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Afro-Punk: The Race Barrier of Rock ‘N’ Roll and Its Complicated History

The New York Times described The Afro-Punk Fest in Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park as “the most multicultural festival in the US.” The word ‘afro-punk’ (a portmanteau of the words “afro” and “punk rock music”) has become synonymous with ‘open-minded, non-conforming and unconventional, placing the institution at the epicenter of urban culture inspired by alternative music.’ This is the core of the festival’s mission, and now it’s expanding to Atlanta, Georgia, with hopes of later integrating into the subconscious of Oakland, California’s art scene. Both of these virtuoso cities are known for their art and culture, especially where music is concerned and are primo picks that could make the festival a nationwide brand or break what could be a much-needed revolution across all platforms of art, fashion and music.

While Oakland (christened “New Sin City” subsequently after a 2010 verdict to loosen up its puritanical cabaret policies) is particularly influential in the Gangsta Rap, it has been pivotal with boosting the profiles of underground and major label So-Cal punk rock bands. Before Atlanta became the hotbed of what NY Times reporter John Caramanica dubbed “hip-hop’s center of gravity” in 2009, and even before its burgeoning indie rock scene, The Gate City remains legendary for its punk panorama; Atlanta’s Great Southeastern Music Hall famously hosted the Sex Pistols during their premier U.S. show.

This year, the festival will topple its previous roster with an even more impressive line-up of multicultural and multiracial music acts. However, very few people can quite fathom the elephant in the room: Why does the word ‘afro,’ meaning African or African-American, come before ‘punk’?

Photo Credit: Lianne La Havas,

Inspired by James Spooner’s ground-breaking 2003 documentary Afro-Punk, a film that reconnoitered the race identity of black lives in the punk rock lifestyle, as well as explored themes of seclusion, exile, interracial dating, black power and the “dual lives led by people of color in communities that are primarily white,” the annual festival began in 2005. Its aim was to not only cast a light on marginalized alt-blacks, but also the Columbusing of rock music history. You see, there is a complicated cultural hiccup when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll music. So, here’s a brief history lesson.

Photo Credit: Janelle Monáe at AfroPunk, New York Times

While the art form began with its black progenitors, it was blaspheme for 50s youth, who would listen to the music in secret. These artists would travel the Chitlin’ Circuit, infiltrating small-town America until Elvis Presley crash-landed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, and it became culturally accepted to listen to ‘Negro music.’ For those not up-to-date with this genre of music, the forefathers of rock ‘n’ roll music are: Ray Charles (“The Genius”), B.B. King (“Ambassador of The Blues”), Robert Johnson (“Grandfather of Rock and Roll”), Big Joe Turner (another “Grandfather of Rock ‘n Roll”), Fats Domino (“King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”), Joe Hill Louis (“The Be-Bop Boy”), Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, Chester Arthur Burnett (“Howlin’ Wolf”), Blind Willie Johnson (“Patriarch of Blues Rock”), John Lee Hooker (“Texas Slim”), Jackie Wilson (“Mr. Excitement”), Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“Progenitor of Shock Rock”), Goree Carter (“Little T-Bone”), Little Willie Littlefield (the “vital link between boogie-woogie and rock-and roll”), Solomon Burke (“King of Rock ‘n Soul”) and Jimi Hendrix (“arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music”).

Oddly enough, the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll evolved from slave songs—a revolution against colonialism and segregation. These spirituals evolved into blues which, when sped up, became rock ‘n’ roll and then punk—all of which function as a means of revolt against the establishment of the time. Though the latter has been co-opted by white musicians, it has been revolutionized and reinvented by troubadours of punk rock Bad Brains, Death, Pure Hell and Fishbone. Case in point, it’s a festival about getting back to black roots and bridging the gap.

Photo Credit: Kelis, T Magazine, New York Times

However, when today’s youth think of rock ‘n’ roll, most would list Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. With the Swinging London era, rock ‘n’ roll exploded into the mainstream and bands such as The Kinks, The Who and The Small Faces gave the genre a musical and racial face-lift of sorts. What was once a commodity became an oddity before being manufactured into the face of the instrument that once rallied against it. Suddenly, even with his popularity, guitar icon Jimi Hendrix became an oddity and then a commodity in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. We’re currently seeing that with the white-dominated British Soul renaissance and the Grammys’ insistence on awarding recording stars like electro-hop pin-up Iggy Azalea and comedy hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.

Photo Credit: Alice Smith, Rolling Stone

Now with the rise of acts like Janelle Monáe, Noisettes, Vintage Trouble and Alabama Shakes, as well as the musical legacy of art-rock idols like TV on The Radio, the conversation of rock ‘n’ roll music and race have become more prevalent. The Afro-Punk Fest brings us back to essence and the spirit of the sound of Little Richard (“Architect of Rock and Roll”), Bo Diddley (“The Originator”) and Chuck Berry (the Prime Minister of Rock ‘n’ Roll). It’s not just a festival, but also a historical and cultural preservation of the African-American struggle.

Photo Credit: TV on the Radio, Pitchfork

It’s also changing dialogue: Since it has come to public conscious, Afro-Punk has metamorphosed into a crusade analogous to the grassroots punk-associated movements of queercore in the LGBT community and of women in the riot grrrl scene. Most importantly, for black women and womanist musicians, it is also carrying a torch lit by three nearly forgotten and virtually ignored gems in rock history as a whole—black pop-gospel singers and rock prodigies Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“Godmother of Rock and Roll”), Willie Mae (“Big Mama” Thornton) and Peggy “Lady Bo” Jones (“The Queen Mother of Guitar”), who all predated their black male peers over a decade. (Thorpe signed with Decca in 1938 and released hit songs “Rock Me” and “This Train” the following year.)

Entering its 11th year, The Afro-Punk Fest has become celebrated for acknowledging and encouraging the voices of black female songwriters, shining a light on artists like Lianne La Havas, SZA, Alice Smith, Grace Jones, Santigold, Rye Rye, Jean Grae, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Sharon Jones, Kelis and Kelela, among others. This has opened the floodgates for conversations on gender and feminist-womanist discussion.

Photo: Meshell Ndegeocello, Afropunk

Above all else, The Afro-Punk Festival argues for more, and that is: Black Alternative Culture Needs More Coverage By Black Media. But then again, we all know that. Regardless, if we see a change from outlets like BET or TV One and how they will come to represent “spooky negroes” and those that veer left of center in the future, it’s time we tip our hats to Afro-Punk. Finally, a movement that allows our freak flags to fly and our voices to be lifted. Veni, vidi, vici.

The Afro-Punk Festival will take place on Saturday, August 22 and Sunday, August 23 in New York City, and we will be there.
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*Featured Image: Lauryn Hill; photo credit: Vice Magazine.


MARCUS SCOTT is a playwright, songwriter, dramaturge, sketch comic and journalist. His work has appeared in Elle, Out, Passport, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Backstage, Giant, Hello Beautiful, NewsOne, The Urban Daily, Madame Noire, Styleblazer, Clutch, Artvoice, Bleu and Krave, among others. He has interviewed Fefe Dobson, VV Brown, Elle Varner, SWV, Danity Kane, Ryan Leslie, Rose Byrne, James Earl Jones, Annaleigh Ashford, LaMarr Woodley, Mehcad Brooks, Lisa Raye, Shaun Ross, Columbus Short and Boris Kodjoe, among others.

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