Afropunk Founders Talk Expanding the 'Alternative Black Culture' Fest: 'We're Still Not Having Our Stories Completely Told'

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Grace Jones performs at Afropunk Fest at Commodore Barry Park on August 22, 2015 in Brooklyn, New York. 

A decade ago, Matthew Morgan and Jocelyn Cooper started Afropunk, a free annual festival in Brooklyn that highlighted what they billed as “alternative black culture” through eclectic headliners like TV on the Radio, Janelle Monae, Danny Brown and Bad Brains -- acts that didn’t always fit in at festivals like Lollapalooza or Essence. In 2015 Afropunk has had a breakthrough, launching new annual fests in Paris (in May) and Atlanta (coming up Oct. 3-4) and pivoting to paid admission (Brooklyn general day-passes cost $45; attendees could also earn free tickets through community volunteer work). The new model worked -- attendance over their flagship two day Brooklyn fest, headlined by Lauryn Hill and Lenny Kravitz, grew to almost 70,000, organizers say, up from 60,000 the year before.

Billboard: Afropunk was traditionally seen as a community-centric festival. Was it a hard decision getting rid of free tickets?

Morgan: Very much so. We've been able to help usher in an alternative to a perception of [black] culture. And in our community, there comes a time that if we do not support our culture and the things that we love, we will lose them. People are very happy to pay for Summer Jam, but there's a question about whether Afropunk should charge, when the overwhelming value culturally of it is never a question. There should be no question whether we should safeguard, maintain, and support something that’s important culturally to us. Afropunk had grown to a size where accommodating that number of people safely and professionally was very, very expensive. It was either, we were going to find a way to pass the expenses on or Afropunk just wouldn't exist anymore -- not in New York at least. And it’s the cheapest festival in the country for anywhere near that level of talent. So, yeah, there was a lot of soul searching and apprehension. We got some criticism for it, but at the end of the day, a lot of people showed up. When we started the festival, it was meant as a platform for alternative black talent and to grow an audience we felt did not understand festival culture and therefore wouldn't pay for it. We put a lot in by supporting the community for 10 years, so to have the community turn around and support the event, we were extremely happy about that. 

Do you think that community is underserved or underestimated by other festivals?

Morgan: Brands still do not value the community. We're still not having our stories completely told. I remember sitting down with [former president of Live Nation New York] Bruce Moran many years ago. We were looking for perhaps a partner in Live Nation, perhaps support, someone that might give us access to acts and venues. I gave it my best shot, and after an hour and 15 minutes, he sat back in his chair and asked me, "why black people? Why a black audience?” And I said, “Well, you do not promote to us, because your assumption is our community isn't going to buy a ticket.” He took a pause and was like, “You know what? You're right. We don't.” You have to work a little bit harder to get our money in the festival space. You have to feel comfortable going to a festival that is predominantly white. We never look at how fearful black people feel about entering spaces where they may feel they're not welcome. 

Cooper: One of the things that was very interesting about having Lenny Kravitz< this year is that the audience that comes to Afropunk has never seen him before. They have not or maybe don't feel comfortable or have the access to go see an artist of that caliber. A lot of young people discovered Lenny Kravitz that day.

Morgan: They're not just going to pay for a festival if they don't feel comfortable. But that's changing a lot. We were so surprised and pleased at Bonnaroo this year -- we [partnered with] them market to our audience this year. We did a lot of promotions. From year to year, we noticed triple, quadruple, the amount of people of color than we did the year before. 

AfroPunk 2013: Festival Style Photos // Live Photos

Cooper: Most of the folks that we talked to, the young people of color that were there at Bonnaroo, we asked why are you here? “We saw it on Afropunk.com!” When people think about Afropunk, they think about the festival, but it’s an online business -- the 9 million people that we are reaching monthly across all of our social platforms. That is the core and the heart and soul of Afropunk -- 365 days a year of content and this amazing global community of people, that are talking to each other and pushing culture forward. That’s the biggest piece in the story of Afropunk. 

The lineup this year seemed better than ever. Was that due to the charged admission? 

Morgan: I preferred the acts when we were smaller [Laughs]. It's been difficult being viewed as a scrappy, mostly black organization, without big partners like Live Nation or AEG. It's been very hard for us to book acts; it's taken us 10 years to be able to gain the trust of these agents and acts. We've been going after them for years. People just view the festival and its audience as more valuable now than they have ever before. It just took too long as far as I'm concerned -- and there's still so much room to grow. 

This article was originally published in the Oct. 3 issue of Billboard.