I hate reading the kind of review that I’m about to write–rambling and all over the place, creating a labyrinthine world so complicated that I don’t want to live within for more than a minute. But fuck it. I attended Afropunk Festival 2016 in Commodore Barry Park, Brooklyn New York over the weekend. More importantly, I witnessed Living Colour, Fishbone, and Bad Brains performing on the same stage, eventually at the same time.
I didn’t grow up listening to, what has been labelled, rock music. Aside from Run-D.M.C’s collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk this Way,” I wasn’t moved by the screaming, screeching vocals and guitar of much of what I thought rock music was–heavy metal. The drums and bass lines of soul and funk music have moved me to my core. The head-banging, mosh pitting, long-stringy blond-hairiness of the American rock music scene in the 1980s and 90s wasn’t my speed as a kid from Flatbush, Brooklyn who was raised on soul, funk, reggae, jazz, and R&B. This was true even though my Pan-Africanist family laid the foundation for me to appreciate the fact that the music called rock was formed from/in the bosom of Black people like Sister Rosetta Sharpe, Big Mama Thorton, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry.
Despite not being born a child of rock, I knew I had to be present for the history-making performance of three of the genre’s most celebrated Black groups. The takedown from the previous act and set up for the show took way longer than it seemed the organizers had planned. I waited in the blanket of bodies that unfurled in front of “green stage.” As we covered the dusty field, the “powerjam” performance of the iconic groups slowly creeped up against another performance I wanted to experience: the Janelle Monae show. Before I entered the jam packed festival, I had already mapped out my time there–do Living Colour/Fishbone/Bad Brains then Monae and, if time permitted, The Internet.
The first group, Brooklyn’s own, Living Colour, didn’t take the stage until an hour after the start time, which Afropunk’s sleek smartphone app presented without update. I could not leave to go see JM. It was physically possible but not karmically ethical. Plus I’d seen her at Afropunk a couple of years ago and more recently somewhere else that I can’t remember. Love her but I was staying for this show. The next hour, or however long we were held in that musical black hole, proved that I made the right decision.
Corey Glover’s vocals. That’s all I have to say. To have the soul of Black music, its aspirational and mournful qualities, articulated in a singer’s voice over the surging quality of rock guitar, bass, and drum was a rich and luscious experience. Corey delivered it and us. His thick build, green haired fade cut, and five o’clock grey stubble moved on stage advancing the argument that we, the undulating blanket, should rock harder. And we did. Living Colour performed politics, race, and culture, never missing a moment to wring every drop of musical goodness onto us.
Whereas Living Colour was a tightly orchestrated performance of Black brilliance, Fishbone was Earth, Wind and Fire on some shit that leaves you messy, exhilarated, and funked up all at the same time. I first heard about the group the way I would assume many people first heard about Afropunk the movement, a documentary. And it wasn’t Afro-Punk, the documentary that eventually gave birth to the festival. Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone provided an education in the complex ethos and pathos of the group. On stage, Angelo was every trickster from African mythology performing random acts of musical sex on the audience, the band, and himself. To say he was on lead vocals, saxophone, and theremin is to ignore an important aspect of Black aesthetics–the African spirit of performance that moves beyond the physical instrument to conjure a link between the metaphysical and embodied presence of reality.
Fishbone took us on a journey of styles/genres of music and confirmed for me what Living Colour (de)posited in the their set: applying categories and labels on music, e.g., R&B, ska, rock, jazz, funk, punk, etc, produced and performed by Black people does not serve us–it is better to call it Black music and leave it at that. By the time Bad Brains came on stage, the side slit zippers on Angelo’s sweat-drenched, pilot’s coveralls were well down to their ends and exposed ass cheek profiles on the campy, raucous, and irreverent performer.
Bad Brains, the tight pocket elders, performed with the expected ease of masters. Their hard-hitting musical performance played like a meditation on Robert Farris Thompson’s characterization of African performance, an aesthetics of cool. While coolness reigned on stage, in the audience a mosh pit violently tore a hole in the blanket–causing those uninitiated into its culture to retreat, take cover, and seek refuge from the thrashing of pink, black, and brown bodies. Dust kicked up from the chaos of the pit rose from the arid ground and mixed with the smoke-machine air to form a cloud that travelled immediately above our heads.
Angelo and Corey Glover joined Bad Brains to perform some of the group’s classics and added to the frenzy of the audience inside and outside of the mosh pit. Eventually all three groups were onstage performing together in a sonic orgy that was punctuated by the surprise guest appearance of funk high priest, George Clinton with “sweat running down [his] balls.” Skeet, skeet.