TV On the Radio closes out the eighth Afro-punk Festival. (Photo: Harley Oliver Brown)
Around this time last year, Matthew Morgan, managing director of Afropunk LLC, thought the Afropunk Festival he dreamed up eight years ago was over for good.
"I remember it was a Wednesday, and I wanted to put my head on my desk, fall asleep, and wake up in about two weeks." The nightmare from which Morgan couldn't awake was Hurricane Irene, which hit New York the weekend of the festival and forced the city government to pull permits for the event, slated to take place in Brooklyn's Commodore Barry Park. "It was kind of a relief," Morgan admitted. "And then we went home and cried for a month."
Even though Morgan has faced an "uphill battle" and an "ongoing struggle" since that fateful Wednesday, the Afropunk Festival returned for a successful eighth run in nine years this past weekend, thanks in part to the support of a diverse array sponsors including Heineken, Nike, VitaminWater, KIND Healthy Snacks, WNYC, Moleskine, The Fader, and The Village Voice.
Totally Biased screenwriter and stand-up comic Hari Kondabolu poses with his brother, Das Racist's Ashok "Dap" Kondabolu, and a friend. (Photo: Harley Oliver Brown)
Everything went so well, in fact, that Girlie Action's Aleix Martinez said event staff had to turn away 2,000 people on Saturday who tried to catch at least part of this year's exceptional lineup, which included Erykah Badu and The Cannabinoids, Janelle Monae, TV On The Radio, Toro Y Moi, Reggie Watts, Gym Class Heroes, Das Racist, Spank Rock, and Flatbush Zombies. That's not to mention a few surprises, including guests: On Saturday night at the Red Stage, some of Action Bronson's crew including Meyhem Lauren and Despot joined Das Racist onstage for a bawdy, bass-heavy rendition of "Rooftop." Across the park, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) showed up later that night to join Badu onstage for "Love Of My Life." And on Sunday, Pharrell introduced Janelle Monae -- and probably single-handedly shut down the VIP area -- who pleasantly surprised with a pitch-perfect cover of Jackson 5's "I Want You Back".
Morgan got his start in the music industry at Set It Off Management, where he worked with artists like Santigold, Chuck Treece, Alicia Keys, and Cree Summer, artists that "didn't fit in any particular box." After finding success as a songwriter on hits like Christina Aguilera's "Genie In A Bottle" and Siara's "Oh," Morgan realized, "It just wasn't fulfilling. And then these kids came along, you know -- scraggly, couldn't get a record deal because no one wanted to sign them. Nobody cared what they were doing, really. They were releasing their own material. It was really exciting." When SonyWorks dropped Summer because Morgan "didn't know how to market a black rock chick," he took matters into his own hands.
Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) kicks back before Erykah Badu with an elated Victor "Kool A.D." Vasquez of Das Racist and a gentleman who chose to remain unidentified. (Photo: Harley Oliver Brown)
"We figured, there are at least 50 of us, there must be a couple thousand. If we can connect the dots and create an audience for ourselves, then we can be independent. This was before indie was fashionable." So he hooked up with director James Spooner for his seminal 2002 film "Afro-punk", which took Toronto Film Festival by storm. Though neither had marketed a film before, Morgan and Spooner used the press it generated to create an online message board where like-minded people could meet each other at film screenings.
Since 2003, the Afropunk Festival has gone through almost as many lives as it has years. Live performances were introduced alongside screenings at the Brooklyn Art Museum, but that was short-lived once attendees started moshing in the museum's cafe. Then Morgan wanted to host a week-long festival like SXSW or CMJ until Ian MacKaye ( Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Brains) convinced him that hosting shows at 21+ clubs was antithetical to the spirit of punk. So after several more years, including another stint at BAM, Morgan arrived at his basic mission statement: "Music, art, BMX, skate." For him, Afropunk isn't a genre, it was "a fashion expression, music, it was a movement."
Cerebral Ballzy frontman Honor Titus (third from left) takes a breather backstage with photographer Julian Gilbert (far left) and his entourage. (Photo: Harley Oliver Brown)
Morgan's vision was reflected in this year's iteration, which featured the largest street skate competition in New York City, Nike Battle for the Streets, whose participants defied gravity a little too well above the heads of the Red Stage crowd. Below the aeronautics, Brooklyn Rhapsody Custom Bike Show showcased hand-built Harleys (and the odd bulldog wearing a denim vest or girls dancing in string bikinis). On the other side of the stage, the acrid smell of spray paint preceded the art wall, where celebrated visual artists like Coby Kennedy, See One, and Rob Fokused painstakingly built a mural over the course of the weekend.
Despite Morgan's almost preternatural ingenuity, perseverance, and ability to bring people together, he can still find himself at a loss for words when explaining his festival. "The purpose was to get these kids to experience something they wouldn't normally experience. When you come, you'll see and you'll feel... You can't explain."