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Friday, August 23, 2013

Afropunk Festival Showcases Diverse African-American Music Scene

The lineup at AfroPunk 2013. (AfroPunk/Facebook)

The lineup at AfroPunk 2013 (click to enlarge). (AfroPunk/Facebook)

The summer is winding down, but not before one of the last great music festivals of the season.

This weekend, about 30,000 people will turn out in Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park for the 8th annual Afropunk Fest.

Although Afro-punk is a genre on its own, the festival includes artists from hip hop to pop to punk.

“We describe Afro-punk as a free space for African Americans — and anyone else who wants to come onto that space — to just be who they are, and not being defined by monolithic definition of what, sort of, the outside culture puts on us as African American people. So if you like metal, if you like hip hop, if you like emo, if you’re into body modification or tattoos, it’s a space to be yourself,” festival organizer Jocelyn Cooper told Here & Now.


  • Jocelyn Cooper, one of the organizers of Afropunk Fest. She tweets @jocelyn_jc.




Now, the summer is winding down, but not before one of the last great music festivals of the season. This weekend, about 30,000 people will turn out in Brooklyn's Commodore Barry Park for the eighth annual Afropunk Fest. It actually ranges from hip-hop to pop to punk and everywhere in between.


SAUL WILLIAMS: (Singing) I want my money back, I'm down here drowning in your fat. You got me on my knees praying for everything you lack. I ain't afraid of you, I'm just a victim of your fear. You cower in your tower praying that I'll disappear. I got another plan...

YOUNG: Poet and singer/songwriter Saul Williams singing "Reparations," part of the festival this weekend. And Jocelyn Cooper of Afropunk, which puts on the outdoor music festival, joins us from her office in Brooklyn. Welcome, sounds great.

JOCELYN COOPER: Nice to be with you, Robin. Thank you so much for having me.

YOUNG: So I made a stab at defining Afropunk. How would you do it?

COOPER: Well, we describe Afropunk as a free space for African-Americans and anyone else who wants to come in to that space to just be who they are and not being defined by a monolithic definition of what sort of the outside culture puts on us as African-American people. So if you like metal, if you like hip-hop, if you like emo, if you're into body modification or tattoos, it's a space to be yourself.

YOUNG: And we understand that you are very much in swimming in the mainstream music industry for a while. You're a music publisher, names like D'Angelo, Nelly, Cash Money Records. And then you met your business and life partner Matt Morgan, and he brought you to Afropunk.

COOPER: He did bring me to Afropunk. I actually met him when I was running L.A. Reid's music publishing company and representing songwriters like Beyonce. And we had lunch one day and he told me, look, I've got 300 bands on my site - 300 black bands, and I couldn't believe it. You know, I've been the head of A and R for Universal for 10 years and I, you know, didn't know the caliber nor the quantity of bands that were out there. And they were all sort of hubbed and congregated on this site, on And it was just mind-blowing for me.

YOUNG: Yeah. Different kinds, too: punk, alternative. So let's just listen to some of the music that will be featured this weekend. Let's hear from Wicked Wisdom.


JADA PINKETT-SMITH: (Singing) I love your pain and how it makes me feel inside. I love your pain and how it opens you so wide. And I love the way you bleed all over, all over me.

YOUNG: Well, now, people may already know this, but for those who don't, that's Jada Pinkett-Smith, wife of Will.

COOPER: It is. And she exemplifies what Afropunk is all about.

YOUNG: Because how would you describe this band and that sound?

COOPER: You know, she's pretty heavy.

YOUNG: Yeah.

COOPER: She's a fan and obviously a musician who loves hard music and rock. And it's amazing, you know, that she feels free enough and cool enough to be able to be out there. I mean, she's been doing it for years. And we're just so excited to have her.

YOUNG: It's sort of a smack down to the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."


COOPER: I don't know if she'd feel that way, but yeah.


