Of all the festivals I have attended, none felt more like a community event than Afropunk Festival. Located in Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park, the event was extremely local centric. From local food trucks to booths for local zines, the event gave a well rounded look at Brooklyn. There was also an educational component to the event with booths to learn about African American history, socialism, and anarchism. While all the event grounds had something for everybody, most people were there for the music.
After a hot sun-soaked Saturday, The Heavy took to the green stage as the last officially scheduled performers before a “special guest.” For their part, the Heavy killed it. Although the crowd was not nearly as densely pack as I expected, those in attendance seemed to immensely enjoy the band. The band’s horn section was on point and Kelvin Swaby’s vocals are just as dynamic if not more so than on record. Their set included all the hits “Short Change Hero,” “Big Bad Wolf,” “What Makes A Good Man?,” and of course they closed with “How You Like Me Now?”
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No sooner did the band complete “How You Like Me Now?” that crowd began to buzz about the special guest. A rumor went around that the special guest was Prince. Not long after that people started saying it might be one of the many celebrities spotted at the event: Will Smith, Queen Latifa, Pharoahe Monch, or Dead Prez. After an extremely long wait, the crowd began chanting “hur-ry-up.” Finally what emerged was what no one could have imagine. It was CX Kidtronik (DJ for Saul Williams) resurrecting his early 90s work with acts like K.I.N. and 400 Strength. Essentially the act included abrasive drum machines, live guitar and bass, and screamed vocals from various nameless performers. Coincidentally, most guest vocalist were given a mic which did not work so only the emphasizing screams from Kidtronik and the musicians were heard. Needless to say after a song or two, the crowd had completely turned on the band with audible boos but CX Kidtronik and company were not over. They played a fairly lengthy set before bringing on M.O.P. to perform their hit “Ante Up” which seemed to be the only time the crowd did not boo the performance.
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As CX Kidtronik’s crew exited the stage with their tails between their legs, stage crew was busy preparing for the next performance–the actual special guest. After a decent wait, the crowd began their cheers of “hur-ry-up.” Finally, CX Kidtronik came back out on stage playing with his abrasive drum machine. Needless to say the crowd was not pleased but the attitude turned around slightly when Saul Williams emerged. For background, Williams headlined the Green Stage the same night. So essentially the special guest was if you decided to watch the Heavy instead of Williams, now you get your chance to enjoy both. This didn’t go over great with many attendees as people continued to trickle out throughout the performance. For his part, Saul Williams put on a nice set despite having just performed. He bounced between his electro-hip hop songs and socially conscious slam poetry. He got the loudest ovation when performing “List of Demands” and although it did not close Williams’ set, it closed his set for many attendees as many headed for the exits.
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If Saturday was hot, Sunday was hotter. With most of the well known acts of the festival performing on Sunday, the crowd was exponentially larger which just added to the heat. The heat didn’t seem to bother Pyyramids who rocked a 2pm time slot on the green stage. The band which features Tim Norwood of OK Go and Drea Smith of He Say/She Say fame might have been the sleeper of the festival. Smith proved to be a strong and enigmatic performer. Her voiced seemed to boom especially on the band’s latest single “Paper Dolls.” The only downside was the crowd which hadn’t all found their way in gates quite yet.
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By the time Canada’s K-OS hit the stage, the crowd was more in place. K-OS’ mix of hip hop and rock really embodied what Afropunk is all about. Of course, he cheekily performed “Sunday Morning” despite it being mid-Sunday afternoon and internet hit, “I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman” went over the best with the crowd. Other set highlights included a freestyle over Dr. Dre‘s “Forgot About Dre” reworked into “Forgot About K.”
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While K-Os was captivating his audience, Big Freedia was doing similar over on the Red Stage. Known as the New Orleans Queen of Bounce, Freedia’s role is less emcee and more party host. Armed with his three divas, Freedia’s DJ spins bounce beats while his divas twerk on stage. Freedia’s role is mostly to hype the crowd and occasionally sing along to what his DJ is spinning. It was an interesting dynamic, although the crowd was much more interested in watching his divas’ asses bounce. Perhaps the most enjoyable moment was when Freedia invited the crowd to hop the barriers and go on stage to twerk. While the most women on stage could nary keep twerking up for the entire track, one gentleman in cut-off jean hot pants and wearing a makeshift feather headdress proved to be the most apt twerker. It was a true underdog story.
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Following Freedia, the stage’s hostess Shes Ryan came on and introduced a surprise guest, Ninjasonik whose member Telli was working as co-host on the stage. The duo played a brief set but it was packed with high energy hip hop and lots of punk and indie rock sampling. Most noteably, they performed their remix of Matt and Kim‘s “Daylight” which was fantastic.
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While Ninjasonik were a nice in between set surprise, the reason the crowd was so large was because Danny Brown was up next. Playing crowd favorites like “Blunt After Blunt” followed by “Kush Coma,” even Brown admitted that the crowd was “turnt up.” The surprise of the set might have been Brown omitting his biggest hit, “Grown Up” but that didn’t seem to bother the crowd who was quite satisfied with the Detroit rapper’s set.
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With the specter of Chuck D‘s set looming large, next up was Trash Talk. For all non-Trash Talk fans, the set was like a bomb on a sunny day. The Sacramento hardcore band’s set was the most destructive of the day. Lead singer, Lee Spielman (the only white vocalist at the festival) spent mere minutes on stage before jumping into the crowd and staying there. He opened up a huge circle pit and eventually incited the crowd to break down the barriers. Most injuries occurred due to crowd surfers and stage divers. Fair reader, even your brave author had his neck used as a springboard into the crowd by a stage diver.
Once Trash Talk’s set ended so did the violence. The fans of Trash Talk seemed to dissipate quickly, allowing the Public Enemy fans time to secure a spot for Chuck D’s set. As expected Chuck D’s set was markedly sociopolitical, not only in his lyrics but in his inbetween song rants. D was always an educator and he kept those sentiments. On this particular night, he was mostly on about the current state of hip hop music as he burned the logo of a local hip hop station and XXL magazine. He, also burned a copy of the New York Post who he said reports on rappers only when it is negative. Although his speeches were not only about gripes about hip hop but also about how to make it better; he was touting in particular #occupyfreeair.
But enough about the politics, let talk about the set list. Originally it was reported that Chuck D was going to be Fear of a Black Planet in full which was in no way the case. The set list covered all the major hits: “”Rebel Without a Pause,” “Bring the Noise,” and “Fight the Power” among others. Terminator X’s replacement, DJ Lord was given time to show off his major cutting ability in what was a dazzling display and Chuck D even brought out his protege Kendo The Almost Famous to perform a song. Unfortunately between the rants, the DJ set, and the song by Kendo, the set was shortened by quite a bit. When the set list was thrown out into the crowd it revealed that Chuck D was forced to cut what was to be the set closer “Harder Than You Think” which I could have seen really lighting up the crowd. The time shortened set definitely put a bit of a damper on the performance but Chuck stated that his goal was to leave the audience better than they came and with the wisdom he shared, many fans left more educated than before.
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Chuck D’s goal seemed to the same as the entire festival. Afropunk mixed educational messages with entertainment and strengthening the local economy to create one of the best festival experiences seen in New York this summer. When the crowd exited Sunday night, the anticipation for Afropunk 2014 was already brimming.