When you first enter Commodore Barry Park, site of the ninth-annual AfroPunk Festival, you must pass through Activism Row before finding your way to the music. Occupying two long rows of tables, Activism Row gathers together grassroots social justice and racial equality nonprofits, passing out flyers, engaging with the passersby and collecting email addresses. I can’t say for sure if the tone this year was more urgent than others — grassroots social justice organizations thrive on urgency — but I can say that it felt that way to me. Upon making my way to my first show, I passed a white board, collecting signatures and messages under the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Some messages were impassioned and pleading, and some were like stomach acid flung on the board — “#blacklivesmatter because your ‘one black friend’ has to be alive to be your scapegoat,” one read. Hands Up (Don’t Shoot) buttons and T-shirts were everywhere.
If Ferguson hung heavy in the air over this vibrant politically charged festival — whose mantra, printed in tickets, T-shirts and online, reads: “NO sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, fatphobia, transphobia or general hatefulness allowed. You WILL be asked to leave” — it was also treated with a light touch, by festival goers and performers alike. Throughout Saturday and Sunday, Ferguson was a haunting subtext to a spectacular party, one that was never allowed to recede completely from view.
clipping., the Los Angeles rap-rock collective whose set was the first performance I saw on Saturday, mentioned Ferguson from the stage. Daveed Diggs, who rapped over the odd-angled noise shards generated by his bandmates, unfurled bleakly detailed narratives in which someone nearly always died, under bad circumstances and with little notice. Moe Mitchell, the lead singer of Long Beach hardcore punk band Cipher, bore a black-and-white emblazoned T-shirt reading simply “DON’T SHOOT” and gave an impassioned speech at the close of his set. “We need to have an honest conversation,” he declared. “Each and every one of you has a part to play when the revolution comes.”
If what Mitchell said was true, then, based on the crowd at AfroPunk, the revolution will be a glorious thing. Simply put, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more inspiring collection of people at a festival. (“There are some astonishingly beautiful people here,” my photographer texted me.) Yeezus tees and face paint, green Afros and dashikis, face piercings and “don’t worry be Yoncé” T-shirts, couples of all orientations and configurations: It was the gathering point for a society that doesn’t exist yet. There were at least 30 people I saw that looked so interesting that I felt a palpable sense of loss they weren’t my friend.
The performers themselves repeatedly took notice: “Damn, y’all look amazing,” murmured SZA, taking a moment out of her blissed-out, heavy-lidded R&B set on Sunday to appreciate the crowd. Lee Spielman, frontman for L.A. hardcore band Trash Talk and not one given to positive sentiments, marveled, “There are motherfuckers from all walks of life here.” If you pulled someone up from the stage to dance, there was a 90 percent chance they were dressed in an incredible outfit and danced with the grace of Damita Jo Freeman from Soul Train circa 1970. NYC-based Ballroom/vogue house DJ MikeQ plucked a red-headed woman from Vancouver and a skinny green-haired kid for a dance contest, both of whom lost their minds and broke wild; MikeQ declared them both winners and handed them each $20 from his wallet. Sharon Jones, as she often does, hand-plucked a battalion of audience members to come onstage and dance, and one of them, named Aya, moved with such breathtaking grace that Jones, a perpetual motion machine, simply stood back and watched her, grinning.
Only Ice-T, storming out in full-on bad-guy mode for his venerable hardcore act Body Count, fiercely pretended to be unimpressed. “You look like a bunch of pussies,” he announced, by way of introduction. Body Count, who have always depended on a certain pro-wrestler theatricality, were great, but Ice sounded a little like an old man in his between-song banter, railing against “the pussification of the American male” and demanding of the women in the crowd: “Ladies! Have you noticed your boyfriend is growing a vagina?” (Despite the festival’s policy, it should be noted, no one asked Ice to leave.) As they stormed through catalog hits like “THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD” and “Masters of Revenge,” I spotted Ice’s wife, Coco, standing at the side of the stage, waiting patiently with their two bulldogs on leashes.
The festival was spread out across four stages and I did not manage to see everything: Here, though, is a tour of the best things I did see.
clipping. might have been the second-best set I saw all weekend (we’ll get to the first in a bit.) The bursts of very literal musique concrete that William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes wrangled from their laptop (many of their sounds come from sampled cinder blocks and trash cans) pierced the air, but Daveed Diggs’s sneering voice cut right through. Diggs is, simply put, an incredible rapper: Every single word sailed clear through the air, defined as etched glass. His verses are thickets of imagery and quotes and pointed questions, but his delivery never bogged down, and you could follow every word. His writerly attention to every single thing happening to the unfortunate characters in his songs (“Never seen the ocean, so this lake will have to do”; “Crickets in the distance are dissonant”) made me think of Boots Riley.
Tecla is a classically trained piano prodigy who has committed herself to leaping face-first into every genre collision she can imagine: “I am attempting to abolish the notion of genre by exploring various sounds within this album,” she declares on her website. “A woman should not be limited to simply one talent, I write, compose, produce and sing on every song.” Live, she belted powerfully into a blender of vocal processing, twerked and played a keytar for a slowed-down version of Robin S’s “Show Me Love.”
