'It's Punk Rock To Be Black In America': Afropunk Festival Pushes The Movement

Aug 28, 2016
Originally published on August 29, 2016 9:23 am

When you think about punk music, you might picture some very thin, pale young guys with mohawks. But Brooklyn's Afropunk Festival is out to prove that punk is much more than that.

The young Canadian rocker Sate was one of the up-and-coming acts at Afropunk, which took place Aug. 27 and 28 this year. I met her right before she hit the stage. She was wearing a cut-off Fishbone shirt, and she says the black punk band inspired her.

"I think I was just, like, dumbstruck," Sate says of her first time seeing Fishbone live, "and I just remember there being sweat on the walls and being like, 'That's the kind of show that I want to create, where there's sweat on the walls.'"

And with soulful mosh-pit anthems like her song "Warrior," she's achieved that teenage dream.

The music was scorching at Afropunk this year, and so was the weather. Despite that, thousands poured into the Brooklyn festival, which at times looked like a fashion event — colorful hair, exquisite makeup, bombastic outfits and, of course, the music.

The festival's lineup also had its share of mainstream stars. Headlining on Sunday was rapper Ice Cube. And on Saturday, the festival was graced by one of the founding fathers of funk: George Clinton. At age 75, Clinton says he's mellowed out.

"Now, I've been getting ready to leave the planet," he says. "It's hard to be hardcore, so you got to be careful that you don't hurt yourself trying to be hardcore."

"Are you still hardcore?" I ask.

"No, I'm a granddad — great-granddad now," Clinton says. "I'm hardcore on stage."

He reminisced about hearing punk for the first time, right around when Motown was big.

"Here come these groups from England, wearing jeans with holes in them, patches on them saying, 'F*** and peace and love.' And it became the new hype, so we realized, 'Oh, you just have to be able to let go whatever you think is cool and flip it.'"

It's that same spirit that attracted Matthew Morgan back when he was growing up in London. He says he came into punk music like a lot of kids: through a rebellious sibling.

"So I grew up in a very Jewish West Indian neighborhood," Morgan says. "And in the '70s, there was a lot of angst with the second-generation West Indian kids that were not like their parents and started pushing back against the police and the government. And they were my punk-rock idols. It was, like, my brother and his friends that were just saying no."

But as Morgan started working in the music industry, he found people were saying no to him. He saw people of color embraced as artists, but shut out of business decisions.

"The music business is a funny thing because it has a perception of this very liberal, equal business, but it's actually quite rare for people of color to be in those positions that book acts," Morgan says.

He had a really hard time getting gigs for the artists of color he represented, so 11 years ago, he started the Afropunk Festival, which he now runs with his partner, Jocelyn Cooper. Performing at that very first event was Saul Williams, a spoken word artist. Under the cool shade of a tree, I sat down with Williams and asked him how he defines punk. He says it's about rebellion.

"James Baldwin was a punk. Pasolini was a punk, you know what I'm saying?" Williams says. "Patti Smith, of course, is a punk. Rimbaud is a punk, you know what I'm saying? Allen Ginsberg is a punk, right? Jimi Hendrix is a punk actually."

Williams says back when he started, punk offered him a chance to embrace his weirdness, to be quirky — something he says black men in America often don't get to do.

"That punk spirit to me signifies the reality of the need to, like, stand up and face the nonsense creatively and to be unafraid, to challenge it, to face the challenge," Williams says.

As the festival grows in audience and adds more mainstream acts, I asked organizer Matthew Morgan why punk is important to African-Americans.

"I look at Sun Ra and Miles Davis and Grace Jones and Bootsy Collins, and they're punk rock to me," Morgan says. "You know, Malcolm X is punk rock to me — redefining that attitude that we've always had. It's punk rock to be black in America."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

When you think about punk music, you might picture some very thin, pale young guys with mohawks. But one festival is out to prove that punk music is much more than that. NPR's Jasmine Garsd headed over to the Afropunk festival in Brooklyn for more.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Young Canadian rocker Sate is one of the up-and-coming acts at the Afropunk festival this weekend. I met her right before she hit the stage. She was wearing a cutoff Fishbone shirt, a black punk band she says inspired.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNLESS SATURDAY")

FISHBONE: (Singing) I see the pestilence outside my window. I see the dung heaps piled at least a mile high.

