I’m no stranger to unwanted touch, non-desired looks, and involuntary comments. I’m used to people having the impression that my body exists for their gaze, and no longer has value when they’ve finished with it. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about sexual assault, and given the world we live in, I doubt it will be the last.
I attended Afropunk this past August, for the second year in a row. My first year wasn’t too amazing considering that the festival over-sold tickets, and due to the high quantity of people there were numerous jams and congestion at the festival. I’m someone who has social anxiety and I do tend to have panic attacks when I’m in large crowds, so I suffered from feeling severely triggered my first year there. My second year was a lot better in regards to congestion, there weren’t as many people so I was able to actually enjoy the festival without having a mental breakdown (haha). I was also joined by friends that I don’t get to see often and new faces that I hope I will be able to get to know better over time. For the most part, my Afropunk experience was pretty amazing. Between seeing Tyler the Creator, Erykah Badu, and ACTUALLY being able to eat all the vegan food I want, I was living on cloud-9.
This year there were only really three things that made me feel uncomfortable, and I’ve spent a significant amount of time on my own trying to process it. The first being the presence of so many non-black folks. I love seeing so many people celebrating Black culture and Black joy, on the other hand, I understand Afropunk to be a festival for Punk Black folks by Punk Black folks. Afropunk to me is a festival that celebrates the Black kids who were teased for being weird, or acting too “White.” Obviously, it’s not become a festival that is for ALL Black folks (which is a conversation for another post), but I can’t help but side-eye White folks in African print and Dashikis made in India. I can’t help but wonder if they put on my culture for the weekend, and consider it unprofessional for the rest of the year. I couldn’t help but feel like it was ironic that folks were wearing tribal face paint while taking selfies next to shirts that say “No Cultural Appropriation.”
The second thing I realized out of relief actually. When I would attend other festivals I’d constantly feel uncomfortable because of all the kids running around trying to drink illegally, or asking me to buy them alcohol (awkward). Then I realized, the reason why there were more adults at Afropunk is that a lot of Black families might not be able to afford for their kids to go to a super expensive festival. Yeah, you can volunteer and get free passes, but I started to feel uncomfortable that Afropunk wasn’t really for Black people. It was becoming a festival for the Black middle/upper class. 16-year-old Monisha, no matter how much she’d be able to benefit from being there, couldn’t afford the ticket. 23-year-old Monisha gets to bask in the magic because now she has a bit more privilege to afford it. The third thing that bothered me about Afropunk was a situation I’ve had to force myself not to be numb to. A situation I’ve spent a great deal of talking about, and researching about.
At the end of the first day of Afropunk, I was rather intoxicated and exhausted. I walked away from my group of friends because I felt extremely weak, my feet were hurting because I was wearing wedges, and I wanted to find somewhere that wasn’t so crowded so I could sit down. I went to the 21+ section and found a bench to relax on until my feet could recover a bit. “Hey.” I turned to my right to see a slender, clean-cut White man with a moderately thin mustache on his face (think Porn-stache, because that’s ALL I could think of). “Hey” I replied, figuring that there was no harm in having an exchanged with this stranger. It started with small talk, he asked me how I liked the festival and I explained how I loved that there were so many diverse types of Black folks. I loved seeing LGBTQ people being able to express ourselves, and that this festival really felt like a safe space for me. He then cut me off and asked: “Do you identify as trans?” I wasn’t stupid, at this point I figured he was probably asking because he found me attractive. I do technically fall under the trans-umbrella, but I didn’t feel like I had to answer that question. I tried dancing around it and expressing avoiding the question, but he just kept asking. Eventually, I snapped and said, “If you’re asking if I have a penis, no I do not.” You’d think he’d get the hint that I was really annoyed and was no longer wanting to engage, but I guess he figured that was a pass to pursue (looking back I wish I knew how to better handle that question).
“Oh, I’m not a millennial you know.” I couldn’t help but rolled my eyes. “Being Trans isn’t anything new.” I can’t remember if I thought that or said it out loud; guys I was really gone. I’m the type that has one drink and I get drunk off of that, do imagine a day of day drinking under the sun. I don’t exactly remember the rest of what he was saying, but eventually, I just became more uncomfortable with him than I was my blisters. I do recall him trying to get me to stand up and spin around for him, but at that point, I was REALLY over it and told him “I’m going to go… To better watch the show.” I started to walk away, and he went in for a hug. It seemed harmless, so I returned it. He used that as an opportunity to pull me in close, to run his hands down my back, my butt. I started to push him away, and he attempted to kiss me goodbye. I didn’t want to make a scene, so I went in like I was going to give him the European/Latin American kiss on the cheek farewell. Then he held my shoulders and tried to force me to kiss his lips. It was a back and forth for about 30 seconds of him trying to force the kiss, and me trying to dodge it. Him expressing that I should take it, and then me pushing him away and quickly darting out of the 21+ section.
I didn’t consider this sexual assault when it happened. I just figured I was being groped, he was transphobic, I was uncomfortable, I didn’t want any of that, he was preying on me because I was intoxicated and alone. But I never considered it sexual assault. I originally laughed it off with my friends, joking you can’t trust those guys with Porn-Staches. I figured next year I’d just pay the extra charge to be VIP, then maybe I’d be safe from predators and anxiety attacks. It wasn’t until I started noticing other people critique Afropunk for ‘selling out.’ So many of my Black friends have expressed feeling like Afropunk is no longer for Black folks, that it’s just perpetuating the commodification of Black bodies. After enough time to process, I sorta feel that way too. I’m biased, what happened inevitably makes me look at things from a cynical perspective. But I kinda look back at Afropunk sorta feeling like it’s becoming like a zoo for Black folks and Black culture. I’m beginning to feel like it’s a place where people can oogle-oggle at the mythical “Black Magic,” and can enjoy dressing up like a Black person with cheaply made African print.
Ironically, I’ve never been assaulted, harassed, or made to feel unsafe at any other music festival until Afropunk.
I don’t blame anyone at Afropunk for the singular event, nor do I think they are responsible for vetting every person who enters the festival. I do think though, that this festival no longer serves the people that it was intended for. Afropunk was made for Black punks, it’s evolved to include all Black people. Now it’s evolved to include all people that take interested in Black people. Now it’s starting to feel like it’s becoming a festival for people who want to sample Blackness and Black people.
I’m not going to end this by undermining my opinion or excusing this. I am going to end this by pointing out that all things evolve, and by questioning what is Afropunk evolving into if it’s no longer serving the folks it was intended to serve?