LIVE REVIEW: Afropunk London 2016

We’re still buzzing from Afropunk. Buzzing from Grace Jones’s loud, electric and thoroughly outlandish headline performance. Buzzing from the eclectic collision of black music and culture. And, most of all, buzzing from the vibe of brotherly communion it cast over all who join in. We’ve never been to a festival quite like Afropunk.

The Afropunk experience

“UK festival culture isn’t always accommodating to everyone,” said Akala, the UK hip-hop don and frequent voice of sense on matters of race an society, during his set on the No Hate stage, inside Alexandra Palace. “Whereas, I feel like Afropunk is accommodating to everyone.” His comments will ring true for all those who made new friends at this nirvana for anybody has ever felt unaccepted by society.

Everywhere you went in Ally Pally people wore smiles. Colourful African and Caribbean garb was on sale at the temporary market stalls, as well as on prominently repped, primarily, by many of the hundreds of black festival goers. Others, black or not, had their faces speckled with patterns of traditional African face painting. Meanwhile, in the food court, it was not uncommon to hear people talking politics, activism, or simply getting to know someone new. At Afropunk, you feel like your surrounded by brothers and sisters who will accept you as you are.

Grace Jones

Seriously, we could talk about how cool the collective Afropunk visitors were all day – but this isn’t a fashion blog. The core of the Afropunk experience was, naturally, the music. Earlier in the year, controversy over Afropunk London’s original headline act, M.I.A., threatened to mare the event. Ultimately, listening to the wishes of its vocal UK followers was the best thing the organisers could do. Grace Jones and her effervescent celebration was firmly in step with the unifying mood of the festival.

A consummate performer, Jones charmed and shocked, gyrated and joked. “That’s it. More red. Rub it into my arse,” came her disembodied voice during one costume changes, prompting chuckles from the crowd. Each one of Jones’s well-rehearsed quick costume changes brought forth a different incarnation of the diva, whose brand of audacious art-house dub still sounds like it comes from another planet. She welcomed the crowd as a masked voodoo goddess to the tune of Nightclubbing. High heels on, string-crested headdress flowing about the place, she warned the ladies to stay away from those “layed back” Jamaican fellas (My Jamaican Guy). She donned her iconic disco-ball bowler hat and bathed the hall in laser light. In a crown of brilliant silver, Jones and her toned male go-go dancer teased the crowd with sexual energy during Pull Up to My Bumper. Ending with Slave to the Rhythm – during which she spun a humongous hula-hoop around her hips for a full 10 minutes – Jones stole the show.

Laura Mvula, Kwabs, SZA, Akala

The schedule for Afropunk London’s first one-day festival was tightly packed. None two acts were the same, but all came with a willingness to ignite the crowd as much as they could in time allowed. Laura Mvula, the headline act for the Soulection stage, dazzled during Phenomenal Woman and Flying Without You, striking goddess-like poses in between her keyboard chords. Soul man Kwabs continues to grow into the shoes of a new-age Tyrone Davies, and let rip a colossal roar that the departed soul legend may well have heard up in heaven.

This being Afropunk, brothers and sisters with fly-looking hairdos were everywhere. But the ’do of the show must go to 25-year-old New Jersey singer, SZA. Her fusion of sultry neo-soul and mulled R&B was captivating. She had the most aerobic performance on the Soulection stage, high kicking like an Olympian and whipping her glorious mane of dark hair about during Babylon.

A special collaboration set from Akala with Dreadzone and Don Letts was a learn in organised rebellion: Murder Runs the Globe and a Akala’s rapid-fire bars on live remix of part of his Fire in the Booth (Pt 4) rap toasting all in earshot.

Lady Leshurr, MNEK, and the new talents

Perhaps the toughest job of the day fell to Purple Ferdinand. Opening the No Hate stage at 3pm, the crowd was slight, but that did not stop the London soulstress from bewitching us with her softy spoken verses on Courage and Interwined.

Later on, Lady Leshurr encouraged her assembled crowd to raise one fist in the air and fight for their dreams as she segued to her final song, Brush Your Teeth. Twirling and side-hopping, and rapping as she went, she looks set to shut venues down Skepta-style in the coming months. Meanwhile, famed for co-writing hits such as Gorgon City’s Ready for Your Love and Duke Dumont’s Need You (100%), MNEK’s set was a boisterous blend of dance and pop, urging the Soulection stage crowd to “get f*cked up tonight!”

Our surprise of the show was Jorja Smith. This 19-year-old from Walsall, near Birmingham, caught the attention of the internet in January with the enchanting Lauryn Hill-esque Blue Lights. In person, she is a magnetic presence, her voice crisp and clear, her movements refined. Maverick Sabre joined Smith to sing the moving Loving You, and an acoustic version of a song from her forthcoming EP set made the new princess of soul’s set an unexpected highlight.

We could go on. We could tell you about the DJ sets from Hannah Faith and IAmNoBodi, that ensured the mood never dropped below mellow electric. About Marcia Rigg, a representative of the United Families and Friends Campaign for those affect by deaths in police custody, was given the stage before Laura Mvula performance to deliver her message of protest. About Little Simz’s guest rap, and a dozen more moments that added life to the gathering.

Our experience of the first ever Afropunk London festival was outstanding. Plenty of UK festivals have a lot going for them: the music, the parties, the, er… people. But you’re unlikely to find the stimulating mixture of beautiful, genuinely warm festival goers and vibrant black music and art anywhere else. See you there next year.

See more images from Afropunk London here.

Words and pictures: Aaron Lee

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LIVE REVIEW: Afropunk London 2016
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