Ishmael Butler and Palaceer Lazeero took the stage and assumed their post in front of mixing tables emblazoned with regalia. Their music, highly tactile and earbud-focused on record, swelled and expanded live. Melted aquamarine waves of sound rolled out over the crowd, with sampled voices bubbling to the surface of the mix like trapped ghosts. They were joined onstage by fellow Sub Pop signees and Black Constellation members THEESatisfaction; Catherine Harris-White’s oaky contralto was in Lauryn Hill’s range and had a similarly welcoming warmth.
“This motherfucker is hardcore for real,” a kid marveled behind me. It was hard to argue with him: He was talking about Lee Spielman, who was currently somewhere buried in the massive circle. “One of you motherfuckers just punched me in the jaw so hard,” he laughed wryly, in between 60-second bursts of songs. He barked a long series of directives at us, one point screaming at everyone to sit down. “Sit down! SIT DOWN! I need all of you motherfuckers to sit down!” he ordered, wandering out into the blacktop, his long mic cord snaked behind him. Bewildered, almost everyone complied. Their hardcore frenzy was as pure and untouched as the Cro-Mags’ set was, one day later: Trash Talk make punk rock like your older brother or your dad remember it.
Spielman lives this shit, though, and his set was one of the weekend’s most bracing. He sustained a slight wound to the forehead, which glistened the same salmon pink as his Trash Talk shirt. He spent a quarter of the set crouched on the ground, in the eye of the raging circle pit he’d screamed into existence. He looked positively serene. At one point, I glanced through the chain-link fence to the sidewalk outside the park, and spotted a woman, in her 40s or 50s, frozen at the fence border, looking on with open-mouthed horror and disapproval. A casting director could not have placed her more perfectly.
Unlocking the Truth
Unlocking the Truth, a group of black middle schoolers who play ferociously proficient, powerful grindcore, were probably the easiest group of the weekend to root for. They got their start after YouTube clips of them performing live in Times Square went viral, and now they have Living Colour’s Vernon Reid acting as a mentor/guardian angel. Despite the fact that puberty is happening to these kids in real time, they were more self-possessed than probably every indie rock band I’ve even seen. Musically, they seem to have figured out every killer breakdown from every Slayer song, and what makes it destroy. They are making the leap into songcraft now, and Malcolm Brickhouse, after flashing a sly grin and admitting, “Oh yeah, I sing now,” unleashed some powerful, if still-developing, pipes.
No one looked as blissful on stage all weekend as SZA. She swayed, brushed her hair up over her shoulder and let her honey-smooth voice roll out over the crowd. She was loose-limbed, liquid and effortlessly poised, and begged playfully for an extra song from the stage crew. Her backing tracks are a collection of wisps, evaporated from Aaliyah songs, and her voice has a pleasingly supple, undemonstrative coolness. Walking around, everyone I stood next to was singing every word of every song. When she sang “Babylon,” a version of which features her Top Dawg Entertainment label head Kendrick Lamar, no one even seemed that bummed that he was nowhere in sight.
D’Angelo’s appearance at AfroPunk, as D’Angelo-centered events tend to be, was fraught with uncertainty and drama. As we noted last week, the neo-soul legend’s name was quietly knocked down from the marquee spot on the AfroPunk festival’s website recently, spurring rumors that the greatest disappearing artist of the last fourteen years was going to disappear, again.
As 8:30 p.m., the scheduled set time for D’Angelo’s set, rolled around, excitement and anxiety tingled in the crowd: No one had yet come out to tell us the bad news. “Get Money” played quietly over the house system. People waited. As 9 p.m. rolled around, excitement curdled into anxiety. I snooped someone’s glowing cell phone: “I heard D’Angelo wasn’t coming so we left,” it. The cell phone owner, crestfallen, pocketed it and trudged off.
At 9:30 p.m. — the end of D’Angelo’s scheduled set time — Questlove, of all people, walked out. The mood in the crowd crested. If Questlove, who has made a career of promising D’Angelo’s presence and then finding himself empty-handed, felt safe showing his face, surely D had to be here.
And he was: Shortly after the band had assembled, D’Angelo, short and stock as always and his face partially obscured by a bandana, sat down at his keyboard and led the band through a white-hot series of covers. He hardly spoke, but his message emerged clarion through his choices: His second selection was a muggy, foreboding take on Bob Marley’s “Burnin and Lootin.” He lurched through a seasick, psychedelic-rock version of Fishbone’s “Black Flowers,” with the band’s own Angelo Moore, and then closed with an astonishing, extended rave-up take on Prince’s “She’s Always in My Hair.”
The only song D deigned to play, from either of his two studio albums, was the pained “Greatdayndamormin,” which offers the only pale ray of light in the bleakness of Voodoo. The reaction to his set was mixed, as if people were more eager to stick around to see if he’s show up than actually watch his set. For those who hung in, however, they were rewarded by a near-telepathic band interplay: D’Angelo’s voice, which wrings as many disparate emotions out of a single “ooh” now as it did in 2000, seemed to literally arise from Questlove’s drumbeat. When he left, there was some hope of an encore: “Brown Sugar,” maybe, or “Lady,” or (hope against hope) “Untitled.” But that was it. “Shit,” said my friend. “I’ll take it.”