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There are not many places where you can witness an all-Black mosh pit thrash to heavy-metal quintet Paleos, and then moments later join in a family-reunion style dance to Maze and Frankie Beverly's "Before I Let Go." But Afropunk Atlanta is in a league of its own. The music festival, which took place last weekend, prides itself on curating a safe space for vibrant fashion, alternative music, and the Black and queer folks who flock to it.
Locs become crowns (or Medusa snakes), and afros expand in every color imaginable. It's a place where you feel like anything is possible.
Attending my first Afropunk in 2019 was a magical experience. I had recently started classes at Florida A&M University, a historically Black college, so I was new to spaces that were not primarily white. I met other Black creatives that had similar taste in music while enjoying the atmosphere of a predominantly Black setting.
The absence of music festivals during the last 18 months of the pandemic was something that I did not anticipate affecting me so deeply. Albums like Solange's A Seat at the Table and Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer essentially eased me through the tough days of the pandemic, and I yearned to see their live performances. Studies have shown that attending a live music show can relieve a person's stress hormones like cortisol and cortisone.
But due to the steady amount of COVID-19 cases in Atlanta, I was a bit hesitant to attend the festival. To minimize the risk of exposure, Afropunk followed the lead of other festivals, scaling down its capacity, moving completely outdoors, and requiring attendees to either be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or show a negative test result within three days of the event.
The festival is known for its values: No sexism, no racism, no ableism, no ageism, no homophobia, no fatphobia, no transphobia, and no hatefulness. "I love that [Afropunk] is an open space for everyone to just be themselves and just to express themselves artistically. I'm just happy to be here," Morgan Gibbons, a Philadelphia native attending her first Afropunk, said last weekend.
But that's not to say it's without its own flaws. It was to attendees' dismay that rapper T.I. came out on stage on Saturday. Less than two weeks before the festival, a court dismissed sexual assault charges against him and his wife because the statute of limitations had lapsed. This isn't the first time that the festival has been criticized: In 2018, they notoriously kicked out activist Ericka Hart and their partner for wearing a shirt saying, "Afropunk Sold Out for White Consumption".
Hart's criticism is one that resonates with me. I've been to a lot of the major music festivals—Coachella, Lollapalooza and Camp Flog Gnaw—so, I'm all too familiar with feeling like white consumption often wins out at concerts and music festivals, and in the music world more broadly. In November 2019, Chicago rapper Noname stated that she is done performing for predominantly white audiences, tweeting that "when I go to work, thousands of white people scream the word n*gga at me. and no I'm not changing my art so it is what it is. catch me @nonamebooks."
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When she issued this statement, I completely understood what she meant, since I witnessed the precise behavior she described while attending her 2019 show in Tallahassee, Florida. At shows I've been to, the primary consumer of Black music—specifically hip-hop and rap—is often white youth that cannot relate to the struggles often shared in the lyrics of Black music.
Although the international arts and music festival has had its mishaps, I wasn't alone in feeling that the significance of a predominantly Black and queer space like Afropunk goes beyond the music.
I talked to 15 folks at Afropunk to capture what brought them out to a music festival during the pandemic, and what it felt like to finally return to in-person Black and queer spaces 18 months into a pandemic.
Brejahnia Howell, 26, she/they, Atlanta @brejahnia
NW: What have you missed about spaces like Afropunk during the pandemic?
BH: Honestly, just a space to be free, dance, enjoy people's energy and just bask in the Black excellence.
NW: What inspired your outfit today?
BH: Well, I've been through a lot in the past couple years, and I feel like I've handled it with grace. This is the embodiment of an angelic warrior.
NW: How are you feeling about the COVID-19 protocols?
BH: I used to work in healthcare, so I was one of the first people to get vaccinated. So I feel pretty safe, keep up with my COVID tests, make sure I'm good and my health is good. I know that's all I can do for me.
Folake Amoda, 22, she/her, Atlanta @aefklo (left)
Imani Pyron, 22, she/they, Atlanta @im.imaniman (right)
NW: Who are you both here with, and what do you love about them?
FA: So I'm here with my friend Imani. I love her sense of humor and how she is always willing to have a good time and explore new things and learn new things.
IP: I'm here with my friend Folake. I love her style. I love her sense of just being. I love that she knows how to see the simplicity in life. Sometimes I overthink, so I feel like she can help me just calm down.
NW: Since you both live in Atlanta, what's happening in your city that people should be talking about more?
IP: The gentrification of our Black spaces. It's the Blackest city in America, but I'm starting to feel encroached on, I'm not gonna lie. I believe it's beautiful for all of us to be together, but I also feel that there's a level of respect that comes with the community and comes with the property. I feel like the people coming in need to come in with respect, and they need to know that the stuff that has been happening here has been happening here for a while, and it's not bad, it's not poor, it's not all these negative connotations that get associated with the hood. It's just our culture is who we are, and it's the culture that they vulture for.
FA: I just feel like we need to help our homeless populations, especially coming down from gentrification. We are pushing people who live in these neighborhoods, out of their neighborhoods and into the streets. Atlanta is enforcing more and more anti-homeless architecture, and it's fucked up. Why do you have spikes on benches? People are just trying to live and it's just not OK how we're either forcing them into prisons or just forcing them into the outskirts of Atlanta. I just think we need to work on getting these people the mental health that they deserve and putting them into homes and jobs. [The city] can afford it, so there's no reason.
NW: How does it feel being in such a Black and queer space after so long?
FA: I go to a PWI, so being in that space and just seeing white faces can take a toll on you, especially when you're literally the only Black person around. I just missed the beauty of the city, the safe space and feeling comfortable in my own skin.
