By Alexis Boyd
Big colorful hair, numerous piercings, daring fashion, bold spirits, and brown skin characterize many Afropunks, a subcultural collective that I was unaware existed before a month ago. For some inexplicable reason, I had never imagined the existence of a community of young black people uniting around an appreciation of their nonconformity. After stumbling upon a flyer for the AFROPUNK PARIS festival during one of the rare times I perused Tumblr, I was thrown into a stimulating and provocative virtual world inhabited by free-spirited, alternative-minded individuals completely unapologetic of their simultaneous championing of black issues and love for hardcore/alternative lifestyles and music. Browsing through articles discussing black identity and hyper-masculinity alongside posts of black participation in cosplay, instructions to check out musical artists of all genres, all of which were accented by bold images of black youth, I could not help but feel welcomed in a way that I had never experienced with any other subcultural group. Leaning forward in my seat, the thought reverberated through my mind that I had found my people, and the more I saw, the more I wanted to know and understand. I became more than slightly preoccupied with discovering who the Afropunks are and what drives them. What pushes Afropunks toward alternative music? Afropunk has broadened far past its original musical genre, so what ties together the artists and fans, of varied and diverse genres, who support and are promoted by Afropunk? What characterizes this movement’s spirit? How does race complicate or support traditional ideas of hardcore or alternative lifestyles?
All of these questions are merely elements of my larger interest in the Afropunk website’s tagline, “the other black experience.” I was both drawn to and skeptical of this idea. Although clearly contesting the conventional belief of the existence of a single representation of black culture, doesn’t classifying their experience as “other” validate exactly what Afropunk calls into question? This research details my study of all of these questions, my ongoing integration into the Afropunk community, and ultimately explores how Afropunks construct agency and achieve liberation through the “other black experience.”
The Original Afropunks
My first introduction to black people who listen to punk music was through James Spooner’s 2003 documentary, Afro-punk, a film documenting the lived experiences of black punk rockers. Overwhelmed by loud, violent music and images of smoky and crowded basement venues, I got my first glimpse of those who would eventually inspire the Afropunk movement. Brown faces flashed across the screen, some with heavy piercings some without, many sporting locks, and most wearing the band t-shirts that marks their affiliation with the punk scene (Force 2009). The movie offered me a rare glimpse into the lives of the members of a subcultural group of whose existence most people are ignorant. These black “kids” immediately dismantle any previously held belief that punk, of itself, is white music. The featured punks of Spooner’s film fully embrace the punk scene as it existed in the early 21st century, largely free of black people. From belts fashioned out of bullets, straight and spiky hair, numerous tattoos and facial piercings to the in-depth knowledge of punk bands and music, these black punks amassed enough subcultural capital to function as acting members in a largely white scene (Force 2009).
Most of the punk kids featured in Afro-punk, grew up in suburban and white environments. They were often the only black person among their friends, in their classrooms, and for some, in their small towns (Spooner 2002). They joined the punk scene through friends or neighbors and quickly fell in love with a movement that, at its quintessence, devotes itself to the realization of struggle, anger, and fear. Likely, more so than any collective group, these kids understood the isolation, rage, and helplessness that permeates punk music. Tamar Kali, one of the featured kids of Spooner’s documentary, stated that the “true energy” of punk is “being caught in a system that you don’t identify with and can’t escape” (Spooner 2002, 4:25). Throughout this documentary, each of Spooner’s participants expressed augmented feelings of isolation beyond what a white kid in the scene, and even black kids outside of the scene may experience. Not only were they black youth existing inside of a white privileging society, but they also experienced alienation from members of the black community for their involvement in a “white” scene. According to many of the punks, youth who subscribed to stereotypical representations of black culture, perceived black people who listened to hardcore/alternative music as “white-washed,” even as the punks considered themselves into “some hardcore black nationalist type shit” (Spooner 2002, 42:22).
