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  • Writer's pictureAva Emilione and Leslie Vargas

Afropunk's Black HERSTORY: An Immersive Experience


I hear Afropunk’s Black HERSTORY before I see it. The sound of drum beats, laughter, and footsteps rises above the early-evening din of Lincoln Center. The sound reveals a landscape of pink lights, black business owners selling hand-crafted jewelry and bouquets, and attendees dressed to the nines and smelling divine. From February 24-25th, Afropunk’s two-day partnership with Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts exists as a city within a city, a black mecca swelling within glass window panes.


A large sign near the center of the room reads “NO SEXISM NO RACISM NO ABLEISM NO AGEISM NO HOMOPHOBIA NO FATPHOBIA NO TRANSPHOBIA NO HATEFULNESS.” These are not just buzzwords for Afropunk’s organizers — they seem to be non-negotiables within which an inclusive garden of black beauty, creativity, and entrepreneurship can blossom. Amidst the hum of the crowd waiting for the 6 PM show and the impossibly long line to the bar, the intimacy and community of Afropunk’s OpenFair fills the space. Afropunk-ers with impossible style smile at me from across the room. Attendees of all ages dance softly to afrobeat tunes, nurse their drinks, and chat in hard-earned quiet corners. Waiting in the bathroom line, I ask myself when was the last time I had seen so many black people in one room. I feel no pressure to explain or justify my presence here, which is a giddy relief as a black woman who grew up in predominantly white towns and attended PWIs in my formative years. I am free to roam and take it all in. When our tickets are scanned to enter the theatre, I am giddy, looking forward to the next chapter of the HERSTORY experience.

A large sign near the center of the room reads "NO SEXISM NO RACISM NO ABELISM NO AGEISM NO HOMOPHOBIA NO FATPHOBIA NO TRANSPHOBIA NO HATEFULNESS."

The theme of Black HERSTORY tonight is agony, embodied through what Afropunk’s website describes as “an immersive multidisciplinary experience that includes music, visual art, poetry, dance, performance art, and much more.” However, from the moment the night’s host — poet, organizer, and NAACP Image Award recipient, Mahogany L. Browne — comes onto the colorful stage, it is clear that the nuance of a black woman’s agony would not go unexplored tonight. Browne opens the event by asking everyone to turn to the person next to them and say “Hey, neighbor.” In the midst of my inner turmoil, Browne reminds me that I am still a body breathing next to other bodies, far more similar to my neighbor than I realize. At HERSTORY, I realized my agony was not a weapon for self-isolation. It was a shared tool with which to build community and, in Browne’s words, experience rebirth. This element of rebirth, of hoping for rain in dry seasons, stood out throughout the entire night, even during the more mournful musical and spoken word performances. The duality of the black femme’s experience — communion and alienation, hope and despair, agony and ecstasy — feels expansive, too big for my body or my seat or even Alice Tully Hall, the theatre in which the event was held.


Browne closes her opening speech with a quote written by Toni Morrison in a 1987 New York Times Article, “My world did not shrink because I was a Black female writer. It just got bigger.” From the balcony seat, I study the rows of concertgoers who look like me and watch as the guitarist runs her fingers over the strings. Aja Monet, an award-winning poet and activist, is introduced. She steps onto the stage. She is a powerful, rhythmic poet, every line landing firmly in the ground to sprout stanzas. “Fear not death,” she reads from her poem about the African diaspora, titled “Castaway.” Over a slow jazz, illuminated by pink light, she finishes, “We visit kinfolk there.” I imagine my world growing round, a pregnant belly expanding with a strange new life.


The stage is bare. In the center stands a simple wooden table. Four Black women stand frozen in a mundane moment. A moment we all recognize too well. Where our pain is normalized. Pain that happens in unexpected places: The bank. The hospital. The kitchen table. The dancers glide across the room with the soulful grace of our ancestors. The room suddenly turns red and their faces morph into a rage that isn’t allowed. A rage we have to save and store for private moments with our sisters. The rage dissipates, fully embodied and given the freedom to just be that. Rage. The dancers slowly move into their joy, their black girl joy. Beyoncé’s “Break my Soul” propels them out of their intense battle and gives them the peace to make space for joy. They smile and celebrate and the crowd screams for the dancers as much as themselves, all while around the kitchen table; A place where black women scream, laugh, cry, and love their families. Their rage and their joy coalesce until one word paints itself in my mind. Sisterhood.


Behind her, a projection reads “Celisse loves you” as Celisse, a spoken word artist, singer, and songwriter that has performed beside Lizzo and Kesha, strums her white electric guitar. Her performance makes me think about the history of Rock and Roll, and how black people created the genre, only to be rebranded to fit white culture. Eventually, black people moved on and created new things to love. Rock and roll belongs to black women, it is our cultural inheritance. Artists like Celisse stand out because they are reclaiming something taken. Today we see artists like Steve Lacy and Willow bringing back this alt-rock category of music. When Black artists today take this on it has a distinctive sound. We make everything our own. Celisse’s voice shoots up to the sky during her set. Her power and individuality really set her apart. She says “I don’t want to sing about joy today,” which truly resonates with the audience. We often get told to “move on'' from our past and “be positive” but making room for our pain is the first step to liberation. I will always be left with the impression that Celisse loves me. I know I love her too.


