As media partner for Afropunk Fest London, we sit down with festival co-founder Matthew Morgan to discuss Afropunk’s journey from indie film to global movement
The Afropunk army is heading to London – and Nataal will be joining their ranks as media partner. Needless to say, we’re more than a little excited, and rightly so. After a decade of successful festivals in Brooklyn, and last year’s debuts in Paris and Atlanta, Alexandra Palace will host their highly anticipated UK invasion on 24 September.
As much a cultural movement as it is a ridiculously fun festival, Afropunk has always done things differently. Originally created to cater for hitherto overlooked festivalgoers of colour, yet with an ethos of inclusion for all, its fans are connected by a celebration of individuality and activism. Its legendary line-ups hail a broad spectrum of emergent and legendary alternative talent across music, visual and street arts while its robust online community shines a light on social issues from all corners of the globe. Afropunk believes that shared festival experiences can bring about education, political awareness and self-empowerment.
Festival co-founder - and born and bred Londoner - Matthew Morgan has viewed popular culture from many angles. Growing up in Hackney’s Caribbean community, he immersed himself in the city’s music scene, from reggae clubs in Tottenham to acid house raves in Soho. He went on to become a music manager, one of his biggest successes being 1990s R&B stars Damage. Having witnessed the UK music industry’s propensity to dilute black artists to make them palatable to the mainstream, he looked to the US for growth. Concurrently working as stylist for other bands including Westlife, Morgan noticed some disconcerting comparatives. “Westlife’s stylist budget was more than Damage’s entire recording budget,” Morgan recalls. After two albums, Damage wanted to record as a live band but their label (EMI) continued to push them into a commercial space. “I got fed up being told time and time again from the label that one of the band members looked like a mugger. I was going back and forth between the States and the UK and I realised I wanted to stay.”
Morgan made the permanent leap from East London to Brooklyn in 2001. The relocation connected him with James Spooner and his film project Afro-Punk, a documentary exploring the lives of African Americans within the almost exclusively white punk rock / hardcore scene. As first time film producer on the film, Morgan was instrumental in bringing in the music. “I had no idea that the film would become a festival. Once the film was released  we did over 1,500 screenings. It appeared everywhere - from coffee shops to schools, colleges to community centres. We’d sometimes have a few bands play too. Of course there was constant motivations - political and social. But I was also managing black acts and couldn’t get them on line-ups, or when I did they were not shows for people of colour. It was a fact that we needed to create our own audience.”
The first festival in 2005 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) featured four days of films inside while a handful of bands including Keziah Jones and a little known Janelle Monáe rocked out in the car park. Their horizons grew quickly and by 2009 Spooner had departed due to their differening opinions as to what constituted 'Afropunk'. Creating rules around the traditional perceptions of punk made no sense to Morgan, at least. “It’s very important to me that kids growing up on an estate are able to enter Afropunk however they wish. It’s not about whether you have the right Bad Brains record or the right studded belt. ‘Are you punk enough?’ These were barriers I did not want to set up for young people. It’s hard enough as it is for kids of colour to be able to step outside their comfort zone.” Today, Mark’s definition of Afropunk is, he says, his own. “It’s people who chose to go left and not to the right: Don Letts, Bootsy Collins, Sun Ra, Miles Davis. Afropunk is a mindset, it’s about challenging people’s attitudes and perceptions.”
"Afropunk is a mindset, it’s about challenging people’s attitudes and perceptions"
His current business partner Jocelyn Cooper shares his vision. “I first met Jocelyn in the street, she was talking to a friend of mine. I’d heard of an amazing young black female publisher who’d signed d’Angelo and Cash Money and had her own record label. During the conversation I clicked that this was she. When I told her I had a website with 300 unsigned black bands on it she said ‘No way! If there was, I would know about it’. She’s very spirited. She’d been around early hip hop and always been looking out for opportunities for the people around her. That’s really where things began.”
Their shared outlook is working wonders. Last year, Afropunk hosted 90,000 people across their festivals and events, with more than 160 bands and DJs performing. And Afropunk line-ups over recent years have included Lenny Kravitz, Kelis, Lauryn Hill, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, TV On The Radio, Erykah Badu and Body Count to name just a few. (Read our review of last year’s Afropunk here.)
2015 also saw some significant changes to the festival. In addition to its break out events in other cities, the Brooklyn edition went from free to ticketed. As to be expected, with change comes conjecture. “In the very early days of the festival we didn’t charge because we didn’t think the audience would understand what they were paying for - black and Latino kids at the time were not going to festivals. We reached a point where we had spent millions of dollars sustaining the festival. Either Afropunk went away, or the community loved this event so much that they would sustain it,” he says.
Despite keeping ticket prices reasonable, and offering 10 hours of community service in exchange for entry (16,000 signed up), there were still complaints. “Some griped about the community service - ‘You have to make us work now?’” he sighs laughingly. “And then there’s people from within the music industry who question why the festival is predominantly black. There are millions of festivals that are predominantly white and no one would ever think to ask the same of them. There’s also a constant conversation about appropriation and gentrification of the movement and it’s very complicated. But we have to support the things we love or we will not have them, it’s that simple.”
Coming to London is their next massive undertaking. Morgan was offered the opportunity to work with his old friend Raye Cosbert, one of the only black promoters in the UK, so he grabbed it. They announced the first line-up in June, which included M.I.A. who has since pulled out. Support for the festival in light of her departure was “a testament to our voice, our audience and our voices collectively,” he says. “It’s challenging in a new market. People don’t realise not only how hard it is to book acts, but also that we can’t announce them all at once if they have other shows. So we release things in stages, we simply don’t have the resources to do it any other way. Up until two or three years ago, there were only four of us running this festival. No one believes it!”
With the London festival just over a month away (not to mention the Brooklyn festival two weeks away) excitement is mounting thanks to a stellar line-up including Grace Jones, Laura Mvula, Young Fathers, Kwabs, The Noisettes and Loyle Carner. Morgan’s expectations of the London crowd are entirely open. “I’m hoping that London will bring its own. Afropunk brings out something different everywhere it goes. I’m really hoping it will be news to all of us. We’re going to learn from this experience.”
Spreading the shows internationally is part of building out the Afropunk community, not just in person but through their robust online presence, the potential of which is vast. “We’re constantly working on our infrastructure. The idea is to build the audience sufficiently to create and sustain content for each market. We want to be able to make and share stories globally, where people are connected in a way where they can understand that their struggles are global, and they feel less isolated. My dream is for the Afropunk community to be ultimately self-sustaining. For example, an artist in Brazil can share their art, go on to sell 50,000 downloads via our site and start touring internationally. That’s the goal. We want to change things up.”
The London edition of Afropunk is in many ways a homecoming for Morgan too. “I left London with this in mind. The idea had always been to bring something back here. I couldn’t have dreamt of anything better,” he says. “I’m a fan first and foremost. I do this because I love it. The biggest achievement for me is putting these very different groups of people together in one space to celebrate.“
Afropunk Fest Brooklyn is at Commodore Barry Park on 27-28 August 2016
Afropunk Fest London is at Alexandra Palace on 24 September 2016