Afropunk is beautiful black weirdness, a huge celebration of black creativity that assembles some of the best crowds I have had a privilege of being surrounded by. Not long ago it was a hushed whisper that went down in a parking lot and you felt that if you talked about it too much you might speak it out of existence. Since then it’s blossomed like a rose out of concrete into a three-stage bastion of black expression and artistry drawing bigger names than the creators ever envisioned.
At this year’s fest, I ran like a mad man from stage to stage because no matter how big or small the artist, they seemed to be at their best, gleeful for the opportunity to see seas of ebony shades and shapes glowing in the sunlight and moonlight. I saw 15 sets total over two days, and 10 of the artists mentioned how ecstatic they felt about the rare chance to perform in front of a majority black crowd. Every act lit the audience with a special frequency of energy and sound that was dialed into and thrown back at them a thousand fold.
Afropunk is bigger than it’s ever been. The empty parking lot is now the entirety of Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn with several cars parked in a huge Toyota tent monstrosity. But the performances felt as intimate and good-natured as a cousin singing at a family reunion. I only wish anyone in my family was this talented, though. Here are some of my favorite performances, listed in chronological order.
Saul Williams’ Homecoming
Saul Williams says he’s a human being from Brooklyn before pretty much every show he does, but dude emits the aura of an otherworldly entity. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with him after a more intimate show around the release of his latest album, MartyrLoserKing, and my quivering handshake alerted me that he is one of few people I am too intimidated to even speak to because they’re so smart. It took me a while to realize how daunted I was to talk to him because his onstage persona is so inviting. He closes the gap between him and his audience both physically and mentally every time he steps on stage.
Afropunk was slightly different because he was home, with younger versions of himself surrounding him. The crowd knew his lyrics almost verbatim. An ease overtook him as he went into his award-winning poetry and even seemingly impromptu spoken word pieces. These are things I’d never seen him perform before, and I’ve seen the man more times than I’m willing to admit. He wandered so far into the crowd that the sound crew was worried his wireless microphone would be out of range. At this set, in his backyard, despite all of his accomplishments and scary erudition, he was just one of many. In that moment, he felt that much more unique.
Flying Lotus’ Sensory Overload
Flying Lotus going absolutely insane on his equipment is quite the sight to behold. The sheer elation that overtakes Steven Ellison’s face and body makes you wish you loved anything as much as he does making and performing music. It turns out not seeing him as he does his thing may be even more mesmerizing.
FlyLo’s time onstage had the energy of a dance set, rising and falling with precisely timed drops and impeccable transitions. Dance sets are a rarity at Afropunk, but his glitchy, off-time-on-purpose swing doesn’t feel like dance music at all. It isn’t as mechanistic. As a disciple of J Dilla, he knows how to inject warmth and his own brand of celestial soul into his music through manual human error. But for most of his set, the human causing all this commotion wasn’t visible.
Ellison was hidden behind a huge projector screen that basically was an enormous wall of awesome, disturbing images. From a distance you could only catch quick glimpses of his silhouette. He disappeared and reappeared like some dark magic DJ wizard. He played clips from both his films, FUCKKKYOUUU and Royal, and scored them live. He performed songs ranging from 2008’s Los Angeles to 2014’s You’re Dead! with fractal graphics synced to his controller. Your sight and hearing overwhelmed the rest of your senses to point where you weren’t aware of your bodily functions. I was close enough to see through the screen’s material and he was going berserk, twitching and writhing with each new element he brought into a song or mix.
FlyLo himself got so lost in the sensory immersion he created that he didn’t even know how much time had passed. After asking the stage manager how much time he had left, he responded, “I got 15 minutes left? Y’all are fucked.” And, true to his word, he supplied us with another quarter hour of eargasms. When Ellison sewed together Kendrick Lamar’s “Wesley’s Theory” and Parliament Funkadelic’s “Freak Of The Week” with glitchy blips, absolute mayhem ensued. To finish things off, he turned into his rapping alter-ego Captain Murphy, stepped out from behind the screen, and performed some of the crazy, tongue-twisting one-offs he has floating around on the net. He held everyone’s senses hostage for over an hour. I realized how hungry, thirsty, and tired I was immediately after his set finished, and if he started up again, I’m sure I would have forgotten all over again.
Gallant’s Vocal Acrobatics
Gallant’s music is anti-festival. It’s slow, grand, sweeping, and not particularly catchy. But he is one of those few artists that come along that can captivate solely with his voice. That is precisely what happened during his set. No one really knew the songs from Ology enough to sing along with them much (except the woman right next to me, unfortunately), and the crowd was completely still. This kind of music typically flatlines at a festival, but the audience was captivated.
Given how much time Gallant was able to spend in his fascinating upper register, you’d think he must be warming up for a tour, but he’s been on the road pretty much non-stop since the album dropped at the end of March and his voice still sounded stellar. Women screamed when his band stopped playing and only his voice was left ringing out. There were much noisier band and DJ sets underway at the same time, and enough sound would waft over that you could tell who else was performing nearby, but Gallant’s voice was louder and more powerful in isolation than with his band’s support. When he went a cappella, you couldn’t hear a single sound from the other stages. That gold microphone of his may seem over-the-top, but it certainly matches a golden set of pipes. I hope he has an insurance policy for just his lungs and vocal cords.
Earl Sweatshirt’s Dazzling Sadness
Earl Sweatshirt is also anti-festival. He specializes in heady, complicated rhyme bursts about how he misses his grandmother and how much being famous annoys him. And though he uses a lot of bass in his beats that will surely vibrate your clothing if you stand remotely close to a speaker stack, his music isn’t really meant to be enjoyed. He doesn’t give you anything in the way of redemption or happiness, or even that one song you can just bop too. He doesn’t give a fuck about your feelings because he’s processing his own. The guy doesn’t like shit or go outside, so there’s a weird tension between a super-hyped crowd of devoted followers and an artist that doesn’t even really want to be there. But Sweatshirt is brilliant in his apathy.
Few artists can hold a crowd’s attention essentially rooted in one spot on stage, spitting lines that are still hard to make sense of a year and change since they dropped. The crowd knew every word. I was floored. Earl did entire verses a cappella, leaving lines out while holding out the mic out for the crowd to spit back at him, and they didn’t skip a beat. People rapped the entire first verse of “Chum,” with all of it’s multi-syllable and internal rhyme bursts, without missing a single word.
Early on in his career, Earl would have had the crowd moshing. He’d been known to stage dive quite often too. Since cutting ties with Odd Future (although he did extend a warm welcome as The Internet arrived backstage), he’s calmed down, saddened, and ventured increasingly inward. What amazes me is that his fans will follow as deep as he will let them.
The Internet Connects Despite Sound Difficulties
The Internet are enjoying a heightened status after being nominated for a Grammy for their excellently groovy Ego Death. Both they and former Odd Future affiliate Earl Sweatshirt had higher billing at Afropunk than their one-time leader Tyler, The Creator. That elevated profile didn’t make them immune to technical difficulties, though, as Murphy’s law knows no stature.
After the sound crew spent about 30 minutes trying to work out the issues, the band couldn’t wait any longer and started the show. “Fuck it, we’ll do the best we can,” Syd Tha Kyd said. The stage mix was off, and she was drowned out by her bandmates at times. Steve Lacy’s guitar cut in and out at random times, crackling a bit with unwanted distortion. None of this mattered. Syd could have sung a cappella and Lacy could have played the air guitar and the crowd would have been with them. When it comes to The Interwebs all you really need are those deep-burrowing bass lines, and the savvy crowd knew that. Few people stood still. When Syd suspended the mic in front of them with a long, lanky arm, they knew every lyric, no matter how early in the catalog.
At its essence, their set was simply a black, queer woman-fronted band seeing and feeling their blackness, weirdness, and artistry reflected back at them. It’s a bond Syd mentioned they are rarely a part of onstage. What was traded between the band and the audience ultimately had little to do with sound, so the fact that the sonics weren’t optimal didn’t matter at all.