Lush afros adorned with crowns, skillfully twerking thighs, and the soulful sights and sounds of the Black diaspora abounded at Afropunk Festival 2018. The Brooklyn-based festival, celebrated its thirteenth year of existence with headlining performances by Erykah Badu, Miguel, and Janelle Monae at its long-time home on the grounds of Commodore Barry Park.
Though I was a first-time attendee, it didn’t take long to feel like I was in a familiar place celebrating my Black roots in a sort of homecoming. A cultural smorgasbord spanning two jam-packed days, Afropunk featured four music stages, a visual arts section, a bazaar lined with small minority-owned businesses, and a skateboarding competition. Holding true to its activist roots, there was also a cluster of booths dedicated to grassroots campaigns and initiatives.
On day one, the crowd began to swell in time for Adeline whose performance was as funky as the colorful barrettes which adorned her hair. Her voice defied the statements our uncles and aunties make when listening to Motown— that music this good isn’t made anymore. Between sets, high-energy DJs like Coco and Breezy, kept the crowd moving, often leaving their table to twerk along with the audience.
Rising star, Jessie Reyez, took us through the raw emotions of a breakup with songs like “Shutter Island” and “Fuck It.” Reyez’s set seemed not unlike a massive group therapy session with rows of girls feeling each word as she belted (squeakily) into the mic. She gave the crowd some emotional closure at the end, promising “I’m not gonna leave you crying about your ex… fuck your ex!” She closed by leading the crowd in a chant about loving who you want to love.
Seeking space to recover from the weight of the previous performance, I made a stop at the Red Stage in time to hear Lion Babe’s hits “Hit the Ceiling,” “Treat Me Like Fire,” and “Jump Hi.” Her high-energy show was as fun visually as it was to sing (and dance) along to. I also snagged a popsicle (four actually over the course of the festival) from a small-batch Mexican pop-up called La Newyorkina. With flavors like Watermelon, Mango Chile, Passionfruit, and Mexican Chocolate, it was impossible to just have one.
I headed back over to the Gold Stage to get a good seat for H.E.R.’s performance and was pleasantly surprised by Smino, a young rapper I’d (perhaps embarrassingly) never heard of. Understandably compared to Chance the Rapper and Saba, Smino manages to reserve a space for himself that is uniquely his. Amongst todays rappers-who-sort-of-sing, Smino’s ability to balance lyrical dexterity and playfulness without losing musicality make him a delight to listen to. Endearingly, he exclaimed at one point “This is the most Black people I ever done seen!” Me too, Smino. He has certainly earned a place on my morning playlist and in my heart.
Delays in performances made it difficult for those who wanted to catch both Daniel Caesar and H.E.R. Having seen Daniel Caesar at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, I opted to stay for H.E.R. The hour-plus delay before her performance had its own hints of excitement which came via celebrity appearances in the pit from the likes of Issa Rae, creator and star of hit show Insecure, her dreamy co-star Sarunas Jackson, Miguel, and models/influencers like Slick Woods.
When H.E.R. finally took the stage, the reclusive young songstress was somehow even better live than on recordings. At barely twenty-one, H.E.R.’s sultry voice and quiet confidence lulled the crowd into a continuous sway. She effortlessly served us smooth ballads like “Focus” and “Every Kind of Way.” It seemed all that was missing was a few lit candles to complete the mood…well, candles and Daniel Caesar to join H.E.R. on “The Best Part,” the pair’s hit duet. The crowd rejoiced when Daniel appeared on stage and cheered through their surprise joint performance.
The performance was the calm before the excitement that was Miguel. The crowd loved Miguel and Miguel loved the crowd, crediting Afropunk with helping him to find himself as an artist. He delivered older hits such as “Do You…” and “Adorn” but also kept the crowd singing along with newer hits “Banana Clip” and “Sky Walker.” In a celebration of his Afro-Mexican roots and of the diversity of the Black diaspora, Miguel gifted the crowd with Spanish banger “Caramelo Duro.” He also shared his new song, “I Lied,” a personal ballad focused on the importance of honesty with ourselves and with others.
Getting to the festival was not difficult (I just followed the people in cool outfits and the smell of cocoa butter), but leaving proved difficult. The festival’s organizers poorly communicated exists to festival goers, forcing thousands of sweaty, confused attendees to guess their way to and through a single exit which was both dangerous and distressing given security threats at recent events.
Though the Fantastic Negrito’s music was all new to me, he captured the weirdness and wonder of the festival experience and of the Black experience in so many ways. Dressed in a lime green ensemble, Negrito sporadically danced between rambling about Blackness and singing about it in whimsical original pieces such as my personal favorite, “Plastic Hamburgers.” Though it didn’t need stating, he mused between songs that he doesn’t use a set list. His set reflected largely on his relationship with an America that he, at one point, described as “being like a diet” in that it always falls off. His quirky-but-soulful set culminated in a rendition of his original, “That Nigga Song,” wherein he shared that “unless your people swung from trees and slaved till dawn,” the N-word is best kept out of your vocabulary.
I took a break to explore the food options, ultimately deciding on a well-seasoned jerk chicken plate from JAMROCK JERK which I split half-and-half with a friend who shared her shrimp and crab nacho plate from Lolo’s Seafood Shack. While I don’t think I’d make the trek to visit either restaurant, the dishes were solid as festival food goes.
When I returned to the stage to stake out a spot for Janelle Monáe, I caught Jacob Banks closing out on his final song “Chainsmoking.” Banks’ smoky vocals and soulful delivery filled the field as the Brit’s voice took us to church.
The wait for Janelle Monáe was well worth it. While I admit that I did not fully appreciate Monáe until her latest record, Dirty Computer, I appreciated her performance of older hits like “Electric Lady” and “Tightrope.” As a recently out queer woman, Monáe excited the queer folks in the audience by reasserting her queerness and with a call to embrace the people we love (regardless of gender). She placed the queer cherry on top with her performances of “Pynk” and “Make Me Feel.” Among her otherwise androgynous, form-fitting stage costumes, was her now-signature vagina pants which she and her backup dancers donned on stage during “Pynk.” Monáe occupied a necessary space as a pansexual femme headliner providing representation for the hundreds Black LGBTQ festivalgoers in attendance (and she put on a great show).
After stumbling through a handful of audio-visual and stage setup hiccups, the festival culminated in a long-awaited performance by Queen of Neo Soul, Erykah Badu. Attempting to beat the disastrous exiting process of the previous day, I left before Queen Badu’s set was finished but am glad to be able to listen to her on Apple Music and bring myself back to Afropunk anytime I’d like.
An arts and culture festival through-and-through, Afropunk left my little Black girl soul fed and has me excited to return.
Words by Amanda Bonam, Photos by Maya-Katharine Moore