The tendency, within American society, to understand black culture as monolithic, though once an attempt to strengthen black identity, is damaging to people who identify as black, yet do not fit into this representation and, in fact, perpetuates racial stereotypes (Snyder 2012). Within the Unites Sates, there persists an idea of a ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ blackness that is largely associated with Hip Hop and working class, urban African American men. “Good” black culture is “authentic” black culture (Hall 1992b, 474). Anyone who falls outside of, or defies that limiting representation runs the risk of being accused of denying their culture and being called an “oreo”, “bougie” or “white-washed.” In order to perpetuate the idea of “seamless narratives of black identity” (Snyder 2012, 254), people who do not and have never quite fit into the expectations of what it means to be black are invalidated and overlooked.
The association of black people with the “urban poor,” (Snyder 2012, 252) stems from a Black Panther-led cultural movement in the 60’s that placed the black lower class at the center of “revolutionary potential” (Snyder 2012, 251). The Panthers called for a rise to arms from urban black communities in an attempt to transform images of black men from shameful and weak, a common belief at the time among southern white people, to a source of pride and authenticity (Snyder 2012). Unfortunately, in doing so, the Panthers presented black people as all being fundamentally the same. They emphasized the differences between white people and black people and the homogeneity within black culture, which was then perpetuated further by white media and unfortunately persists throughout black and white culture today. What was once perhaps a necessity in order to boost community morale, has transformed into, what I believe is, a cultural hindrance. Within the black community we are tempted to use the signifier ‘black’ to police the symbolic and cultural boundaries of black culture “as if they were genetic” (Hall 1992b, 476). As a result, the Afro-punk punks are situated within complex questions of racial and cultural identity.
This aspect of the documentary particularly resonated with me, and I found myself reflecting on similar experiences I have encountered. Like many of the punk rockers in the documentary, I was consistently one of the few, if not the only, black students throughout my secondary education. Throughout high school, I understood black identity as a matter of duality. I was very aware of the stereotypical expectations of African Americans that permeated the media, but they seemed so far removed from my personal experience. The vast majority of black people in my life are all highly educated professionals. I found myself grappling with ideas of my own cultural identity, rejecting, and often resenting, the universality of common representations of blackness, but not completely ignoring the stereotypes; comfortable with being one of my white friends’ only black friends but vehemently resisting any attempt at tokenization; immediately experiencing sharp prickles of irritation when a white person dismissed an HBCU [‘Historically Black Colleges and Universities’] as “a black school” and therefore unacceptable to attend, while I had no real intention, at 17, of attending one myself. By the end of my senior year of high school however, I made the decision to attend Howard University in the fall, after the abrupt realization that I no longer wanted my understanding of black identity to be defined by a white perspective, and was thrown into an extremely different culture than the one I was familiar with.
Upon arriving at Howard, my former understanding of black identity exploded. I was introduced to, surrounded by, and interacting with so many diverse representations of black identity. I felt simultaneous sensations of familiarity and unease. As I interacted with all of these young black peers, I felt as if I were missing important subcultural capital (Hebdige 1979). Even as I encountered so many diverse black American people from completely different backgrounds, many of them, at least on some subconscious level, subscribed to the same notions of black authenticity that the Black Panther movement introduced toward the end of the Civil Rights Movement (Snyder 2012). At the time, it seemed clear to me that because I do not use, nor ever have used, African American vernacular English (AAVE), or because I’m just not that into rap some of my classmates have classified me as white-washed or bougie, neither of which I see in myself. Transitioning from my PWI [‘Predominantly White Institutions’] high school to Howard University was a life-changing experience, but what remained between the two spaces was a dubious footing in a collective and cultural identity. Like the punks of Afro-punk, I have never felt white, nor have I ever wanted to be white, but neither have I felt like I belong to that single representation of black culture. It is incredibly belittling to be told that my experiences as a black woman are not “real” or “authentic;” that I am not truly “black.” The reality is, that every black person will not and cannot be defined by such a fixed definition of identity, nor should they be. It was the remnants of these feelings that drove me to create my own Afropunk profile and plunge into the contemporary Afropunk online community.
