We speak to the Brooklyn-born organisation as they prepare to celebrate their 12th year with their debut London festival
The first time I attended Afropunk was during my summer-long residency in Brooklyn in 2014, putting together an art exhibition called queenies, fades and blunts. I experienced the festival at a turning point. An organisation that was once a free, grassroots punk gathering of 100 people had become a global black cultural phenomenon with 60,000 attendees. To bring together a predominantly black crowd of this magnitude to celebrate black culture and influence isn’t an easy feat, and the team behind Afropunk are undoubtedly pioneers in organising, using social media to navigate the isolation that’s felt as a result of a racist society.
When the first annual Afropunk festival debuted in Brooklyn in 2005, it was in retaliation to a whitewashed alternative music scene. Today, today they have a global reach that seeks to pull different parts of the black and activist communities together, with black youths and allies have flocking to the organisation’s manifesto, “No sexism, no racism, no ableism, no ageism, no fatphobia, homophobia, no transphobia, no hatefulness.” These words have had an impact on many – including on my own party, Body Party – and when considering the creation and sustenance of the elusive, somewhat mythological safe space for black, queer, marginalised people.
There’s a lot to learn from Afropunk’s growth – and inevitable growing pains – as it turns 12 years old this year. On September 24, the very first Afropunk London festival will take place at Alexandra Palace. Headlined by Grace Jones (who replaced initial headliner M.I.A. following backlash to her comments around Black Lives Matter), the festival also features Laura Mvula, Young Fathers, SZA, GAIKA and more. It’s a particularly important show for Afropunk’s managing director, Matthew Morgan: he was born and raised in London before relocating to New York in 2001.
Leading up to the festival, Afropunk have also organised a Q&A at the premiere of Check It (a thoughtful documentary looking at a gang formed by Washington, DC-based LGBT youth to protect each other from violent, homophobic hate crime), while Body Party are also throwing a pre-festival party with Jay Boogie, Larry B, and BORN n BREAD. I met Morgan recently to discuss how he balances the programming of a music festival that means so much to so many people.
So it’s been 12 years. What does Afropunk stand for today?
Matthew Morgan: It’s about 360 degrees of black people. People have this idea that Afropunk has to be the black version of white punk, (but it’s actually) the idea that we would create something for ourselves that exemplifies all of us, something that puts different parts of our community in the same space together. We have a ton of LGBTQ performers, some years more than others, and we’ve been accused by predominantly black folk that Afropunk was just a space where the gays go. Afropunk is for open-minded, forward thinking progressive people. We are not a genre of music – we’re a state of mind. If you’re gonna do something that has an impact, it’s important to us to be involved in something that helps to spark a dialogue that’s felt globally.
“We’re coming into a market with this essentially American-perceived festival which is very black. Bringing that to the UK is difficult” – Matthew Morgan, Afropunk
How difficult is it organising a music festival of this kind?
Matthew Morgan: There isn’t one part of what we do that’s easy. Every year, hundreds of festivals go away because the weather’s not good, they lose money, and they go out of business. I wanted to do an outdoor festival in London, but didn’t want to get into the same issue we had in Atlanta last year, where it rained for two weeks and we had to cancel. London’s extremely important to me – I didn’t want the first one to be a fucking disaster! I’m fearful of making mistakes, because it’s not just a festival. The idea of fucking it up would be terrifying. This is such a difficult process for us – we’re coming into a market with this essentially American-perceived festival which is very black. Bringing that to the UK is difficult.
Booking M.I.A. to headline the festival initially caused an outcry, and left a lot of people feeling jarred by her previous comments about the Black Lives Matter movement’s celebrity pop cultural activists focus on black, as opposed to Muslim or brown people’s, experiences. Was booking M.I.A. a mistake?
Matthew Morgan: I don’t think we made a mistake booking M.I.A. She’s aggrieved at the American media, and she chose a poor example. There was other stuff in the first announcement that was black and British, and I felt that people disrespected (those artists) by their singular focus on M.I.A. We lost an opportunity to have a conversation with her that we all could’ve benefitted from.
Everyone who thinks they know what the struggle is in America, for Black Lives Matter or black lives in general, really don’t unless they spend time here in America to get it. We’re socialised in England in a completely different way. The idea of taking the American experience and putting that in England isn’t possible, and vice versa. What people don’t understand is that black people in America bleed for people globally, and we do ultimately benefit from the images made as a result of that, both good and bad. It’s only a conversation we’re having in the UK that’s happening because of what’s going on in America.
Were you shocked by the reaction to the initial lineup?
Matthew Morgan: It hurt my heart; it really hurt my feelings. It’s egregious to me that people don’t trust us, or didn’t wait to see what else was coming. They threw the baby out with the water. In order to support us, you need to take a breath sometimes. Not understanding how difficult it must be for that entity to be what it is often doesn’t allow for us to make mistakes. Normally, within our greater white world, we’re never allowed to make mistakes – when we do, that’s when we’re cut off at the knees.
“If you had to pay Jay or ‘Ye for their impact on culture, they’d be as rich as Bill Gates” – Matthew Morgan, Afropunk
How important was setting up Afropunk as a platform to share the work of rising black artists online?
Matthew Morgan: We have to support our arts – it’s not good enough to just say we created something, and we don’t care whether or not there’s a sustainable model for it. If we don’t support, then are cousins are going to, and we moan about appropriation. We don’t get paid for our influence, so we have to find a way to sustain ourselves and not look constantly outside for others to sustain our culture. It’s tough because it’s cool now, but when we started skateboarding around Brooklyn, people would throw bottles at us and call us ‘white boy’. It wasn’t cool back then. Sustainable models are difficult in the UK because there aren’t enough people of colour. 1.3 million (people) is so small in comparison to the US. That doesn’t mean that our effect on culture in the UK is that, unless we’re having a conversation about size vs. impact – which people generally don’t want to have. If you had to pay Jay or ‘Ye for their impact on culture, they’d be as rich as Bill Gates.
Afropunk London takes place at Alexandra Palace on September 24. Afropunk London After Dark Presents: Body Party takes place at Brixton Jamm on September 23.