EVENTS | FESTIVALS
Why Afropunk Atlanta Might Be The Last Time I Am Traveling For The Festival
Atlanta hosts Afropunk festival for the 4th time this year, but it might be the last time I am traveling for the festival. Here is why.
The Afropunk festival has its roots in Brooklyn, starting back in 2005. British-born musical artist manager Matthew Morgan and New York born-and-bred tattoo artist and filmmaker James Spooner masterminded the first festival. Originally the event started off free of charge and as a safe space for alternative-minded black punks, with the goal of providing the stage for black alternative performers. In 2008, James Spooner departed the project due to the festival’s shifting focus from the original idea.
Soon after Spooner’s departure, the former head of A&R at Universal, Jocelyn Cooper, joined the team and broadened the festival’s reach beyond Brooklyn. In 2012, Matthew Morgan set his eye on Atlanta. Morgan said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution,
“Atlanta’s the gateway to the South for me. It’s also a place where alternative black music, alternative black hip-hop and alternative black mainstream music has been created forever…There is something in the water here that allows for this black creativity to thrive in a way that it doesn’t in other places.”
In 2015, Atlanta was the first outpost outside New York to host Afropunk, followed by Paris, London, and Johannesburg over the next few years. These days the festival features mainstream performers and charges entrance fees.
This year, Afropunk Atlanta was dubbed the “Carnival of Consciousness,” and celebrated its fourth installment on the same weekend as the 49th annual Atlanta Pride, keeping busy those who were planning to attend both, like myself. Even though I assumed that I wouldn’t be the only Pride celebrations spillover at Afropunk, I immediately became conscious that I was the only person at the festival repping the rainbow flag. For some reason Afropunk in Atlanta felt less queer to me than the Brooklyn or even Paris edition of the festival that I attended earlier this year. Nonetheless, I didn’t feel out of sorts and kept receiving compliments on the tiny rainbow flag propped up on top of my hair bun.
I don’t believe I would be wrong to state that the festival has almost a cult following. I mean, look at me. I’ve been chasing Afropunk from Brooklyn, to Paris, to Atlanta, and even thinking about attending it in Johannesburg later this year. Even before entering the grounds of the festival, I saw three people that I instantly recognized from meeting them at this year’s Brooklyn installment of the event. Then, not even 100 meters after passing through security, I saw a girl out of the corner of my eye who was stopped dead in her tracks, exclaiming “Sidewalkkilla!?” That was Michelle – another person I met this summer at Afropunk Brooklyn. She told me that she loved the energy of the fest so much, that she decided to come to Atlanta all by herself. I also met a couple of new people from New York who had traveled the long distance to the festival, just like myself. Amaku, a girl from Brooklyn who was decked out from head to toe in Afrocentric robe and jewelry, told me that she rode a bus for 17 hours in order to get there, and was thinking of ways to afford a trip to the Johannesburg festival as well.
The event had two performance stages: the main one was in the open air, and the smaller one located just to the side, but under a roof. A bunch of port-a-potties lined the back entrance of the smaller stage, and the queues for the food trucks were enormous. The setting, in a cluster of warehouse buildings near downtown Atlanta behind a residential area was not as remotely attractive as its counterparts in other cities. The space wasn’t picked accidentally though. Matthew Morgan and his team selected this specific area due to it being reminiscent of Morgan’s childhood upbringing in the UK. “The reason we’re in this environment where we are is access to our people, access to the community, so they don’t have to go far out of their comfort zone. They don’t have to go far economically either. [The area] truly is the city. It’s a part of the city which would never have seen a festival until we came here,” he tells AJC.
Throughout the weekend I got to witness performances by Anderson .Paak, Gallant, Leikeli47, Danny Brown, Fantastic Negrito, FKA twigs (read about her performance here), Masego, SiR, and Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes.
Leikeli47 persevered through the stuffy interior of the smaller covered-up stage with an electrifying set, unlike the girl who passed out from the heat during Masego’s performance. FKA twigs miraculously overcame the loss of her voice due to tonsillitis during an hour-long show, while Brittany Howard kept me company with her soulful voice while I queued up for a never-ending line to one of the food trucks.
I ran into some other interesting figures, like fashion model Alton Mason, who struck several poses on top of a yellow stage (propped up specifically for photo ops), sending a small crowd into a frenzy. I also met Raisa Flowers, celebrity make-up artist who doubles as a model occasionally, and who opened the recent Savage X Fenty show. I also met two flamboyantly dressed guys from Columbus, Georgia. One of them wore a “MAGA” hat, “America” taped over with the word “Abortions.” We had a lengthy discussion about their experience living in the South as left-wing gay men and their encounters with the conservative side of gay male population, some of whom are avid Trump supporters.
Even though I immensely enjoyed attending four Afropunk festivals during the past year, I am not sure I will be willingly chasing the festival around the world in upcoming years. Having applied for a press pass for the third time in a row and not receiving any sort of response was disheartening to say the least. I understand that being an independent publication run by two queer minorities might not be enough for a festival of such magnitude, but seeing over a dozen cisgender, mostly white males taking pictures in front of the stage brought on a moment of reflection on the festival’s real values, as well as my own.
The contrast was especially stark after I ditched a series of free events at Piedmont Park organized by Atlanta Pride (like Dyke and Bi & Pan marches, a free concert headlined by Kesha, and the Starlet Cabaret Show – one of the largest yearly Atlanta Pride drag shows in the Southeast) in order to come to a festival whose concern wasn’t only about making people happy, but also about making money from them. Having said this, I won’t deny that the festival succeeds at bringing black businesses, music, and creatives together, creating a safe and fun space for everyone. Also, I won’t ever regret creating connections and memories with many beautiful souls drawn to this event. But sadly for me, the magic that I experienced at the first three Afropunk festivals that I attended before was gone, with Atlanta’s last whispers of summer.