How Brooklyn’s Afropunk Fest Became a Global Brand

Growing from indie roots, this weekend's festival is now one of five events around the world celebrating cultural risk-taking

Solange Knowles, who is scheduled to appear at this weekend's Afropunk Festival (Photo by Daniel DeSlover/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)

For most of the year, Commodore Barry Park is a quiet little oasis tucked between Downtown Brooklyn and the Navy Yard. It’s an unremarkable location, that is, until late August every year. For one weekend, it’s transformed into a kaleidoscope of music, art and cultural revolution through the Afropunk Festival, which begins Saturday. From its start in 2005 as a free concert that drew a couple thousand people, Afropunk has grown into a late-summer staple and has launched satellite events in Atlanta, Paris, London and Johannesburg. 

This weekend’s Brooklyn festival is expected to bring as many as 70,000 people to see headlining artists including Solange, Raphael Saadiq, Anderson Paak, Soul II Soul and Willow Smith. But Afropunk is more than just a music fest. It’s a venue for activism, a food festival, a showcase for makers, a skateboard competition and a culture-news website with millions of users. “For me, Afropunk is a platform to celebrate black excellence in whatever form it takes,” co-founder Jocelyn Cooper told Newsday.

Jocelyn Cooper, who helped expand Afropunk in multiple directions (Photo by Dorothy Hong)

The inspiration for the festival dates back to 2003, when filmmaker James Spooner made the documentary Afro-Punk, about African-American hardcore acts including Bad Brains and Fishbone. Two years later, Spooner teamed with music executive Matthew Morgan to launch the festival with a handful of black indie-rock and punk bands.

A few years later, after Spooner left the partnership over philosophical differences, Morgan signed a new partner, music-industry veteran Cooper, known among other things for discovering the neo-soul singer D’Angelo. Since then, the festival has attracted major stars including Janelle Monáe and Lauryn Hill as well as such brand-name sponsors as Coors Light, Red Bull and Toyota. For expanding the brand in multiple directions, Fast Company named Cooper to its 2015 list of Most Creative People. Cooper, who grew up in Clinton Hill, told the publication that one of her role models is Martha Stewart: “She turned her passion into her profession and strives for perfection.”

Cooper’s zeal has grown the privately held company considerably, widening its appeal into a more broadly alternative experience. Yet it maintains its distinction from the plethora of other festivals by emphasizing its role as a safe space for cultural risk-taking and open-mindedness. On signs you can’t miss at the festival, Afropunk declares that it stands for “no sexism, no racism, no ableism, no ageism, no homophobia, no fatphobia, no transphobia, no hatefulness.”

A major business decision came in 2015, when the festival started charging admission for the first time. This year tickets cost $90 for the weekend and $55 for Sunday only, which doesn’t seem to have put a damper on demand (the weekend pass is already sold out, according to the Afropunk website). “It’s the cheapest festival in the country for anywhere near that level of talent,” Morgan told Billboard

Matthew Morgan, co-founder of the festival (Photo by Terrence Jennings/Polaris)

In economic and cultural terms, Afropunk has had a halo effect on its home borough. Rob Fields, a cultural curator who is set to take over next month as executive director of the Weeksville Heritage Center in Crown Heights, says the surrounding neighborhoods benefit from the influx of concert-goers. “If you think about the corridor along Myrtle Avenue, it’s a taxi ride over to that strip of restaurants and shops,” he said. “The fact that people are there means they will probably take advantage of some of the other cultural opportunities like the Brooklyn Academy of Music.”

On the civic side, the office of Borough President Eric Adams has partnered with Afropunk to offer a $50,000 initiative to the Afropunk Army, the event’s volunteer arm, to give away free tickets in exchange for eight hours of community service. About 20,000 signed up for a limited number of positions. “I think it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship in that it speaks to a broad cross section of socially conscious fans,” said Stefan Ringel, the borough president’s communications director, noting Afropunk’s participation in issues including the quality of life in public housing.

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As the music-festival business has turned into a multibillion-dollar industry, Brooklyn has been fortunate to host three major events of its own, including Afropunk, the Northside Festival and the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival. The music industry in general is a major part of New York City’s economy, contributing an annual $21 billion in total economic output and generating 60,000 jobs, according to a study commissioned by the mayor’s office. The city’s festivals sell as many as 5 million tickets each year, mainly in the peak months of May through September.

Festival-goers at last year’s Afropunk event at Commodore Barry Park (Photo by Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

“There is a symbiotic relationship between Brooklyn and the arts and they feed off each other,” said Laurie Kirby, co-founder of FestForums, a conference of festival producers. “[Afropunk] is certainly a successful festival and becoming more successful and more well-known. People always say ‘We’re the next Sundance or Coachella,’ but each one is unique and has its own identity.”

“But one unifying theme is that they all have an economic impact,” Kirby continued. “When you are drawing large numbers of people to a community, they are eating in restaurants and hotels and there is a cultural aspect. You’re bringing culture to a community and it has a positive impact.”

Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and digital content producer with roots in Detroit, which happens to be a smaller version of BKNY. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray