AFROPUNK Founders Matthew Morgan and Jocelyn Cooper Bring It Back to BK
"The whole point is, black people are not a monolith"
When we talked to AFROPUNK founder Matthew Morgan earlier this year he proudly noted that there has never been a fight or an arrest at his seminal festival. Although recent headlines have raised some questions about noise issues. But despite fast-flying rumors, the complainant was not actually trying to shut AFROPUNK down altogether. Not that that would have happened anyway.
AFROPUNK returns to Commodore Barry Park in Fort Greene, Brooklyn this weekend. Morgan, along with business partner Jocelyn Cooper, remain strongly committed to connecting people and supporting under-served communities, not only in New York, but across the globe.
The festival will welcome everyone from Solange and Raphael Saadiq, to SZA and Princess Nokia to the stage, with an estimated crowd of 60,000. Also on the agenda: visual arts, craft vendors, and food. What kind? “Scrumptious.” Also, skate will be returning this year, with the “Battle for the Streets” competition. And then there’s the fashion, which Cooper points out is actually “style.”
So, given all that AFROPUNK includes and is committed to, maybe dude could chill on beefing about the one Sunday a year when it’s noisy after 10PM. And conversely, perhaps folks could chill with the death threats that have been lobbed at dude and his family. Spreading love, after all, is supposed to be the Brooklyn way, right? All that noise aside, we caught up with Morgan and Cooper to check on their mental state as they prepare for this weekend’s festivities.
How did AFROPUNK go from film to festival?
Matthew Morgan: AFROPUNK started as a documentary. The notion of the festival started around 2003. I was in the management business working with black artists that really didn’t want to do R&B and Hip Hop. They were in punk bands, in rock n’ roll bands, and there was no home for them. While we were out there promoting the film and growing a really engaged audience around the notions that the film presented, adding a physical presence for the music made a lot of sense because there wasn’t a platform back then for kids of color to embrace something that looked like them, where they felt comfortable in a space that they could kind of feel a part of, and free to express themselves in a way that wasn’t currently available.
Jocelyn Cooper: Matthew had the foresight at that time to put up a community page where people could request to screen the documentary. People started organically coming to that community page which turned into AFROPUNK.com. The documentary is very different from what the community is. But what resonated in the film, what resonated with Irish people and Latino people and Asian people, is that people feel different and they feel like outsiders in a world that they want to be a part of.
Has that changed over the years?
Morgan: Tremendously. I’d like to think we’ve had an enormous impact, along with a lot of other things that come together to create change. I think it continues to change the notions of identity and what one can and cannot do based on the color of their skin. There’s certainly an alternative to perceptions that were there a decade or two ago. It wasn’t even acceptable in certain places for black kids to skateboard in their (own) neighborhood 10 year ago. So things have changed.
Cooper: I think when outside folks who are not a part of the community think about the community, their perception of what punk rock is comes into play. If you look at folks who were early punk kids, the collaboration between the West Indian kids in the UK and these punk kids was undeniable and really strong. That’s a piece of history that people don’t talk about. Also the punk rock aesthetic is very African. Scarification and piercings and tattoos and all of that comes from Africa so it really depends on what your definition of punk is.
What makes AFROPUNK different from other festivals?
Morgan: The way that I look at the world, where I grew up and how that informed what we do and how we book bands. I’m an immigrant and I grew up in London in a somewhat mixed environment. So I’m kind of free from a lot of the restrictions put upon people that were born here, grew up here. The way that we put music together I think is a little different. Our approach to the people that we promote to is most certainly different. And when you put all of the elements together, it’s not that it’s completely and utterly novel, it’s just a different approach within the same space.
Cooper: Connecting people and promoting young artists, that is the heartbeat of AFROPUNK and our main business. The festivals themselves are just a celebration of that community. The festival is largely a big homecoming and the artists who come and perform are part of that homecoming. If you feel the vibe behind the stage and as well as in front of the stage it’s about folks coming together to celebrate excellence and celebrate our culture and folks that think about the world differently and are outside of the box individuals. In addition, we’ve got a big earned ticket component where people can earn a ticket by giving back to the community. We have a very low barrier ticket, where most festivals are trying to charge as much as they can. Outside of music, in New York we have 100 local craft makers and young entrepreneurs that we support. There’s a huge visual art component to what we do and food. This year we’ll have a lifestyle sports component, so skate is coming back to AFROPUNK. It’s a nice mash-up.
Matthew, you’ve said that people don’t understand the culture around festivals. What did you mean by that?
Morgan: Live music, going to shows, supporting bands, has been and is an activity that’s predominantly for white folks. Black people historically haven’t felt comfortable in that space and when people don’t feel comfortable they don’t patronize something and when you don’t patronize, or you don’t experience it, it doesn’t have that value. People love our line-ups, that’s one aspect, but I think people absolutely love the sense of freedom and community that they feel and if I didn’t think that was more important even than the music, I don’t think we would struggle as hard as we do.
What are some of the unique challenges that AFROPUNK faces as opposed to a festival that happens in the middle of a field in the countryside?
Morgan: We’re pretty much left alone and we have a fantastic relationship with the 88th precinct in Brooklyn. We’ve worked with them for a long time and because of our record and what we provide for the community. We’re sandwiched between Ingersoll Houses, Walt Whitman, and Farragut. When we were at BAM, before we moved to Commodore Barry Park, we would get some complaints as the environment changed and expensive apartments and housing was built around our site. We started to get issues, which I think is affecting a lot of places that were renowned for clubs and culture, whether it be in the UK, here, or anywhere else as cities change.
Given the recent reports of noise complaints, have you ever consider moving the festival out to Randall’s or Governors Island?
