September 7, 2014
A couple weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to get to photograph Afropunk Fest 2014. It was one of the best experiences I've had in many ways, but it wasn't without its problems.
Aftopunk takes place in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, in Commodore Barry Park. The festival makes a point to embrace difference, which brought out some of the most uniquely beautiful attendees I have ever seen. Everyone was gorgeous. I would have photos for you but in all honesty, just about every time I saw someone who looked amazing—and that was often—they would be getting asked to take a photo by a photographer. Some of these people looked visibly annoyed, most likely because they had been asked for their picture multiple times throughout the day. I decided not to contribute to that aggravation and stick to the performances. The mood of the festival can be summed up by the photo below.
This wasn't just a sign; It was a practice upheld by those in attendance and those organizing the event. On the second day, I went to the information booth to request a performance schedule, since I had left mine at home the day before. The person at the booth let me know that they couldn't give one just yet (doors hadn't opened), but there was a large schedule just behind the booth and I could photograph it with my phone for easy reference. The person who assisted me was in a wheelchair. Now, I don't know the nature of this person's disability, and honestly, it doesn't matter to me. What does matter to me, is that Afropunk did more than just speak about being inclusive.
Photographing the event went very smoothly for the most part, and I have to commend most of the security for being very respectful and accommodating. There were a couple glaring exceptions, and I'll get to those later.
A problem with photographing certain artists was the sheer number of people in the pit at certain points. When SZA performed, for instance, there were so many people in the pit that I was pinned to the barricade, and moving from one position to another for different angles was just too much hassle. Because she started late (due to oversleeping), I didn't stay as long as I would have liked. I left after two songs to shoot a band that started on time—Unlocking the Truth. Thankfully, this was the only snag I hit when it came to photographing an act. There would be other performances that had an abundance of photographers present, but SZA's stood out as particularly uncomfortable. Security tried to do a rotation of photographers in these cases, but it wasn't the easiest thing to monitor, so overcrowding was an issue.
Some problems were solved very quickly. For instance, on the first day, there was a problem with bottlenecking, because people were passing through a 21+ area that served beer to get between two stages. Since this was the only way to get between these two stages that didn't involve leaving the park or taking a long detour, it was decided that a section of fence would be peeled back between the two stages, and that made everything easy. People could travel between each stage without having to present ID or get turned away if they were under 21.
Now, about those exceptions. There were four stages at Afropunk: Red, Green, Black, and Gold. At one point, Bad Brains prepared to perform on the Black Stage. This was one of the more highly anticipated performances of the night, so there was a large crowd waiting to see, and there were more photographers waiting for pit access than usual. When we first arrived, we were told no one was allowed into the pit, due to a high profile guest. That guest happened to be New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's daughter, Chiara, who is a big fan of the band and introduced them to the crowd. I'm not sure why it would be a big deal for her to be photographed doing something like that, but we were not allowed in the pit until she had finished.
About 5 minutes into the performance, we were rudely forced out without explanation. It really wasn't necessary to push and yell at the few people who went into the pit. I heard later that Mayor de Blasio was backstage, and that he could be seen peeking at the performance, which caused security to behave this way. I'll have you know that this was not de Blasio's security. It was definitely the security overseeing the event in general who blew this out of proportion, and it wouldn't be the last time. That rudeness is why there are no photos of Bad Brains' performance for me to share with you.
The rest of the festival would be filled with more wonderful music, and more of the things that make Afropunk what it is: a celebration of culture, a place to spark awareness, and an all-around good time. That good time would be blemished just before the end of the second day.
D'Angelo had been announced as a headliner for Afropunk '14 for quite a while. Then, suddenly, as the date got closer, he was mysteriously removed from the ticket. No news or announcements were issued regarding his status; it was like he had never been announced in the first place. On a schedule that I received the first day, he was clearly listed as the final act for the second day, but on the schedules around the park, that slot was marked as "special guest." It was all very peculiar. The last act to perform before D'Angelo on the main stage was Meshell Ndegeocello. The performance was amazing and her audience loved every minute of it, as did I. The end of her performance left about 45 minutes until D'Angelo's original scheduled time. At first, I expected security to come and ask us to clear the pit until closer to showtime, but that never happened. Word had been going around of the possibility that we wouldn't be allowed to photograph the performance, but again, no one came to notify us at any point. After about 30 minutes, a security guard came to the stage and took a microphone. The first thing he said, was that everyone had to leave the photo pit. I found it pretty odd that he'd take to the stage mic for this announcement instead of coming through the pit, but fine. He continued by saying that if we did not clear the pit, the show would not begin. This is when it got bad. He would go on to say to the crowd "if you feel what I'm saying, let me hear you!" This, in turn, had the crowd cheering for us to leave. He went on to say how he is a professional and that we wouldn't want him to force us out. He closed out with a classless "I'm making money right now!" and got off the mic to cheers and applause. It really wasn't necessary to vilify the people in the pit. You're making money right now? Well, so are some of the folks you are throwing out of the pit. They are making money trying to cover this event, and now you have provided them with a negative point to add to their stories. Congratulations.
Adding to the poor treatment were some of the all access media that was present. It was as if someone briefed them at the beginning of the festival and said "just treat everyone else like they aren't there." They would set up their gear without any regard for where anyone was standing, and without even a word to excuse themselves. Their attitude and the attitude of security was a clash to the feel-good nature of the festival, and really put a damper on the experience overall. I did not stay for D'Angelo's set, and I don't regret leaving.
I was told by another photographer that things were very different in years past, so I hope it will return to that instead of the strangeness I experienced. Were you at Afropunk? How was your experience? Did you encounter any problems as an attendee?