A Cultural and Virtual Space
The Afropunk website is a vibrant and thriving cultural space dedicated to giving “voice to thousands of multicultural kids fiercely identifying with a life style path less traveled” (Morgan 2013). My first interactions with the website were largely passive. After creating my account, and going through the agonizing process of describing myself in a single sentence, I scrolled through the homepage, reading almost every article, listening to every other featured band, checking out whichever cultural material they were featuring next, all in an attempt to gain even the slightest understanding of who the Afropunks are and what they are interested in. The article topics spanned everything from LGBTQ issues, to art, to politics, to fashion, to new musical talent. The website and the community focus on everything that encompasses black issues and goes far beyond the conventional beliefs of what those are. I found myself fully engaged in an article on the hypermasuclinity of Hip Hop culture one moment and a feature on black cosplay Tumblr accounts the next. The intersectionality of the website is inspiring and reassuring, broadcasting the message that all of these varied and diverse issues fall within the domain of Afropunk.
The blogs are structured similarly to Facebook posts; with the online community able to like and comment as they go. They are separated into subcategories, showcasing an immediate preference for or interest in certain topics and giving the online Afropunk the ability to decide whether she wants to read posts about “Safety Pins (fashion)”, “Eye-Candy (art, film), “the Establishment”, “Sexual Politics”, or “the Race Card” (Morgan 2013), to name just a few. All of the articles posted and seen, all of the music listened to, all of the art appreciated on this website offer insight into a single aspect of the Afropunk community as well as an understanding of the whole. Afropunk is Afropunk precisely because it is a realm where black people concerned with eradicating the stigma surrounding mental illness in the black community share a platform with people who discuss the misrepresentation of black male bi-sexual identity.
The great majority of the blog posts I read were incredibly thought-provoking, whether by giving voice to an unspoken community, asking readers to reconsider or unpack popular discourse surrounding a phenomenon, lifestyle, or group of people; or by debunking popular myths of black representation. I read a post in the “Sexual Politics” blog, structured as a dating profile, in which Tracy Renee Jones uses his bi-sexual friend as a framework to discuss the differences between sex and gender, the ways that the common “gay-dar” trope misrepresents people inside and outside of the LGBTQ community, and illustrates how the “down-low” narrative that persists within the black community, perpetuated by celebrities, like Oprah, does not leave room within communal discussion of sexuality for black men who identify as bisexual (Jones 2011). That same day, posted as part of the “Establishment” blog, I viewed data published by the CDC that works to debunk the myth of the “absentee Black father”, which showed that black fathers consistently scored comparably or often higher than their white and Latino counterparts when measuring how much time they spent with their kids (Aplerku 2015). The following day, I read an article marked with the hashtag #ecopunk; introducing the new Afropunk blog, “Mavericks”: an endeavor to kindle interest in Green initiatives and a call to arms to all the black punk eco-activists. The interests of the Afropunk are many and varied, and, unlike many other subcultural groups, that diversity is encouraged by group members.
I have yet to read a truly negative comment on an Afropunk blog post. The comments are largely supportive and encouraging. Many Afropunks express their admiration in all caps, and some add a thoughtful response of their own, those who choose to respond that is. It seemed to me that much of the online Afropunk community was, like me, acting as passive observers. Up until this point, I had yet to like a post or band, comment in the blogs, or participate in the message boards. Many of the posts I read were written a couple years back, and though there is regular activity on the Afropunk website, much of that originated from the site contributors rather than from non-affiliated community members. Through the homepage and blogs of the website, I gained a very interesting theory about the nature of “the other black experience,” but from a very limited group of people. I was not truly engaging with the community, and Afropunk, as I’ve found, is a movement that demands your active involvement. I stayed online longer and paid closer attention to who was online too as well. I hit up the message boards, contributing to the ones that caught my interest, and I commented on blog posts that I found truly inspiring. I made an effort to become a true member of this community within a very short amount of time.
What I found was both at times incredibly rewarding and slightly disappointing. No matter what time I was online, there would generally be one person online, but it was rare that I ever saw more than 15 online at a time. I tried to reach out to online community members through chat, attempting to gain knowledge of how they saw themselves and how they identified Afropunk. Unsure of how to approach, I first opened a few chat threads with other users with a casual “hey.” I began another interaction in the main chat room with a query as to whether anyone had read one of the blog posts featured on the Afropunk homepage that I had found particularly engaging. I began yet another interaction in the main chat room with a blunt: “Hey, I’m new to the Afropunk movement (just found out about it last month) and am really trying to understand all the different aspects of Afropunk. Do you mind telling me how you see afropunk/ what it means to be an afropunk to you?”. Although there were many times in which I did not receive any responses at all, a few responses stood out to me in their marked difference. S.T. [initials used to preserve anonymity], in his response to what he thought of Afropunk becoming a movement responded:
Afropunk may be considered a movement to some people or in some ways but to me it’s always been one thing: it’s me.
Their response mirrored a comment made by S.C. (2012) I read in the public message board, “The Afro-Punk in Solitude”:
Afro Punk may be a movement in some political and social circles but it is and always has been just one thing for me: who I am. If the s.o.b.’s in my neighborhood knew anything about SC, they knew that I listened to that ‘white boy shit’ and didn’t give a fuck what any of them thought about it. I have no confusion concerning who my life belongs to._ should black people listen to rock n roll? This was never a question, even open to debate in my mind.
APQ’s gave me the opposite response during our conversation over chat; they were adamant that Afropunk is “a culture, a movement. A place where everyone from all different genres, backgrounds come together and form a community.” G.O. coalesced both points when they typed that Afropunk “was my community, a place where I belong. Afropunk is something that doesn’t seem like it should make sense but it does because we listen to everything.” Every person who responded, wrote blogs, or posted on the message boards seemed to have a slightly different understanding and definition of Afropunk. I finally began to understand that Afropunk is limitless and borderless, and I could not help but think of Stuart Hall’s (1992a) explanation of Cultural Studies.
Cultural Studies was subject to criticism from a number of scholars for its unusual and ill-defined definition. The field of study was accused of being whatever the scholar, who chooses to work under the name of Cultural Studies, wants it to be (Hall 1992a). Within “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” (1992a), Hall stresses that while Cultural Studies is “open-ended” and refuses to become a “master discourse or a meta-discourse” (1992a, 262), it is a serious enterprise with two very key aspects. The first is that there is something at stake within Cultural Studies, and the second is that it is rooted in its positionalities (1992a). I would venture to say the same about Afropunk. There may be contestation over whether Afropunk describes a movement, a festival, a life-style or simply a black person listening to hardcore/rock music, but I think that all Afropunks agree that there is something at stake in this movement. I believe that every Afropunk stands for the dissolution of the long-standing belief of a limited and exclusive understanding of who black people can be, what they can do, what they can listen to, and what they can create. Whether they choose to do so through writing a post, attending a festival, multiple tattoos and/or body piercings, or simply by listening to a particular genre of music, each Afropunk rejects master narratives of black identity imposed upon them every day. And similar to Hall’s cultural studies, whether it is considered political or not, Afropunk is rooted in the music.
