The Afropunk festival birthed itself in Brooklyn, New York in 2005 by creators James Spooner and Matthew Morgan. The intention of the festival was to create an inclusive platform for black artists to engage with black audiences as a celebration of blackness, culture, music, film, photography, art and fashion. The festival is described as a “musical institution, defining culture in the music world for more than 14 years, a triumph of multiculturalism and diversity for people of all races, genders, colours, creeds and tastes”. Since 2005, the festival has grown into a global movement, growing its following through their values rooted in unity, otherness and diversity. The festival is an important part of new age Africa in that it gives African creatives the platform to express their work. The concept of Afropunk itself also reflects the influence African culture has had in contemporary spaces. I would like to take a moment to really unpack the impact the Afropunk movement has had as a global cultural experience.
Year after year the festival floods social media with beautifully executed outfits that ooze vibrancy and energy, featuring bold hairstyles and exquisite makeup. The more I come across pictures from Afropunk the more the general aesthetic of the festival stands out, with a mash up of tribal meets boho meets old school hip hop. The most noticeable feature is the strong presence of African cultural wear, with everyone in Dashiki and Kente headwraps. Interestingly enough, as beautifully presented as these outfits are, many people felt strongly about there being a strong sense of cultural appropriation.
African journalist Zipporah Gene explored this somewhat controversial topic a few years ago in an article that critiques the presence of African culture in African American spaces. She highlights that even African Americans can be guilty of cultural appropriation by wearing African cultural clothing with no real understanding of their religious or cultural significance. In her article, she goes on to say, “I’m not trying to start a war, but I would just like you all to realize the hypocrisy of seeing someone wearing a Fulani septum ring, rocking a djellba, painted with Yourba-like tribal marks, all the while claiming that this is meant to be respectful”. The opinion piece received a great amount of backlash on social media however, I do think the essence of Gene’s article raises some very valid questions about representation. Is it possible for a black American to appropriate African fashion traditions?
Perhaps the term cultural appropriation is one that’s too harsh, could it simply be an act of appreciation? Is it only appropriation if it is in some way inappropriate?
I would like to revisit these questions because I think that they are pertinent to the political climate we are in. The Afropunk festival is a space in which black identities come together as a collective to share and celebrate a new age black experience. I believe that the concept of cultural appropriation goes far beyond the borrowing of clothing or jewelry, so I pose another question, can issues regarding cultural appropriation be justified and to what extent?
Perhaps the term cultural appropriation is one that’s too harsh, could it simply be an act of appreciation? Is it only appropriation if it is in some way inappropriate? Is it possible that wearing cultural clothing can be overlooked if it is not exploiting or depriving Africans the opportunity to represent their own narrative? Culture has been the victim of transformation and continues to be a fluid concept. In most cases these conversations fail to recognize when sharing culture is beneficial and progressive. That is why accusations of cultural appropriation raises important and complex questions that need to be carefully navigated.
A few weeks ago, I read Stuart Halls’s essay on “New Ethnicities” in which he confronts the politics of identity and the essentializing nature of the “black experience”. Although it was written in 1989 (yes I know, bare with me). His sentiments are still quite relevant to this day because much like Gene, he raises valid questions regarding who has access to the right of representation.
The black experience is multifaceted and complex, identity itself is a messy concept. To not acknowledge this and to simply see black identities as a collective feel counterproductive in that it ignores the right to individuality. In this regard, if representation falls into the wrong hands, it still has the potential of being problematic. An argument can be made in defense of African Americans who wear cultural garb in that they still have some sort of connection to their African heritage. However, it becomes problematic when culture is exploited for aesthetic purposes which I suppose is why it’s necessary to be critical of spaces such as Afropunk.
The struggle of representation is an abstract concept that gives rise to questions about culture, ideology and expression. Today exists a form of cultural politics that was designed to challenge, resist and transform dominant regimes of representation, this is reflected in music, literature, film, art and fashion. Previously these spaces were exclusive and black culture was fetishized, black people were rarely the subjects of their own representation. The struggle of representation in these spaces now assumes new forms that will displace and reposition social experiences and cultural identities which have previously defined the black experience. It is vital now more than ever that this framework is used to further challenge, resist and transform.
With that being said, we have to acknowledge the shift in the representation of Africa over the years, with African artists and cultural workers creating content that takes control of the African narrative by transforming the politics of representation in black culture. By no means am I attacking the Afropunk festival itself, I believe that we need to invest in more spaces that celebrate and promote black self-love. I do believe however, that when it comes to issues of representation we all need to try our best to be more conscious. At the end of the day there still exists a disjuncture in the representation of African culture and as Africans we need to ensure that regardless of the spaces we find ourselves in, we are in control of our own narrative.
(All Images from Afropunk).