To be honest, I’ve thought about writing this for a while but never really wanted to do it. I’m the CEO of the media network/organization PUNK BLACK, and I really didn’t want two companies that provide visibility for alternative PoC to have beef. Unfortunately, after our recent interaction with Afropunk, it looks like that might be unavoidable.
Let me start by acknowledging Afropunk’s authentic roots. When Afropunk first started, they were an organization that provided a space for local black rock musicians and fans to really be themselves. I saw my first POC local rock band, the 54, in Atlanta because of a post I saw on Afropunk’s online forum. In a big way, the staff of Punk Black has looked up to Afropunk over the years, and we still believe that they have the ability to do a great deal of good for the local black punk rock scene. But given our experience at Afropunk NY 2018, I can tell you that they’ve strayed very far from their roots.
The first encounter between my organization and AfroPunk was in October 2015, around the time of our first local Atlanta Festival. Matthew Morgan’s assistant at the time (who no longer works with AfroPunk) shot us a message via Facebook telling us that they loved what we do, and that they wanted to have a meeting so that they could do a write up on us. They even mentioned the possibility of working with us in the future. As you can imagine, we were all extremely excited. We met with them only to find out the meeting was essentially a dick measuring contest, and that they had no real intention of working with us.
AP’s assistant and I met at the Sound Table on Edgewood avenue during the setup of the Afropunk Pop-up shop. Eventually Matthew Morgan joined us. It’s worth noting that this was our first encounter with the CEO of Afropunk. He introduced himself very briefly. “Oh we see how your flyer design and promotion is really similar to ours, and that we see you all trying to be like us” his assistant mentioned, before Matthew Morgan went on his way. The “invitation” to Afropunk was also not what we expected – rather than offering us media passes as a fellow organization, they essentially waved us off and told us that we should volunteer to get in. It was at this time that I realized that they called us in for a meeting under the guise of working with our organization, just to ask us to work for them. They also reached out to us for the second AP ATL Fest asking if we could promote their festival in exchange for two free tickets. We turned down the tickets and suggested that we could have a promotional exchange instead since we were also planning a fest earlier that week. Unfortunately they never responded. One would think that a promotional exchange between two organizations that theoretically represent the same thing would have made perfect since, especially when there was no visible conflict interest. Apparently AP thought differently.
Naturally, that meeting really rubbed us the wrong way. We were pretty much deterred from working with them after that incident, but we avoided directly calling them out all in the name of “unity” between organizations and looking out for the greater good. We really wanted to believe that Punk Black and Afropunk wanted the same thing at the end of the day.
This brings us to our second issue, and probably our biggest. At some point, we noticed that Afropunk’s writers had been using our page for content without crediting us. By content we mean local bands, many of which had played shows regularly at Punk Black. Truthfully, we really didn’t mind them promoting bands that they found on our page. The fact that their media presence provides several opportunities for budding bands isn’t lost on us. It just would have been nice for their media team to actually attend a Punk Black rather than taking photos straight from our website.
However, Afropunk never even credited were they found the information. Even when they did do small write-ups on the bands, the articles felt hollow, lifeless, and very corporate to me. Maybe I’m biased because of how intimate my relationship with these bands and my community is, but the fact that they clearly avoided citing the source of their information sent a very clear message to us.
Finally, even after all the bullshit, we tried working with Afropunk one last time.
Earlier this year Matthew Morgan reached out to us via email saying that he wanted to work more closely with us and other local POC rock organizations this year. It was apparent by then that despite our very brief encounter, Matthew Morgan had either been keeping a close eye on our content or had been briefed on what Punk Black has been doing. After a long wait, and some miscommunication, I was finally able to have a meaningful phone conversation with him. He asked about some of the popular bands in Atlanta, and who we would recommend playing at future Afropunk festivals. Given our experience with this organization, I was a bit wary about providing too much information about the scene and our future endeavors, but he and I were able to come up with a plan. He suggested that Punk Black would nominate two bands, one for this past New York Festival, and one for the upcoming Afropunk Atlanta Festival in October. They would provide me with a traveling stipend for the New York festival and allow Punk Black to vend there. By this time, I had become very cautious but pretty optimistic, and was considering that all of the past mishaps may have been simply due to errors in communication. “We (Afropunk) book the most black bands” he insisted in our conversation, likely referencing some previous comments I made about Afropunk in our podcast. “I don’t care anyone says”. He assured me that when I reached New York, he and I would having a “spirited conversation” involving the things I’ve said about Afropunk.
Our conversation never took place. In fact, I barely got into the event at all.
