Written by Naomi Anderson-Whittaker
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Afropunk. Of course, I’d long been following the progress of the movement in Paris, Atlanta and New York, and gleefully scrolled through the creative pictures on their Facebook page. But the M.I.A. ‘thing’ had dampened my spirits a little. Everyone had been so excited about the prospect of having an Afrocentric alternative festival in the UK, but their choice of headliner (an advocate of the “All Lives Matter” school of thought) had people boycotting the event in droves. That, along with whispers of the movement being hijacked by people looking to commercialise and whitewash Afropunk London, led me to reluctantly accept that the event wouldn’t be the free, punky black utopia we had hoped for. After M.I.A. was replaced by Grace Jones, I managed to get a ticket, and decided to give the event the benefit of the doubt. And I’m glad I did.
As my sister and I sat waiting for the other members of our group to arrive, we were struck by the beauty we saw around us. Not just the breath-taking views from Ally Pally, but also the striking, unapologetic blackness around us. People turned up to show off – everywhere we looked, there were piercings, headwraps, leather jackets, glittery faces, dashikis. And the mainly black and mixed race attendees proudly sported their natural hair, championing bold looks and bright colours. As we walked around outside, we were accosted several times by smiling, curious bloggers, journalists, and photographers, all jostling to get pictures. Everyone there was made to feel like a celebrity – so important in a world where black style is often side-lined. There was a buzz as everyone stood chatting and eyeing each other’s outfits appreciatively, or shyly asking if it was OK to get a selfie.
photo credit: Photos Michelle Marshall Photography @iammichellemarshall
This theme continued inside. It felt like a safe space in every sense. The Afropunk slogan hung proudly next to the main stage, banning homophobia, sexism, racism, ableism, transphobia. There was a sense of love and togetherness. As my sister put it, it was nice to feel like a majority for once; to see what feels familiar and affirming all around you. People danced together as they queued for food; nodded and smiled as they spoke to strangers and friends.
We weren’t just there to see and be seen, even though there were more stylish people than at a fashion show. The music acts played to crowds of varying sizes, but similar levels of enthusiasm. Goldink really got the revellers moving, and The Noisettes took me back to my teens with their energetic poppy punk.
SZA came on to a roar of appreciation, and I was just as excited to listen to her music as I was to see Little Simz at the side of the stage, watching intently. SZA had the crowd in the palm of her hand and they sang with her, hands in the air or clutching their hearts.
Lady Leshurr got everybody jumping around as she told us to brush our teeth, and spoke about the importance of going for your dreams. Young Fathers played a confrontational and high-energy set, alongside the hypnotic Law Holt, rocking a yellow suit. It was impossible to look away as they snarled, shouted and danced.
The night was rounded off by the incomparable Grace Jones, who appeared on a scaffolding in a fierce headpiece and eye-catching catsuit, and proceeded to strut, whip her cape, and engage in banter, commanding the room with her booming, sultry tones.
As well as music acts, there was also a ‘Spin Thrift’ market, selling African-inspired clothing and jewellery, pro-black postcards, bags with political slogans on them, slavery remembrance badges, and paintings. We stopped by the Gal-Dem stall to pick up a copy of their zine, and bought badges and stickers celebrating black girlhood from Kay Davis.
Now, don’t get me wrong; the ticket price was pretty steep, the food was a bit pricey (same as every other festival, then), and the venue, with its three stages and vast, high-ceilinged rooms, should have been more packed. But as first runs go, this showed a lot of potential. It may have had its teething problems, but you can’t deny the power of having so much fun in an uplifting, pro-black space. It was an inspiring evening for black creatives and music fans alike. I can’t wait to go next year, and hope that it’s bigger and better. And may Afropunk’s message remain undiluted.
Feature image credit Michelle Marshall Photography @iammichellemarshall