Afro-Punk Festival Day 1 feat. Jean Grae and Pharoahe Monch, Unlocking the Truth, Wicked Wisom Le1f, Ninjasonik, Theophilus London, Mykki Blanco, Jersey Klan, Dead Prez and Saul Williams 8/24/13

Afro-Punk Festival Day 1 feat. Jean Grae an Pharoahe Monch, Unlocking the Truth, Le1f, Ninjasonik, Theophilus London, Mykki Blanco, Jersey Klan, Dead Prez and Saul Williams

Commodore Barry Park, Brooklyn


This year marked the tenth anniversary of the Afro-Punk Festival, a festival that has grown in leaps and bounds while still retaining fairly grassroots principles – they’ve consistently have made their message about a very vital and constantly changing community. In light of the Trayvon Martin shooting and subsequent murder case, what it means to be both Black and a Black American have become a part of the public consciousness in a way that hasn’t really occurred in at least 50 years. And in some way, the Afro-Punk movement has become a growing part in helping redefine what it means to be black – and believe me, I wish I would have known about Afro-Punk ten years ago. Personally, I think I would have found a community I would have actually belonged to, for the first time in my entire life.

Much like any other established annual festival, Afro-Punk’s organizers have been criticized by various factions. For those who were there for the festival’s early day, there’s a sense that the organizers have allowed the event to stray from its origins. After all, over the last two years there has been a lot less punk rock – although interestingly enough, there are plenty of acts who openly embrace the punk ethos in some fashion or another.  And honestly, who can blame the festival’s organizers for wanting to make the festival more eclectic and for booking both relatively known acts with lesser known acts, the festival-goer will want to get to know? In some way, it should be obvious to most that the festival organizers’s thinking benefits everyone. They want to make money to pay their bills and have a festival next year, and well into the future (hopefully); it’s puts smaller acts in front of large crowds of people who were there for a headliner or some other act; it gets press out to cover the event; and it also shows love to established artists. Plus, if you add the emphasis on supporting businesses in and around the Fort Greene section, it should be in theory a win-win for everyone involved. 

Still like with every festival, questioning it’s motives, it’s intent and commenting on it’s lineup on an annual basis are naturally quite common, and it reflects the growing pains of any institution. And although this year had one of the more interesting festival lineups, I still had several questions that came to my mind as an attendee. Why was Mykki Blanco, the only openly gay artist? And from what I saw, there were only a small handful of acts that included women – what was with that? Why wasn’t there even one punk band? There were also some issues with the festival’s actual organization as well. Rye Rye somehow missed her early afternoon set, which caused quite a bit of shuffling and reshuffling. The up-and-coming rapper played an extremely truncated set, and it may explain why Ninjasonik who weren’t scheduled were on stage at one point. I managed to miss most of her set because that wasn’t announced. Then Saul Williams’ set got rescheduled, so that it ended the first day, and and a number of people missed it because it was announced – at the very last minute. I almost missed his set running to the press tent to try to charge my iPhone which had died hours earlier.  Things like that should never happen because they’re unfair to fans. Granted, it may be unlikely but imagine if you were like me and were curious about catching as many acts as possible, and you wound up missing two acts that you may have been excited to catch. And to add insult to injury, you found out about it through some blog or publication, the very next day, you’d be pissed. 

Still even with those issues, for me Afro-Punk is something i’ve looked forward to for a number of reasons including what it means for me personally. With that in mind, let’s talk about Day 1 of the festival… 

Mornings aren’t my friend and with a commute of well over an hour, I missed the first couple of sets but I managed to get to Commodore Barry Park a little before the start of Jean Grae’s set.

i was running to the press tent for free alcohol – yes, free alcohol – when i came across this man, and I needed a photo of him. 

I can’t say that I’m a Miller HIgh Life fan but hey, free beer tastes wonderful until they ran out of it. While in the press tent, I ran into a couple of photographers and bloggers, had a couple of beers and then ran out to catch Jean Grae.

I had the pleasure of catching Grae once before at all female-led hip hop show at Sputnik, hosed by the legendary MC Lyte. Unlike that Sputnik show were Grae was rapidly cracking jokes, even in the middle of songs, her Afro-Punk Festival show was the most tightly focused and sober minded set i’ve seen her do. Grae and her backing band were dressed entirely in black as they were all mourning the death of Grae’s mother, as she passed a short time before the festival. But being the daughter of a performer, Grae was taught that the show must always go on, and go on it did. 

Certainly, Grae’s material revealed her to be an uncompromisingly honest artist – the sort who reveals the universal within her own personal struggles. I had liked the woman before but I came away with a whole different respect of her. Pharoahe Monch came out to do a couple of songs with her, and soon as he came out, the crowd lost their minds. 

This guy had to be one of Jean Grae’s biggest fans. 

This guy was one of my favorites. Check out how emphatically he was singing along. 

This brother i’ve seen around on a number of occasions around Union Square. Him and his crew have adopted a look that screams 1988, with a few exceptions – their smartphones. Can you say anachronistic? 

Unlocking the Truth are a band consisting of a a trio of real young brothers, all around 11 and 12 or so, and they despite the fact that they’re adorable, they can fucking play. Check out the YouTube video of guitarist Malcolm Brickhouse playing Metallica – it’s impressive. And for such young kids, they carry themselves with a self-assuredness that belies their age. 

Wicked Wisdom is the nu-metal band that Jada Pinkett-Smith formed back in 2002. Although she has a very talented backing band, who can really trash with the best of them, and she carries herself on stage in a way that demands your attention, there’s something calculating and phony about the whole thing. It’s hard to believe that Pinkett-Smith had spent her formative years listening to metal or that the songs have any sincerity whatsoever. Nor was there anything memorable or unique about the material. It struck me as being a cynical cash grab – the sort that the Smith clan have specialized in over the past few years. 

At the end of the set, I wondered what was the real point in having a band like that these beyond the celebrity factor? Weren’t there a bunch of well-deserving bands who would have been at least original? 

I only caught a small portion of Le1f’s set. Well, okay, at least I think i twas LeIF …And it wasn’t enough to really write much about their set, sadly. But I did get a few photos. 

Ninjasonik came on the stage and they’re one of hip hop’s most rowdiest, hardest partying groups. Unlike most underground and contemporary hip hop groups, their sets are full of the “we don’t give a fuck” punk attitude, and it’s not uncommon to see audience members moshing their heads off. i’ve caught them three times so far, and with the exception of a strange New Music Seminar Festival New York Show in which they were kind of penned in by camera equipment, these guys are a lot of fun to catch live,  

Ninjasonik’s Telli encouraging the crowd to mosh – and mosh hard.

Theophilus London is one of the more unique performers I’ve seen in some time as his sound meshes hip hop, funk, soul and rock in an effortless manner. However, at some point London seemed a bit too cool for school, performing with a strangely disaffected air, despite how incredible it sounded. 

Mykki Blanco has become one of hip hop’s most intriguing figures – first because he’s one of the contemporary scene’s rare openly gay artists and because his stage persona blurs the gender lines, in a fashion somewhat similar to David Bowie and others. But it’s more than just some schtick to get attention, Blanco actually has some talent; in fact, I suspect that you’ll be hearing quite a bit from Mykki Blanco in certain scenes in the future. But I have to admit that for me, there isn’t anything super revolutionary in his routine, but perhaps the hip hop crowd will be taught to be less homophobic. 

Jersey Klan rented a tent and were rocking out for people in between sets.

The night’s special guests were the legendary (and revolutionary) act Dead Prez. Lyrically, they owe a debt to Public Enemy, KRS-One X-Clan,   Fela Kuti and others – they speak their truth with a righteous fury. But sonically it’s some of the hardest hip hop you’ll ever see. Revolutionary but   gangsta, indeed. They’ve long been questioning the American criminal justice system, the sociopolitical system, and the hip hop industry with a clarity and nuance that shows that they see connections that others don’t or simply can’t. The best moment for me was hearing them do “Hip Hop” live. As a song, it calls out superficial, phony emcees and demands that the hip hop audience seek justice. 

Poet Saul Williams closed the night out, and no one knew what to really expect – the general consensus seemed that he would likely read poetry for a bit. But little did we know that he’d do the Jim Carroll act and be backed by a live band that did loud, aggressive punk rock while Williams spoke/sang lyrics and recited poetry. Williams doesn’t have a great singing voice but he does command a stage in a way that makes you pay attention to him. Interestingly, Williams did one of the strangest and yet most memorable covers of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” I’ve ever heard. in fact, I still hear in in my head almost a month later. 

CX Kidtronix during Saul Williams’ set.

For these photos and more from Day 1 of the incredible Afro-Punk Festival check out the Flickr set here: