genres into punk to retain the name Afropunk. It simply fails. Punk is a specific genre within rock and roll. Neo soul is nowhere close. Even Living Colour, Fishbone, and 24-7 Spyz, who are all black rock legends, are not punk. Bands like Death, Bad Brains, and Fever 333 are punk in the legitimate sense of the word.

We as black people have a habit of wanting to include everybody into something that is not meant for everybody. We want to get bigger, expand, blow up like the majority. But the reality is that jazz in America is not popular, and neither is punk. So the festivals would naturally be smaller.

Because of our proclivities, we fail to keep things authentic, diminishing our pure intentions. The marginalized that such festivals were meant to serve becomes re-marginalized. Moreover, Afropunk fails to recognize that for every non-punk act they bring in, a punk act loses a spot. It is a slippery slope that eventually manifests as a landslide.

I am not mad at Afropunk; they created something that was necessary, a home for marginalized folks of color, a platform where they can be themselves without the violence and ostracism that plagues our society, and it should continue to grow as a global phenomenon.

I applaud the organizers for taking this cultural music festival and movement to the next level, fostering black employment and entrepreneurship, partnering with other black businesses, and expanding safe spaces for thousands more to enjoy. Plus, they have incorporated a semblance of activism that allows voice and agency.

But at the end of the day, it has become a commercial enterprise, with all the compromises and dilutions that go with it. Afropunk is no longer solely a festival for black punk rock heads. Essentially what exists now is a black music festival. So, my recommendation is that the name of Afropunk be removed and replaced with another name that reflects that.

It is society’s nature to eventually absorb what becomes popular, leaving the underground to create something new and fresh. This has been the plight of black rock and roll for generations, from the time of Chuck Berry and Little Richard to now. We always come to the point of being displaced and marginalized when money and popular culture come into the picture. It is the ultimate musical gentrification, and this time, we have done it to ourselves.

So now black punk rockers must go back into the underground to create a pure culture that honors them.

Ron Kipling Williams