This season we’ve partnered with London-based youth culture archive YOUTH CLUB, to identify and explore new youth subcultures across the globe. We’ve already looked at Harajuku in Japan, and the global Free Party scene. In this installment we’re looking at the Afropunk movement…
JAMES SPOONER AND THE BIRTH OF AFROPUNK
When James Spooner’s documentary ‘Afro-Punk’ was released in 2003, he provided a movement for young people to identify with. From the documentary emerged an online message board, then a free gathering resulting in a series of seminal gigs, and eventually the now world-renowned festival of the same name. First and foremost, this movement is a celebration of black identity, art, culture, fashion and music.
THE ONLY BLACK KID AT THE PUNK SHOW
Finding it difficult to engage with the usual subcultures that attracted him, James Spooner’s mission to find likeminded people unwittingly connected an entire legion of young people who always felt like the only black kid at a punk show. One of the young people interviewed for the documentary described their first ever punk show; “wow, there are 300 white kids and two black kids and you are like damn.” This sentiment resonated with almost everyone involved in the documentary, from the musicians down to the fans.
The documentary opened up the scene and showed that there were both other black people like ‘us’, while also uncovering the isolation some young black people felt by not feeling they belonged in either the punk, alternative or the mainstream black community. When Afro-Punk premiered, the movie found a huge and energetic following among likeminded young people. What was originally supposed to be a straight-up documentary grew into so much more, and just a single word, ‘Afropunk’ gifted true representation to tens of thousands of young black people across the world.
BUILDING THE TRIBE
As a response to the popularity of the documentary, Spooner launched a website to network with this newfound community. There Afropunks from around the globe shared their experiences and built their own DIY youth tribe. Around this time Spooner teamed up with Matthew Morgan to try and bring this burgeoning community into the real world. Liberation Sessions involved a screening, followed by live performances of black punk bands. It provided a dedicated space for the alternative black community to celebrate their identity in an environment where being different was nurtured and encouraged.
AFROPUNK – THE FESTIVAL
Out of the Liberation Sessions came Afropunk Festival – initially a small gathering across several Brooklyn venues that brought the online community together. Since then it’s grown into an international festival celebrating ‘the other black experience’ and brings together all facets of the community. The Afropunk community is diverse in its music, styles and sub-genres, but is brought together through a common goal to build a movement that exemplifies and welcomes alternative self expression among young black people. The people and ethos behind Afropunk had always been around, but the documentary and subsequent festival have helped define the scene and empower the community on a grand scale.
Combining a DIY, punk attitude with a celebration of of black culture and heritage, the style is bold, raw and authentic – going beyond punk. The common thread is a pride of identity and heritage. Bringing together the traditional with the contemporary, bright and bold African wax prints are brought together with modern fashion. Minimalist monochrome clothing is accessorised with traditional jewellery. You can see the references of Afro-futurism that some have associated with Afropunk, in the style and attitude of the movement. Emerging in the 60s, the afro-futurist musicians, artists and thinkers developed their aesthetic through a multicultural and transhistorical view that ties together black culture from the past, present and future. Much more than sci-fi and mysticism, it is about imagining a better future.
The yearly, international calendar of Afropunk festivals is still the best place to see the latest styles and influences, and it has subsequently become known as the best dressed festival around. Photographer Benjamin Rasmussen has documented the festival and its followers over the years, saying: “They were comfortable in their bodies and they used clothing as an extension of their attitude instead of as a disguise. It is their self confidence that made the looks work and it is their powerful presentation of themselves that carries the images.”
‘No sexism, no racism, no ableism, no homophobia, no fat phobia, no transphobia, no hatefulness.’
Spooner’s documentary was driven by his feeling of not belonging within a specific community, of constantly being ‘othered’, and born out of the desire to find likeminded black alternative people. Those initial factors and feelings resonate today through Afropunk’s aims of creating an all inclusive community. This is reflected by the festival manifesto ‘no sexism, no racism, no ableism, no homophobia, no fat phobia, no transphobia, no hatefulness.’
The style of music and the scene’s community centres around positive representation and celebration of black arts and culture. Afropunk’s brave and vigorous celebration of black culture alongside the championing of individuality has made Afropunk one of the most forward thinking youth cultures of today. While the documentary and subsequent festival have given this scene a name, it’s the active community of people behind it who are responsible for it’s success, carving out a unique space in contemporary culture.
All imagery by Benjamin Rasmussen.