Injecting some much-needed eclecticism into the London festival scene, Afropunk was back last weekend for its second annual celebration of alternative Black sounds and styles.
After an underwhelming line-up at Alexandra Palace last year, the success of 2017’s edition was largely thanks to the current buzz surrounding London’s grime and alternative hip-hop scene, as well as the outstanding contributions of so many homegrown Black artists. This year’s festival was held at the newly-opened Printworks in Canada Water: a stark, industrial, acoustically-stellar venue that reflects the underground rave roots of many of Afropunk’s acts. Organisers kept it simple: two stages, various bars and chillout zones, and a large area devoted to Spinthrift market, where stalls like gal-dem, Dr. Martens and independent fashion retailer United80 showcased the best of London’s multicultural style and creativity.
That the fashion component was so well represented was hardly surprising – before even getting to music, Afropunk is notable internationally for the breathtakingly creative array of outfits and hairstyles sported amongst its attendees. The audience’s commitment to their respective looks rivals the performers themselves; you know you’re a good-looking bunch when everyone from Little Simz to Willow Smith is raving about your style onstage.
Both days had very different vibes (Saturday got raucous, Sunday was for chilling) as did the two stages – the Green stage offering the smooth, summery sounds of artists like Corinne Bailey Rae while the Red Stage hosted grime, hip-hop and rock acts like Kojey Radical and Danny Brown. I arrived on Saturday just in time for Nadia Rose, a young Croydon MC whose energy was as infectious as her passion for her UK peers. She was clearly hyped to be there – in between bangers like ‘Sqwod’ and ‘D.F.W.T.’, she put her own spin on grime classic ‘POW!’ and dropped a sample of Giggs’s ‘Whippin Excursion’. It’s always amazing to see artists loving music as much as their fans.
As excited as I was for Danny Brown, his 45-minute marathon set of straight rapping lacked enthusiasm, relying more on a loyal fanbase than on the festival energy itself. This made him noticeably different from evening headliner JME; while Danny seemed all too ready to coast, London’s favourite grime vegetarian got on stage wearing a t-shirt displaying his latest album cover (an extreme close-up of his own face) before bigging up the bar staff, bouncing around like a madman and spitting bangers from his third album ‘Integrity’ like he had something to prove. I finished the night grooving to The Internet on the Green Stage, who delivered a strong set alternating between moody and funky.
There was a supreme confidence in both style and substance at Afropunk that was missing from other festivals I’ve been to this summer. From the Afrofuturist space jazz of Thundercat, to the raw bass-driven punk of Nova Twins, many of the artists on offer are at the creative pinnacle of their career and refuse to be contained by any one genre. The festival proudly acknowledges that Afrocentric genres are currently reaching a wider audience; JME honoured grime tradition by hyping Dizzee Rascal’s new album and Syd praised The Internet’s new fans as much as its old ones.
First and foremost an Afro-positive space, the festival possessed a composure and political awareness reflected in its artists and attendees alike. I was told in the press queue by a ‘non-festival person’ that what makes Afropunk great is ‘seeing so many beautiful, creative Black people come together’. Far from the lost-weekend revelry of Wireless or Field Day, the energy here comes from a genuine desire to celebrate excellence within Black culture.
One shortcoming might be the presence of only four food trucks for a festival of several hundred – I missed most of Little Simz’s set queuing almost an hour for food I had heard (accurately) described as ‘overpriced and under-seasoned’. This may reflect critics’ fears of the increasing dilution of the festival’s punk roots, but as alternative Black artists become more prolific, Afropunk inevitably grows in commercial stature. Regardless, the acts continue year in, year out to fly the flag of alternative talent, and as a first-time attendee, I counted myself unbelievably lucky to have been in London this year to experience such an overwhelmingly positive event. As Nadia Rose rejoiced excitedly mid-set, ‘Isn’t UK music right now fucking BANGIN?!?’
Photo credit: Chazz Adnitt and Tatenda Nyamade.