Black is Punk and Punk is Black: African Americans in DIY Spaces and the AFROPUNK Festival

By Allegra Solomon, Contributor

Throughout history, there has been a wave of black people creating spaces for themselves. Traditionally, however, people of color don’t make spaces for themselves to exclude others, but because they have been excluded from mainstream spaces.

Remember in high school where there would be clubs such as “Desi Club”, “Asian Affinity Club”, and “Black Organization of Students”? But there would always be that one white kid that would say, “Why can’t we have a ‘white club’?” Here’s the answer: The world is your club – mainstream music, alternative, rock, and DIY is your club. And in a world where you’re supposed to “get in where you fit in,” sometimes you have to create something entirely new when something for you doesn’t already exist.

At a young age, people of color are taught through experience that it is normal to walk into a room and to be the only non-white person there. In fact, it is almost expected. (This is coming from a girl who was one of four black students in her high school graduating class.)

Similarly, at an average house show, you can count the number of non-white people on one hand. The unifying power that music possesses has the ability to bring people from all walks of life together in one room, however, when this oddly consistent, alienating feeling beings to weigh heavy, many people are pushed to make a new space. For black people, Afro-Punk is that space.

To refer to an aspect of punk as “Afro-Punk” almost feels redundant, because black punk bands played an immense role in the creation of the genre. Regardless, Afro-Punk refers to African American and Black participation in the alternative music scene. Not only is it a descriptor of a music scene, but it’s also a music festival and a film.

The 2003 documentary, AfroPunk, directed by James Spooner, followed Afro-Punk bands and their contributions to the alternative scene. I caught up with Dr. Akil Houston, one of Ohio University’s African American Studies professors, and we delved deeper into the Afro-Punk story.

“The film is really about black people and their role in punk. For example, Bad Brains and a bunch of other black bands that are a part of that genre kind of get overlooked, but they had been there since the beginning,” Houston notes. “If you’re looking for the origins of punk, you have to go back to the origins of hip-hop. I think that people forget that as hip-hop was forming, punk was also developing. In some instances, those two crowds came together. They are both alternative counter cultures.”

It’s true – Bands like and Bad Brains (who are considered one of the pioneers of punk) were there when punk was becoming what it is known as today. Then along came white-washing, which left originators locked out of the scene they helped create.

I’ll let you in on a secret: this isn’t the first time that this has happened.

“If you look at this country’s musical history, black people have always “done that” – whether you’re talking the blues, or if you’re talking jazz. Then, as it becomes more popular, it gets appropriated. And then, it’s almost as if there was no black influence at all,” Houston says.

Much like Elvis did with rock and roll, there was an erasure of the black subculture that helped create the very thing white people began claiming as theirs. In the same vein, the idea that there is a definitive line that separates white interests from black interests keeps the scene from being diverse, and that can be seen as a fault on both sides.

“There is also this disconnect sometimes [when interacting with other black people who did not grow up in those cultural spaces],” Houston emphasizes. “So, let’s say you listen to The Clash and you also know who Culture Club and Cyndi Lauper are, but black people who haven’t grown up in those spaces are like, ‘Well what’s wrong with you? You know—you’re not really black.’”

In other words, there can be a lack of acceptance on both sides that can leave black people stranded. You’re either too black for the white kids or too white for the black kids. The psychological effects of always feeling like the odd one out are way more than just feeling uncomfortable. It can instill an internalized hatred that could take years to reverse.

“There’s a lot of research on it [on not belonging],” Houston claims. “Sometimes, it can be this thing where you’re taught that there’s something wrong with your cultural expressions.”

Anissa Simone-Hampton, a student at Ohio University, also commented on the importance of these spaces.

“Whenever things happen in the news – like Tyree King or Trayvon Martin – black people just feel that hard. And of course white people feel sad too, but it’s not the same. It’s good to be able to talk to people that understand what you’re feeling. It’s good to have those spaces because not every person of color has had the same experience with white people. Not every place is as accepting of black people. It’s nice to have those alternatives to go to,” Simone-Hampton stresses.

The AFROPUNK Music Festival (and scene as a whole) normalizes the existence of black people with music taste that includes something other than R&B, Gospel, and rap, without invalidating their blackness. While The AFROPUNK Festival has been held in Brooklyn since 2005, it recently expanded to have other festivals in Atlanta, Paris, and London.

“AFROPUNK was literally everything I imagined it would be and more,” Bret Hairston, an AFROPUNK festival goer, says. “AFROPUNK is a three-day cultural mecca of inclusion, true diversity, and overall beautiful vibes. I remember begging my mother to fly me out from Ohio to Atlanta just for the festival. The tickets were more than worth it.”

Lion Babe at The AFROPUNK Music Festival. Photo curtesy of Bret Hairston.

Even though it began as a place to showcase Afro-Punk bands, the festival has grown to incorporate black artists from all kinds of genres. Last year’s Brooklyn lineup ranged from punk groups like TV on the Radio, Fishbone and Flying Lotus, to more mainstream black artists like Janelle Monae, Tyler, The Creator and Ice Cube.

The festival has grown to be known as a sanctuary for black music and a place where cultural expression can’t be considered wrong – meaning a music genre doesn’t make you any more or less black. Spaces like this will continue to create a new, more expansive description of what it means to be a black fan of music.

“Afropunk is so important because it challenges the ideas of where black people are “supposed” to exist in music,” Hairston says.“Black people must challenge and break the box that we are placed in so that we have more room to exist in the ways that we want to – not only in music but in society and life. Afropunk is just one tool we can utilize for this mission.”

3 Comments Add yours

  1. learningthethreads says:

    I LOVE ALLEGRA SOLOMON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  2. mary kate says:

    I ALSO LOVE ALLEGRA SOLOMON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  3. Jack Chester says:

    Allegra has always had an insightful mind that sees well into the deep power good music can have! Love how this article goes beyond just the music while not losing a connection to the importance of the physical sound itself. Makes me want to go to AFROPUNK..


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