Afropunk 2016 review: a musical kaleidoscope of outcasts and misfits

The Suffers, Janelle Mone, festivalgoers and even Ice Cube breathed needed life into this years ho-hum lineup

This is like black Coachella, someone said to me, while we waited in the long, slow-moving line to get into Afropunk. On Saturday, the line nearly encircled Commodore Barry Park, with some people stuck in it for almost two hours.

The line did end somewhere, and as snippets of Saul Williams and a Thundercats bass solo wafted over the fence, I felt no rush to get in Id seen Thundercat many times before, including at last years festival. Soon after his performance, George Clinton was scheduled to go; but I left to retrieve a friend from the gate, only making it back to catch a little of Flashlight and (Not Just) Knee Deep. But Id just seen him in Brooklyn, too.

Perhaps I have finally become the jaded New Yorker I was always meant to be, or, maybe this years line-up was a little ho-hum. Either way, after a certain number of Afropunks this was my sixth you have to find a new way of interacting with the festival.

Thats what someone had encouraged me to do before I attended try something new. Meet someone new. So on Sunday, my friends and I went to hear The Suffers, for no other reason than we thought the lead singer, Kam Franklin, looked cool. She was one Afroed black woman among an ensemble of mostly white men, singing her heart out. The jumbotron showed us what our mere eyes could not: she and all her bandmates wore T-shirts that read Eleanor & Tarika & Aiyana & Rekia & Miriam & Renisha all names of black women killed by the police, women whose stories, and sometimes whose names, we dont know. It was a small, powerful gesture, as was what she asked us to do before she performed their hit Make Some Room hug the person we came with, and tell them thank you. And if we came by ourselves, find another solo person and hug and thank them. With just these two small moves, Franklin nicked open what is possible at Afropunk the opportunity to connect with and influence people with your words and presence.

In addition to The Suffers T-shirts, I found myself inspired by all the things festivalgoers wore. I thought I was cool, but I had no idea where people had gotten T-shirts that said Black Girls Got the Juice and Black Girls + Magic = Very Real and the Afropunk sign with its rules of acceptance (No Sexism. No Racism. No Ableism., etc) to include No Donald Trump.

The festival organizers did their part by making it clear that there were no male- or female-designated bathrooms. Above the rows of port-a-potties read this sign: This bathroom has been liberated from the gender binary.

If you live in New York, Brooklyn in particular, you can find a way to always be immersed in a forward-thinking, cultural experience; you can see bathrooms, or any number of things, that have been liberated from all the binaries on Earth. But many people who attend the festival come from elsewhere; and this sign, unromantic as it was hanging above plastic toilet stalls, was another one of those small gestures to welcome the many individuals who dont fit in to just one stall, or just one life.

Or, as Janelle Mone called from the stage Sunday night, this was for the outcasts, the misfits, the weirdos. After her set, during which she performed her own hits, as well as Princes Lets Go Crazy, I wound up talking to a friend from college who, despite having gone to our historically black institution and living in nearby Jersey City, still needed all-black spaces like this one in order to just be. To be weird and different, whatever that might mean, inside or outside of the park gates.

Across the wide swath of performers, one common element was the influence of original black American music. Both Mone and her protg Roman GianArthur performed James Brown songs, complete with the simple, clean choreography thats so ingrained into black showmanship. At the Bad Brains-Living Color-Fishbone Powerjam on Sunday night, George Clinton, perhaps the godfather of weird, and the natural link between Browns funk and Bad Brainss and cos punk, performed again age 75, and about to release a new album on fellow festival performer Flying Lotuss Brainfeeder label.

Closing out the festival was none other than Ice Cube, perhaps the least punk headliner in recent memory. Im a b-boy, he said. Aint no band up here. Just him, a DJ, and soon after, NWA members DJ Yella and MC Ren. That was Cube being his weird and different self, in a space where drums and guitar were the law of the land. He assured us he wasnt just a dude in kids movies, and that hed never left hip-hop. And then he crip-walked.

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