Empress in her City: Afrochumps and the Afropunk Exposure
What Afropunk Meant for Me As a Dream:
Initially, when I was younger, less educated, and still coming to terms with who I am as a black woman, Afropunk was a milestone dream. I first started seeing Afropunk when I was in high school. I was in love with everything it represented and stood for, unaware that that festival was a bigger front for several issues in black communities, intersecting with art in an advertised safe space.
It took years for me to finally attend Afropunk, each year jobless and writing about my love of art and culture, as I healed through various artistic expression. I felt I was missing on a really big experience. I waited 5-6 years before I was able to attend, but even then I signed up to volunteer, in order to attend the festival for free and serve my community in a safe space for everything I believed in and then some. Initially, I feared I would never be able to attend as the festival began to seem like an exclusive venue for beautiful people of color and artists that were better well known. In some ways, I thought volunteering would be an amazing way to experience the festival adjacent and be a part of a community that I felt a kinship with. I was dead wrong and naive.
Is It a Roast If It’s True?
Call this a roast, helpful suggestions, or perhaps a lesson for a brand marketing as a beautiful inclusive community, but what I'm about to share uninhibited is my experience as a volunteer for Afropunk. I’m sharing this knowing that I might be forever banned from attending this festival as a volunteer, not that I would ever again unless they make significant improvements or more. Even then, I might mark the email as spam and carry-on magical as hell, ensuring that I interact in communities that validly create a safe space for people like myself.
Sit back, grab some notes and tag Afropunk. First of all, before I even go into my experience as a volunteer, let's cover some basic administration details that would certainly have saved me and my fellow volunteers' extreme grief. Knowing full well how many volunteers are needed for each department beforehand, why wasn’t there an effective advertisement for a high demand for volunteers so that, in the case of departments being overwhelmed, there is no need for ”runners”. Advertise so that the people working for free aren't working an entire day doing the epitome of sales day in retail. Advertise so that workers can take breaks and enjoy the festival in exchange for the stress and management of the venue that is bestowed upon them from the poorly functioning management of Afropunk. If the demand isn’t met by people local to the area, then ONE thing that would help your volunteer process is allowing skype interviews for people out of town wishing to support and uplift the community. Erasing that option dismissed the potential for volunteers all over the country interested in helping out.
If you aren't meeting the demand for volunteers needed to keep Afropunk running then please offer a better and valid incentive for people to sign up into the hell you offer under the guise of a black shirt that says “Afropunk Army.” Little did we know that the work put into being a part of Afropunk Army would fit its name so literally, marching under the same misinformed and unappreciated status of America’s actual military force. Before we even get to what I actually started doing for the festival, I'm talking about an administrative bare minimum. If the site you set up for shifts wasn't working, why wait last minute for people to scramble and set up shifts in Google Sheets. It was chaos. As someone from out of town volunteering, hearing a threat of banishment for a shift I could physically not reach created so much mental anguish for an event I really wanted to help initially. I did not see a shift change until Friday before we had to go. So all week I worried about banishment that they heavily advertised in their emails. Which, speaking of? ”Banishment” is highly aggressive and dystopian for a festival that is meant to represent a safe space. A precision of language is needed going forward for Afropunk administration. Scaring your volunteers is a sick strategy to motivate compliance and order to an event that had LITTLE of it. Like I mentioned, what type of poorly written young adult dystopian novel enthusiast thought that was a great idea? Did I mention that in the mix up of their administrative duties going poorly, the information about shirts and food was lost in the mix? Hold that information for later.
Day of Afropunk, my dear friend and co-host to my podcast Ambiguous Anthology, which will also host our commentary on this experience, and I arrive in Brooklyn bright-eyed and caffeinated ready to volunteer. Skeptical after the week of unrest, unanswered emails, and lack of information circulating to volunteers, we are there checking in way before our first shift and told about our new role as “runners.” A “runner” is someone without a listed shift told to run across the venue and help each department. Okay, sure. What they don’t tell you is Security won’t allow Volunteers ease of access to navigate the venue to do a job. Despite the fact that, as Security, they should recognize armbands and shirts as workers needing to help run Afropunk effectively and safely. That didn’t happen, so volunteers, with various physical, capabilities have to walk all around the entirety of a venue to not only check in but gain access to the space that requires their work? What sense does that make? This nonsense was day one.
Secondly, in regards to feeding volunteers, I’m highly displeased that catering saw fit to give salad scraps to feed people whose physical labor required more than that. That portion was subpar in comparison to the free lunch me and mine had in the public school system. I never thought I would compare any food to that, but here I am. These salad scraps were not accessible to some people who couldn’t leave their shifts to eat or who had dietary restrictions. On top of that, one of the portable snacks they offered were peanut granola bars and, as someone with allergies, what person decided to offer food that is globally the topmost acquired allergy? Dinner was not better. As someone with dairy allergies, I cannot consume pizza healthily, which, to be honest, pizza seemed like an afterthought dinner option to feed volunteers despite the fact there is a whole department geared to feeding workers. When asking about food for volunteers the choice asked for us to list if vegetarian and Vegan as an option was preferred. Pizza is not Vegan, and nor was what was provided for lunch. Afterthought pizza was devoured before me and my fellow volunteers at the merchandise group could access it at the 8:00 PM checkout. My friend couldn’t even eat the pizza as it was not vegetarian-friendly, or accessible to her dietary issues such as not being able to eat dairy or swine. I came into the tent and saw empty boxes after standing for hours under the strain of a poorly managed and organized team. Apparently, people volunteering were told to eat up and I’m not mad at that. I am however mad that feeding volunteers were such an afterthought that they didn’t consider the people whose shifts ran into the dinner slot and under ordered for over 80 volunteers. Despite the fact they promised to provide lunch and dinner to those 80 people.