Before venturing into the Afropunk world, I knew as much about punk as the average person outside of the scene. I had perhaps heard half of a song or two, decided it wasn’t for me, and never looked back. I could never understand the words of the few punk songs I had heard and could not get past the shouting to listen to the lyrics. As I happened to learn more about the movement over the years, during brief discussions in class or discussion amongst friends, I couldn’t really identify with the white kids who dominate the scene. There was no real question for me whether punk was white music. I abstractedly categorized it as a “rebellious” scene, full of anti-establishment outcasts because that was the punk represented in the media. As I learned a little bit about the history of the movement, I could partially understand why the music was so angry, but I could not really identify with the anger of the kids I knew who listened to punk. There were times I could not help but uncharitably think: what have you suffered? I did not bother to educate myself in the complexities of the movement, its “positionalities” (Hall 1992a). It never crossed my mind to consider black kids listening to punk music. I wasn’t at all opposed to the idea nor did I think that black people should only listen to “black” music; I listened to a number of artists who are likely considered far from conventional for stereotypical ideas of black music. I had just never cared enough to consider the intersectionalities of the two identities. Spooner’s Afro-punk encouraged me to reconsider my ideas of both the punk world and its connection with the black experience.
The Afro-punk respondents were adamant from the first few minutes of the film that punk and rock and roll were not only not white music, but were, in fact, black music. They referenced Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe as the origins of the rock n’ roll and its influence on white people (Spooner 2002). Of course, they all were aware, like anyone in the US is aware, of its universal association with white people and white culture, but they knew that they were reclaiming something that had always belonged to black people; they knew that “punk is black music” (Spooner 2002, 43:50). There was never any doubt that they, as black youth, had any less of a claim to punk rock than white youth. In fact, they would argue that black people have a greater stake in the genre than anyone else. It made complete sense, listening to them discuss the history of punk, the experiences of black people in the Western world, and the fact that “artistically black folks always do wild shit, have always done wild shit, and will always do wild shit” (44:00), while watching images of James Brown and Alvin Ailey flash across the screen, that black people would listen to and revolutionize punk as well. These kids were adamant that it was the time to let white people know what no one has told them in a long time: “rock n’ roll is not white music”(45:00). As Stuart Hall (1992b) wrote in, “What is ‘Black’ in Popular Black Culture?, American culture “has always involved certain traditions that could only be attributed to black culture” (Hall 1992b, 469). Although hardcore and punk did not have black people in mind when they first started within white communities, the black experience now is the unspoken element of hardcore music (45:12). Black punk bands, like Bad Brainz—one of the most hardcore punk bands to exist (Spooner 2002)—were and are shaking things up within hardcore genres. These bands completely invalidate the assertion that punk was “white” music.
One of the most striking scenes of the film is the punk band Cipher’s performance of their anthem “Protoculture”. Moe Mitchell, the band’s lead vocalist and composer, is a graduate of Howard University and describes the track as “a re-telling of the abuses of the Middle Passage and a critique of Eurocentric culture” (32:06). Watching the band’s vigorous and consuming gig, I was really struck, for the first time, with a need to know the lyrics to a punk song. When I found them on lyricwikia.com, I was more affected by this punk song than any song from the musical genres I typically listen to.
They round us all up.
They ordered us dead…
Shackled like chattel. Beat ‘til we bled. And they all said.
Round ‘em all up. Round kill em dead
Cut off his hair.
Cut off his head…
Whore all their women.
Whore all their men.
Pillage their beauty.
Steal the brilliance that beats in the hear of every human…
The lyrics were bolder and more honest than those of any song I had ever heard. This was a band, who used a genre, notorious for it subversive content, in order to relay an experience, a message that would not be heard anywhere else on the musical platform, and I think there is something incredible about that. I understood why people coalesce and form a movement around this music, and could see so many of my Howard classmates moved and angered and passionate about this punk music. Mitchell, although part of a “white” scene is not making music for white people, he is creating black music and is expanding the definition of what black music is (Spooner 2002).
