Rolling Stone’s review of the 2012 Afropunk Festival starts like this:
AfroPunk’s slogan, “The Other Black Experience,” is outdated. In the decade since founders Matthew Morgan and James Spooner set out to document the burgeoning scene of black punk and hardcore kids across the country, that binary understanding of black youth culture – once observed through the distinction between baggy jeans and skinny jeans – has blossomed into a writhing ecosystem of cultural and digital exchange, sprouting bohemian sects of young minorities in any and every major city.
“You are AfroPunk!” hosts beckoned to the crowd between acts. “Who’s ever been called an Oreo for no reason? Who’s ever been told they talked ‘white’?” Later, a councilwoman took the stage to implore fans to re-elect Barack Obama. “This isn’t Ozzfest or one of those big jams,” another host rallied. “This is by the people, for the people!” But despite this legitimate rhetoric, AfroPunk didn’t feel revolutionary. For these digitally native, culturally insatiable kids, it felt normal – which means, in so many ways, it was victorious.
Afropunk began as a rebel cry for Black punks, and provided a home to express otherness–for Black people. Black people are usually left out of the conversation when it comes to alternative culture, period. (think how black women were excluded and severely overlooked during the women’s movement in the 70s). But it’s 2012, baby. What does the “other black experience” really mean these days. Hasn’t our whole mission been to have our experiences counted among the general alternative communities? Have we succeeded? Is it time for a new slogan? Or should we still make it clear that while everyone is invited to support and join our movement, the black experience is still a separate one?
The subtext of the Rolling Stone question is that the tagline for is limiting. Why? Because there’s a lot of white people attending the festival? Why should Afropunk need to deracinate itself to make white people comfortable? As Walter Mosley once said–and I”m paraphrasing here–“I’ll give up the term ‘African-American’ when you [the dominant culture] give up your white privilege.” So, from the perspective of how it functions within the dominant culture, I’m against giving up on the tagline. And, as relates to black people, I think the tagline functions as a way of pushing folks in our community to think about other possibilities, other ways of being. Anytime you reference “black,” it can be, here paraphrasing Richard Iton, about a way of getting at the unexplored possibilities
And, in a society that pushes towards homogenization, that can be a good thing.
To be fair, we also have to acknowledge that culture evolves constantly. What was once marginal can, eventually, make it to the mainstream. In fact, since this site’s inception, I’ve talked about how black rock and afropunk were moving off the fringes and towards the mainstream of American culture. And with the ascendance of many of the bands that we’ve followed over the years, you could make the case that these artists–take Janelle and TV On The Radio, as examples–have done just that. Now, neither of them are in Beyonce or Justin Beiber territory, but they’re clearly “established” artists. And, as artists grow and evolve, so must the scenes and communities that support them.
And, like culture, corporate brands evolve over time. It’s just the nature of things. The trick for Afropunk will be how to evolve its branding in a way that signals that it’s both no longer this underground black community thing, but that it’s still true to the ethos that pushed it into the world in the first place.