Nothing says “summer’s almost over” quite like a weekend-long explosion of stylish dress, food trucks, and of course music. The annual AfroPunk Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this past weekend in Brooklyn’s own Commodore Barry Park and the ever-expanding festival brought the heat this year.
Named after the titular Afro-centric substrata of punk music that inspired it, AfroPunk was first brought into the public eye through a short documentary film called “Afro Punk: The Rock” back in 2003. African-Americans in the punk rock scene found a place to call home here and the festival, founded in 2005 by Matthew Morgan and James Spooner, has now been called the most multicultural festival in America, welcoming all who consider themselves on the fringe of the mainstream.
With various clothing/merchandise tents and food trucks from all across the city to choose from, AfroPunk is as good a place to hang out as it is for eclectic live music. But the live music is the hallmark of the event, and the 10th year saw returning faces, up-and-comers, and industry legends show up and show support. Here are my highlights of this year’s AfroPunk Festival.
AfroPunk Day 1:
This Los Angeles-based experimental hip-hop group was the first stop on my tour of stages. The park wasn’t crowded but the hard-hitting rhymes of MC Daveed Diggs and the cacophonous Bomb Squad-style production of William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes drew early festival goers to the Red Stage.
Have you ever wondered what happened to Native Tongues mainstays Digable Planets? My latent curiosity led me back to the Red Stage to see former member Ishmael Butler (aka Butterfly) and co-producer Tendai “Baba” Maraire do their thing. Their music is laid back and soulful, space-age trip-hop with live drumming from Maraire and just a taste of the late 80s style that Butler knows and loves. They drew a bigger crowd whose heads were bobbing the entire time.
I was honestly surprised that these guys were invited back after they had the crowd destroy the barricade last year, but the Sacramento-based punk outfit came roaring back this year. Fresh off the release of their latest LP “No Peace” and a couple of years after signing with Odd Future Records, TTHC is riding strong on some truly insane live performances, and AfroPunk 2014 was no exception. Lead vocalist Lee Spielman spent most of their set in the middle of the pit, with crazed fans (myself included) creating a tornado of bodies around him. Bassist Spencer Pollard ended the set by shredding on the roof of the Red Stage.
The highly influential punk/reggae outfit were the headliners at the Black Stage Saturday night, and the versatile group gave us everything they had. There was fast-paced punk shredding with a brutal pit. There were laid-back reggae jams. MC Murs even showed up halfway through the set and performed songs from their collective side project The White Mandingos.
Lianne La Havas
The famed British singer-songwriter made her AfroPunk debut this year. I’m impressed with the reputation she’s built for herself after only releasing one album two years ago, but the songstress really blew the Green Stage away with her smooth R&B and guitar this year, a great palette cleanser in between the mayhem of the first day.
Controversial MC Ice-T has a hardcore thrash metal band. Yes, I was surprised as everyone else when I first heard about this. But their topical songs gave their set an immediacy lacking from many of the others on Saturday. What more can you expect from a band whose frontman taunts police officers in the area with songs like “Cop Killer” and “Talk Shit, Get Shot”?
AfroPunk Day 2:
Unlocking The Truth
One more bout of insanity occurred before the relatively lax set list on Sunday. Pre-teens Malcolm Brickhouse (guitar, vocals) and Jarad Dawkins (drums) formed the band in 2007 and gained much attention for performances around New York City. Recently, they added Alec Atkins (bass) after teaching him to play bass – from scratch. Their age and size hide a mind-blowing level of technical skill that kicked the crowd at the Black Stage into a frenzy.
The sole female artist at Top Dawg Entertainment, SZA’s contemporary R&B by way of jazz vocals were a welcome addition to the Red Stage on Sunday. I didn’t get to catch all of her set because it was especially crowded, but the sound was undeniable. With three EPs under her belt and a fourth on the way, her star is still on the rise.
The lighter neo-soul side of the Odd Future stable of musicians closed things out on the Red Stage in typically smooth fashion this year. Lead vocalist Syd “Tha Kid” Bennett and producer/keyboardist Matt Martians, along with their backing band, had the crowd eating out of the palm of their hands, even though they started their set 45 minutes late. It was the only set I saw this weekend where the lyrics coming from the audience almost overpowered the singer herself.
Multi instrumentalist and progenitor of neo-soul lit up the Green Stage as the day came to a close. Equal parts hip-hop, soul, rock, jazz, and beyond, Ndegeocello all-out approach to music attracted many. I was caught up at The Internet because their set unintentionally ran into hers, but I still dug it like an old soul record.
The moment that everyone in attendance was waiting for…didn’t come until an hour after it was supposed to. But even though his set took a while to get going, the legendary neo-soul artist closed out AfroPunk in extraordinary style. Supported by a backing band that included none other than drummer Questlove of The Roots, D’Angelo rocked the park to its foundations. Here’s hoping that his third album finally sees the light of day soon…
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