For more than a decade, Afropunk Fest has served as a unique space for alternative black culture to thrive, defined by its tolerance and openness for underrepresented subcultures. And it was free. This year, its eleventh go-round at Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park, marked the first time the two-day music and arts festival sold tickets for entry.
The festival certainly reflected this change in its size and color, and they admirably offered free one-day passes to those who participated in various community service acts prior to the event. But despite the surge of funds accrued from tickets sold, the festival failed to offer any significant changes that would seem to justify the cost, save a few bigger name acts. If anything, the production of this year’s Afropunk paled in comparison to its previous year.
In 2014, there were more stages, more space, more musically diverse performances. This year, poor crowd organization resulted in absurdly large lines that stretched several blocks away from the entrance to gain entrance to the park. Some waited several hours, partially due to scrupulous frisking and bag searching by security guards, which was another first-time occurrence.
On Saturday (following Friday’s lovely but expensive special opening event, the Fancy Dress Ball), the two main stages were separated by gender of the performer, which was weird considering Afropunk’s goal of inclusiveness. The green stage, which boasted phenomenal female acts like Kelis, Lauryn Hill, and the incomparable Grace Jones, frequently suffered from sound complications, so much so that a majority of the audience could not hear. Such was the case for Hill, who came on half an hour late and had the sound and lights completely axed from her stage for the set’s final ten minutes. People were livid. The handful of sufficiently amplified songs were nearly enough to satiate my appetite for this prodigious vocalist, but not quite.
Grace Jones, coupled with a non-conflicting headlining performance from Death Grips, was day one’s salvation. At 67 years old, this legendary pop provocateur was an extraordinary stage presence, and the consensus best act of the weekend. Her set was equal parts theatrical, musical and dance performance that had Jones swapping extravagantly designed costumes between every other song. She was definitely not sober, confirmed after her opening number when she croaked into her mic, “I shouldn’t have taken that [mumbles incoherently] before I got on stage,” and it only worked to enhance the spectacle. On one song, she hula-hooped while singing an entire song. Grace Jones’ cosmopolitan brand of reggae-infused pop rock sounded as fresh and tantalizing as it did four decades ago.
Sunday was considerably more chill. The crowds were less dense, less disgruntled and grumpy. The smell of sage mingled with the dank stench of weed as blunts were passed and venues were cleansed of their foul spirits. The performances were split between stages by genre. The red stage occupied electronic-centric acts like Goldlink, Kelela and Kaytranada, while the green stage was comprised of guitar outfitted bands Jesse Boykins III, Gary Clark Jr. and Lenny Kravitz. Some set highlights earlier in the day came from Burger Records‘ Curtis Harding, a striking blend of classic soul and bare bones punk, and Brainfeeder‘s Thundercat, both among the most dynamic and musically sophisticated performances of the two-day festival.
The festival closed with Kravitz on the main stage, while the third stage presented a set by the electronic and R&B dance label Soulection and Montreal dance producer Kaytranada headlined the red stage. Despite frustrating similarities in sound and aesthetic, these two latter sets provided a perfect counterpoint to the rock ‘n’ roll theatrics happening elsewhere. Kaytranda commanded the crowd with an exhilarating, body-moving set, DJing obscure jazz-funk hybrid cuts among his well-known productions for numerous rappers and vocalists. It was a sexy, sweaty end to an overall exceptional weekend.
Photos by Adela Loconte