Cooper: The whole point for us, with all the locations that we choose, is to be in communities that are under-served. So when we first started in Commodore Barry Park, which is in between Ingersoll and Farragut Houses, in the projects, no one was interested in coming over. I have to be honest. I wasn’t even interested. My partner was like, “Hey, we need to do this and go there.” And I was like, “Really? Nobody’s going to trudge all the way over there.” And he was like, “Believe me, people are going to come.” So, they did. And they do. And what we do is shed light and have an economic impact on communities that need that. So we do that in Mechanicsville in Atlanta. We’ll be doing that in Johannesburg. We do that in London and in the 19th District in Paris.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous photo of when the Bad Brains went to the projects in D.C. and the reaction from the community. Did you have a similar reaction from neighborhood kids in the beginning?
Morgan: No, not really. People that grow up around there don’t see a bunch of weird looking kids prancing around with colored hair and rock music. When they think it’s not for them, they stay away. And what we did is try to engage people that are on the fence about whether they should come in or whether it’s for them. We have a bunch of kids that started working with us after the second year. The minute we’d roll the trucks in, kids would show up, they would help, they would skate, they would ride, and then they would be part of the festival and that was one of my biggest achievements. I came from…we call them flats, projects, I came from a housing estate in London and there were certain people that exposed me to things that got me interested and out of my environment and into environments that changed the trajectory of my life. So being able to do that and see that in other kids is probably the best, being able to affect some of the kids that perhaps were told by others or just didn’t think something was for them. They come and participate and have a great time. I’ve seen kids that I’ve started with when we were at BAM, like 10 or 11-years-old, and four or five years later see them walking around Brooklyn with a guitar on their back and just bump into them, say hi, and they say they’ve started a band because they came to AFROPUNK and that’s incredible.
The New York Times calls AFROPUNK “the most multicultural festival in the U.S.” Do you like that moniker?
Morgan: I can’t say what that meant for the writer. Do I like it? Yeah, I love it. I love the idea that we’re very multicultural. It’s an interesting question because when I look at the audience people may say, well that’s not multicultural. But for me, that depends on how you look at blackness and the whole point is, black people are not a monolith. And although there are more people of color—they’re Dominican, they’re Puerto Rican, they’re British, they’re Nigerian, they Ghanaian, they’re French, they’re Senegalese, they’re Congolese, they’re American. It’s pretty multicultural.
It’s really important that our focus is on the community. There are some horrible perceptions. I read something that said that 43% of African-Americans are racially biased against African-Americans, because the media is so pervasive. It doesn’t just work on the fears of non-people of color. It works on people of color also. So it’s really important to change the perception within the community before you can change it outside. If people feel good, they create good things, they create good energy and then they in turn have the ability to change others. I really do believe that. Because I’m personally such a multicultural person, I truly believe in that but I think it’s steps and you’ve got to get there and you’ve got to empower people, and you’ve got to make them feel good about themselves before they’re able to truly mix it up.
Fashion is a huge part of AFROPUNK. How far in advance do you think people plan what they’re going to wear?
Cooper: People refer to it as fashion. Culturally, we refer to it as style. But yes, it is a cultural piece of what happens in communities of color where people are just naturally stylish and cool. So I think there are a lot of people that think about it, and other people where it’s just effortless. That’s how they live.
What’s been the best part of being involved in AFROPUNK?
Cooper: If I look at the broad scope of my career, what has always been frustrating for me at times is having, many years ago, to go through gatekeepers. To have folks who may not get a songwriter or a record or an artist, having to either try to convince them or getting rejected because it wasn’t an appeal to their personal taste. What I am most proud of is the platform itself. It has taken those walls down and it’s really just straight community. That is amazing for me. And that there are so many kids that are interested in just authentically being themselves and that they see AFROPUNK as a home and that they identify with AFROPUNK in that way. That makes me really proud.
What are you hoping to leave as a legacy?
Morgan: When I first came to the U.S. from London, I came to be in a bigger space within the black music world. It was really stifling and small and provincial in the UK and I came here and it’s sort of bigger and better. Really, what I came to was bigger boxes of the same thing. But what I didn’t understand back then was why spaces for people of color are so important for them and growth and their perception of one another. We’ve never had a fight or an arrest at the festival and that’s an exceptionally unique atmosphere. That probably doesn’t happen at any other festival in the county and it probably doesn’t happen at a lot of festivals around the world. The relevance of that for me is really about perception and perception of one another. If we can actually get together and celebrate and still feel this unique sense of freedom, I think that informs the way we interact within our community directly and outside of our community. Feeling good about oneself is really, really important as you interact with other people. And coming from the UK, the idea of “historically black colleges” or “black music departments” or even a BET, seemed ludicrous. The whole idea of growing up in a mixed social environment was really, really important. I don’t necessarily believe that in the same way as I once did. If I could leave something behind it would be a sense of community built and really inspiring young people to live beyond the narrow perceptions that were once perceived around them or thrust upon them.
For someone thinking of starting something that’s never been done before, what are your top three tips?
Morgan: Absolute conviction in what you’re doing in the face of complete and utter failure. Particularly if you want to create something new, stay away from people that did something before. I didn’t start engaging folks until we were 12 or 13 years in on purpose because I really didn’t want anybody else’s opinion. I wanted to try something, completely and utterly committed to it, and we went through extreme downs but persisted. If it makes sense to you I think it can make sense to others. And spend the time. It takes a long while, depending on how big your dream is. It takes a very, very long time. Not every body is meant to be successful from a financial standpoint. I would say perseverance, conviction, and the belief that you’re doing something that can change the world.
Cooper: Just do it. Find something that you’re really passionate about, stay focused, work hard. I’ve been lucky enough in my life to find a profession that I love and life for me has been a roller coaster. When you’re on that roller coaster ride, when you’re passionate about something you hold on really tight and you keep going. You keep moving forward.