Denise Noble (2008, 116) writes, in her case study of young Black British girls and the hegemonities with Jamaican dancehall culture, that musical movements are a form of “cultural resistance to racism’s demand that we, as Black people should be ashamed of ourselves.” Ron Eyerman (2002, 445), in his article, “Music in Movement: Cultural Politics and Old and New Social Movements,” asserts that within a flexible view of culture and politics, “the arts can function as political mediators without intention of their creators or producers.” Afropunk, even with those community members who choose to see it as nothing more than an appreciation of punk music by the black community, stakes a position within the sociopolitical sphere and demands that pride and respect for black culture. The music of Afropunk, and music in general, links a past, present, and future that even a distant listener can connect to (Eyerman 2002, 447); it both articulates the Afropunks and binds them together “offering a sense of group belonging and collectivity as well as strength in trying situations.” Every time one of Spooner’s respondents listened to “Protoculture” or Bad Brainz they reinforced their bond to the budding collective experience of Afropunks. And every time an Afropunk listens to any of the bands featured on the Afropunk website or who have played at the Brooklyn Afropunk festival, they articulate Afropunk, its members, its politics, and its positionalities (Hall 1992a). As the Afropunk movement has expanded to encompass all different types of genres, including experimental R&B, electronic, soul, folk, and hip hop; they strengthen Afropunk’s sociopolitical stance and further expands and articulates the movement.
It seems that, now, Afropunks listen to everything. It is a staggering coagulation of people and ideas and music. All of these different styles and positions are all connected to that original spirit of Afropunk, people coming together in their appreciation for nonconformity and great music. Now the sociopolitical stance once expressed by the Afropunks of Spooner’s documentary individually, is expressed on a public virtual sphere. It is also reflected in the artists encompassed by Afropunk, whether by expanding the definition of what black music can be and what black people can create, by their politics, or whether it is by being “authentically” weird, cool, or different. The Afropunks are whomever the want to be and everything they are all while making conscious use of the signifier “black.” And in the moments they come together, their collective identity is solidified from an imaginary community to a real one (Eyerman 2002). I realized that I could never fully understand what Afropunk is and who the Afropunks are, unless I share that physical collective experience. Incredibly fortunate for me, the first Afropunk Paris show occurred this past May.
Experiencing the “Other Black Experience”
Walking into Le Théâtre Trianon, my first thought was, “I’d thought there’d be more people.” Immediately, the turn out did not seem that impressive. The modestly sized theatre was milling with people, but the number was not at all what I had imagined from the pictures of the Brooklyn festival I spent approximately an hour and a half Googling the night before. As I walked up the stairs into the reception area, I was regaled with the chatter of Afropunks in numerous languages, the smells of food, and the sight of bold artwork adorning the walls of the theatre. I soon forgot about the number of people who were not attending Afropunk Paris and paid attention to the people who were there and excited about Afropunk. Men and women flaunted bold fashion choices and bolder hair. One girl sported long teal locks fashioned into two large Bantu knots at the top of her head, another an eye-catching skirt imitating African prints. I saw more septum piercings and big natural hair since leaving Howard and coming to Europe. There were, also, almost as many white people attending, as there were black people. As we mingled before the show began, I chatted with one girl, in French, about who she was excited to see (Lianne La Havas), and another girl, from London, what she knew of Afropunk (she had a friend at the Brooklyn festival the previous year.) The energy was positive and anticipatory, as people browsed the wares of a fashion vendor selling bold Afropunk shirts in contemporary dashiki styles, and gaped at a live art instillation. They were bold, bright, and shameless in their vibrancy.
