Conceived as a continuation of the scenes documented in the 2003 cult film, Afropunk, the first Afropunk Festival took place in Brooklyn in 2005. In its early years, the festival provided a politicized music and community-building space where black rock, punk, and heavy metal artists who often found difficulty landing gigs could perform. But as the festival has grown over the years (including a touring festival, showcases in Washington DC, Atlanta, and Chicago, and most recently, one-day festivals in Paris and London) its community-building initiatives have expanded, but the overriding philosophy has begun to weaken.
Until last year, the festival was free to the public, which allowed festival-goers to see headliners that, in other instances, they would have to shell out a pretty penny for. While it’s safe to assume that mainstream headliners like Janelle Monae and D’Angelo guarantee a more culturally-diverse audience, satisfying the numbers that corporate sponsors need to see in order to continue funding, they stray from what the Festival was originally meant to highlight: alternative black musical artists and communities who choose lifestyles that differ from the mainstream black-centric tropes that often hinder individuality and innovation.
Downtown Boys (Saturday August 27th)
A multicultural mix of young musicians who reflect the growing diversity within the underground punk scene, Downtown Boys’ dueling vocals, urgent, confrontational delivery and bursts of saxophone dissonance may call to mind forebears like X and X-Ray Spex. The group’s anything but retrograde, though. Founders Victoria Ruiz and Joey DeFrancesco met while working at the same hotel in Providence, Rhode Island and realized they shared the same skepticism about their employer’s labor practices, which spurred not just their music together but a successful organizing campaign . The band’s fiery approach is delivered in Spanish and English, and they’re vocal about providing an inclusive space for people of color. Downtown Boys create vibrant, electric and pointedly political art that’s designed to make the younger generation think about their musical, social and cultural future. (Saturday August 27th)
In previous years, Afropunk DJs were often employed to keep people busy while roadies set up gear for the next act, and while some have left a long-lasting impression (2014’s A Tribe Called Red performance was off the chain!), there have been others that employ misogynist hip-hop tracks that contradict, rather than accentuate, the overriding philosophy of the festival. Esta, a young, Los Angeles-based DJ and producer, promises something refreshing to focus on: his beats hearken back to the early days of house but are thoroughly modern, danceable, and mature, and he chooses guest vocalists like Kehlani, Kali Uchis, and Bryson Tiller who add extra dimension and excitement to to his sexy, classy productions. Prepare to see some grown folks bumping and shaking between stage sets. (Sunday August 28th)
This two-piece punk outfit made waves last year when they were asked to provide a daily recap on the 2015 South by Southwest Music Festival for Denver, Colorado’s local alt-weekly Westword. They wrote about the struggle upcoming bands had getting to the notoriously competitive festival, and chronicled the disappointment when bands who travelled thousands of miles for what could have been a career-changing event were faced with show cancellations or small turnouts. The truth and urgency of their writing translates to their music: guitarist/vocalist Nate Valdez and drummer Eric Riley incorporate the dry humor of the Violent Femmes with Bad Religion-style razor-sharp riffs for songs that are guaranteed to activate Afropunk’s legendary intense mosh pit. (Saturday August 27th)
Since their first appearance at the Festival in 2014, the trio of brothers, festival circuit favorites for their dynamic performances, have grown a lot—from being precocious, homeschooled teens who taught themselves to play their instruments to young men who are just on the cusp of greatness. Their sound has also matured, from poppy California garage to bluesy heavy rock, a perfect instrumental fit for lead singer Dee Radke’s rich baritone voice. Their lyrical content, which ranges from romance to racism, explores the many facets of their experience. What is it like to be young, black, male and performing music that has black American roots but is predominantly performed these days by white men and women? Radkey have a few answers. We’d all do well to listen. (Sunday August 28th)
Like the aforementioned Esta, this Seattle-based DJ and producer is part of the Soulection collective, dedicated to releasing electronic music conceived by innovative independent artists. Sango’s talent may be inherited—his mother, an amateur producer, claims to have given a tape to Dr. Dre at a pivotal point in his career—but he’s made a sonic world entirely his own by incorporating soul, jazz, house, and baile funk into an intelligent, groovy mix. (Saturday August 27th)
Despite hitting the stage under a cloudy sky in an undesirable afternoon time slot, this experimental hip-hop duo’s performance at the 2014 Afropunk Festival was one of that weekend’s standout sets, pulsing with tension and energy, and we’d be surprised if they didn’t bring the same or better back this year. Former Digable Planets member Ishmael Butler, and multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire populate their musical soundscapes with obscure samples, synths and African-inspired beats, and their heartfelt vocals weave through to make the overall effect often melancholy, sometimes raw, always personal. (Saturday August 27th)
SATE, formerly known as Saidah Baba Talibah, has been described as a modern-day Betty Davis (the legendary 70’s funk soulstress). Like Betty, she’s got a dynamic and unique personal style, and she cuts to the emotional quick with her live performances. SATE aims to make the audience feel exactly what she’s feeling when she performs her blend of rock, hard funk, blues and soul. Fiercely independent, she’s successfully crowdfunded 3 EP’s and her debut full-length, 2016’s RedBlackBlue, so expect some fervent fans to be out in the crowd for her set. (Saturday August 27th)
This Houston-based 10-piece “Gulf Coast Soul” group mixes southern hip-hop, vintage soul and even a touch of reggae for a smooth and powerful sound that could convince even the most puritan punk to publicly admit that they love soul music. Frontwoman Kam Franklin’s soothing and emotive voice helps the group stand out from other soul revivalists, and the group’s upbeat rhythms could turn a muddy pit into a perfect dancefloor. (Sunday August 28th)
This Brooklyn-based quartet describe their music simply as “classic rock ‘n roll’: all about the swagger, aggressive blues guitar tones, sinuous bass and stomping beat. They’re brash and bright, eschewing the removal and poise of many contemporary stars for a full-throated, sweaty, pure fun performance. (Saturday August 27th)
The flagship Afropunk Festival runs from Saturday August 27-28th at Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn, New York. For more information, please visit Afropunk.com.