Afropunk doesn’t care about black people: Beyond a t-shirt

Taken from the “Who We Are” section of Afropunk’s website: “Afro: as in, born of African spirit and heritage, see also black (not always).”

Have you ever met one of those people who say, “blackness is not a monolith” but what they really mean is, “I’m not ghetto, hood or poor?” People who make sweeping, racialized presumptions about black people’s consumer choices and malign us for buying Jordans but not passports or $70 tickets to an annual summer festival that has garnered a reputation for swallowing up subcultures within the black community, from the punk scene to the nascent popularity of black customs and traditions that find their origins in the hoods across America? If you’ve answered yes, then you’ve probably attended Afropunk at some point in the last 5 or 6 years in the organization’s 13-year history under the commercial direction of London-born co-founder Matthew Morgan, who had Ericka Hart, my friend and I forcibly removed from one of two VIP areas backstage at AFROPUNK by two security guards, because of my shirt, which read: “Afropunk Sold Out for White Consumption” while he berated us, pointing at my shirt, asking rhetorically, “what’s that?” and repeating, “why are you here!?” and “this is MY house” (mind you, not the people in the Ingersoll housing projects across the street from the festival just yards away from where Jessie Williams and Chris Rock sipped colorful cocktails and schmoozed with admirers and the who’s who of black celebs profiting from our pain and culture and trading it in for proximity to whiteness for personal gain, some of whom jeered at my shirt, some with curiosity, some in disgust).

History

Ericka and I met Matthew Morgan at Afropunk Atlanta in 2016, where he thanked Ericka for her work (Ericka decided to go topless that year at Afropunk Brooklyn a few weeks prior, exposing her double mastectomy scars to raise awareness amongst the largely young, black and queer space). The interaction was kind and light hearted. A few days before AP Brooklyn 2018, Ericka was approached by Mass Appeal, a media production company, to be interviewed for a project they were doing in collaboration with Afropunk. The producer mentioned that they found it strange in a list of people to interview about Afropunk given by Afropunk, Ericka was not listed. In the screening call, Ericka expressed the same sentiments that were on my shirt. Undeterred, they said that her opinion was valuable and that they still wanted to do the interview. In our email correspondence with Mass Appeal we made sure to clarify the narrative bent of the documentary and let them know that if one of the documentary’s aims is to also capture critical perspectives of the festival’s increasingly commercial presence in BK often at the expensive of black folks native to BK who might be spurned by its growing inaccessibility, then Ericka would be happy to contribute, but we didn’t get a response before Sunday. We ran into the documentary production crew in the Hair Village area on Sunday after being in the park for almost two hours. The production crew shared with us that they would like to interview Ericka behind the green stage and Ericka agreed as long as she could bring myself and our friend Lorelei Black. We had to wait next to the green stage for about 20 minutes to be escorted back with someone who had an extra credential to allow us to enter. Ericka went into a trailer to be interviewed, so myself and Lorelei sat waiting for her to finish for about an hour. When she finished, we were told we could hang out in the same area (backstage/VIP) as a form of compensation as Ericka had just done free labor for Afropunk. We saw some folks we recognized and decided to chop it up with them for a bit before going back out into the main park area. Ericka was asked by the Afropunk social media team to record a story on their instagram on which she stated, cheekily, “hey, Afropunk! Are we still black or what!?” Shortly thereafter, while standing next to Ericka, a femme presenting person quickly walked past me and muttered, “that’s interesting — why are you here?” She was gone before I could respond.

After Morgan questions my shirt with no interest of dialogue, he then addresses Ericka who is quite confused as to why this is happening and says: “We have met before, sweetheart. You know who I am” to which she responded, “ok…so what’s the problem? Why is there a problem with my partner being here after I just did an interview for Afropunk for FREE and we were invited as guests to be in VIP?” He then responds: “This is my house. This is MY house. They have to leave.” And orders the security guard to see all of us out. We are asking the security guard why we are being asked to leave and the security guard says, “I recognize you. I see your photos every year” to Ericka, as if this is relevant and then follows it with “He is asking you all to leave. This is not a debate. This is not a discussion. He’s the boss”. We are then met with another security guard and we share with them what’s happening and they say after reading the shirt: “Well, you did this to yourself.”

Black people get killed everyday for much less so I can’t complain. Black people get killed by the same systems that would have this nigga disregard our existence at a festival that touts “power to the people” as part of it’s messaging and #notrumpism while silencing any attempts by black folks in the community to hold them to account, mimicking the same brand of hegemony it’s only cool to talk about on TV or to sell a record or lamps or anything.

