Afropunk Started With a Documentary. Ten Years, Two Websites, and Eight Festivals Later...
It's only Monday, but shit has already hit the fan at Afropunk HQ. A second wave of performers was supposed to be announced on the festival's website on Wednesday, but this morning one miscommunication led to another, and now they've accidentally been posted two days early. Twin Shadow is one of the second-batch artists; his management saw the post, and are now sending very unhappy texts to Afropunk showrunner Matthew Morgan.
"'Why is Twin Shadow's name showing up on your website?'" Morgan, 44, reads aloud from his phone when a young staffer sticks her head in. He's wearing several days' scruff and a pair of oversize glasses that glow in the dim light of a desk lamp and computer screen. She explains that she thought Morgan had wanted the lineup updated today. He didn't. Ten minutes later, his eyes drop to his phone and he pauses mid-interview to sigh heavily: Twin Shadow is out.
This Matthew Morgan is markedly more subdued than the charismatic charmer who jokingly offered me a bite of a mostly melted Twix bar a week ago, when I met him in his cool cave at the back of his organization's offices on Atlantic Avenue in Fort Greene. He is now understandably tense: His and partner Jocelyn Cooper's eighth festival goes up on August 24—in 19 days. Considering the exponential growth it's seen in the decade since the release of Afro-Punk, the documentary that inspired the movement, missteps are more consequential than ever.
"Twin Shadow's management was concerned about flooding the local market, since he just played Governors Ball," he explains. Sheets of white poster paper line the wall behind his desk, elaborate brackets in marker sprawling all over them. Names are circled and crossed out, and arrows pinball them around the two-day schedule. Ziggy, a staffer's Boston terrier, darts in and out of the office, occasionally planting front paws in laps. "I tried to explain to him that Afropunk isn't the same market, at all . . . but you know how it goes."
Many know how it goes. The Twin Shadow scenario could have taken place in the offices of any festival in America; what's important is that it is happening here. While Afropunk deals with the same lineup struggles as other festivals, those struggles are compounded by the fact that it's a festival celebrating black alternative culture; not only is that a vast and complex topic, but many rising black alternative artists shy away from aligning their music with the race conversation (it's already tough enough to get signed). For another, Morgan and Cooper—a veteran A&R queenpin who signed Nelly and Cash Money Records in the early '00s and now runs Afropunk's sponsorship operations—are also dealing with potential brand sponsors who hesitate or downright refuse to partner with an explicitly racialized festival, often because they view it as an "urban" (read: black, poor, profitless) demographic.
While those factors might have slowed the organization's rise, its managers are doing well, all things considered. Since James Spooner's 2003 documentary (the festival itself began in 2005, and its 2011 installment was canceled last-minute due to the city's preparation for Hurricane Irene), Afropunk has grown from a DIY passion project into a full-fledged, brand-sponsored, free festival, complete with a massive skate/BMX park, local vendor marketplace, and, of course, a musical bill with artists ranging in style from the high-brow electrofunk of Janelle Monáe, to the best punk band that ever lived, Bad Brains, to the revolutionary poetry-rap of Saul Williams, to the raging middle-school metal of Unlocking the Truth. (This year's cornucopia features Chuck D, Danny Brown, Living Colour, Jean Grae, the Coup, Big Freedia, and Le1f.) Brooklyn's 88th Precinct places the festival's attendance last year at 60,000—Morgan and Cooper suspect that number was generous; they tally 40,000—and confirm that, in the three years it's been held at Fort Greene's Commodore Barry Park, the festival has been incident-free (playing nice with the cops: unpunk or extra punk?).
Still, the punks who have historically been Afropunk's core supporters, largely because they actively need its community, have a hard time finding much in common with festival organizers' expanded approach, especially since the 2008 departure of documentarian and de facto festival godfather Spooner.
Then again, that argument doesn't compute for the 12-year-old kid from East New York with a skateboard who just watched a black guy shredding a guitar for the first time.
Which leads to the main issue the festival, the organization, and the international black alternative community are still grappling with, a decade (or a century, take your pick) later: What is Afropunk?