by Dom Jones
Dress like this. Sing like this. Dance like this. Speak like this. Wear this much makeup. Weigh exactly this weight. Buy these clothes. Wear these shoes. We’ve all heard these sentences thrown at us like demands on which our entire success as artists hinged. Our ability to execute would be reviewed, deconstructed, and critiqued. The pressure to be a perfect version of whatever archetype will bring us the most success as musicians can be a vice grip around our heads, hearts, and creativity. Attending this year’s AfroPunk Festival in Brooklyn made me feel as though I could pack up all of these arbitrary demands and toss them over the Brooklyn Bridge, never to be heard from again.
I traveled to Brooklyn with excitement to see some of my favorite artists: Solange, Anderson.Paak, Gary Clark, Jr., and of course, my hometown’s hero, Raphael Saadiq. As a teenager, I used to listen to Saadiq’s “Instant Vintage” album as much, if not more, than D’Angelo’s “Voodoo.” Raphael was the R&B artist who always touched the tip of the mainstream, but never received the recognition or accolades that I felt he deserved. Penning/producing some of the biggest hits from artists like Erykah Badu, Bilal, D’Angelo, and Solange – as well as spearheading two of R&B culture’s most influential groups (Tony Toni Toné and Lucy Pearl) – he still rarely came up in conversations about the R&B greats of our time, though his career has been consistently stellar for 30 years! Now, as a Music Supervisor for Issa Rae’s much lauded “Insecure” series on HBO, he’s touching us with his ear for talent once again. I couldn’t have been more excited to see this artist from my hometown of Oakland, California close out the entire weekend by proving his musical dominance to those who knew him well and those who didn’t yet. But music wasn’t the only thing on the agenda.
As much as AfroPunk is a music festival, it’s also a fashion (forward) show. Festival-goers completely throw caution to the wind and experiment with colors, patterns, shapes, textures, and every element of style you could imagine and BEYOND! If you’re looking to get ideas for your aesthetic, AfroPunk is the place. Photographers from small blogs to big name publications scour the throngs of people, looking for the best dressed, snapping photos, and taking short interviews. It doesn’t feel judgmental or competitive, though. Everything about this part of the festival felt welcoming, appreciative, and complimentary. I was stopped by several photographers on both days, and even ended up on Allure’s Best Dressed List for this year’s festival. HOW COOL!
Navigating the festival could be a task. There were several stages, with performances overlapping, and so I spent the first day just figuring out how to see who and when. Earlier in the day, it’s pretty easy to see who you want to see and get to check out up and coming artists. I saw Qaasim & The Juggernaut War Party as I entered, a high energy rap/R&B/pop band, who Berklee’s own
Michael Decena was seen playing with. One group who really stuck out to me was The Skins, a high energy multicultural group who tore the Gold Stage down early on the first day. Their unique sound and penetrating stage presence endeared me to their set, even though I was only initially in that part of the festival to grab some food! That was the beautiful part about AfroPunk – some golden and unexpected discovery was always just around the corner. By the second day, I was actively seeking out groups I hadn’t heard of, but who sounded cool, by using the AfroPunk app. Check out their song “Bury Me” and keep your eyes and ears out for this group on the rise. As the festival drew to a close each day, though, it became increasingly difficult to move from one stage to another, as there wasn’t enough space for everyone. SZA’s performance ran right into Solange’s on the first day, and basically, if you went to SZA’s stage, you probably weren’t going to get into Solange’s stage. The same thing was true for the second day with Anderson.Paak and Raphael Saadiq.
Other highlights from the festival were Michael Kiwanuka, whose music I had heard, but whose name I’d yet to lock in my head. I was a huge fan of his rootsy style and unabashed, yet simple lyricism. Gary Clark, Jr. also gave an incredibly powerful performance and some crazy guitar solos! I had so much fun leading up to the main event and the primary reason I’d come to the festival: Raphael Saadiq. I opted to skip Anderson.Paak to make sure I was front and center for Saadiq, and when he hit the stage, the crowd went absolutely WILD, myself included! Performing his solo hits, music from his two groups, as well as instrumental and vocal covers of the music he’s written for other artists (and bringing out Bilal for a special performance!), you’d have thought he was in his early 20s and not his early 50s! I also have to speak to the stamina and showmanship he displayed throughout the show, with one phenomenal female background singer, a guitarist, bassist, horn section, keys, organ, and himself playing guitar and bass on some songs as well, the set’s aesthetic, order of songs, and entire feel was well thought out. There was a point in the show where he acknowledged how his career has been successful, yet not garnered the accolades it clearly deserves, saying,
“I’ve never been one for awards. They’re nice, but I love riding in my car late at night and hearing a song that I had something to do with come on the radio. I love being here. I always say that awards can’t talk to you, I can hear you right now. (crowd cheers) I can feel that. That’s my reward.”
As a musician, watching him perform gave me so many lessons about stepping into your greatness with confidence and humility, and not letting the glitter of the music industry deter you from your purpose as a musician. Raphael Saadiq is the artist who personifies striking that balance, even if it hasn’t necessarily garnered the acclaim that other artists have received. Ultimately, AfroPunk 2017 was the festival that kept on giving – giving great music, giving phenomenal fashion, giving loads of energy, giving me LIFE. I already can’t wait for next year!
WERE YOU AT THE FESTIVAL? TELL US SOME OF YOUR HIGHLIGHTS IN THE COMMENTS!