Afropunk Brings The 'Black Lives Matter' Ethos Abroad

Sep 2, 2018
Originally published on September 4, 2018 10:05 am

To kick off a Twitter chat on black storytelling and identity with documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, #AfropunkSolutionSessions podcast host Bridget Todd posed a question that she always asks of creatives: "What role do you think arts & culture plays in social change? Can art change the world?"

She offered an example of a creative catalyst.

"Color of Change is like an advocacy organization," she said of the nonprofit civil rights group. "They work in culture, art, music, movies, but they're trying to shift politics and bring social change through art and that's ... radical. We act like art, music, film is not important, [that] it's just a diversion from real issues. I don't think that's how we live our lives, so I just like to remind people that culture can change minds. I think that we have that tradition as black and brown people. Creativity is powerful if you harness it correctly."

Black music has a deep legacy of influence on global culture. Whether through jazz, blues, funk, rock, disco and hip-hop, African-Americans have been invoking the creative power Todd speaks of. Jazz spread the ideals of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, and gospel blues put forth ideas of civil rights to great effect in places like South Africa. There's already an imprint on the stage of world history.

In going global in 2015, the Afropunk festival has carried the torch of that black musical tradition and, in doing so, has become a tradition itself.

NPR sat down with Todd after she hosted an in-person Solution Session at Brooklyn Academy of Music theater before the start of Afropunk 2018.

While still operating under the radar, the Afropunk culture was an early champion of the Afrocentric aesthetic, connecting indigenous African culture to the punk scene it was reclaiming. It catapulted to the mainstream when national publications scrambled to report on #BlackLivesMatter and a facet of society long overlooked. That year, images of the concert went viral and brought new life to Afropunk's claim of "defining culture" of the "other black experience." Suddenly, blackness was cool again. In curating alternative black music, art, photography and Web series on its website and throughout social media, it largely defined the changing tide of black representation in mainstream American culture over the next four years.

Afropunk was an early supporter of Awkward Black Girl, which eventually elevated Issa Rae, the creator of Insecure, an HBO show. When creating costumes for Black Panther, designer Ruth E. Carter cited the fashions of Afropunk as one of her inspirations.

"Without Afropunk, I wouldn't have a career," said Janelle Monáe, the critically acclaimed actress and singer.

"Tonight is all about celebrating what is unique about ourselves, no matter who the f*** it makes uncomfortable," the four-time festival veteran yelled out to a cheering crowd.

Since becoming the darling of cultural publications and blogs, Afropunk has garnered a global following, exporting its weekendlong celebration of unapologetic blackness to Paris, London and now Johannesburg, where such events are rare. The music festival has grown to the level of cultural institution, and it's connecting the African diaspora.

With its political podcast, Solution Sessions and other initiatives, Afropunk is evolving to define the problems that affect black people around the world and may prove to be as influential as it's predecessors.

Over time, Afropunk has expanded its definition of punk to include all forms of black identities, because while it trumpets that being black is being punk, not everyone agrees.

In expanding, it has gained critics. Since introducing fees in 2015, many early supporters have been priced out. And punk purists correctly point out what they see as the deterioration of Afropunk's DIY and raw spirit, in favor of R&B and hip-hop and bending to capitalism. While these critiques are warranted and in need of redress, this nostalgia misses out on the fact that Afropunk connects the past to the present and continues a black tradition that predates punk, yet is just as rebellious.

As the photos in this gallery from around the world show, Afropunk is already having an impact spreading political ideals and social attitudes beyond U.S. borders. As Bridget Todd suggests, the power of connecting social change with culture is what Afropunk is harnessing.

"Aretha Franklin was a singer. She was also a civil rights leader," Todd said. "That is part of our legacy and I think it's so easy to be like 'oh music, that's just something you do when you're done with work.' It can be both."


Melissa Bunni Elian is a Haitian-American photographer. This project was done with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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