The Widening Scope of Afro-Punk

Bad Brains perform at the Wetlands in New York City, 1990. Photo: Steve Eichner/WireImage

Bad Brains is the best punk band of all time. While plenty of punks from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were racing to see who could shred apart their fingers on three chords first, these four dudes from New York-via-D.C. were pushing the genre forward, attempting to reshape it through the fluency of their songwriting and the urgency of their lyrics. Look no further than the complex “Re-Ignition.” In one song’s modulated chords and understated riffage, you hear a full spectrum of music history — punk rock, heavy metal, jazz, prog, Hendrix, hardcore — and see a bit into its future, as its chords weighed presciently on decades of indie, math rock and emo to come. The track belies Bad Brains’ history as a jazz band called Mind Power, foreshadows its forays into reggae and continued immersion into Rasta. Its chord chunks, creeping up from the low-end, are the foundation. Sure, there’s some room for musical subjectivity (the Clash, if you must). But if punk ethos is about bucking the system, Bad Brains were inherently it: not just rebel fire-spitters who could jam, but black men in a genre that was often portrayed as the provenance of the white working class.

So when James Spooner’s excellent 2003 film Afro-Punk was released, a bit of semantic confusion arose. It documented the lives of blacks in the punk scene — particularly examining the broad ways they were affected by the double-bind of being outsiders both within their culture, and within their subculture. But if rock and roll is black music, and punk is a rebellious permutation of rock and roll, isn’t punk music straight up black music to begin with? Other than a handful of participants, Bad Brains included, blacks (and Latinos and other people of color) were mostly written out of punk history — even though, as David Ensminger ’ s comprehensive black punk archive shows , there has never been a lack of blacks in the scene. After Afro-Punk spawned a related festival in Brooklyn, NY — successfully bringing together a scattered community of black punks, skaters, and other outsiders of color — more issues of ownership and reclamation arose. A 2007 New York Times article focusing on Afro-Punk and black indie rock pointed out the addition of the word “blipster” into the Urban Dictionary lexicon, essentially defined as a black person who dresses like and/or hangs around with (presumably white) hipsters. But some would argue that white “hipster” fashion is, for the most part, simply styles that blacks and Latinos have already played out. (Taking a stroll through mainland Williamsburg is, sartorially speaking, sometimes comparable to hanging around 1970s Bronx — cropped leather vests, skinny jeans, muscle tees and the like. Only half joking here.) A frustrated interviewee in the Afro-Punk film points out: “Where white folks playing black music is still looked upon as a novelty, black folks playing white music still get no shine.”

Fortunately, in the six years since the Afro-Punk festival began, the internet has changed music exponentially, helping to erode the old, familiar and oppressive divisions between genre, style and culture. The widespread popularity musicians of spawned from the Afro-Punk movement — most notably Santigold and Janelle Monáe — challenged the status quo of how black music both sounds and is presented in pop, a win for both music fans and the culture at large. In 2005, Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” topped the Billboard charts. But Mariah’s subversive qualities (of which there are arguably many) aren’t exactly worn on her sleeve, and the track is firmly within traditional concepts of R&B ballads. Fast-forward to 2011, to our latest chart-toppers, LMFAO: two wild-spectacled blood relatives of Motown creator Berry Gordy are running the country rapping over European rave music while wearing animal printed liquid leggings. While Afro-Punk, the concept, may not have originally envisioned trance synths in its future, the mere fact of LMFAO’s existence proves how vastly the concept of American black music has altered. And while Twitter was alight during the VMAs this week over a guitar-wielding Lil Wayne’s leopard-print stretch denim pants (mischaracterized as jeggings), it’s worth noting that the amateur riffer was wearing Tripp NYC — a classic punk label that economically-minded women and men have been copping for years from New York punk fashion hub Trash and Vaudeville, whose storefront is on St. Mark’s. Getting mocked for your outfit: fundamentally punk.