I left filled with the kind of rage that comes when you’re being attacked by some capitalist square bear and none of the words come out right and you go home with every possible retort that got lost in the shock and trauma of it all, in your experience of being hurt as a human being while asserting the humanity of other black people who don’t see yours. I’m used to be treating like trash, used to having my “radical” politics valued only at acceptable nigga levels. At this festival, at the non-profits I’ve worked for, walking down the street.

I’ve long heard from many black folks in Brooklyn, born and raised, certified Brooklynites to longtime transplants and every iteration of black resident in between, that Afropunk was questionably afro, not quite punk anymore and definitely a huge draw for white and non-black POC taken to wearing culturally appropriative garb, kente cloths, headwraps and maybe a sari on accident — a far cry from its mission statement touting the likes of “no hate, no racism, no sexism” and “our voice is your voice.” Kendall Simpson, a former intern for Afropunk made a public facebook comment in 2016 stating that she was told to, “make our marketing materials appeal more to “wider audiences” (white folks) by the current head, Matthew” and that “Afropunk is run by an elitist who thinks he’s better than us [black people] because of his money and proximity to whiteness.”

It wasn’t lost on us that we’d frequently been searched by security in lines organized by “male” and “female”, forced to choose a line at Afropunk Atlanta in 2016 until we refused, our bodies commented on inappropriately by security guards at Afropunk BK in 2017 and a whole host of interactions in which I, a black trans man, was misgendered in front of a large banner reading, “no transphobia.” We knew about this active petition (I’m uncertain of the year) decrying what the organizer deemed Afropunk’s refusal to “call out the anti-blackness held within their own festival” and “silencing any attempts by black folks in the community to hold them to account.” We knew not to go but we held out hope that even if our existence as black queer and trans folks wasn’t fully welcomed there, our activism would at least be in alignment with the celebration of dissent that serves as a touchstone to the festival’s tenets (and while it might be hard to pinpoint the very black history of punk music due to erasure of black ethnomusicological narratives in favor of an ahistorical, industry wide association of rock music with white cis male artists, to be black is certainly to be fringe, queer, to be on the edge of the margins).

Former attendees have long cast a critical lens on Afropunk, from its usage of nonblack corporate sponsorship, like Coors Light and Toyota, vendors like Garnier Fructis, owned by L’Oreal Group to police presence on the park grounds, criticisms of the inaccessibility for differently abled folks, including the lack of ASL interpretation, etc.

There’s a laundry list and it is by no means exhaustive:

while being in disputes with black photographers whose pictures are used in official Afropunk promo materials without their permission and credit.

Considering this, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that we would be forcibly removed by security out of a VIP area for calling out a punk festival that even has a VIP area with celebrities littered about at a park surrounded by housing projects. A festival where much of the security, ticket takers and other laborers were black while the audio engineers, tech staff and many folks working in VIP were white — -a glaring reality at many white-owned festivals across America.

Still, we were oblivious to how upset the organizers were that people felt sentiments like that they sold out for white consumption or “Afropunk=blackface”, “who gon pay these bills, make Afropunk free again” and “ya’ll paid for PermPunk” — -only a few of the statements also displayed on T-shirts by other attendees. In fact, there was even a white presumably cisgender man with what appeared to be an Afropunk tee with “AFRO” crossed out and “Anglo” stamped over it to read: AngloPunk.

Unfortunately, this incident has only confirmed the issues many black folks, especially queer and trans, have raised for years about Afropunk’s interest in the cultural exports of blackness originating in the hood and in the punk scene only to offer it up to white people’s appetites for the next new cool thing like a lamb to the slaughter.

It is possible for a business to experience growth, progress or expansion a la some fake ass manifest destiny encroaching on the projects that flank Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn — -just don’t do so with banners and mantras extolling “resistance” and “unapologetic blackness” as simply another niche in a marketing scheme designed to lure investors. What is the point of creating safe spaces for black creative expression under the guise of radical politics when the co-founder himself refuses to adhere to them in his treatment of and interactions with actual black people in the community of Brooklyn?

For example, inviting Linda Sarsour of the Women’s March to the star-studded Afropunk Solution Sessions event as opposed to Black Women’s Blueprint, a national organization with roots in Brooklyn who had a march last year in September with no notable support from the Women’s March.