PINKETT-SMITH: (Singing) You bleed all over, all over me.

YOUNG: Talk a little bit more about how Afropunk all started? We talked about people who wanted to be able to - African-Americans in particular who wanted to be able to have whatever musical tastes they wanted and this gave them the space to do that. And then you had the 2003 James Spooner documentary called "Afro-Punk." Tell us about that.

COOPER: My partner, Matthew Morgan and James Spooner met many years ago, and James was directing a documentary called "Afro-Punk." Essentially about his life being in a punk scene and being the only, you know, kid of color in that scene. And then he found kids around the country that were like him, and created the piece. And that's the beginning of the movement. That was 10 years ago. It's changed dramatically since then.

YOUNG: So in the beginning, Afropunk was a bunch of people gathering, now it's grown, thousands of people attend. Just give us a taste of what happens at Afropunk. It's not just the music on the stages.

COOPER: No. It's not just the music on the stages. It's really a broad stroke of alternative culture. In the past, we've had the largest amateur skate contest on the East Coast, that we call Battle of the Streets. This year, we decided to change it up a little bit and we're doing yoga, and then we're also doing rock climbing, and we've got BMX demos. We like to switch it up every now and again.

YOUNG: Well, it's huge, and we want to hear some more of the music that people are going to hear this weekend. But what do you say to the people who say, but it's not the outsider event that it used to be. It's almost too big. And I suppose this is true. A lot of things that get popular, that there are now outsiders within this outsider event.

COOPER: That's sad for me because it still is a celebration of people and a culture that is not mainstream and it hasn't totally been, you know, embraced by the mainstream. If you look at the roster of bands that are performing, I think maybe one - one or two have ever been played on commercial radio. So it is still at the core and the essence of what Afropunk was originally.

YOUNG: Well, in fact, one of those songs that people might be familiar with is this one. Let's listen to Living Colour's 1988 hit "Cult of Personality."


COREY GLOVER: (Singing) Look in my eyes, what do you see? The cult of personality. I know your anger. I know your dreams. I've been everything you want to be. Oh, I'm the cult of personality.

YOUNG: So, Jocelyn Cooper, Living Colour is going to be there this weekend as well. And for those who say, hey, it's gone too mainstream, you say, the festival still faces some of the hurdles that an event centered around African-Americans faces, sponsors for instance.

COOPER: The interesting thing for me is that there are a lot of mainstream brands that don't understand what a tastemaker an influential community the Afropunk community is. I mean, these are the kids that start the trends. And we've got, you know, the media coverage certainly to prove it. But on the brand side, the support is not there, unfortunately.

YOUNG: That's kind of amazing because clothing alone...


YOUNG: We know the influence. Well, you're looking to the future as well. I just want to listen to 12-year-old - these are 12-year-olds.

COOPER: They are.

YOUNG: They're called Unlocking the Truth. Let's listen.


YOUNG: I mean, that's quite something, Jocelyn. You know, they're not mimicking, oh, Jay-Z.

COOPER: No. They're not.

YOUNG: I know. This is hard rock.


COOPER: They are some of the most courageous kids I've ever met. I mean, they were one of the winners of our battle of the bands. They're children, you know, who live in central Brooklyn who wear black nail polish and have - are really carving out their own path. It's amazing. And they are the most centered, incredible and have an amazing supportive family. You just don't meet kids like that every day.

YOUNG: It's interesting to hear the music they've selected to play. That's for sure.

COOPER: They were influenced by video games and the "WWE." It's where they fell in love with that, with the music.

YOUNG: The group, Unlocking the Truth, one of the many groups at this weekend's Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn. Jocelyn Cooper, one of the organizers. For more, go to Jocelyn, thank you.

COOPER: Thank you so much, Robin.


YOUNG: They're 12, Unlocking the Truth. And by the way, they'll be performing this weekend. But here, they're playing on the FX show "Totally Biased" with W. Kamau Bell. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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