Despite being malnourished, often dehydrated, and exhausted, volunteering was worst experienced selling merchandise. Why? I saw the high volume of Afropunk as a brand consumed versus as a loving and safe community. Saw my naive high school dream ripped apart and sold to the quickest bidder. I did anticipate how tedious working merchandise would be, but what I didn't expect is the Afropunk community to be so dismissive and shallow towards the working part of this community. How heartbreaking to see so much demand to represent Afropunk as a brand instead of as a community that resists the current political unrest in our nation. Afropunk is themed and sure people have their preference of what shirts they want - what's not okay is Afropunk is a brand and status. Why aren’t the people in charge of merchandise prepared for that high demand for Afropunks brand? Many consumers, especially white people attending the festival came to adorn themselves in Afropunks logo yet we had so little stock of that merchandise. Why didn’t they train sellers to sell it, and respond to the disappointment when it ran out? My grief was experienced several times over as more and more people asked for things we didn’t have and treated me with disdain in being unable to accommodate their “need” for the Afropunk brand.
I'll probably be remembered as the mean girl with pink hair who couldn't help people buy their Afropunk lineup shirts that sold out before 4 PM the first day. First, let me apologize to those people who were kind enough to work with the very undertrained volunteer staff politely and thank you again to the two people who asked how I was doing. To answer you, I was working to ensure everyone's demands were met so they could enjoy the festival, despite how rude and arrogant many people came across to the staff that was under severe pressure to perform at a level of training they did not receive. Secondly, we were never given or really permitted sitting breaks. We weren't even allowed to have water sitting at the front desk with us as we scrambled to take orders rapidly and efficiently. People yelled and demanded an excess of work despite the high demand and line behind them. I witnessed an intersection of capitalism and selfishness to the highest degree. This is where I majorly interacted with the people attending Afropunk and it crushed my dreams like the dust of food left for volunteers at dinner.
So here I was hungry, swollen feet, to the point my right foot was thicker than me and exhausted working a station that was not large enough to accommodate the people buying merchandise or the people selling it. This station and its management team hardly had any information to help the influx of customers asking about all the merchandise. One lady, in particular, asked me where the merchandise proceeds go to from the sales. Take a guess at how the merchandise management answered and dismissed that question to finish a sale. Did I mention the volunteers chosen to handle money were definitely chosen due to their light skin? I don't even want to unpack the racial preference and favoritism that I experienced working in an event under the management of white people. Absolutely disgusted and disgruntled. Merchandise relations need to be addressed and fixed, and properly created and managed to handle the demand Afropunk gains as a brand and event.
To Wrap Up This Mess:
I've seen plenty of responses about Afropunk being an event that provides a black spectacle for white consumption and I agree. The disrespect in a space meant to uplift black people and perhaps other people of color was vile. My picture was taken twice without consent and I am unsure how that image will be used or even profited off of. I witnessed this first hand in merchandise and later in person while navigating the festival. The relationship between different sections of staff and volunteers was so flimsy, no wonder things went poorly. There was never effective communication. What happened to the community that provides a safe space and wellness to Black people, and the African diaspora and why was it lacking in its staff and volunteers? Shouldn’t the heart of Afropunks message be felt and experienced by those volunteering and working for them?
My message to Afropunk is to address how you treat and serve volunteers, don’t offer false promises, and allow your workers the ability to have breaks. What's the purpose of having shifts if you can’t take a break or help embrace the community you serve in a positive light? Please be inclusive to those with dietary limitations, beyond being vegetarian, and assist those who need access to spaces under the ADA guidelines and then some. I don’t want to see people not helping those within our community when we very much have the power to do so. Finally, when selling your merchandise, please make better considerations for sizes and all types of people looking to buy from you. I’m vividly livid at how volunteers were treated and how not inclusive this space was all weekend in every facet. Do better for your community or just admit you want to cater to white consumption of our art and expression. I’m still seething at selling “Black love” pins in a space where I felt none and had to get up swollen feet to tell a white man to sit down for the people behind him watching Jacob Banks.
Afropunk who you market to and whom you serve are two different people. At some point, the community needs to be heard and actually listened to. You have the chance to take this feedback and grow. You also have the chance to apologize to the people who paid to attend an event and be in a space that was meant to include them not exclude them. Somewhere past my anger, and still swollen thick foot there is faith that a community that resists white conformity and consumption exists for alternative black people. I'm just afraid that Afropunk no longer represents those people, uplifts, or supports them.
- Jade, the empress of Pink energy and tired of this nonsense.
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