It's a strange juxtaposition, holding the UK's first Afropunk festival in one of the most middle-class and reserved areas of North London. Alexandra Palace has played host to all sorts, though, and there's no air of snobbery from the families wandering past. A girl with a cascade of blue Senegalese twists joins the throng queueing to enter the Palace, her outfit one of the more subdued among today's attendees. Straw headdresses, faces painted with intricate dots and stripes inspired by sub-Saharan tribal designs and colourful prints meet Bad Brains t-shirts, customised leather jackets and men in dresses – and it all looks as it should be.
Founded in 2005 by James Spooner (who directed the 2003 documentary of the same name exploring the African American experience in the US punk scene), Afropunk sought at first to shine a light on black punk acts. It's since expanded to include hip-hop and soul on its bill. As rap/hardcore duo Ho99o9 later point out when I sit down with them, the spirit of punk isn't so much about the music as it is about freedom of self-expression; at least, it feels like that's a fitting modern definition. The annual Brooklyn event has been called the "most multicultural festival in the US" by the New York Times, and London – a city that's very cultural identity is owed to its diversity – has no trouble recreating this feeling.
From Lady Leshurr's toned-down performance ("I'm just partying with you guys!" she shouts) to Youth Man's ode to Jeremy Corbyn and Cakes Da Killa's explicitly, proudly queer lyrics, something feels natural about Afropunk. The more leftfield the statement, whether it's lyrics, stage clothes, or political asides, the better received it is by the crowd. Even the press area is devoid of the usual pricks; instead of the name-dropping usually going on in festival VIP areas, there's a dance-off.
Grace Jones – who replaced M.I.A. on the bill after she made some controversial comments about Black Lives Matter – is the most punk thing I've seen in a long time. The 68-year-old artist – naked save for a corset and markings all over her body, wearing palm leaves on her head and a horse's tail as she crawls around the stage and gives zero fucks – is the maximum embodiment of sexual, political and racial freedom; a woman who discarded societal norms before it was even fashionable to do so.
Playing right before her is Ho99o9, who are openly inspired by hardcore punk but use no guitars in their live show. It's a conscious choice; they're not a band as much as they're performance artists. Rapper and DJ, TheOGM, saunters on stage in a grotesque rubber mask with a contorted, shrivelled face on the forehead, before tearing it off and putting plastic tentacles on his fingers which he jabs at a iPad, triggering samples of breakneck thrash and fuzzy noise. His co-performer, Eaddy, screams and thrashes across the stage in a perfectly tailored suit. It's unsettling, it's funny, it's ridiculous, and somehow, it works.
The band are yet to release their debut album, but for the past two years they've been slowly building up a rarefied kind of buzz that's seen them play small, sweaty, sold out shows on both sides of the Atlantic. Before their set, I sat down with them to have a chat. First up: the fact they're called Ho9909.
Hey Ho99o9. So, were you big fans of horror growing up?
Eaddy: Yeah, we like slasher films. It comes from being scared of the dark when you're a kid.
TheOGM: Growing up I'd watch films like Friday The 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Candyman, and Chucky.
Eaddy: You're scared to watch it, but it excites you.
TheOGM: There's something very thrilling and intriguing about it. Not that I want to slash anybody. Well, sometimes…but I don't act on it. You've got to have some fun with music and visuals, that shit's important.
TheOGM, you've said in a previous interview you've seen "a lot of dead bodies" – how?
TheOGM: I used to work at a hospital in New Jersey. I was a security guard there for two years. It was the second job I picked up while grinding – just trying to get money. It was the worst. Patients would die, the nurse would do the paperwork, wrap 'em up, and then my job was to go and pick them up. So we'd go up with the stretcher, bring them downstairs to the morgue. We had a freezer down there that could fit up to three bodies. When you work in the daytime there's two officers doing this, but I used to work overnight when you're alone. At 3am, you're alone with this corpse, in an elevator down to a basement.
Did experiences like that inform the darkness of Ho99o9?