GARSD: She says the first time she saw Fishbone live...

SATE: I think I was just, like, dumbstruck and I just remember there being sweat on the walls and being like, that's the kind of show that I want to create where there's sweat on the walls.

GARSD: And with soulful mosh pit anthems like her song "Warrior," she's achieved that teenage dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WARRIOR")

SATE: (Singing) We're all out here in this world and we can't be messing around. Take that fire you got deep inside and burn this house to the ground (ph).

GARSD: The music is scorching at Afropunk and so is the weather. Despite that, thousands poured into the Brooklyn festival, which at times looked like a fashion event - colorful hair, exquisite makeup, bombastic outfits and, of course, the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SATE SONG, "WARRIOR")

GARSD: This weekend's lineup also has its share of mainstream stars. Headlining on Sunday is rapper Ice Cube. And on Saturday...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARSD: ...The festival was graced by one of the founding fathers of funk - George Clinton.

GEORGE CLINTON: I've been de-flead (ph), deticked, I got my rabies shot, and I'm ready to bury the bone.

GARSD: At age 75, Clinton says he's mellowed out.

CLINTON: Now been getting ready to leave the planet (ph). It's hard to be hardcore, so you got to be careful that you don't hurt yourself trying to be hardcore.

GARSD: Are you still hardcore?

CLINTON: No, I'm a granddad - great-granddad now. I'm hardcore on stage.

GARSD: He reminisced about hearing punk for the first time, right around when Motown was big.

CLINTON: Here come these groups from England, wearing jeans with holes in them, patches on them saying [expletive] and peace and love. And it became the new hype, so we realized, oh, you just have to be able to let go whatever you think is cool and flip it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON'S BURNING")

THE CLASH: (Singing) London's burning with boredom now. London's burning dial nine-nine-nine-nine-nine-nine. I'm up and down the Westway, in and out the lights...

GARSD: It's that same spirit that attracted Matthew Morgan back when he was growing up in London. He says he came into punk music like a lot of kids - through a rebellious sibling.

MATTHEW MORGAN: So I grew up in a very Jewish West Indian neighborhood. And in the '70s, there was a lot of angst with the second generation West Indian kids that were not like their parents and started pushing back against the police and the government. And they were my punk rock idols. It was, like, my brother and his friends that were just saying no.

GARSD: But as Morgan started working in the music industry, he found people were saying no to him. He saw people of color embraced as artists but shut out of the business decisions.

MORGAN: The music business is a funny thing because it has a perception of this very liberal, equal business, but it's actually quite rare for people of color to be in those positions that book acts.

GARSD: He had a really hard time getting gigs for the artists of color he represented, so 11 years ago, he started the Afropunk festival, which he now runs with his partner, Jocelyn Cooper. Performing at that very first event was Saul Williams, a spoken word artist. Under the cool shade of a tree, I sat down with Williams and asked him how he defines punk. He says it's about rebellion.

SAUL WILLIAMS: James Baldwin was a punk. Pasolini was a punk, you know what I'm saying? Patti Smith, of course, is a punk. Rimbaud is a punk, you know what I'm saying? Allen Ginsberg is a punk, right? Jimi Hendrix is a punk actually.

GARSD: Williams says back when he started, punk offered him a chance to embrace his weirdness, to be quirky, something he says black men in America often don't get to do.

WILLIAMS: That punk spirit to me signifies the reality of the need to, like, stand up and face the nonsense creatively and to be unafraid, to challenge it, to face the challenge.

GARSD: As the festival grows in audience and adds more mainstream acts, I asked organizer Matthew Morgan, why is punk important to African-Americans?

MORGAN: I look at Sun Ra and Miles Davis and Grace Jones and Bootsy Collins and - they're punk rock to me. You know, Malcolm X is punk rock to me, redefining that attitude that we've always had. It's punk rock to be black in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRACE JONES SONG, "I'M NOT PERFECT")

GARSD: Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M NOT PERFECT")

GRACE JONES: (Singing) I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm - had we met at a different time, we'd be perfect for each other... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.