Afropunk was first conceived in 2005 as a free, annual music festival in Brooklyn aimed at African Americans – following an eponymous 2003 documentary about the “alternative” black folx who had found their home in the punk movement. Eleven years on, last weekend saw the first ever Afropunk London and a homecoming for Hackney-born Afropunk co-founder Matthew Morgan. It was perhaps one of the most successful celebrations of diversity and blackness the UK has seen in recent years, definitely needed at a time when racial tensions are brewing post-Brexit.
Rapper and singer-songwriter M.I.A. was due to headline the festival but was discarded in the run up to event due to controversial comments she made regarding the Black Lives Matter movement in an Evening Standard interview. The somewhat shaky lead-up to the inaugural festival didn’t seem to dampen spirits on the day too much though. Although the festival didn’t quite sell out – perhaps in part due to the aforementioned controversy – Alexandra Palace was packed by the time that replacement headliner (and the love of every sexually liberated black woman’s life) Grace Jones took to the stage in the late evening.
While some artists complained about the church-like acoustics of Ally Pally, an easily navigable layout with a massive ‘SpinThrift Market’ (selling beautiful clothing, artwork, magazines and cosmetics from black-owned businesses) made the size of the space worthwhile. I found myself poring over prints from Kay Davis, who draws colourful, dreamlike images of black women, and buying a hair tie from African-inspired brand, Sapelle.
Having also attended Afropunk Paris back in June, I knew I was going to feel underdressed. The “traditional” punk vibes may have dissipated from Afropunk, but adherence to aesthetic still reigns supreme. At Afropunk you will see some of the most beautiful people you’ve ever laid eyes on, with the most innovative hairstyles and fashion choices to boot. Although the “hotep” label could well be applied to some of the festival goers (those who peddle the Afrocentric “vibe” and talk a lot about spirituality and being “kings” and “queens”), in the main it was refreshing to be surrounded by a whole bunch of people with similar features to my own, celebrating their natural hair, their bodies, and aspects of traditional African/Caribbean dress.
The first act I caught was Jorja Smith, an artist on the cusp of blowing up. Her dad, a neo-soul singer, has encouraged her from a young age and her voice was strong and expertly pitched at Afropunk. Her best known track, Blue Lights, is played last and blows up the room after she announces an EP will be released in November.
Rapper Loyle Carner’s performance was the most emotional and charming I saw. It reminded me of the family nature of the festival. With a smooth tone, a poetic flow, and relatable lyrics he chatted about “piff green” and “distraught youth”, of his deceased father he said, “I take his football top with me wherever I go”, and he even read us a poem, Florence, about his “freckle-faced fidgeter” – a soon to be adopted younger sister. He was also wearing an “I love Michelle Obama” t-shirt. How could you not love him?
Later on, Scottish trio Young Fathers, flanked by the Leith Congregational Choir, ripped, danced and tore through a set of their most upbeat songs. LAW took to the stage to join the band for War and Get Up, and their latest track, Only God Knows was a particular highlight.
Finally, Grace Jones. In one of the most mesmerising performances I’ve ever seen, Jones was a vision. Naked apart from a corset, daubed in body paint. Her set, underpinned by deep vocals still strong and luscious, tracked her musical life and saw a host of outfit changes. During Pull up to the Bumper, a perky male pole dancer spent much of the performance being spanked. In Williams’ Blood she spoke about her life in Jamaica which, she says, “you never really leave”. The audience were onside as she made us call and return, and people almost cried as she ran to the front of the stage, grabbing hands. And, for a 68-year-old woman, she sure can move her body. The hula-hoop may have dropped during Slave to the Rhythm (she usually hulas throughout the whole performance), but the moves were still there.
Upon leaving, there was no doubt left in my mind: Afropunk is the festival London has been waiting for.