People participate in the annual Afropunk Music festival on August 27, 2016 in New York City.
Photo: Stephanie Keith (Getty Images)

It has been an oft-repeated refrain that the Afropunk Festival has changed from the punk-centered origins of its inception in the early 2000s—evolving well beyond the brainchild of James Spooner’s titular documentary to a festival powerhouse, with presence in three continents and five cites.

As those transitions have accumulated over time, their weight can be felt in palpable ways, such as the gradual addition of corporate sponsors, removal of programming that was made available in earlier years, notable increases in nonblack attendees and the aggressive increase of ticket prices. There are more imperceptible adjustments as well—such as the establishment of a VIP section for the more elites of black Hollywood to rub elbows and participate in the rebranded idea presented by festival co-founder Matthew Morgan that “it’s punk rock to be black in America.”

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It was in this same VIP section that Ebony Donnely and his partner Ericka Hart were forcibly removed from the festival by security for wearing a handmade shirt that stated that “Afropunk sold out for white consumption.”

They were invited to spend time in VIP as compensation for Hart participating in a documentary collaboration with Mass Appeal. (They had already paid for general admission tickets.) During the filming, people shared their feelings about Afropunk and Hart shared her concerns about some of the changes that were happening. Once in the VIP, they were made to feel unwelcome the longer they lingered, despite being invited. Then: “Somebody [a short black feminine presenting person] comes behind me, comes to the front of me to see my shirt. She was like, ‘that’s interesting. Well, why are you here?’” Donnely said.

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The situation came to a climax when Morgan himself confronted Donnely and Hart, demanded what they were doing back there and pointed at Donnely’s shirt. This all happened despite a pre-existing, friendly relationship between Morgan and Hart (they had previously shared and promoted pictures of her topless at the 2016 Afropunk on their Instagram and website, which she then wrote about). When pressured to explain why he was being so confrontational, Morgan retorted with “sweetheart, this is my house,” and promptly summoned security to escort them out of the festival.

In a statement emailed to The Root, the organizers for Afropunk said:

We are living in incredibly challenging and oppressive political times. As Black people, we face overwhelming confrontations—systemic racism, social injustice, disproportionate rates of incarceration, higher health disparities, and the ravages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We are under attack.

The AFROPUNK platform was conceived to celebrate Black excellence and create a safe space for Black folks who are marginalized men and women, gender non-conforming, and those considered other by white heteronormative powers that be. We give our AFROPUNK community a voice, a platform and a space to express themselves and be their authentic and unapologetic selves.

Being activists is hard, uncomfortable, and sometimes complicated. There was an unfortunate incident at AFROPUNK Brooklyn with Ericka Hart and her partner/friend Ebony Donnley, and friend Lorelei Black were asked to leave a backstage area of the festival which was for talent and working staff. The couple/friends were escorted back to the VIP section where they stayed for the rest of the evening. We have great respect for Ericka and Ebony and would never kick them out of AFROPUNK.

We are sorry that Ericka and Ebony feel mistreated. That was not, nor has it ever been, our intention. We have supported Ericka and her activism for many years. We celebrate her voice, her activism, and her Black body. She is a part of our AFROPUNK community.

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There’s a particular dissonance in the censorship of dissent taking place at a festival with “punk” in the name—a cultural ideology that should represent anti-authoritarianism at its core. From Donnely’s perspective, “this is a space created by the people; the people made Afropunk, punk and black people, black people from the hood, they made Afropunk.” With that ethos of community fellowship comes an implicit need to hold organizers accountable when that same community perceives that their spaces are being erased or infringed upon—a calling both Donnely and Hart felt a duty to answer in their own ways.

When asked to elaborate a little further on the merits of his T-shirt, Donnely explained it was worn out of concern for a space that once had so much value for many black queer people who listened to varied music: “The issue for me is that Afropunk is a space that invites white people into it and has not issued or addressed any of the people’s sentiments or sensitivities around white folks wearing appropriate wear and also just, being under white people’s gaze all day long. I didn’t pay to be looked at and gawked at by white people. I just didn’t pay for that … I’ve always got the sense that they’re selling something. They’re selling me.”

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In the days since the fracas has gone viral, Morgan has failed to make a public statement save for a series of cryptic Instagram posts stating that “Afropunk Believes In Respectful Discourse,” “Afropunk Respects Creative Expression,” “Afropunk is For Us By Us” and promising that they will “continue to engage in hard conversations.”

Simultaneously, organizers have reached out to Donnely and Hart to appear on the Afropunk podcast—an offer which was declined. Instead, Donnely and Hart prefer a public apology, not wanting to be involved in any public relations spin for the festival.

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With regards to what AfroPunk as a festival should do moving forward to be more considerate of the homegrown community it serves as they continue to expand globally, Donnely lays out a few options as to how they can create conditions for increased transparency of their operations as well as continued inclusiveness:

“You can’t be in Brooklyn in a space with such a strong political history inside of blackness, have an Afropunk Solution Session but you’re not inviting black trans women. You know what I mean? You don’t have organizations underground. You have [Women’s March board member] Linda Sarsour but not Black Women’s Blueprint in Flatbush; they’re right in Flatbush. They’re also a national organization.

“You can’t have just the complete and total allegiance to celebrity. You have to reach into and source from Brooklyn and source from the ‘counterculture’ from the subcultures of the black community from which this festival sprang. You have to also rely on them for your programming,” Donnely said.

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It stands to remain whether Matthew Morgan or co-organizer Jocelyn Cooper will directly address the recent issues surrounding Afropunk, including the increased attendance from nonblack patrons.

However, for the communities who have called Commodore Barry Park home for 10 plus years, they will need to reconcile what definition of punk ultimately works for them and whether that aligns with continuing the consumption of Afropunk as a brand.

Updated: Sept. 5, 2018 3:45 p.m.: In a lengthy Facebook post, Lou Constant-Desportes announced that he has resigned his post as editor-in-chief of the online publication for Afropunk, in part, he says “because the philosophy and actions of some of the people who run the company are so at odds with the values that they claim to stand for, that it’s puzzling to watch them and their corporate entourage continue to practice their performative ‘activism’ dipped in consumerism and ‘woke’ keywords used for marketing purposes.

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“This has been on my mind for a very long time, for a while I tried to convince myself that I could continue and do it for the community, maintain my integrity in this unhealthy environment, keep giving ‘second chances’ to people who don’t even seem to understand how problematic their actions are, or be selfish and try to at least reap some of the benefits generated by my hard work. But staying silent is not doing anyone justice, not to mention that it keeps me and others in harm’s way. We deserve better.” Read the full post here

We’ve reached out to the organizers of Afropunk and will update if they respond.