TheOGM: I guess I was prone to seeing it at that point. I'd walk in and see an autopsy, some guy with his chest open. Plus, I lived in a community where people are gang-banging and doing fucked-up shit, so you're surrounded by that vibe. It fucked up my brain. Plus, yeah, I love horror and slasher movies on top of that.
You've said in previous interviews that there's no difference these days between rappers and rock stars. What do you mean by that?
TheOGM: There used to be. But nowadays rappers are crowdsurfing, they want mosh pits, but they're not even performing with any type of energy…
Eaddy: They wanna wear a Sex Pistols shirt and they don't even know who the Sex Pistols are…
TheOGM: They've never listened to it, it just looks cool. If you come from the hood, you see that and you're saying to rappers, "Oh, you guys are like rock stars." Rappers wanna be rock stars, and rock stars wanna be rich.
Does the t-shirt thing matter to you, then?
Eaddy: That shit matters to me. I feel some kinda way like if someone's wearing a shirt – I'm like, "Do you know about that band? What's your favourite song?" And they're like, "No, the logo just looks cool." That shit doesn't doesn't fly in my book. Somebody can buy a t-shirt and be very hateful towards gay people, but every member of the band [on the t-shirt] is gay.
What kind of bands have been most influential to you?
Eaddy: I'm gonna say Sum 41, Hanson, Backstreet Boys… what are those motherfuckers that were lip syncing? The two twins? Milli Vanilli. Papa Roach, The Temptations.
TheOGM: And Ice T's Body Count.
TheOGM, how did you get into the hardcore side of things? Did Eaddy introduce you?
TheOGM: Yeah, this fool definitely introduced me to that.
Eaddy: I was going to going to shows in New York, because I just love going to shows and seeing bands. I love moshing, jumping off stage, drinking, doing crazy shit. I'd tell him, "You've gotta check this shit out, it's fucking crazy."
TheOGM: Once we got into that, it was like a whirlwind of shows; every weekend we'd be going to some shit. The first show I went to, that shit was nuts, it changed my life. I was like, I've got to come to this again!
Eaddy: It was different from New Jersey, which was all like rappers, battle rappers, dancers, and DJs. You go and see shit like that, and it's intense.
Was it a conscious decision to reference that world in your music?
Eaddy: No, it just happened like that. I wasn't even rapping at first, I was just doing hooks, then I was like: let me scream on a hook. And shit just evolved into another dimension.
TheOGM: It was just stuff that we liked and listened to, so it came naturally. If we were going to do something, it had to be really aggressive and explosive. My roots is rapping, I come from rap, but once we got into that world of going to hardcore shows, it was a no-brainer. We just wanna make it fun for people when they come to the show. Because we like to go to shows and see that same energy.
How do you feel about Afropunk festival?
TheOGM: It's been around for a little while. The spot that it's in [in Brooklyn] is a kind of bad neighbourhood, so it shines a light on a lot of local bands doing really cool shit that you may not know of. It's a platform for everybody to rock. I think it's cool as a festival. Although sometimes people think Afropunk is a genre or some shit, and I don't really co-sign that.
Eaddy: People look at us like, oh, we're black, so we must fit under the Afropunk label. But punk in itself isn't a colour.
TheOGM: It's music, it's a lifestyle.
Is opening a conversation about race in alternative music important to you?
Eaddy: I mean, I could, but I wouldn't even try and put no energy into that. It's trying to put life in a dead horse. Punk is punk. We know the originators, we know who started it. You can talk about it for days, but it's like, alright dude, I'm just gonna get up here and fucking shred. Just listen to the music. If you was blind, you wouldn't know what colour I was. You'd just be like, that fucking riff ripped!
You guys straddle two worlds – as well as doing events like this, you've also played mainstream rock festivals like Download and Reading & Leeds. Where do you think you sit between the two scenes?
Eaddy: We're sitting right up their ass. Uncomfortably.
You can find Thea de Gallier on Twitter.
(Photos by Will Ireland)