Afropunk London 2017 review – maverick music and expression at this celebration of inclusivity

Print­works, Lon­don on July 22–23, 2017

In the midst of a tur­bu­lent social cli­mate for us all, the Afropunk’s world­wide fes­ti­vals have been shut­ting up the doom­say­ers by cre­at­ing spaces where inclu­siv­i­ty, love and good vibes reign supreme.

Last year at Alexan­dra Palace, the first ever Afrop­unk Lon­don fes­ti­val was the most refresh­ing fes­ti­val expe­ri­ence we’d had in years.

Back for its sec­ond year in Lon­don, and its first full week­end, this time at Print­works night­club, the fes­ti­val turned the pres­sure up with a huge line-up of super­star tal­ents, includ­ing The Inter­net, Lianne La Havas, Wil­low Smith and Thun­der­cat.

As with last year’s fes­ti­val, self-expres­sion was what set Afrop­unk apart from any oth­er UK fes­ti­val. Colour­ful, elab­o­rate out­fits, tat­toos and trib­al body paints, groups break­ing out in impromp­tu dances to the sound of Solange and SZA, encoun­ters with fel­low rev­ellers con­tin­ued to be Afrop­unk London’s most unique attraction.

If you weren’t for­tu­nate enough to go this year, you can get a glimpse of the action in our fes­ti­val pho­to gallery. We also snapped some of the mar­ket­place traders.

Below, we look back on the two-day fes­ti­val, and share some of our highlights.

Day one: The Internet, Corrine Bailey Rae, Little Simz, Kojey Radical

Split between two floors in the dim­ly-lit night­club, Sat­ur­day kicked off with Toron­to rock group, The OBGMs, down­stairs. Their ren­di­tion to the bur­den of sin­gle­dom went down well with the assem­bled “sin­gle­tons”, the lead singer get­ting the crowd to crouch down to the floor at one point.

Upstairs, south Lon­don spo­ken word poet, and ris­ing hip hop artist, Kojey Rad­i­cal warmed things up with his poet­ic rhymes about reli­gion and rejec­tion. The upper stage lent a dif­fer­ent atmos­phere to fes­ti­val. Formed from stain­less steel ridg­ing and iron­work, it felt much more indus­tri­al, like an ille­gal rave in an aban­doned factory.

Kojey was the first but sure wasn’t the last to light up the crowd on the upper stage. When MOBO win­ner and fel­low south Lon­don­er, Nadia Rose, arrived with her posse, com­plete with back­ing dancers, she brought the fire with ‘Tight Up’ and ‘Skwod’, and left the crowd scream­ing for more.

This was British soul singer Cor­rine Bai­ley Rae’s first appear­ance at Afrop­unk, and her pres­ence was the high­light of day one for many. Her tone maybe light and serene, but Bai­ley Rae is still a heavy­weight on stage. Her set includ­ed favourites such as ‘Clos­er’, ‘Like a Star’ and ‘Put Your Records On’, to which the audi­ence knew every word.

Straight after this, lyri­cal genius Lit­tle Simz was rul­ing the ear­ly evening crowd upstairs with a phe­nom­e­nal dis­play of rap skill. She was joined by sur­prise guests Syd on ‘Shot­gun’ and Ghetts on ‘King of Hearts’.

Rap­pers Dan­ny Brown and Jme picked up where Simz left off with strong sets of their own. Saul Williams, mean­while, want­ed to break down bar­ri­ers, and he did so, climb­ing into the audi­ence to mosh with them to his per­cus­sive, rebel­lious music.

Warm­ing up the stage for Saturday’s head­lin­er, Soul II Soul founder and DJ, Jazz­ie B kept the crowd sway­ing and side-step­ping with old-school favourites, includ­ing Cameo’s ‘Can­dy’, and he urged the elder rev­ellers to show the young ones how the infa­mous dance is done with hilar­i­ous results.

Sat­ur­day closed with LA soul-funk alchemists, The Inter­net. Fol­low­ing 2015’s Ego Death, the group has risen to greater suc­cess. Still, true to her melan­choly per­sona, front­woman Syd seemed almost indif­fer­ent to the wave of ado­ra­tion flood­ing her, and the band, with every song. Play­ing hits includ­ing ‘Spe­cial Affair’, ‘Girl’ and ‘Under Con­trol’, the group brought seri­ous baby-mak­ing vibes to Print­works, and closed the festival’s first day in style.

