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.