This weekend marked the 11th year of Afropunk Fest in Brooklyn, a weekend-long celebration of music, style, and cultural collaboration. The historically free festival's success has been so great over the past decade that it's now expanded to Atlanta and Paris. It's always proven to be two days packed with phenomenal performances, beautiful people, and only the best of vibes.
I attended Afropunk 2014 and comfortably lounged on a blanket in Commodore Barry Park, drinking nutcrackers in between great shows that included D'Angelo's first live performance in over 10 years. The 2015 event had one major difference - it was ticketed. Passes cost upwards of $50 per day. Given this year's lineup, a price tag was put on entry to get a better handle on attendees.
Seeing headliner Lauryn Hill has been my dream since the first time I heard The Fugees when I was 7, so I needed to go to Afropunk this year. I believe I've made it clear that I hate spending money on stuff, and I wasn't looking forward to paying for it. Perhaps suspecting this response, the festival organizers collaborated with the Afropunk Army initiative and gave people who volunteered with a few New York charities a free weekend pass. I signed up with TreesCount! NYC and spent an afternoon inventorying the oaks, maples, and other flora that lined a couple square blocks in the neighborhood of Bed Stuy. It was super easy, surprisingly fun, and I walked away with the reward of Afropunk entry (along with a branded backpack and tin water bottle).
Volunteers were also invited to the Fancy Dress Ball the night before the festival began. Tickets for the charity event, which included guest performances from MikeQ, Cakes Da Killa, and the legendary Grace Jones, were normally $80-500. A promocode sent out to the Army brought that price down to $10, which I was willing to pay given how much other free stuff I'd gotten out of volunteering.
Everyone at the Fancy Dress Ball was decked out to the nines. I saw ensembles that ranged from sleek cocktail dresses to 18th-century inspired French ballgowns. Men turned out in retro powder blue tuxedos, three-piece suits, and top hats. There were only a few hundred people there, so the event had an intimate feel to it.
Cakes Da Killa's set, DJ'ed by MikeQ, got the crowd's energy up as he mouthed off and flirted with his back up dancers and his audience alike. It was nothing compared to Grace Jones though, who gave one of the most outstanding and outrageous performances I've ever seen. Wearing nothing but an under-bust corset, body paint, and a series of impressive headdresses, she tore up the stage for over an hour as she moved through classics like "My Jamaican Guy" and "Love is the Drug". She changed her headdress with every song; among them were a gold mask adorned with enormous feathers, a jewel-encrusted skullcap that became a disco ball when it reflected the spotlight, and a piece made out of black leather that flowed down her back like a cape. Eventually the headdresses (and her heels) came off, and she hula hooped for a solid 15 minutes while singing "Slave to the Rhythm" interspersed with wild commentary and introductions to her band, dancers, and mother. I've never seen anything like it, and probably won't again.
The Fancy Dress Ball had been so great that I was still high off the energy from it going into Saturday, and was really excited for what the first official day of Afropunk held. It was clear when we arrived at Commodore Barry Park's gates in the late afternoon that we'd be having a different experience.
Despite the event being ticketed, it was a complete mobscene. In previous years, there were many entrances and security had been seamless. This time, it took nearly an hour just to get into the park, even though there were ten different security checkpoints open at the one entrance. They blamed it on how "thorough" the guards were being, but when I finally made it to the front the woman responsible for checking me just stared blankly at my bag and waved me through. I had a flask in there too, so sucks for them.
Once inside, we could barely move. The whole park was so full of people that it was nearly impossible to navigate between stages, let alone check out any of the great vendors and designers with stalls set up all over the festival. The bar, which last year provided a quiet fenced-off area for respite, was packed to the point that you couldn't even tell where the liquor was being served. I wanted to get pictures of all the great outfits people were wearing, but my arms were effectively stuck to my sides the entire time. So I took this picture instead to represent the experience:
We tried to get a decent spot to see Lauryn Hill, but by the time she took the stage the whole area in front of us had been populated with tall people and big hair. While I was able to catch a glimpse of her a few times, most of the performance I saw through other people's phone screens as they held them up high to take pictures. "It's okay," I reassured myself. "I can still hear her, which is the important thing!" And yes, she sounded fantastic. Mizz Hill took up a guitar and performed with a 7-piece band that included trumpet and standing bass players. She reworked songs from her own repertoire as well as classic Fugees' jams to have a sound infused with alt rock and ska. I'd never heard them done in such a way before, which as a nearly-lifelong fan was pretty exciting.
I enjoyed it so much that I too decided to film it, and started taking a video during her fourth song. Which is why I was able to record this happening:
Yes, that's Lauryn Hill saying, "Da fuq" when they cut off sound for her band and vocals mid-song. Then they turned off all the stage lights, and did not turn anything back on despite the crowd's cheering and jeering for the next 10 minutes. But Lauryn Hill and her band did not stop performing, mics and lighting be damned. I wish I had also gotten a video of tens of thousands of people singing along to "Du Wop (That Thing)" with her, because it was a pretty epic. OH WAIT, I DID:
We left immediately after Mizz Hills' performance. Given the laid back, non-claustrophobic atmosphere of last year's festival, I was sorely disappointed by Afropunk 2015. If ticketing the show was supposed to make it more manageable, the organizers failed in every respect. I'm grateful that I was able to attend the Fancy Dress Ball, because the rest of it was a total shitshow.
I didn't even bother using my pass on Sunday, missing the opportunity to see Thundercat, Gary Clark, Jr., and potentially Lenny Kravitz's penis. I did get to see Grace Jones' boobs though, and at 67 that woman looks about 27 and has me seriously reevaluating my life choices.