Santigold performs at the Pstero Festival in Trondheim, Norway, August 2011. Photo: Ragnar/Singsaas/Redferns

As the mainstream has broadened, so has Afro-Punk. This year’s festival in Brooklyn was, regretfully, canceled due to the looming specter of Hurricane Irene (organizers are hoping for a make-up date and currently exploring all options). But this year’s line-up was the broadest it’s ever been, pulling in terrific hardcore (Cerebral Ballzy), melodic metal (Afro-Punk OG Tamar-Kali), subversive rappers and DJs (Ninjasonik, Jillionaire), and old style soul in the classic definition, namely its biggest-ever headliner, Cee-Lo.

As the festival has grown, Afro-Punk is increasingly a beacon of cultural subversion from — here’s that old double-bind again — within and without. Cee-Lo is the perfect example of this, having come up from Goodie Mob, one of the most psychedelic Southern rap groups in history, and transforming into one of the most popular musicians over the last few years, his recent explosion in visibility is based on a supremely hummable Motown homage with a title containing the most syntactical and obscene of all the four-letter curse words. As a pop star, he is an unusual one — not traditionally pretty like, say, an Usher (or a Hendrix), but at least he’s prone to wearing wild ensembles. Last year on the Grammys, he was met with skepticism after performing “Fuck You” wearing a bedazzled, feathery peacock outfit with Gwyneth Paltrow. Some wondered why he would deign to dress up so ridiculously when the high society white woman appeared in conservative black. But Cee-Lo’s outfit, in addition to being one more in his repertoire of star-worthy costumes, was shouting out black music history, culminating in original outre saucer George Clinton.

So if Afro-Punk is, as Tamar-Kali put it in the film, “being caught in a system that you can’t identify with, that you don’t support and just being contrary,” chart-topper Cee-Lo might not fit in exactly, but no one can deny that he’s down. Historically, genre terms were invented to keep black musicians in a neat corner of the American record industry, despite the fact that black musicians invented most of the sounds that fuel it. After the industry term “Black Music” morphed into the marketing-friendly “urban” — which was and still is just radio-friendly code for black music barring, ironically, rock and roll — it succeeded in keeping “alternative” black musicians outsiders. Philly singer Res, who was scheduled to perform at Afro-Punk this year, has no use for pinned-in verbiage: “Afro-Punk Festival is a celebration of being a black artist and doing you,” she says, “when doing you is different than what ‘they’ expect from you musically.”

Cee-Lo performs at Lollapalooza 2011. Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Res should know; ten years ago, her incredible debut album How I Do, redefined concepts of how pop, rock and soul jigsawed together. Those listening for the first time, in 2011, might find the sound familiar, since it was co-written and produced by Santigold, then employed as an A&R at Epic. Back then, though, it was so outre that her label didn’t know quite how to market it, so it was plopped under the then-popular term “neo-soul.” Which is probably better than “alt-urban,” but still.

“I figured my music was super diverse and just like many other products, it needed a name and some sort of identity to be sold,” says Res. “Only later did I become unhappy with the label of a ‘neo-soul’ artist. When I look at different websites that feature my music, no matter what genre I am actually singing, they still throw the ‘neo-soul’ label on it. That’s when it is a problem. I have covered songs by Neil Young, Donna Summer, Berlin, Aimee Mann and Fleetwood Mac. Yet when you search artists like Res, I am still listed only amongst the neo-soul artists, which is a misrepresentation of what I do. I am that plus much more.”

Afro-Punk is a place where artists like Res can stretch out. Reclamations are plentiful; Janelle Monáe’s cyber-Afrofuturism reminds us that the bobby sox era was invented by black musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, while New York DJ Dances With White Girls reminds white DJ culture where it all began. “My whole name is about the subversion of culture, of taking the culture back from where people think it is,” Dances tells Hive. “But also when you DJ, it’s like making love to hundreds of new people at once and you can subvert them … After you, they will ask the next man to do it to them every time. That’s what you’re supposed to do — give them a bit of sugar then feed them some of their vegetables. Then they want kimchi and collard greens at every meal.” He makes a great point: as black punk continues breaking rigid bounds, we should all remember from whence we eat.

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