In 2003, James Spooner's Afro-Punk documented the racial diversity present in alternative genres of music that seemed overwhelmingly white at casual glance. Though Spooner has moved on from the thriving music festival his film catalyzed, co-founder and head booker Matthew Morgan hasn't lost a step. This year's Afro-Punk Festival, held August 27 and 28 in Fort Greene's Commodore Barry Park, boasts easily the strongest free lineup of the summer, with Cee Lo Green, Janelle Monae, Fishbone, Santigold, Das Racist, Toro y Moi and more scheduled to perform. Amid final preparations, Morgan took a few minutes to chat with us about this year's festival, the ideology behind it, his plans for its future, and the sage advice Ian MacKaye dishes out while relaxing to New Orleans hip-hop.
The L Magazine: Congratulations on this year's lineup, it looks really good.
Matthew Morgan:Thank you very much.
The L: Do you get more of a thrill booking the pioneers or the up-and-coming bands?
MM:: It's just a different type of feeling. I'm a music fan, so I get an excitement out of booking Fishbone. I haven't booked Cee Lo before, and I'm a fan. But, the little kids, the younger kids that are going to play, I get sort of an extra rush off of finding them and giving them a platform, meeting them for the first time.
The L: Do you have a different feeling about this year?
MM:: Yeah, definitely. We're working up towards our 10th year, and we change with the environment. But we've worked with nearly everybody already, just in a different capacity. Santi, I used to manage. We gave Janelle Monae her first show in New York. The leap is really Cee Lo, but we were Goodie Mob fans. I've known his manager very well for years. So it doesn't feel like a leap in that sense.
The L: What goals do you have in mind approaching your 10th year?
MM:: There are two stages at the moment, and this year is the first with the second stage in that park. The goal would be to grow into the field at Commodore Barry Park so that we would have a third stage, and it would be a destination for 60,000 people over a weekend. And to be able to maintain that as a free festival, I'm inclined to call it a"celebration" more than a festival. To sustain for 10 years, to be free for 10 years, and to grow in the manner with which we have—all of those things are huge achievements. The L: It's seemed very tricky for everyone who's tried to keep bigger festivals in New York City going.
MM:: And we're not only talking about a big festival, we're talking about a big, black, alternative festival! It's really very challenging when we go out to sponsors, with our demographic. Although I would say, and this is the tough thing, we have much, much more of a multicultural audience than any other festival. But you could also equate that to being in Brooklyn, the epicenter of the universe.
The L: I wanted to talk a bit about the concept of"afro-punk." You guys are considering the term as more of an attitude than a strict genre. Is that fair to say?
MM:: Yeah, absolutely.
The L: And you've talked about"afro-punk" as a movement. Could you spell out the tenets and goals of that movement?
MM:: I started with the idea of creating just an equal playing field. If you were a young kid of color that was into alternative music even 10 years ago, you didn't have much of a platform. We started doing shows because I was managing acts that I couldn't get booked on regular rock ‘n' roll shows. After being a manager and taking acts to record labels, and having record labels say,"Ah, the black kids aren't really into that. Can't really sell that. Who would we market it to?" we decided, fuck it, we'll create our own audience and see if we can move the needle slightly.
The L: I think it's interesting that the bigger pop acts at the top of the bill do seem to have something in common with the smaller, underground or alternative acts. I'm wondering, not to get too hung up on the word "punk"...
MM:: [chuckles] We can go there, I invite this!
The L: Have we gotten to a place where innovation and creativity is almost synonymous with the
MM:: I think it means different things to different people. So, for Ian MacKaye, it was what it was, or it is what it is. I went to DC because we were working on a book and Ian had some photos, and we went and sat with him one afternoon. It was one of the best afternoons that I ever had. He was listening to these brassy, New Orleans hip-hop bands in the background and really excited about these bands coming out of New Orleans, and the awareness and the interest in the diversity of music was amazing. He said something that made me change the level on which we were doing things. We were doing stuff in nightclubs, and he talked about what music did to young people, and how important it was. So the following year, we took the festival out of clubs so that the kids could go.
Another thing is, it's different for black kids and it's really important to understand how different you must be and how courageous you must be to step out, do something different when you are from a neighborhood or an environment that completely restricts or condemns a sense of fashion or music or anything that was perceived to be completely not for you.
So, when I look at Cee Lo and his amazing creativity and courageousness over the years, to be who he is—that's really punk to me. And I could say the same about every single person on the bill. They all have that thing that enables them to be free enough where they can step out.
The L: So it's a notion more of originality and idiosyncrasy than, you know, loud guitars?