‘women at afropunk: the new (old) normal’ by judnick mayard

June 29, 2018

By Judnick Mayard, for AFROPUNK


It’s 2018, and everyone is clamoring to weigh in on their feverish fantasy of normalizing women’s work by constantly exceptionalizing it. The “first female” here, and the “more women than ever” there. Such progressive statements and actions find it imperative to notate that the world is getting “better,” and one can understand why measuring our growth against this wall might seem helpful. Yet for those who have always had to fight against being an afterthought, who’ve had to fight against violence and marginalization their entire lives, these moments are not ones they’ve been waiting for. In fact, they’ve flourished in the absence of such moments. We tell ourselves that we are legitimizing their work, despite acknowledging that we are late in discovering and supporting it. This narrative actually unravels backwards.

This year’s AFROPUNK lineup has more women performing than ever before. The festival is only 13 years old but its evolution mirrors that of its audience. Going from a little “Black gathering” in Fort Greene, to an international entity with five iterations on three continents, AFROPUNK has grown with its participants, providing them the same safespace the festival originally needed for itself. Though its intent has always been to be a festival for Black Punks, the jokes that one needed a certain look or belong to a certain tribe in order to attend, have, over the years, given way to a true Black celebration: one that honors the individuality we are so often not afforded as a demographic. The music brings us all together, even if we’d never necessarily hang out day-to-day; the commitment is to community and its ever-changing boundaries.

Willow Smith, photo by Dennis Manuel

It is because of this quest for safespace that so many women have come to be on the lineup. In Brooklyn, festival-goers can expect performances from powerhouse veterans like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae but also a diverse spread of those still on the rise like Ibeyi, Jamila Woods, Nova Twins, Jessie Reyez, and Mahalia. These performers span not just genres but regions, pulled from every continent to showcase not their femininity, but their art and the work they so diligently put behind it. Even the DJ lineup follows the formula, with longtime festival favorites like DJ Lindsey, Coco & Breezy and Gabsoul with MisterVacation (a phenomenal favorite of the New York queer scene), Tygapaw, Anais B and Honey Dijon. Note that these performers are anything but newcomers. Almost everyone of them is recognized within the industry and their community, and has performed internationally. It would be erroneous to view the AFROPUNK booking as their golden ticket and not simply what they deserve. Their achievements took place before they became hot commodities, forced to operate in an industry that refused them respect, resources or recognition, and only made an about-face in the name of exploiting them for the marketing scheme. AFROPUNK is not a beginning of their rise, but a reward for their tireless efforts in fostering inclusivity. They’ve played as openers and closers, a background noise to those who’ve desperately needed them and are only now realizing how much has been lacking without them.

Jasmine Solano, photo by Seher Sikander

Why is this happening now? People will point to #MeToo as a catalyst for such renewed thinking, once more centering gender as the main statement. But that too is backwards: #MeToo exists because of these Black and Brown women (read: women as gender expression, not as sex), who have spent their whole lives learning the language, putting in the work, and surviving a system that seeks to erase them. These women now have a toolkit to share with the rest of a world that is, admittedly, quite late to the party. They are not winning these spaces with luck or a wave of public penance, but after demanding these spaces, proceeding to create these spaces on their own, and then inviting others to copy their accomplishments. These artists funded their own efforts, played the parties, and booked each other when nobody else would. They made the music in spite of whatever categorizations superseded them. They have been the punks of this industry, well-versed in making magic happen.

Sophia Urista, photo by Dennis Manuel

This progressive time is not just their reward but their very creation. As such, it should inspire us to support these efforts. These standards are meant to be upheld within our own communities and change the world, not through a performative checklist but through normalization. Normalization that cannot happen while we continue to exceptionalize ourselves for our efforts. This year the AFROPUNK audience will show up and show out like it always does, in an array as colorful and expressive as the very black and punk culture it seeks to maintain; and, yes, there will be more women than ever to entertain the masses. However, let us hope this is the last year it will be noted — not because progress does not need to be highlighted, but rather, that these people have already been at the forefront of where we want to go. The world we seek is their normal and it’s high time it becomes ours too.