Afropunk Takes Over Black History Month Uptown

—By Miles Marshall Lewis. Follow MML on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter at @furthermucker

It’s appropriate that Afropunk the Takeover—Harlem (last week’s series of concerts, panel discussions and film screenings commemorating Black History Month) launched weeks after the 20th anniversary of Erykah Badu’s Baduizm. As a modern, progressive black arts movement, Afropunk stands squarely on the shoulders of what artist Pierre Bennu calls “the unscene” Brooklyn underground arts scene of the ’90s that launched Badu two decades back. Rock singer-songwriter Tamar-Kali’s Harlem Stage performance of her Demon Fruit Blues project and musical director Robert Glasper’s Unapologetically Black concert (featuring Jill Scott, Bilal, Toshi Reagon, Tunde Adebimpe and poet Staceyann Chin) at the Apollo Theater brought the mightiest musical muscle to Afropunk’s Takeover.

With both Geechee Goddess Hardcore Warrior Soul (2005) and Black Bottom (2010)—plus a longstanding international live-show career—already cementing her reputation, Tamar-Kali discovered a newfound spirit of collaboration with her latest effort. Incorporating dancers from the Brooklyn-based Àṣẹ Dance Theatre Collective (choreographed by artistic director Adia Whitaker) and stage direction from Ashley Brockington, Kali’s Demon Fruit Blues “explores and interrogates gender binaries, patriarchy and womanhood by examining the origins of misogyny.”

Fronting a six-piece band with a trio of guitarists, Tamar-Kali stormed through an anthemic suite of tracks (“Earth, Sky, Womb, Water,” “Necromancer,” “River Flows”) accompanied by the frenetic, fluid movements of neo-folkloric whirling dervishes. Though a work-in-progress documentary opened the performance, explaining heady connections to Yoruba deities and challenges to the so-called curse of womanhood in Judeo-Christian ideology, Demon Fruit Blues hit the Harlem Stage crowd where it counts the most: the heart, not the head. A panel discussion with Kali, Whitaker, Brockington and sex-positive feminist activist Feminista Jones concluded the show by connecting dots between black culture, western societal perceptions of the female body and the Orisha influences in recent work by Beyoncé and Tamar-Kali herself.

Black creativity in all its permutations rules the day when it comes to the current aesthetic of the Afropunk movement, and keyboardist-composer Robert Glasper’s wide-spanning sensibilities were on full display at the Apollo Theater’s Unapologetically Black: The African-American Songbook Remixed. Regarding that songbook, classics of Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone and Marvin Gaye were all accounted for. Originals like Jill Scott’s “Calls” (off Glasper’s Black Radio 2) turned the theater into a singalong call-and-response chorus.

The notorious Apollo audience was characteristically as unapologetically black as the namesake event. The tumultuous national mood of 2017’s Trump era has dampened some spirits even as it’s fired up the nationalism and militancy of others. The latter was on display during passionate covers of “Save the Children” (Marvin Gaye by way of Bilal) and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (Toshi Reagon channeling Nina Simone). The so-called alt-right politics of this American political moment has stirred increasing resistance from artists and communities alike; the incendiary, agitprop poetics of spoken-word superstar Staceyann Chin inspired fist-pumping and calls to resist. Bandleader Igmar Thomas’s Revive Big Band conducted swirling, jazzy backdrops behind Jill Scott’s cultural nationalist remix of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“Oh say can you see/The blood in the streets…”), as she stood before an inverted American flag projection and railed against the system in the night’s most powerful moment.

In recent years, Afropunk’s annual Brooklyn-born music fest has migrated down south to Atlanta and expatriated over to Paris, France. Given last week’s exceptional jam sessions and discussions on art, identity and resistance, Afropunk should make its sojourn uptown a regular thing. All in all, Afropunk the Takeover—Harlem made for one of the most unapologetically black Black History Months in memory.

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