Carter Aldavé, 30, they/them, Atlanta @tomboicarti (left)
Joshua Cook, 32, he/him, Atlanta @fatal_fantasy7 (right)
NW: What sets are you excited to see this weekend?
CA: Smino and Rico Nasty!
JC: I'm here to see everybody.
NW: Are you both here with each other?
CA: I'm here with my partner.
JC: I'm with everybody. I'm here with you, too!
NW: What inspired your outfits today?
CA: I live to be a whore. I can only have my titties out Afropunk, and it's such a celebration. Every year, I look forward to having my titties out at Afropunk.
JC: Ryan Reynolds is the greatest man on the planet, so I wanted to be him today.
NW: Do you plan on being someone else tomorrow? Maybe another Deadpool comic or another hero?
JC: I think I might be you tomorrow!
Tehetna Gebreamanuel, 27, she/her (pictured)
Morgan Gibbons, 27, she/her @tehetna.g & @morgggan
NW: What does it feel like to be in such a Black and queer space after so long?
MG: Honestly, I love it. I love that it's an open space for everyone to just be themselves and just to express themselves artistically and creatively. It's my first Afropunk, so I'm excited to be here.
TG: I love Afropunk. It's my second time coming, so I was super sad that we couldn't celebrate last year. Just like Morgan said, it celebrates just a no judgment zone. You can come out with whatever hair, shoes, necklace—whatever and there's no judgment. It's nothing but love and good music and good food.
Malika Yasir, 19, she/her, Atlanta, @takemypictureho
NW: How are you feeling at Afropunk today?
MY: Oh, I feel amazing. I feel like I'm not being judged no type of way over here, and it's very nice to see just hella Black people everywhere I go. There's barely two white people here.
NW: Who are you here with and what do they mean to you?
MY: I'm with Lenny. I just met them two days ago at a club. I didn't have anybody to go with, and I had extra tickets, so I was like, "Do you want to come?"
NW: What inspired your outfit today? I love your vibrant choice of hair color.
MY: Thank you! I was honestly just on the phone with my friend and looking at stuff on Amazon. So, I just started piecing stuff together.
Blue, 26, she/her, New Jersey, @hoodbabyblu
NW: Is this your first Afropunk? How is your experience so far?
Blue: Well I've been going to Afropunk for many, many years. My first one was in New York. It makes you feel like you're not alone, you know what I mean? There's other people, dope ass people in the world that's doing the same shit you're doing, so it gives you a safe space.
NW: I'm obsessed with your bold blue color. Why did you decide to go with blue for Afropunk today?
Blue: My blue is my brand. The lashes are called "Hood Baby Blue" from my brand, "Hood Baby Lashes."
Diana Doowop, 32, she/her, Los Angeles @dianadoowop
NW: Since you traveled here from Los Angeles, what made you choose Afropunk as the space to attend?
DD: So, I've always wanted to come to Afropunk, but I've had things that have held me back. But when they announced that they were going to do Afropunk Atlanta, I instantly bought a ticket. I had no plan. Like I didn't plan to have a room or board, none of that I was just like, "I have to be there, especially now after 2020." I need to be around my people more than ever.
NW: Who are you here with and what do you love about them?
DD: So I ironically came here alone, and I met Chi on my flight, and we instantly became best friends. She is literally my queen, and we have so much in common. We became best friends on the flight here from LA, and our flight home is the same.
Kiana Ledell, 34, she/her, Michigan @k_bana87
NW: What do you love the most about Afropunk?
KL: Everything. The music is a vibe and all the freaks are out, and I love it. You can be whatever you want to be. For example, I want to be a fairy every day, so this is an excuse for me to let it all out there and to let my kinks shine.
NW: We've got some jazz playing in the background, so what are your go-to dance moves out here?
KL: I love a bit of a hip roll. Something slight and not too much.
Kiera Please, 25, she/her, California, @kieraplease
NW: How does it feel to be in such a Black and queer space after so long?
KP: Amazing, because Afropunk was one of the places that just always felt normal to who I am in a way. A lot of times I do feel out of place, and I just feel awkward or weird. But here is a place where I see a whole bunch of people that kind of resemble who I am. So that makes me feel at ease, and here I feel like, "Oh, it's OK to be me."
NW: How did you plan today's look?
KP: I'm wearing denim-on-denim-on-denim.
NW: OK! It's giving Britney Spears-Justin Timberlake.
KP: I didn't even think of that. My inspiration was early 2000s Beyoncé when she wore the denim with big curly hair, and I just wanted to kind of feel like I was in a girl group, and I don't know if I pulled it off.
NW: I have to know, what's your go-to dance move for today?
KP: It's so sad, because right now, TikTok has haunted my mind, and it's like this one move that I don't even know what it's called. I'm swaying side-to-side and you bend your knees, and it's all over TikTok.
Rochelle Lorfils, 28, she/her, Atlanta @seashell_21(left)
Joenesha Hardman, 29, she/her, Atlanta (right)
NW: How does it feel to be in such a Black space after months of being in lockdown?
RL: It feels super refreshing and energizing just to see all of the different groups of cultures that we have. Even though we're all Black, we're all unique with different colors and shapes.
JH: Yeah, I agree, like [Rochelle] said, to be in a Black space. Literally since we've been here, I keep saying, "I love being Black. I love being Black." It's a very dynamic group. Often Black people are only seen one way.
RL: It's also refreshing to see how we've been through so much and Black people are super resilient to keep on pushing through.