Words & Photos By Shelly Simon
The sea of colors, sizes, and glam that greet you at Afropunk is truly refreshing. I thought I was attending a music festival, held globally year-round in different dynamic cities and places, but it’s way more than that. It’s a fashion and music festival. The visually stimulating scenes I witnessed that weekend in August were unforgettable and incomparable to anything I’ve ever seen before.
Afro-punk as defined by their website:
Afro: as in, born of African spirit and heritage; see also black (not always), see also rhythm and color, see also other, see also underdog.
Punk: as in, rebel, opposing the simple route, imbued with a DIY ethic, looking forward with simplicity, rawness and open curiosity; see also other, see also underdog.
AFROPUNK is defining culture by the collective creative actions of the individual and the group. It is a safe place, a blank space to freak out in, to construct a new reality, to live your life as you see fit, while making sense of the world around you.
This collaboration of creatives began twelve years ago (2005) by director James Spooner and Matthew Morgan in Brooklyn, NY. Comparable to the early hip-hop movement of the 1980s, this resurgence in claiming punk culture lead to the spread of punk music to Africa and the Caribbean. As Mo, drummer of The Txlips, explained to me “Listening to punk music and playing such isn’t exclusive to a single race”.
Afropunk’s original intention was to provide an opportunity for African-Americans to build community amongst the punk culture, a scene that’s predominantly white. The festival took a wider stance a few years after it’s initial launch to include soul music, attracting a more mellow crowd who were still down for the cause. Even this past festival housed a huge variety of talent that I wouldn’t immediately associate with “punk” but still understand their place within the festival program. (i.e. Solange at a punk festival); not mad about it. This year had rap, hip-hop, soul, DJs, drumlines, solo artists, big bands and more.
*Noted James Spooner ended his involvement in the fest in 2008 with Jocelyn Cooper taking his place and broadening the program to Atlanta, Paris, London and Johannesburg, South Africa*
The history of this movement, documentary, festival, website and more can be found online. Time for me to tell y’all about my experience at this epic, genre-crossing, head-banging, festival.
The Brooklyn edition of Afropunk actually took place on my birthday, which added to the excitement of being able to experience this fest for the first time. Alongside me was my friend who is a true black punk rocker himself. Disclosing to me about the trials and tribulations of growing up listening to Linkin Park in rural Virginia, I got an invaluable insight into the life of “listening to things you shouldn’t”. That’s one person’s experience on being proud about their past and soaking up the opportunities like Afropunk to be amongst punks and people they can relate to. We joined forces on Saturday with a damn good lineup (The Txlips, Quin, Leikeli47, Princess Nokia, Thundercat, H09909 and SZA). The only qualm was the crowds. Oh my gosh, the crowds. Coming from a multiple time attendee of Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, SXSW and more, I am confident in my choice to leave before Solange played.
“Listening to punk music and playing such isn’t exclusive to a single race”
~Mo, drummer of The Txlips
Time for me tell you in-depth about The Txlips. This super fresh female rock set from Atlanta looked so cool that I had to reach out; feeling a supreme connection with these fellow Southerners and wanting to know more. When they arrived the day before the fest, I welcomed them into my Brooklyn brownstone at 9am where they came in, got glammed up and headed out to be interviewed by Buzzfeed. So casual. So badass.
Gabby, the guitarist and manager, gabbed to me about the formation of the four piece while Mo filled me in on her twenty four years of drumming experience and identity within the Afro rock/punk scene of Atlanta.
TT: How did y’all get together?
Gabby: We met through a mutual musician friend in Atlanta and kept seeing each other at shows and such. Our friend Diamond (Crime Mob) was putting together a music video and got me and Mo to be in it. I’ve played in several bands before and after working with Mo on set, I knew I wanted an all girl band and found the perfect drummer. Diamond knew J Whales could fill in on keys and our bass player I was stoked to have since I had seen her play out a bunch. I begged until she agreed!
Mo: Gabby was persistent on our bass player, which paid off. Now we have a good group together and are able to play out, a lot.
Gabby: I’ve been hollering at Afropunk for quite sometime now too. Finally after years of correspondence they were like “Yeah, bring the Txlips to Brooklyn” (!!!). We’re doing Atlanta Afropunk too (Oct 15-16th 2017) which is amazing. Playing in our own hometown is perfect.
TT: Mo, you’ve been drumming and doin’ your thing for over two decades! Tell us about your drumming journey.
Mo: Aw, you’re making me sound too cool. Listen, I’ve just been doing Mo, being me. I got my start at age 7, playing in elementary band, then moved to ATL where I played in symphonic band in middle school then played in marching band, symphonic, orchestra and pep band in high school. It has been a staple to my style. When Gabby got me interested in The Txlips, I was so stoked.
TT: What’s your set up and what was playing Afropunk like?
Mo: Usually it’s 5 cymbals, a Piccolo snare, 3 toms – a big set up. At the fest, they let me chose between a Port Belly or a Piccolo snare so I chose the 14” inch Tama Piccolo. Solid set up. It was amazing playing Afropunk, like pinch me, we made it here! Just a band from Atlanta!
TT: Well the energy shows on stage for sure, it was the perfect way for me to kick off the weekend! Especially your cover of “King Kunta” by Kendrick Lamar. Your cymbal work on that track was electrifying!
The rest of Saturday showcased some pretty rad acts, including rapper/songstress Quin. Our good friend Madame Ghandi played drums for Quin while a good friend of mine performed on keys (Opal of Zenizen). Followed by Leikeli47, the sweatsuit donned rapper (notably famous for wearing a ski mask during performances and elsewhere). She had a full drumline come on stage and perform two tracks complete with back up dancers. Leikeli’s Missy Elliott style and swag coupled with A LIVE DRUMLINE pretty much made my year. New goals for any musical group.
Princess Nokia has been a Brooklyn staple for a bit now, but this was my first time being able to witness this woman just crush it. There was freestyle and certain songs performed with a DJ but her words were hella powerful in conveying her message to the masses.
The band we ventured to see after, H09909, was an intense expression of black art and identity especially aligned with skate culture. One would call this band “dark, experimental hip-hop with punk and metal elements”. Appropriately positioned at the Pink Stage right next to the skatepark, this band was wild. Proof is in the photos and if you’re curious, check out a live show. Earplugs recommended but not required.
We chilled out and coasted to Thundercat afterwards, soaking up the soulful sounds of his band. After snagging an adorable group photo of that crew, we got some righteous vegan food and listened to SZA at an admirable distance. The crowds had doubled in size once she started so we ended our day after that. Too many people too little of space. I’d save my energy for seeing Solange at another less crowded time.
On Sunday the vibe was way more relaxed, less chaotic and provided space for some pretty rad acts. The two that really resonated with me were Gary Clark Jr. and DJ Kitty Cash. When I arrived at the Gold Stage (the main stage) that sunny Sunday afternoon, I first heard “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy playing over the speakers and rushed to find out who was spinning that track. Adorned in feline-like face paint, DJ Kitty Cash provided the sounds needed to get my groove on before seeing Gary Clark Jr. play.
With such a variety of artists performing at Afropunk each year, anyone could attend and be satisfied by the sounds.