This past weekend, the black alternative music and arts festival Afropunk celebrated its ten-year anniversary boasting an impressive lineup with headlining acts Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the uncrowned queen of neo-soul Mshell Ndegeocello, a DJ Rashad tribute set, and the monumental return of reigning soul messiah D’Angelo. The festival made vast improvements upon previous years with two additional stages (for a total of four), more food and drink vendors, and a significantly larger attendance at Commodore Barry Park.
The festival’s acts were a disparate assortment of hip-hop, electronic and hardcore music, all blaring within a few hundred yards of one another but it never proved to be bothersome or distracting. During one brief port-o-potty detour, I was delightedly sandwiched between a lulling saxophone solo from Ms. Ndgeocello’s stage and the fluent electro-funk groove of The Internet’s “Dontcha.” The back-end of Commodore Barry Park hosted the Gold Stage, where DJs and electronic producers performed two-hour sets on an enormous, body-bumping sound system.
The first day’s highlights included performances by the experimental hip-hop project Clipping. (who reworked alt-J’s “Hunger of the Pine” sans Miley sample), the brackish and unhinged guitar work of punk rock brother duo The Bots (prevailing over sound difficulties that lasted for more than half their set), Seattle hip-hop two-piece Shabazz Palaces (with guest spots from female vocalist-MC duo THEESatisfaction), and the Nashville-native country balladeer Valerie June (whose old-timey, Southern flare provided a much-appreciated complementary to the alternative-heavy scene).
British soul artist Lianne Las Havas (who commemorated her 25th birthday at Afropunk) offered up one of the festival’s most emotionally rousing sets. Las Havas was all smiles, responding to the crowd with “I love you too”’s, before she performed the unreleased track “Ghost,” a rudimentary but harrowing number. After spending the better part of a year recovering from cancer, Sharon Jones returned to close out the festival Saturday backed by Daptone Record’s resident band the Dap-Kings. On stage Jones was a simply unstoppable force and emitted this wild, vibrant energy that was impossible not to respond to. A few songs in and Jones points toward the front row, “You,” she says, and ushers a young man with braces over the crowd barrier and through the photo pit on stage to shimmy and shake with her and the band for the remainder of the song.
The second day of Afropunk was comparably disjointed, with a large majority of the lesser-known acts performing sets throughout Sunday. R&B vocalist SZA stunned a sizable audience with her faultless chops and the swaggering consistency of her impressive three-piece band, which elevated tracks released on Z to new and unprecedented heights. A high school marching band tore through the festival midday, settling close to the Red Stage during rapper Cakes da Killa’s set. A leisurely walk around the festival grounds bared witness to people of all different races, sexualities, and ages communing together in the same space, sharing blunts and nutcrackers, contributing to the festival’s invigorating atmosphere (My favorite moment of the festival was listening to two black men argue politics. One was about ten years older than the other, wearing all black. The other wore all white, with a matching flag and t-shirt that brandished the contentious decree, “Fuck White People Privilege.”)
After an hour, I stopped counting the minutes spent waiting for D’Angelo to start his set. The wait was justified, in part. I’d spent years waiting to see the prolific and mysterious soul artist. I could wait a little longer. The crowd immediately surrounding me was not as forgiving. They barraged the stage with boos both before and after his set, which was comprised of neither substantive catalogue releases or—as far as I could tell—new, original material, instead situated around covers “Our Love Has Died” by the Ohio Players (dedicated to the late Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner), Cat Lewis’ (Prince-appropriated) “She’s Always In My Hair,” Black Flowers’ “Fishbone” (performed as a duet with guest vocalist Angelo Moore), and “No Head, No Backstage Pass” by Funkadelic (concluded with the crowd-pleasing outro “Greatdayindamornin/Booty”). The band’s sound, with Questlove on drums and The Roots’ Kirk Douglas on electric guitar, was heart palpitating and absolutely massive. And when they were finished playing, barely more than an hour of dynamic hard-soul fury, I felt that I’d just witnessed something extraordinary.