We nominated the band Royal Sun for the BK fest and Conkrete God for the ATL fest. As an event coordinator and booking agent, I am extremely understanding of how difficult running a festival must be and was extremely grateful that they had even offered a traveling stipend in the first place. Unfortunately, it took me awhile to receive this stipend, which made preparing for the trip much more difficult.
However, there was one important issue that Afropunk completely – and I suspect intentionally – dropped the ball on. Vending. As a monthly event with a podcast and a growing media channel, the opportunity to sell merch and market Punk Black at Afropunk was a huge bonus for us. However, our requests for more details both on our vending options and entry for our group were constantly ignored. As some point, Matthew Morgan himself asked my what items we planned on vending, but I never heard from him again after sending him the information. After receiving no response from Afropunk for months, most of the members of my team had accepted the fact that they wouldn’t be given entry, and that we wouldn’t be vending.
Finally, after a long trip and an awesome fucking Punk Black at the Brooklyn Bizarre, the day came for Royal Sun to play at the Afropunk festival. We found our way through the busy streets to the band entrance area. It was here that I realized that it wasn’t just that Afropunk hadn’t prioritized my vending as promised. After having me nominate a band from my network and bring them to their event, they had not even arranged my credentials for entry. Even when I was able to enter as a band guest, I was given a paper pass instead of a wristband. I was told by staff that “You’ll probably be ok with the security guard if you have this.”
A 16 hour drive is a long ass way for “probably”.
Unfortunately for me, they were wrong, and I had a hard time getting in and out of the band zone. The band area security guards were just as confused as I was. Why wouldn’t they be? All I had to convince them that I was supposed to be there was a folded up piece of paper.
Royal Sun played their hearts out at Afropunk, and I can’t express how proud of them I am. However, in addition to being frustrated as fuck at the issues I had with entry, I was extremely disappointed with how Afropunk handled the promotion for the local bands and the punk stage itself. I realize that filling time between acts is a thing for festival, but I found it pretty insane for them to skimp on promotion for the bands at the punk stage while having a large act perform on the main stage simultaneously. So much for “visibility”.
It felt like the real party was at the main stage, and that the local bands who had travelled to play there were a charity case to them. A tax write-off. Even the audio for Royal Sun that had been designated to be a sample of their music for the crowd to hear was totally fucked. Whatever the issue was with Afropunk’s application, the sample sounded terrible and distorted. While this could have just been an innocent oversite for sure, it further put into perspective how little time and detail Afropunk puts into the local bands that represent their roots.
Naturally, I sent the staff a frustrated email while I was still at the festival. “I’m sorry you feel that way, we did fail on communication but that wasn’t my department,” one of Afropunk’s main assistants replied. Despite some advice from my peers, I’ve chosen not to list the names of the assistants, primarily because I don’t want to place blame incorrectly when a superior could be responsible.
I’m writing my account of these events in the wake of Ericka Hart(@ihartericka) being issued a similar half-assed apology after being removed from VIP at the festival. Afropunk prides itself on believing in respectful discourse, respecting creative expression, and speaking truth to power and while I won’t take too much time to repeat the details of that incident as it’s already been heavily covered, that’s simply not what we saw. We saw an organization that had strayed a great distance from the ideals that it was founded on, and a man who acted in a way that I found extremely unbecoming of the leader of a progressive organization.
Now to be clear, I am not saying Afropunk is a bad event. In fact, when it comes to covering, creative trends, music, and events, Afropunk is one of the frontrunners. Despite all of the controversy and compromise, I still truly believe that they are necessary for the moment. Representation still matters, and Afropunk is very good at promoting it in a big way.
I also want to go ahead and address the idea that I’m writing this solely to be controversial and get some shine for my organization; trust me, we would have done this a long time ago were that the case. I’m not speaking for every band I associate with that has played Afropunk, because some of them have wonderful stories.
I’m writing this because after my experience, I’m compelled to call Afropunk’s real purpose into question. How important is punk to Afropunk? Is the event a celebration of our history of resistance, or is it just a black Coachella? Does the co-founder of this organization fully grasp the weight and responsibility of Afropunk’s obligation to our community? Or does he just see the raw, unfiltered truth in punk rock as another marketing point for consumption.
Whose house is it?
I think we’ve all come to grips with the fact that Afropunk may never again be the event that its founder, James Spooner envisioned–per his social media, he’s been adamant about distancing himself from the current version. But I think recent events, including the resignation (and account) of Afropunk’s Editor-in-Chief may be the cause for us all to take a second look at an organization that we believed to be for-us-by-us. I would love to see Afropunk move forward from this, but the way that they handle future controversy will be the deciding factor.
CEO of PUNK BLACK