Published August 28, 2018
Published 4 hours ago
Much has changed about the Afropunk Festival since 2005, the year it started as a free weekend of hardcore concerts and skateboarding in a paved lot in a still-gentrifying downtown Brooklyn. Since then, Afropunk has expanded into an international brand, with festivals in cities like Atlanta, Paris, and Johannesburg. The original Brooklyn flavor has evolved into a multistage, ticketed event taking over a 10-acre park, with a musical lineup that’s been broadened beyond strictly punk rock in order to attract a larger crowd. Still, one essential aspect of Afropunk survives: the spirit of the people who attend. Attracting a diaspora of fans styled in their boldest, the festival still serves as a stage where black people are encouraged to freely express themselves — no matter their age, size, sexuality, or gender identity.
Last weekend, photographer and artist Stephanie Nnamani (aka Teff Theory) made her first Afropunk trek, wandering through the crowds at Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park to capture the essence of what makes this festival and its attendees so special. “The immediate words that come to mind are intense and magical,” Nnamani tells FOTO. “Just entering the space was an experience in itself.” Here, glimpses from the heart of the crowd.
“The glitter accents that she had on her face — she looked like a pixie in the sun,” says the Nigerian-born Nnamani, who often plays with light and warm color palettes in her work (for this shot, she positioned a gold reflector against her subject’s face). “She didn’t look like any other attendee. Within that moment, she just looked like a star.”
“When you see a self-presentation like this,” says Nnamani of this “otherworldly” beauty, “you’re in awe — ‘Wow, who is this incredible person?’ And you might feel intimidated to approach her. But [when we spoke] her spirit was just so calm.” Simple conversations, says Nnamani, are key to gaining the quick trust of subjects in fast-moving environments like these. “It made it easier for them to feel comfortable and more transparent,” she says. “There was some familiarity — a joke exchanged, some kind of commonality [established], and then the picture was taken.” Doing that, Nnamani says, “you’re meeting [subjects] where they are, instead of snatching an element of their person and then just walking away.”
“She was immediately radiant, as soon as she heard the camera click,” Nnamani recalls. “She gave me face for a full five minutes.”
A point of connection between Nnamani and this young woman visiting from Montreal: the Fulani tribe of West Africa — from whom the subject is descended, and for whom the photographer has always felt a sense of awe. “Growing up back in Nigeria,” Nnamani explains, “I recall going to the market with my mom and there were these beautiful Fulani women, always wearing red…and they would wear their hair in beautiful styles.”
The festival’s welcoming attitude was established the moment fans stepped inside the park: An MC with a microphone (a self-identified “vibe-bringer”) was stationed with a DJ at the entrance, says Nnamani, and as attendees like David walked in, “he would compliment the way they were dressed or their hair, or he would ask them to join him as he was dancing. It was like coming into a family barbecue, you know? Like somebody’s uncle was there: ‘Hey, what’s up, nephew, how’s it going?'”
“The people I ended up speaking with were very spiritually connected to this experience,” says Nnamani. “It was almost like they were physically in the space but they had transcended. I would be asking them a question and they would start, like, dancing or something — the music would just hit them.”
Bennell, aka ‘Sunflower’
A beauty blogger from South Carolina, rocking petals as eyelashes.
“One thing that I find about Afropunk is that it’s a come-as-you-are space — no question, no judgment, none of that,” says Nnamani. “Earrings, hairstyle, everything — there was some statement of personhood and pride being communicated in one way or another.”
“They made it a family affair, which I thought was really sweet,” says Nnamani of this young woman and her sisters, who’d traveled to Afropunk from Seattle. (Esther later revealed, sprawled across her thigh, a fresh tattoo of a world map, with an image of Africa to match her earrings.)
“She could barely make it through the entrance because so many people were stopping her for pictures,” says Nnamani of this attendee, a fellow Nigerian woman whose dress and headpiece were made, from braided hair, by Brooklyn-based designer Moshoodat.
Visiting from Oakland, she spoke passionately about her work teaching incarcerated youth.
Part of a mother-daughter design team, she wore her own creations to the festival.
‘Eccentric Beauty’ (Right) and Partner
This couple arrived connected by a braid and by their shared pair of white contact lenses. “When I asked if they were artists,” Nnamani says, “they said, ‘Nope, just regular 9-to-5ers!’ They decided they were going to attend Afropunk as one.”
“What drew me to her was her eye makeup — it was sort of a subtle addition to her floral dress, but it was a statement in itself.”
In a skeletal-like costume made by a jeweler.
After asking repeat attendees what’s the thing that brings them back to Afropunk, Nnamani discovered a uniformity to their answers. “The vibe, the energy, seeing beautiful black folks celebrating music and culture and freedom of expression… To experience the other attendees and essentially what everyone has to contribute to the experience at large. And the way their face lit up when they started describing it — it was something to see.”
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