Day two: Lianne La Havas, Willow Smith, Nao and a host of new stars

After the eupho­ria of the first day, things were mel­low­er on Sun­day. Thun­der­cat, Nao and Wil­low Smith drew large crowds nonethe­less. But there were stand­out per­for­mances for many of line-up’s ris­ing stars, too.

Dublin group Black­fish Col­lec­tive – win­ners of Afrop­unk London’s first Bat­tle of the Bands con­test – opened the fes­ti­val with trib­al dances, trib­al make-up and a clear afrobeat inspi­ra­tion to the words of “Is she the love of my life”.

Soon after­wards the boys from the Blue Lab Beats kicked off the upstairs atmos­phere with their jazzy elec­tron­i­ca. There was even an appear­ance by Kojey Rad­i­cal to please the crowd, too.

Putting the “punk” in the Afrop­unk, Toronto’s Sate gave every­one anoth­er rea­son to “be who you wan­na be, and do what you wan­na do” with her infec­tious, defi­ant rock spir­it. In a sim­i­lar dis­play of stage mag­net­ism, Black Orchids gui­tarist and front­woman Kay Eliz­a­beth strummed her axe with the con­fi­dence of a future-rock queen, her curly hair swish­ing about as she did so – we wouldn’t be sur­prised to if she told us she had ground frag­ments of her favourite Black Sab­bath and Motör­head vinyl records into her pro­tein shake every morn­ing before a show.

Step­ping up to replace Con­golese musi­cian Petite Noir, who was unable to make it, were the Nova Twins. This show marked the girls’ third appear­ance at Afrop­unk, hav­ing played the first Lon­don fes­ti­val, and the 2017 Paris fes­ti­val ear­li­er that same month. It’s not dif­fi­cult to see why the organ­is­ers keep com­ing back to them: they com­plete­ly embody the festival’s holy trin­i­ty of DIY aes­thet­ic, extra­or­di­nary tal­ent and mav­er­ick self-expres­sion. Clad in cus­tom-made out­fits – heavy boots, mis­match­ing trousers, bralets made from thrift shop mate­ri­als and safe­ty pins, their eyes framed by broad strokes of red eye­lin­er, and high­lights in their hair – Amy Love and Geor­gia South put on a tremen­dous show. A furi­ous, ear-split­ting com­bi­na­tion of punk rock and rap, the girls stomped, jumped, posed and thrashed their way through their set. Pure dynamite.

Mak­ing up the remain­der of Sun­day were soul and funk acts. The soul­ful sounds of Leices­ter singer-song­writer Mahalia impressed; ini­tial­ly ner­vous, she set­tled into her groove with ‘Inde­pen­dence Day’, her smiles grow­ing as she sang. Kiah Vic­to­ria turned out to be a rev­e­la­tion. “There’s so much love in the room,” said the New York­er, before pro­ject­ing epic, Whit­ney Hous­ton-esque vocals on her songs ‘Cold War’ and ‘Hol­low’. Her ener­gy and pres­ence could have filled the place twice over.

Lat­er, Nao had the room on steroids when she appeared, twirling and twist­ing her way through songs from her album, For All We Know. Thun­der­cat showed off his for­mi­da­ble fin­ger work with wozzy songs from his album Drunk, like the cathar­tic ‘Friend Zone’.

The high­light of Sun­day was the moment Wil­low Smith hit the stage. While she’s young in age, she’s an old soul at heart. She danced, she sang, she crowd-surfed, and she left us on a nat­ur­al high. Clos­ing the fes­ti­val was British soul singer Lianne La Havas. She took to the stage in a flow­ing, floor-length gown, gui­tar in hand, as she struck up the tone of her pic­ture-per­fect love ode ‘Au Ciné­ma’. After the wild ener­gy of the last 24 hours, La Havas’s acoustic per­for­mance was, admit­ted­ly, a stark depar­ture from many of those before her. But while it may have lacked the extrav­a­gance of oth­er acts, La Havas’ songs lost none of their lus­tre under her care­ful caress.

From rev­ellers in neon box braids, larg­er-than-life dread­locks and extrav­a­gant African out­fits, to the mar­ket­place, to the DJs, artists and vibe­mak­ers them­selves, Afrop­unk Lon­don was wild. From all angles, it was a fusion of fire from start to finish.

Words by Aaron Lee & Kemi Akilapa
Pho­tos by Aaron Lee


For more Afrop­unk Lon­don, see our fes­ti­val pho­to gallery, our mar­ket­place gallery, or check out our full cov­er­age.