This is part 3 of my review of the Afropunk Festival 2016. For part 1, click this link: In the End, There Was the Beginning: Afropunk Festival 2016 A Review (Part 1) – Living Colour, Fishbone, and Bad Brains Share Stage. For part 2, click the link: Home Is Where You Are, No Matter What: Afropunk Festival 2016 A Review (Part 2) – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Make an Appearance, Kinda.
Walking around Afropunk Festival 2016, I kept asking myself, “What does it mean to be an Afro-punk?” As I asked the question, I knew it was a set up. Never use one event or group as the basis for defining a movement. But it was an interesting exercise to think about what it meant to be an Afro-punk through an experience of the festival that purports to celebrate Afro-punkness. Here’s what Afropunk Festival 2016 said to me:
Fashion and Bodies
The Afropunk Festival stretches the concept of the fashion runway beyond its usual pristine, elongated rectangular stage to a huge dust, concrete brick, and asphalt pavement covered park that is surrounded by housing projects. Everyone is a fashion icon or model for the weekend, or at least pretending to be. Black people have been making powerful statements of identity (and lack thereof) through fashion in the United States for as long as any of us can remember. No where is this act of self-expression more evident than at the festival.
People brought their A-game and brought it in full effect. They mixed fabrics, designs, and materials from different African ethnic groups as well as different indigenous cultures from around the world to approximate and, in some cases, appropriate numerous cultural traditions–past, present, and Afrofuture. There was even a fashion-forward version of the black leather uniform of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. I wondered if the wearers were suffering for their fashion in the sweltering heat. Painted faces, feathers, beads, and textiles mixed and mingled with ravenous photographers who greedily consumed each new performance of chic. Photography’s voyeurism humped the adorned legs of young Black bohemia’s need to be noticed. They fed each other to gluttony’s outer limits.
If the emergence of punk music and its cultures in the late 1970s make it a 40-year old endeavor, you wouldn’t have known it by the look at Afropunk. How many people who were teenagers at punk’s founding would flock to an event in 2016 in which no seating was provided and you were prohibited from bringing a chair for a ten-hour a day festival spanning two days? It is no wonder that most of the Afropunk Festival attendance comprised millennials. Young bodies occupied most of the space. Sometimes high, most often fly, these wonderful reflections of Black and brown beauty performed traditional and transgressive forms of gender diversity.
It was great to see so many forms of Black gender sharing the same space. And yet, it was all so very neat and polished–like when people play dress-up for a night and take special care, using the finest of materials, to recreate the image of something that was originally produced in struggle, danger and disturbance. Of course, there were people at the festival who showed up the way they show up any other place in their lives. But here was also a sense of carnival at play whereby the festival gave conventional folks the excuse and opportunity to play at the unconventional. This veneer on the festival did something less than interesting on my visual cortex. It left it continuously tantalized rather than disturbed, teased rather than challenged, and solicited rather than taken to a new level. Buxom bosoms, six-pack abs, sultry hips, thighs and legs covered by smooth, blemish-free skin packed Commodore Barry Park, obscuring the grimy, sweaty, and funky forms of counter-culture one would associate with punk, even Afropunk. There are few places you can go where the the clothing of the performers on stage was less put together than many of the members of the audience.
A No Movement
Sometimes it is easier to define yourself by what you aren’t than by what you are. That happens most frequently when what you are is still in formation, you’re unsure of who you are, or you don’t want to turn off some people. The Afropunk Festival’s 8 negative values (negative because they state what not to do, rather than affirmative values, which state what to do), displayed most prominently on the largest of the stages–the one they called “green stage,” stand as the organizers’ 42 Negative Confessions of Maat: no sexism, no racism, no ableism, no homophobia, no fatphobia, no transphobia, and no hatefulness. On kiosks and ephemera, the values–incomplete and not quite materialized (e.g., DJ Lindsey’s set included some of the most sexist, misogynist songs in hip hop from old skool to contemporary–and the crowd surely was shakin dat ass) as they are–suggest what the physical and social borders of the festival exclude but do not provide a clear sense of what those borders encase.
The organizers have taken pains to disinvite/prohibit certain forms of prejudice and discrimination, which is admirable. But they do not, in an affirmative gesture, make an explicit invitation to any form of Black political agency, for example, Black rage–the kind of killing rage that bell hooks suggested results from a critical and accurate assessment of the nature of the Black experience in the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy of the United States, Canada, European nations and Australia. What would an Afropunk festival that explicitly invited and created space for Black rage be, particularly in the era of the Movement for Black Lives? Would a scant collection of booths called “Activists’ Row” be sufficient in that kind of festival? Perhaps, in that kind of festival, organizer trainings, how-to workshops on protesting and community mobilization, DIY counter-hegemonic, intentional community think tanks, and self-defense clinics would sit alongside vendors, mural painting walls, and skate parks.
It’s a lot easier to say that you’re against things that current political correctness mandates than to offer a radical critique of the current climate and, even more useful, a radical and revolutionary vision of the future. The festival organizers don’t appear to be heading in that direction. Instead, the festival appears to be gaining in its development as a corporation. Though a festival ticket is no where near the high cost of a Beyonce ticket, it is still well beyond the free admission the festival had until 2105. And the footprint of multinational corporations at the festival seems to be increasing as well.
What’s not increasing is the list of 8 negative values. For yet another year, the organizers did not add biphobia (i.e., prejudice, hatred, or discrimination against sexual fluidity or people who love or desire across multiple genders) to the list of negative values. Although bisexuals make up a majority of the LGBT population and, like transgender people, uniquely face prejudice and discrimination from heterosexuals, gays, and lesbians, the organizers have not seen fit to permanently add “no biphobia” to their list, even after my request in 2014. Because I, personally, brought these issues to the festival organizers two years ago, I can’t help but believe that the omission of no biphobia in their values for the past two years is not a matter of ignorance but rather prejudice and discrimination against bisexuality and sexual fluidity.
It’s almost unbelievable to think that a festival in 2016 dedicated to resistance culture, anti-establishment sensibilities, DIY values like punk culture would not be front and center at embracing those things in the sexual context i.e., bisexuality. Bisexuals are resisting the domination of heterosexuality as the norm and homosexuality as the queer norm. Bisexuals are among the most marginalized members of Western society across race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Because the prevailing models of desire and love (i.e., nuclear family and two-person, monogamous relationship) don’t work for many sexually fluid people, bisexuals have been on the forefront of creating new forms of family and relationships. Despite all of those factors, creating welcome and inviting space for bisexuals at the Afropunk Festival has not been a priority for its organizers and, apparently, is not as important to them as challenging homophobia and transphobia.
Is this It?
Like many things run by capitalists and culture capitalists, I have a conflicted and complicated relationship with the Afropunk Festival. This year, the festival allowed me the opportunity to experience Bad Brains, Fishbone, Living Colour, George Clinton, Laura Mvula, CeeLo Green, Skunk Anansie, and Ho99o9 live in concert. Each of those performances was bathing in nectar. And I’m so glad that I have those experiences to add to my creative vocabulary as an artist. And yet, I am also left with a sense of being unsatisfied with the festival–like when food is under-seasoned or missing a vital but unidentified ingredient.
I accept the possibility that maybes it’s me that’s the issue. But I also am considering that possibly it’s the nature of festivals in general. That in seeking to build an audience, serve larger numbers of diverse interests, and accommodate more people there is a mainstreaming, corporatizing, and de-radicalizing that organizers embrace because jobs, paychecks, and contracts are on the line. Maybe radical/revolutionary art in the same sentence as festival creates too much of an oxymoron. We shall see.