Former Afropunk Employees Reveal the Messy Underbelly of the Organization
First their Editor-in-Chief resigns. Now everyone's got something to say.
Photo via Getty Images
Update 10/18/18 4:48 pm: On Wednesday, former associates, staff members, community activists, and vendors published their own stories on a site called The Rad Voice of mistreatment by Afropunk's leadership a month after former editor-in-chief of Afropunk.com, Lou-Constant Desportes, resigned validating many of the concerns he raised in his public indictment of the organization.
Refusing to pay people for their services and failing to follow through on promises were a running theme. In the post, photographer Mambu Bayo alleges that Afropunk co-owner Matthew Morgan physically removed his camera's memory card out of his pocket as festival security held him down. Bayo, who was shooting photos for personal use at the time, had to retrieve the deleted memory card from a police station. James Spooner, the creator of “Afro-Punk” (2003), the original documentary on Afro-punk culture that inspired the festival, writes that there are multiple people who invested in the festival's early days who were never paid back thousands of dollars. Along those lines, Eric Todd, president of BML Blackbird production company which handled live video and other technical aspects of the festival, has threatened to sue Morgan multiple times for failing to pay more than $20,000 he's contractually obligated to pay.
Other stories of mistreatment highlighted a lack of allegiance to the communities the festival theoretically would support. An anonymous community organization says that they paid Afropunk to co-sponsor a block party intended to highlight black artists and businesses. However, after the festival had to pull out of the block party, the anonymous source alleges that Afropunk refused to give back the money, and didn't follow through on an alternative offer to give the organization a visible booth at the festival. On the branding side, a former design intern "Kendall S" alleges that Morgan once told her to put more white people on the festival's promotional materials because “American Blacks don’t have any money, therefore it was a waste of time to market to them.” Our original story from September 13, 2018 follows below.
Last week Louis Constant-Desportes, the founding editor-in-chief of Afropunk.com, resigned from the arts and culture organization and posted a scathing Facebook status claiming the company’s values have changed and the internal dynamics have become hostile to his vision.
The Afropunk festival, which started in 2005 as a gathering of punk fans of color, has since expanded to include alternative black musicians from other genres while attempting to maintain a radical, socially-conscious brand. But according to Constant-Desportes’ post, the brand isn’t living up to that standard. He writes, “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.”
He claims the organization’s owners curbed editorial content they viewed as too radical, and accuses some employees and/or owners of practicing “performative ‘activism’ dipped in consumerism and ‘woke’ keywords used for marketing purposes.”
The post touches on a number of debates that have swirled around the ever-expanding brand for more than a decade yet haven’t been addressed so bluntly by a higher-up. Afropunk did not formally respond to Constant-Desportes’ allegations. Email requests for comment to co-owner Matthew Morgan went unreturned. But multiple employees of Afropunk who spoke with VICE disagreed with some of the former editor-in-chief’s claims and largely defended the direction of the organization, making it seem unlikely that those who want to see changes in the organization will get their way.
Nathan Leigh, who has blogged for the website for nine years tells VICE, “It read to me like a family member being hurt and reacting out of hurt. It’s a small small staff. Everybody works pretty tightly together.”
Leigh says he hasn’t personally experienced any censorship of his articles, and neither did Constant-Desportes’s editorial assistant Erin Elyse.
“I don’t think that Lou is wrong,” Elyse said. “But I haven’t had all of those experiences and I haven’t been privy to some of the things he was talking about as far as overlap between the editorial process and marketing and capitalism.”
But a former editorial team member who requested anonymity shared two instances where stories were pulled because of an apparent business relationship. The first was when owners ordered the editorial team to take down a viral article about Coachella owner Philip Anschutz’s seemingly homophobic personal positions. Staffers were told they “didn’t have all the facts” and were asked not to report on the matter in the future. Another article, about boycotting companies that support Trump, was removed from social media by the owners and edited to remove a part pertaining to a beer company that was a potential sponsor.
In response to the claim some employees adhere to a faux radicalism, Elyse agrees that some staff members are less radical than others but has found that political differences tend to be a positive open discussion in her experience. “Being in black spaces doesn’t remove certain types of oppression like patriarchy or classism because we still are existing in the broader society,” she says.
