Q&A: At the 2012 Afro-Punk Festival, Punk Rock as a Cultural Ripple

Flier for the 2012 Afro-Punk Festival

Cost: Free

Location: Commodore Barry Park, Brooklyn, NY

Time: August 25-26, noon to 9 p.m.

On the weekend of Aug. 25, Commodore Barry Park will host a varied assortment of (mostly) black alternative musicians, skateboarders, cyclists, chefs and visual artists under the banner of “Afro-Punk.” The Afro-Punk Festival, now in its eighth year, was cancelled at the last minute in 2011 because of Hurricane Irene. Short of another act of nature, the festival will return this year, bigger than ever, like the movement that surrounds it, featuring  musicians like Das Racist, Erykah Badu, TV On the Radio and Cerebral Ballzy.

The term “Afro-Punk” was coined back in 2003, when festival co-founders Matthew Morgan and James Spooner collaborated on a documentary called “Afro-Punk” about black kids in the punk scene, and their experiences coming of age in a predominantly white subculture. Spooner left the festival several years ago to pursue other projects, and Morgan now oversees a festival that has branched out to incorporate skateboarding, cycling, motorcycles and food.

We’re much more alike than we are not alike. If there’s one word that defines afro-punk it’s “freedom.”

“Afro-Punk” today suggests a far more inclusive identity that weaves together the growing number of young people of color picking up skateboards and BMX bikes, experimental musicians like Santigold and Cee Lo who have attained mainstream success and the designers and consumers of the fashion and visual expressions of those recreational and artistic scenes. MetroFocus spoke with Morgan about how the festival, and the meaning of the Afro-Punk, has changed over the past decade.

Q: The Afro-Punk festival was cancelled last year at the last minute because of Hurricane Irene. What did you do after the decision was made?

A: Cry for months. It was the first time in eight years of doing this that I kind of lost the thrust to do it again.  So it did threaten it from that sense, but we’re strange beings. We forget the pain that we endure (laughs).

Q: Now that the pain has subsided, what’s going to be new this year?

A: There was a lot that was new last year that we didn’t get to do. The custom bike show —  it’s not quite the same as it was going to be last year, although it might be even better. The desire to incorporate bike culture and give it a place in what we’re doing. The lineup is quite different from 2009-2010. Now it’s even bigger in essence. I judge what we do by the willingness of the bigger, more successful artists to be involved in one shape or another. And this year it’s been really interesting and means from an artistic perspective that people are interested.


Matthew Morgan’s documentary short about black skateboard culture in New York, and the Nike Battle for the Streets competition that’s part of the Afro-Punk Fest. Vimeo/Matthew Morgan

Q: I think a lot of people don’t really get what the festival or the movement are all about. What does the word afro-punk mean to you? How has it changed since 2003 when James Spooner made the documentary that really started the movement?

A: When I first met James I was managing artists, and he had this idea for a film. His perspective is a little different than mine. For me, the sentiment was never exclusive to a racial concept. James and I used to go at this all the time.

My mom is Russian-Polish but I was brought up in Guayana. We moved to London when I was young, and my youth was informed by the first and second generation of West Indians in the U.K. Around the early 70s there was a lot of tension between the West Indian community, the police and the government. A lot of angst came out of that, and out of that came the angst of what we know as punk rock. There were a bunch of West Indian kids that were pissed off and a bunch of white working class kids that were pissed off. Don Letts [British director and musician] is a friend of mine and my mentor. Punk rock is reggae infused because Don Letts played his reggae records at Clash gigs. So these things were different but they were parallel.

The all black NYC-by-way-of-D.C. band, Bad Brains, fused hardcore punk with reggae in the 1980s, helping pave the way for the afro-punk movement. Photo courtesy of Midnight Raver

So when James had the idea for a film, what it was for me was all these weird black kids I was meeting that didn’t want to do R&B or hip-hop. When the film came out and we wanted to do a festival, all that it did was allow us to group these kids together and give them a place to listen to music and read books. It seemed because of the film that it was specifically about black punk rock, but for me it had more to do with Bootsy Collins, Grace Jones — innovators in music who were really punk rock in their genre.

I became comfortable with that notion after I spent an afternoon with Ian Mackaye [founder of the straight-edge movement, seminal punk bands Minor Threat and Fugazi and Dischord Records]. I was in his parent’s garage and he was playing these New Orleans brass band records. I asked him what punk rock was and he said it’s like when a wave comes into a beach, whatever the first ripple was that formed that wave, that ripple is punk rock.

Q: So that’s why you have artists in your lineup like Erykah Badu and Reggie Watts?

A: You know it’s very hard for black artists to step outside of R&B and hip-hop. People don’t really know what to do with you. I know that because I used to manage a lot of black artists, Santigold being one of them when she was in a punk band called Stiffed.

Last year people were like, “Cee Lo, how is that punk rock?” Well, Cee Lo didn’t start with Cee Lo, it’s a 20 year journey of being DIY and building a fanbase. That’s essentially what unites all these artists. We are probably the most diverse festival in the world, seriously.

Q: Is the fact that festival is and always has been located in New York City important?

A: The city as a whole, but Brooklyn, especially. The diversity and the history creatively. All these amazing things have come together here. The history of hip-hop to TV on the Radio, all the venues to Brooklyn Vegan. It always reminds me of Seattle around the time of Sub Pop records and what that must have felt like.

Q: Through the canon of American pop culture, music especially, there’s a common theme of white kids appropriating black culture. Do you think the afro-punk movement is in some ways about taking things back?

A: To be honest I’ve never really thought about it that way. It’s really up to people, people can do whatever the hell they want. What punk rock is to me is saying you’re not going to support us, so we’re just going to do it ourselves. That’s hip-hop, too. We’re much more alike than we are not alike. If there’s one word that defines afro-punk it’s “freedom.” At our first afro-punk show I was jumping around with a bunch of kids — smiles on their faces, not being intimidated or feeling like there was a fight about to break out — it was that sense of freedom that younger kids of color are just starting to experience, which white kids in this country experienced a little bit longer.

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