Like love, Afro-punk means different things to different people.
Next weekend the annual Afropunk Fest will get the crowds dancing in Commodore Barry Park near the Navy Yard for the 13th year.
And, as in the past, fans will argue over whether the term “Afropunk” can fairly be applied to an amorphous two-day festival (Aug. 26 and 27) that, this time, will include R&B acts like Soul II Soul, rappers such as Dizzee Rascal, DJs like Kaytranada, and a sensitive balladeer like Sampha.
How punk is that?
In a literal sense, it’s far from it. Many of the acts this year fall a great distance from the type that inspired the original “Afro-Punk” film documentary in 2003, which led to the first, like-named festival in Brooklyn two years later. James Spooner’s groundbreaking movie kept the focus tightly on African-American hardcore acts, like Bad Brains, 24-7 Spyz and Fishbone. For reasons both commercial and cultural, Afro-punk has greatly expanded over the years. “For me, Afro-punk is a platform to celebrate black excellence in whatever form it takes,” said festival co-manager Jocelyn Cooper. “It’s not just about music but also about visual art, food, style, literature and activism.”
“Afro-punk, at this point, is defined as much by what it isn’t as what it is,” said music historian and author Nelson George. “All of the stuff that constitutes commercial black pop is not Afro-punk. Instead, it’s about artists who, relative to the mainstream, are considered fringe.”
In recent years, that elastic definition has taken in everyone from Erykah Badu and the rapper Eve to a hard rock act like Death and the biracial blues group London Souls. If absolutists see that as a sellout, more broad-minded fans might consider it an embrace. Either way, today’s Afro-punk provides a strikingly clear measure of how many contemporary black artists have been resisting confining stereotypes about how their music should sound — whether those limits come from the mainstream or from punk purists.
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More, they’re being rewarded with ever-expanding audiences. Last year, Afropunk drew between 25,000 and 30,000 fans each day to Brooklyn, while, starting in 2015, the fest began inspiring sister events in Atlanta, Paris, London and, for the first time in Johannesburg, South Africa on New Year’s Eve.
As Afro-punk has expanded, so has the mainstream exposure for a fresh wave of black rock acts. Gary Clark Jr., one of the festival’s headliners this year, arguably stands as today’s most prominent young blues-rock guitarist. Another key player at this year’s fest, the British progressive rocker Michael Kiwanuka, recently scored his second No. 1 album in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Alabama Shakes, fronted by Brittany Howard, has earned gold albums and become a Grammy favorite. The group’s debut album earned the band a nomination for best new artist, while the Shakes’ latest release won best rock song, best alternative album and best rock performance.
And in the past six months, one of the year’s most talked-about, and innovative, rock albums came from Benjamin Booker, 26, from Virginia.
Both Kiwanuka and Booker directly address race in their lyrics. On their latest albums, each confronts their roles as black men in an industry, and a world, that both objectifies them and aims to limit their potential. “Rock and roll is what I grew up listening to,” said Kiwanuka. “Artists like Jimi Hendrix and Bill Withers I could relate to because they played rock with a twist. That encouraged me to find my own identity.”
Kiwanuka’s particular take balances psychedelic rock with progressive ’70s soul. His “Love and Hate” album expands on the avant-R&B style pioneered by Isaac Hayes on his 1969 classic “Hot Buttered Soul.” It adopts its long song lengths, cinematic orchestrations and shocks of fuzztoned guitar to create an enveloping soundscape. Kiwanuka’s pained and husky vocals seal the scene, lending his universal struggle individual urgency.
Booker has forged his own fresh amalgam on his revelatory second album, “Witness.” In every song, his voice hits with the rock-soul power of Otis Redding; it bleeds with feeling. The result lends special texture to music that makes liberal use of fuzztone and echo, drawing on garage-rock, psychedelia and vintage R&B. It hits a peak in the gospel-kissed title track, in which Booker asks himself to what degree he’s willing to commit to movements like Black Lives Matter. “I write about things that frustrate me,” Booker told the website Music Feeds. “I’m just trying to be honest about the things that are happening around me, but I’m also trying to contribute in the little ways I can.”
While Clark and the Shakes’ Howard seldom make racial issues explicit, they’re still in play. Clark’s career offers a particularly telling twist on blues-rock history. Though blacks birthed the blues, and innovated its move into electricity, via pioneers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, it was their acolytes — the white guitarists of the ’60s and ’70s — who reaped far more of the financial rewards. Clark is bringing blues history full circle, reconnecting it to the race of its originators. The new wave of prominent black rock artists have finessed a similar rebalance in their genre, returning to prominence the race that created rock and roll to begin with.
As George sees it, the spirit of punk informs both these trends. “Punk doesn’t have to be three guys bashing,” he said. Instead, said Cooper, “it’s more of an attitude. It’s about making your own kind of music.”
By that measure, both the new black rockers, and the genre-blurring artists set to sprawl through this year’s Afropunk Fest, can be considered punk to the core.
ACTS TO WATCH
More than 60 acts will play this year’s Afropunk Fest. Besides must-sees like Michael Kiwanuka and Gary Clark Jr., here are a few others you shouldn’t miss:
KAYTRANADA The Haitian-born, Montreal-based hip-hop DJ named Kaytranada takes a holistic approach on his glowing debut, “99.9%”. It offers a freewheeling trip through electronica, soul, house, funk, jazz and avant-rap.
SAMPHA British singer Sampha Sisay has become a go-to guest on recording by stars from Drake to Kanye to Solange. No doubt, they’re drawn to the uncommon vulnerability of his voice and the lonely intimacy of his piano.
SON LITTLE Born Aaron Livingston, Son Little combines a smooth R&B croon with the snap of blues-rock.
THE COOL KIDS This aptly named duo give their alterna-hip-hop music a spacey vibe, spiked by cheeky lyrics.
THUNDERCAT Bass lines don’t come more supple than those of Steven “Thundercat” Bruner. They give his synth-rich music a sweet layer of funk.
— JIM FARBER
WHAT Afropunk Fest
WHEN | WHERE Aug. 26 and 27, Commodore Barry Park, Flushing Avenue and North Elliot Place, Brooklyn
INFO $55 to $90; afropunkfest.com