I remember seeing James Spooner’s 2003 documentary Afro-punk somewhere in my mid-twenties, during a period of identity crises and introspective headfucks. The film looks at the experiences of young African-American participants in punk/hardcore scenes across the United States, from big cities like New York to small towns in the Midwest, as well as the importance of black innovators in Rock & Roll, from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to pioneering DC hardcore band Bad Brains. It resonated with me, as a mixed kid with a wonky Afro who often found myself negotiating scenes and spaces – both musical and political – that were predominantly white.
The premise of the film – which is that if the all the people who had found themselves ‘the only black kid at shows’ got together they would have themselves a scene – has snowballed into a cultural movement spanning musical genres and racial/gender configurations, centred on a web magazine and a series of music festivals taking place in New York City, Atlanta and Paris. Afropunk has evolved from the basements and underground parties that spawned it into an ongoing celebration of self-expression and the exploration of what blackness (or any ‘racial’ identity), is, should or could be.
The most recent Afropunk festival, which took place in Brooklyn last week, and featured the likes of Lauryn Hill, Death Grips, Suicidal Tendencies, Kelela and Gary Clark Jr, has been heavily covered by fashion magazines, drawn to the burgeoning aesthetic, and the mosaic of young, beautifully adorned people of diverse backgrounds experimenting with hair, clothes and body art.
This could be seen as both a blessing and a curse. While on the one hand, it’s a good thing that many more people will be exposed to empowering music and images, on the other hand, the hyper-accelerated stage of capitalism we currently live in, and the way social media is embedded it in, means that by definition, youth cultures which emerged as forms of resistance are very rapidly reabsorbed into the mainstream, and risk becoming trivialised memes to be commodified and sold back to those who first created them.
(But maybe that deserves a blog post in itself….)
There’s part of me that is sick and tired of ruminating about racial identity. But unfortunately, it is a not a concept that will leave us alone. In the US, the recent uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore are the culmination of an escalation of police violence against black people, which has been accompanied by an increase in grassroots campaigning by groups such as Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, the current ‘migrant crisis’ in Calais, and the refusal of most of the media to see those fleeing violence in the Middle East and Africa as refugees, illustrates the centrality of narratives of racial Otherness in maintaining the status quo here in the UK.
In a political context such as this, it is hugely refreshing to see a cultural movement that is propelled by black people creating positive images for themselves, refusing to be confined by stereotypes and creating narratives that embrace art and creativity – allowing people of colour, or anyone else who has found themselves to be an Other in some way, to say ‘fuck it, we can be whatever we want’.
Afro Punk Fest Paris takes place on 4 and 5 June 2016.
Cover Image – Samuel Rodriguez.