Afropunk London is a vital celebration of compassion and black creativity
For the second year running, London played host to Afropunk – a music festival originally inspired by an eponymous documentary which details the experiences of African Americans involved in the punk movement. Predominantly aimed at people of colour, Afropunk first took place in Brooklyn in 2005 and has since expanded to LA, Atlanta, Paris, Johannesburg and most recently the UK capital.
Alexandra Palace, the venue for last year’s Afropunk London venue, was traded in this year for Printworks – the city’s much-discussed new 6000 capacity venue in the heart of Surrey Quays. The space seemed an appropriate choice: what better way to signify that London’s nightlife and positive attitudes towards multiculturalism are still thriving?
On the Saturday, it was a promising 21°C outside but, typically, pouring with rain. Despite the bleak sky hanging overhead, the procession towards the entrance was rife with a composition of colours that you’d usually only expect to see at Notting Hill Carnival. There were many festival-goers in reconstituted traditional dress, as vibrant braids trailed down backs and ornate beaded jewellery hung from necks – for once, afro curls didn’t feel like the anomalous aesthetic.
Inside, the SpinThrift market was in full swing. To browse stalls dedicated to books written by black authors, dresses made by women of colour and an art-focused pop-up from the gal-dem zine, was nothing short of inspiring. However, it felt somewhat bittersweet as it served as a reminder of the dwindling state of Brixton Market in the face of gentrification. On a more uplifting note, queer WOC collective BBZ also hosted an installation in conjunction with i-D magazine. Makeshift teenage bedrooms decorated with posters of Erykah Badu and 90s-style inflatable chairs offered a Black British-focused trip down memory lane.
Those not preoccupied with the additional activities flocked upstairs to see Nadia Rose. Unapologetically, she ripped through attitude-rich anthems such as 2H2H and Tight Up. In a testament to her brazen nature, she even attempted to dupe the audience by announcing her departure without performing her hit song Skwod. Later that evening, DJ collective Blacktronica warmed up the crowd for grime icon JME. From AJ Tracey’s False 9 to Dizzee Rascal’s I Luv U, they delivered an era-crossing set punctuated with pull ups.
JME finally burst onto the stage dressed in a t-shirt decorated with the Integrity artwork – an enlarged image of his face. After causing a riotous mosh pit with his banger Man Don’t Care, Jamie encouraged the audience to listen to his brother Skepta’s Mercury Prize-winning album, Konnichiwa. Saturday night ended on a mellow note thanks to Odd Future alumni The Internet. Opening with Special Affair, the neo soul outfit sent waves of their signature Californian coolness cascading over the audience.
To think that Sunday was a comparatively subdued affair would be a mistake. As winners of Battle of the Bands London, Blackfish Collective proved that they deserved their spot on the line-up with a ferocious performance. As they snarled at the audience with painted faces, they showed promise of a convention-defying future. Later in the day, one of the festival’s most popular acts graced the stage. Due to switching from his Saturday slot, Thundercat caused quite a stir as many flocked to the Facebook event page in a desperate attempt to trade their tickets in order to see him. The frequent Flying Lotus collaborator proved his musical prowess as he reached for high vocal notes while seamlessly commanding his six-stringed bass guitar. On the other stage, Willow Smith surprised many with an affecting display. At just 16 years old, she drew upon her experiences to deliver soul-stirring lyrics and advised audience members to “Never put anything before your emotional wellbeing”.
The ideal end to a weekend full of grace was delivered by Lianne La Havas. Clad in all white with just her guitar for accompaniment, the powerhouse vocalist pacified the audience with ballads like Au Cinema and Tokyo. Most fittingly, she covered Aretha Franklin’s I Say A Little Prayer. There couldn’t have been a better time or place for her to pay homage to a fellow songstress who has played such a seminal role within the field of black music. Unfortunately, due to noise restrictions La Havas had to cut her set short but, in fairness, it was the only timing issue of the two days.
It doesn’t take a shrewd disposition to notice the current state of race relations on a global scale. In the last year in Britain alone, the news has been rife with post-Brexit discourse and the fallout of the tragic Grenfell Tower incident. In such tempestuous times, a festival like Afropunk stands as a bastion of human compassion – an inclusionary space where black people can both flourish and feel at home. Although it’s still a relatively new addition to the London festival roster, it’ll hopefully have a place in one of the most multicultural cities in the world for years to come.