Danny Brown performing at Afropunk Festival, August 2013
|Genre||alternative, blues, R&B, hip-hop, electronic, rock|
|Founded by||James Spooner, Matthew Morgan|
The Afropunk Festival (commonly referred to as Afropunk or Afropunk Fest) is an annual arts festival that includes live music, film, fashion, and art produced by black artists. The festival made its first debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 2005, and has since expanded to other parts of the world. Originally co-founded by James Spooner and Matthew Morgan, the festival was inspired by Spooner's 2003 documentary film Afro-Punk, which spotlighted black punks across America and later culminated in a series of live shows entitled "The Liberation Sessions" co-curated by Spooner and Morgan. The festival originally sought to provide black people an opportunity to build community within the predominantly white punk subculture and to provide a stage for black alternative performers that were not acknowledged in the mainstream and stood outside hip hop, R&B, soul, etc. To attract a wider audience, the festival shifted to include soul music and hip hop, which expanded its target demographic, attracting headliners including Ice Cube, Lauryn Hill, Lenny Kravitz, and Gary Clark, Jr.. Musical performers now represent a variety of genres, primarily known to reflect African-American culture.
Afropunk's changes to its diverse cultural showcase has allowed for the festival to build its masses to 60,000 attendees. Due to festival alterations that deviated from the original Afropunk culture, former co-founder, James Spooner made the decision to end his involvement in 2008. Soon after, Jocelyn Cooper was introduced to the festival as co-organizer, broadening Afropunk Fest to Atlanta, Paris, London, and Johannesburg, South Africa.
James Spooner debuted his 66-minute documentary film Afro-Punk in 2003. It explores the lives of black youth within a white punk subculture with the aim of expanding notions of blackness and reclaiming rock's roots by providing a platform for black artists that were not given the opportunity elsewhere. Growing up bi-racial, on the streets of New York City, Spooner discovered and connected with the punk music scene and its culture but also felt alienated from both his white peers in the scene and the black community outside the scene. After examining the world of hardcore punk in America at the time, and noticing the lack of people of color, along with the absence of dialogue around race despite its activist leanings, he began to question what it means to be black within alternative scenes. Digging deeper into the subject of race became the inspiration for his documentary. Traveling throughout the United States and abroad, Spooner followed the lives of four African Americans who submerged and dedicated their lives to the punk rock scene and its values. Through exclusive interviews with punks and various punk rock bands including, Fishbone, 24-7 Spyz, and Dead Kennedys, Spooner's documentary covered issues of loneliness, exile, inter-racial dating, and the double lives people of color lead within a predominately white sub-cultured community.
Spooner toured the film throughout the United States and the world, screening it over 300 times and garnering followers and building community. He then created a message board to connect alternative black people from around the world. Soon after he held shows to foster that community. Shows included Bad Brains Tributes, The Double Consciousness Rock series at CBGBs, a west coast tour and screening with Ricky Fitts, and others.
Spooner was later interested in having the black fronted rock band Stiffed perform after one of his screenings. He contacted Santi White's manager, Matthew Morgan, who thought that the opportunity would be a vehicle to get Santi signed. After success with Spooner's film and the live events, the two began to collaborate on a party called the Liberation Sessions, which promoted black artistry via music and film. Two years later, they would go on to create the Afropunk Music and Film Festival from 2005 to 2008 in conjunction with the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
After being featured at the Toronto International Film Festival, American Black Film Festival, and the Pan African Film & Arts Festival, AfroPunk began receiving multiple awards and forms of recognition from all over the world. With Afro-Punk's rising notability, Spooner mobilized the black punk rock community he had created on Afropunk.com's message board. The message board gained thousands of members with common interests: black punk rock music and values.
On September 5, 2018, Lou Constant-Desportes, founding editor-in-chief of AFROPUNK.com, announced his resignation citing "performative 'activism' dipped in consumerism and 'woke' keywords used for marketing purposes," as well as "lies, gaslighting, disrespect, victim-blaming, exploitation, not to mention overworked, undervalued and underpaid staff being kept in precarious situations."
Afropunk, the festival, was created as a safe space for black alternative-minded punks to freely express themselves and build a community with one another. The festival was free and was supported by The Brooklyn Academy of Music. As the festival grew larger, reaching larger demographics, the presence of punk culture began to shift toward a larger audience, focusing more on neo-soul, pop, or hip hop performances. Along with the notable change in the festival's focused genre, the festival also began charging admission prices. As Afropunk became scantily punk, moving away from its origins and original demographic, James Spooner also departed. During Afropunk's fourth festival, a rap-reggea-punk band performed a cover of Buju Banton's, "Boom Bye Bye," which caused controversy with the black queer community, one of Afropunk's core target demographic groups. Spooner jumped on stage and denounced the song and its presence at the festival. Disheartened with how Morgan was deviating from Afropunk's original values, and transitioning the festival more towards a mainstream audience, James Spooner departed in 2008.
After James Spooner's departure in 2008, music industry veteran, Jocelyn Cooper joined Matthew Morgan in 2009. As the former head of A&R at Universal, Cooper transitioned into Afropunk's music festival by aiding in the development of their sponsorships and directing Multiply, Afropunk's marketing, content, and advertising agency. With Cooper's involvement, she's was able to secure brand partnership deals with MillerCoors, Toyota, Nike, and Pantene. As Jocelyn developed relationships with major companies, giving her the opportunity to broaden Afropunk across seas, she was able to expand the Brooklyn-based summer festival from 2,500 attendees to 90,000 among multiple cities, including Atlanta in 2015 and Paris and London in 2016. New to the roster for its 2017 festival tour will include Johannesburg, South Africa.
Having emerged from political punk roots, Afropunk Fest has faced criticism throughout its history, including backlash over booking choices such as MIA (a non black performer who critiqued the Black Lives Matter Movement), Ice Cube (a rapper with past accusations of misogyny), Tyler the Creator (a performer with a history of homophobia and lyrics normalizing rape), along with others. Attendees have also critiqued the values of Afropunk's organizers surrounding LGBQT concerns, treatment of employees, and its corporate leanings. Some attendees critique the festival for appealing to white audiences, including an instance of attendees being removed from an area of the festival for wearing a homemade t-shirt critical of the event. In August of 2018, Afropunk's Editor-In-Chief resigned after over a decade of work for Afropunk citing mistreatment and a corporate agenda he labeled "performative activism". There are also lawsuits and other reports of abuse that have been circulating the festival.