This country sells blackness and when it’s sold by black people or POC, speaking for myself as a black consumer, it can sometimes be hard to ascertain the safety of a space, product or company, even if black-owned. Growing up, it was ingrained in me from my late grandmother Mae Francis: “don’t be scared of your own people.” I didn’t expect this sort of treatment at an alleged black centered event. Afropunk had pre events where they invited big name activists to speak about their platforms. They partnered with the new HBO series, Random Acts of Flyness, which is about the Black experience in the US, focusing on the ways we are policed and erased. How can an event that has black culture at the forefront forcibly remove a black person from a space because of a T-shirt? Black folks expect this sort of treatment from white people. We are oftentimes very cognizant of the things that we say and just existing in predominantly white spaces for fear of violence. That this happened to a black trans person by a cisgender man of color with immense power shows the anti-Blackness that we ALL possess and where our true loyalty lies — protecting white people, having an unquestioned affinity toward them and never speaking out against the discomfiting nature of their presence in black spaces.

But, Ericka put it best: “it was my own internalized anti-blackness that I know people have been harmed at @afropunk and by the festival organizers, people who look like me, and I went anyway and that’s a larger intra-communal conversation among black folks about all of the shit we participate in even though we know it’s harmful to Black folks. I don’t want to support an event that doesn’t care about black people, even one that I like. And resistance looks like disrupting a space, even one that I like.” — Ericka Hart

There are countless other dedicated, intentional spaces for black folk all year round. There are organizations and collectives for black people by black people who employ black people, who evidence a commitment to the local communities that house their parties and events like iconic Producer and Dj Venus X’s ghet20gothik, world renown Dj Byrell the Great’s Banji Girl party, black queer haven and established mainstay Brooklyn boihood one of NYC’s only organization’s supporting black and QTPOC regardless of age or ability, BUFU Collective (By Us For Us), Soul Summit, Elle Hearns’ Marsha P. Johnson Institute, Harriet’s Apothecary, Afro-Latino Fest, Black Rock Coalition started long before Afropunk by Greg Tate, Konda Mason and black rock legend Vernon Reid of Living Colour fame, and so many more in New York alone.

At the end of the day, it’s not about my shirt. I didn’t write this in hopes of a public apology from Afropunk to my partner, friend and I, nor to precipitate what has already been a steady decline given the organization’s clear disregard for the festival’s most critically important stakeholders: black people in the community surrounding Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn, the black punks at the stage at the farmost corner of the park being told by security to stop moshing, the black people who have been verbally attacked, physically harmed, the most disposable of us, the black people who don’t have cameras out to record it, who don’t have social capital, who no one ever believes. I wrote this to also validate the preemptive mourning of black folks who like myself love attending Afropunk to be in communion with hella other black people from all over the world. And maybe we continue to overlook Afropunk’s many transgressions against black people who aren’t celebrities due to a need for safer black spaces, tangible even if fleeting black unity, an immense love for black people but we can’t continue to support a festival that sees counterculture as capital and in turn commodifies blackness at the expense of black people for whom the festival is no longer safe nor accessible and who have, to no avail, attempted in year’s past to hold the festival to account.

I wrote this in hopes that we support the black folks in our community who don’t have celebrity backing and the collateral of a large, monied festival but do more with much less than Afropunk has in the way of actual resistance to oppressive systems that they perpetuate for personal gain. I wrote this in hopes that we find a new way for us to forge community that doesn’t require a high level of cognitive dissonance to make it through the day, and in hopes that we show up for the March for Black Women. More than apology, it is time for Afropunk to do right by the black community that has made it what it is today, acknowledge the erosion of trust, acknowledge the wrongs done to black folks by Matthew Morgan and make them right, include people from the community and the most marginalized therein and have them be part of the conversation on what that looks like. If they can’t do that, I say, Black folks, we are the ultimate outcasts — we don’t need a played out festival run by a despot who identified blackness and punkness as trends with high yield, corporate profitability.

He never did comment on what he saw first which is the back of my shirt. It says, BOYCOTT RED APPLE NAILS.

Let’s continue to show up for each other all year round, like we always do.

“For all that talk about punk rock and community and whatnot, it’s really about the self. If you’re really trying to touch people, then you have to be selfless and the people have to be the stars of the show. They have to run and develop this, or it doesn’t work.” — Matthew Morgan

“This is my house! This is my house! — Also Matthew Morgan, standing at Commodore Barry Park, Afropunk 2018