Next up comes Danielle Ponder, the visionary who decided to start her music career at forty years old. Her voice moves her across the room. She loses herself as she performs, the band lifting her up so high only the roar of the crowd reminds me she was still here on earth. I am with her. I want to be her. Danielle Ponder, the poet. A quiet laughter breaks out from the crowd as she suggests everyone should microdose. It would “change your life,” she adds. Her voice is melodic; she bends the words to her will. She becomes the music. The moment.


Afropunk's Black HERSTORY event was held in Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, named after Alice Tully, a New York performer and philanthropist.

I am proud to see an interpreter signing to the left of the stage. In fact, Afropunk’s organizers hired two interpreters who switched places during the 15-minute intermission. If you are Pro-Black, you must consider the little deaf black girls and boys who deserve to participate. I am happy my community is being as inclusive as possible. A lot of events do not have interpreters. A black woman got to sign to UMI — that moment matters. The well-deserved stardom of the deaf performer at the Superbowl halftime show reminded me that we all need to show up for the black deaf community.


The last performer of the night is UMI, a Washington-born singer-songwriter with ethereal vocals and over 3 million monthly Spotify listeners. Dressed in white from head to toe, light on bare feet, UMI shines on stage as if born from another world. Illuminated by candles on the edge of the stage, she transforms the concert hall into an altar. Before she begins her set, she invites the audience to meditate and guides us through a few breaths — inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. She sets an intention for the show that we all become more connected with our souls. She sits on her heels between songs as her voice plays in the background. The recording is a spoken-word piece about a being who was recently dropped on Earth, experiencing awe, grief, and fear, all through the lens of natural phenomena such as birdsong, jellyfish, and clouds.


“It rained,” UMI’s voice reads as she extends her arms in an amber spotlight. “Drops so familiar poured down from the sky. Is the sky crying? Oh, how familiar it all seemed,” she says. “I felt drops of cloud tears all over my magenta and who I once was softened and became ashes.” UMI’s softness is infectious. During her 45-minute performance, consisting of multiple original songs and a cover of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You”, Alice Tully Hall curls in on itself, becoming smaller and more intimate. I find myself dancing in my seat, closing my eyes, and following directions when UMI urges us to hold out our hands to hold her sound, to capture the light she is sending towards us. The audience claps to the rhythm of UMI’s twirling hips and sings along when she holds the microphone in our direction.


Towards the end of the night, UMI sings “Remember Me,” a breakup song that has gotten me through more fractured interpersonal relationships than I’d care to admit. Seeing her perform the piece live is emotional, makes something move inside of my gut. “Will you remember the way that I was?” she sings, her angelic voice sounding even better live than on my iPhone 10 speakers when I was 16. “Will you remember me? Will you remember the way that you felt when you were next to me?” For me, this performance by UMI is a full circle moment, at once an acknowledgment of the mournful agony of past relationships and a hopeful ballad dedicated to the power of memory. There is agony in being lost and reborn, I think, but UMI’s voice makes the process sound like a sort of heaven, as natural as rain.


Leslie at the Black HERSTORY open fair.

Towards the end of UMI’s set, we spot a middle-aged black couple cuddling towards the end of the aisle. The woman's head rests on the man's shoulder as he drapes his arm around her. Their intimacy is sweet and honest. I wonder if the couple has had a long, stressful week. I wonder how long they’ve been together, doubting they began the night as close together as they ended it. The vulnerability and tenderness of HERSTORY’s multidisciplinary performances unraveled the audience, made us cheer, and sing, and brought us close to tears. That level of shared emotion brings people, lovers and strangers alike, just a bit closer to each other in their seats. I watch the couple bask in each other’s body heat and smile, thinking how wonderful it is that they are creating a memory before my eyes.


Awash in indigo light, UMI thanks the audience and exits the stage left, ending the two-and-a-half-hour event. A sea of brown bodies rise and head toward the exit. In a taxi on the way downtown, I remember what Celisse says before performing an intense ballad: “Being a black woman is moving through a world that at once celebrates and villainizes you.” Afropunk’s HERSTORY embodies the contradiction of the black feminine experience — the agony that arises from centuries of villainization, the celebration that comes in waves through music and dance and language and speech. HERSTORY did not shy away from raw, uncomfortable emotions such as agony and sorrow. The live performances provided a healing space for black people to breathe through these uncomfortable feelings, and to hold our hands out to the eruption of sound, light, and space. Through the healing comes community, and a greater understanding that no matter how personal the experience of black femininity may seem at times, we are not alone. The crowd of people who see us, understand us, and represent our experiences in big and small ways can fill dozens of Alice Tully Halls.


HERSTORY is a testament to the future of black creativity. In a space that resists marginalization and bigotry, black people of all ages are permitted to explore their rage, their agony, and their hurt without judgment, without being told to quiet down. We are encouraged to clap, to sing, to breathe deeply.

After I leave Afropunk, the Lincoln Center miles away in my peripheral, I can still hear it. I can still feel HERSTORY teeming within my ears, at once a lament and a love song.



Edited by: Yumna Elhdari

Special Thanks To: Gina Collins


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2 Comments


Guest
Mar 01, 2023

wait the fomo is real

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Guest
Mar 01, 2023

ate that

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