The first act performing, as I walked into the theatre, was Youth Man, a UK punk rock trio. I walked into my first punk show, and it was incredibly exhilarating. The energy with which the lead vocalist, a black woman, shouted and played her guitar was unlike anything I had ever seen. During a conversation with another attendee, after the set, who listened to punk as a kid, she explained to me how validating it felt to see a black girl up on stage heading a punk band, “I never imagined that I would see that” (Savannah 2015). Watching this young black woman so unashamedly defying expectations of blackness, I could not help but mirror Savannah’s thoughts. I was swept up in the music and the lyrics that I often could barely understand, but when I did were incredibly exciting. The set ended with a lot of sweat, thrown instruments, and, in me, a new fan of Youth Man. The animated energy the audience was buzzing did not die down, but focused in a completely different way when Jazz/Folk singer Sandra Nkaké appeared on stage. It was very powerful to see an immediate shift in attitude when watching her sing, quieter but no less engaged. Nkaké inspired the crowd in a different way, and when she raised her fist, calling for the end of black men murdered at the hands of the police, the crowd immediately raised their hands with her, linking Afropunk with the Black Lives Matter campaign, its heroes and its victims (Eyerman 2002, 450) and a call for justice for all the wrongs that have been done to black lives over history. The festival continued in this way for the two days: the crowd as excited about experimental R&B band, Lolawolf, as they were about rapper, Young Paris, and folk/soul artist Lianne La Havas.
I found it almost liberating to be another Afropunk in this physical collective of so many unique and interesting people, to see a gathering of people who fell so far outside of the stereotypical representations of black people in the media. I shared conversations on French politics, interesting books I’ve read, my favorite artists and activists with inspiringly creative people. It was a community, in which, after I got over initial feelings of anxiousness and trepidation was incredibly welcoming. It was incredible to see a physical manifestation of what I had come to know over the Afropunk website. This was a community of people that was so comfortable in both their black identities as well as in the knowledge that they do not conform to a single representation of black identify. These were people who understood that the time to focus on a single, essentialist understanding of black identity has passed, and instead we are in an age in which it is imperative to celebrate the diversity within our culture (Hall 1992b). Black culture has always been a contradictory and complex space, encompassing far more than the binaries with which we usually regard it (Hall 1992b, 477).
Snyder (2012) insists that in the absence of an essentialist definition of “authentic” or “real” blackness, people will be liberated from expectations of who they are and who they should be. Afropunk is a step forward toward a world that embraces all representations of black identity without contestation, and one in which “people insist on the importance of ‘black’ as a social identity while embracing the multiplicity of blackness” (Snyder 2012, 253). Afropunk’s varied and diverse forms and understandings of cultural expression, the way they dress, the songs they listen to, the things they read, the way they speak and self-identify all work to challenge the hegemonic and monolithic understanding of black culture.
Although there were people at the festival to see a single artist or two, it seemed like by the end of their experience they shared the collective spirit as well. The MC’s halfway through the first show gave their definition of Afropunk: “Afropunk is for everyone to take part of. Punk for liberty. Punk for attitude. Afropunk is a community. It is a website, it is a documentary, it’s a festival, it’s writers, it’s skaters, it’s singers, designers. It’s a world rich with every possibility.” And as I stood among a sea of Afropunks, all expressing their free-spiritedness and nonconformity, verbally or otherwise, I truly felt a part of this movement.
This research not only marked my journey into a subcultural world, but also my understanding of my own identity within this sphere. Growing up, there were a number of times where I grappled with my own identity. My understanding of black culture and the black experience were very essentialist even as I saw countless examples of opposition, through my parents, grandparents, and other black adults, every day. Stumbling upon the Afropunk community is something that I realize now, I am incredibly fortunate to have experienced. The Afropunk community recognizes that the stereotypical representation of black life is real and valid for countless people, but it remains firm in its position that there is another black experience as well. One that embraces diversity rather than homogeneity within a culture. One that recognizes that cultural expression can act as political interventions. An experience that is aware that music or lifestyles do not have to be considered hardcore to be considered punk. Afropunks create agency for themselves every day as they unapologetically reject identities imposed upon them on a daily basis, as they continue to discuss the issues that are important to the intersectionalities within every culture, recognize that a subversive genre is the ideal platform to discuss the black experience, and unite over a love of music and art, and a hatred for misrepresentation. “The other black experience” is one that I myself have experienced, though never on so vocal a platform, but now that I have been introduced to the movement, I see myself as a member for life.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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Cover illustration: http://styleblazer.com/318076/afropunk-2014-street-style-instagram/4/