As a media partner for Afropunk London 2017, Nataal got in the mix for two days of non-stop noise and disruptive self expression
“Who likes grime?” asks Nadia Rose to an amped up crowd, before launching into the Toddla T-produced track Big N Serious. It’s Saturday afternoon at this, Afropunk’s second annual London outing, and her question is greeted with a wall of appreciative sound from the Croydon rapper’s hometown fans. While the festival is famous for its sun-drenched Brooklyn edition, it has found a natural habitat at Printworks - a dark, cavernous warehouse space where this weekend, thrills and spills and beautiful people are found around every corner. Rose’s energetic set, for which she’s accompanied by her all-girl “skwod” of dancers, DJs and a beatboxer, takes us on a bashment ride that finishes with her leading a conga off stage.
The multi cultural audience turning it up for her is as diverse and inclusive as the two-day line-up of music and activism that awaits them. Since starting out in 2005, Afropunk has united divergent voices and encouraged the rebel in all of us. Now all grown up and hosting events this year in three continents, Afropunk remains a safe space for black and other identifying communities and is a truly open-armed event. Saul Williams is certainly engulfed in love when he jumps into the crowd to perform his powerful poetry on such seminal tracks as Black Stacey and List of Demands (Reparations), and is then joined by his daughter and son on stage. The coolest family ever? Probably.
Little Simz keeps it sparse and jazzy with her accomplished set. The north London MC admits that she was “mad nervous” before the show, but accompanied by a full band, her conscious songs, including Shotgun and One In Rotation + Wide Awake, hit the mark. None more so than Wings: “I just wanna fly again,” she raps. And she does. In fact, she soars. Corinne Bailey Rae continues the good vibrations, her tambourine shaking and voice twinkling. “Thank you for celebrating yourselves and your individuality,” she tells us, articulating the mood of togetherness at Afropunk.
JME cranks the pace up ten notches with his dark and stormy offering. Wearing a doo-rag on his head, and image of his face on his t-shirt, the Boy Better Know CEO fails to bring his pal Jeremy Corben on for a guest spot but does make a calm speech about his university degree, brother Skepta and the importance of hard work, before launching into his bass-heavy, confident flow. The Internet rounds off the night with what they joyously announce as their first UK festival headline slot. Syd and co’s comfortable set gets everyone singing the “You fucked up” bit of their song Girl and swaying their hands in the air.
Sunday is dedicated to Black Girl Magic with the majority of the bill being of the fairer sex. But there’s nothing delicate about Black Orchids whose soulful rock takes no prisoners. Front woman Kay Elizabeth keeps the set hard yet heartfelt as she stomps her way through songs, such as the new single Still Remains, in her silver knee high boots.
Leicester-born Mahalia also treats us to her latest single Sober, alongside tracks that speak openly about life and gaining independence. Having previously worked with the likes of Rudimental and Drake producer Nineteen85, it's clear Mahalia has no problem holding her own. The songs marry influences from old school R&B and neo-soul, interrupted now and then with personal anecdotes. Mahalia discussed how growing up, she was the only girl “with an afro and beauty spot” in her small hometown - but the singer’s stage presence now shows a resolute sense of self.
British Ghanaian rapper Mickey Lightfoot introduces one of his tracks with a clear statement - “I’d like to take this moment to say fuck Theresa May” - before launching into lyrics underlined with restlessness and anger. His beats are as raw and futuristic and the industrial space we’re in. New York singer Kiah Victoria also taps into current events, calling the world “a little bit of a doozy right now,” while playing angst-ridden songs such as Cold War and Hollow. However, her ability to glide between disco and R&B keeps the energy up. Coming from a woman who has performed on Broadway and received a standing ovation from Jay-Z, there’s little surprise there.
On to SATE, who easily puts the ‘punk’ into Afropunk. An unstoppable artist who bends genres as well as identities, she feels made for this festival. Roaring onto the stage in a fishnet body suit and blonde braids, SATE belts out tracks such as Know My Name and What Did I Do That Could Be So Bad with rock & roll warrior spirit.
An awesome show from Nao was a highlight - the British singer-songwriter draws one of the biggest crowds of the weekend, and certainly boasts the biggest hair. Seducing us with tracks from the 2016 debut For All We Know, Nao shows just how strong her deceptively sweet voice can be. The crooning track Girlfriend exposes the sheer range of Nao’s voice, melding Kate Bush with Frank Ocean and a dash of unadulterated Prince.
Thundercat delivers his Grammy award-winning psychedelic lounge music with a wink and a smile. Accompanied by smooth organs, his furious bass playing and high pitched, jazzy vocals add up to some brilliantly stoner, afrofuturist medleys that keep proceedings decidedly groovy. “Bitch don’t kill my vibe?” We wouldn’t dare.
Meanwhile Willow Smith, with one eye painted blue, long braids tied in a bow and Calvin Kleins peaking, shows off her strong voice and deep feelings in the course of her almost folky set. Only 16 years old, the model, artist, actress and ‘black shield maiden’ shares her personal struggles with “existential crisis” in between spacy pop songs about the third dimension, unicorns and emotional wellness.
It is left to Lianne La Havas to bring the festival home, which she does with aplomb, armed only with acoustic guitar and her soaring voice. Alone on the stage, it’s impossible to take your eyes or ears off of her as she tells her gentle sonic tales of love and loss, and dedicates the anthem Gold & Green to her parents, who are also in the building. Perhaps the most spellbinding moment of all though is her cover of Aretha Franklin’s I Say A Little Prayer For You, which put shivers down every spine. Black Girl Magic indeed.
Read our interview with Afropunk co-founder Matthew Morgan here
Words Helen Jennings and Emma Gilhooly
Published on 26/07/2017