World-class music, grass-roots activism and the best looking crowd on Earth – Brooklyn’s Afropunk Fest hails diversity in all its guises
Afropunk Fest has come a very long way. What started out 11 years ago as 100 likeminded souls partying in a Brooklyn parking lot has blossomed into a global movement with events in Washington DC, Atlanta, Chicago and Paris. This summer’s mother ship two-dayer in Forte Greene’s Commodore Barry Park attracted 60,000 people yet its original spirit of DIY activism and inclusivity remain at the forefront of this all-out celebration of alternative black music, art and culture.
Formerly a free festival, co-founders Matthew Morgan and Jocelyn Cooper introduced a ticket price this time around, allowing for international growth (Brazil and South Africa are on the cards), a year-round programme of community and social justice activations and a truly A-list line-up. A handsome, kaleidoscopic audience showed their appreciation by turning out in fine style. From punks to dandies, from rastas to skaters, from afrofuturists to Fela queens, it was all about dressing up and wilding out.
Three stages of music sizzled under the August sun all weekend. Lion Babe provided some serious hairspiration and soulful pop while SZA riffed off her funk-fuelled alt. R&B flow. Kelis debuted her baby number two bump in a pink kaftan and put in a polished performance of her hits including her ODB duet Got Your Money. The air turned smokey for Kelela’s sparse, mesmerising sounds and Gary Clark Jnr made his guitar - and audience - gently weep with his special breed of bluesy rock&roll.
Danny Brown’s psychoactive raps took us on a hip hop trip only for Raury’s hyper folk to lift us further skyward. Petite Noir painted his hair white to deliver noirwave tracks Fall, Chess and Come Inside, each one executed in a baritone voice so smouldering it could melt gold. And fellow Congolese artist Young Paris offered up a tribal house set accompanied by backing singers in burkas. Meanwhile a head-banging mosh pit sweated it out for hardcore acts Suicidal Tendencies and Death Grips.
Ms Lauren Hill came on stage almost an hour late and despite being at her husky best for I Gotta Find Peace of Mind and Mystery of Iniquity, the power was cut before the end of her set. Unperturbed, she finished up with an unplugged version of That Thing. All smiles, Lenny Kravitz announced Afropunk was his first ever Brooklyn gig in his 25-year career. He made the most of it with extended versions of Let Love Rule and Always On The Run plus a crowd-pleasing Are You Gonna Go My Way encore.
"The moment Grace Jones greeted the crowd with her finest patois and launched into My Jamaican Guy, nothing else mattered"
But not even Kravitz could steal the festival’s crown from Grace Jones. The moment she greeted the crowd with her finest patois and launched into My Jamaican Guy, nothing else mattered. She wore a dizzying series of extravagant outfits – grass fringed skirts, billowing black cloaks, skull masks, towering wigs, glittering bower hat – but eventually it all came off to reveal her 67-years-young nakedness only barely covered by Keith Haring-inspired body paint. And even that threatened to rub off as her performance hotted up. Whether straddling poles or simulating carnal acts with her dancers, Jones’ insouciant banter never stopped and neither did the classics. Nightclubbing, Walking In The Rain and Love Is The Drug all sounded as disco fresh as her new song Shenanigans. Finally she brought it home with Slave To The Rhythm, for which she hula hooped throughout. The ultimate afropunk? Hell yeah.
Photography Oluwaseye Olusa
Words by Helen Jennings