Still, Constant-Desportes’ statement and some of the interactions with his post suggest other former employees have also struggled with disillusionment, and it sheds light on broader, long-standing criticisms festival goers have had about the organization’s direction.
Ebony Donnelly, a festival attendee that had a viral altercation with co-owner Matthew Morgan while wearing a shirt that said “Afropunk sold out for white consumption” felt comforted by the announcement.
“We’ve been hearing about Afropunk for a long time and we talk about the issues with Afropunk all the time,” he said. “Lou’s stand helps corroborate not just my story but a whole bunch of people who don’t have the kind of PR or backing behind them that Afropunk has.”
And ownership’s response to critics has highlighted their strained relationship with the community. Morgan allegedly told Donnelly “this is my house” and ordered him and his partner to be escorted out of the area by security. The organization later issued a formal apology after news of the incident went viral. Donnelly and festival organizers still don’t agree on the details of the incident. In the following days the Afropunk instagram account posted a series of images with proclamations seemingly responding to multiple criticisms they face.
Chief among those criticisms is that the festival is selling out alternative musicians and their fans in favor of more mainstream artists with bigger fan bases, which is changing the audience demographics. Afropunk Brooklyn festival host Jorge Wright tells VICE, “If people feel like [Afropunk] is growing in the wrong direction and becoming more mainstream, it’s only because the mainstream artists that [Afropunk] is seeking have the same beliefs as [the organization] and [Afropunk leaders] believe it helps their cause.”
Wight doesn’t think these changes are necessarily a bad thing. “Janelle Monae, for example, is for the ‘other’ black experience 100 percent. But Janelle Monae is corporate. Period,” he says. “If it just so happens that she brought a blonde girl in a flower crown that’s obsessed with her but knows her place, then fine. I say on stage all the time, ‘I’m here for beautiful black people, but white people, y’all cute too.’”
Much of the frustration about the festival’s growth is complicated by the overarching trend of mainstream black artists becoming more alternative (like Tyler the Creator and Pusha T) and alternative black artists becoming more popular in the mainstream (like SZA or Danielle Caesar). And the festival has actively jumpstarted artists’ careers in the mainstream. Monae said during her 2018 set, “If it wasn't for Afropunk I wouldn't have a career today.” Simultaneously, the Trump era has helped usher in a more explicit trend of companies identifying with socially conscious missions even if they’re still only selling, for example, sneakers.
One particularly pointed comment on Constant-Desportes’s post that got to the heart of this criticism said, “Capitalism has turned being woke into a commodity. It’s sickening that our voices and wellbeing are only considered when it pays to fight for social justice.”
Another concern about the perceived mainstreaming of the festival has to do with rising ticket prices. It was free in its early years and phased into charging for tickets by offering the option to earn a ticket by doing community service. Now it costs $60 a day or $110 for both days (double on resale websites) and volunteer opportunities fall short of the demand.
Wright argues that hosting bigger artists and increased ticket prices is simply evolution as opposed to selling out.
“You’re not just paying for the music,” he says. “You’re paying for the experience, for everybody there, for the local vendors and activists that are selling inside the market.”
He adds,“They’re paying for a cultural safe space and experience for black people.”
But Afropunk’s ideals were originally tied to socioeconomic inclusivity, a fact Constant-Desportes implicitly jabbed at when he griped about “elitism under the guise of black excellence” in his post. Donnelly says part of his reason for wearing the controversial shirt had to do with the event’s exclusivity.
“I know that from the time I was aware of Afropunk I felt like something was wrong with it being [next to a housing project] with prohibitive ticket prices and it having a VIP section,” he said. “People are used to being encroached upon. That’s an everyday reality in a super gentrified space. But Afropunk saying ‘We’re a part of the community. We’re super radical.’ They didn’t really buy it. Maybe in the earlier days.”
On the flip side, fostering a more globally connected, progressive black community has been one of the clearest payoffs of Afropunk’s decision to expand their audience beyond Brooklyn’s punk scene. And they also host what they call “solution sessions” in different cities to unpack local social justice issues.
“People want us to come to every city in the world,” Elyse says. “They say, ‘Come to Haiti. Come to Brazil. We’d love to have you.’ But that also costs money, money that people tell us they don’t want to spend on us.”
At its core the question seems to be whether an inclusive, radical black community can be created in a capitalist society, and what it looks like to compromise the competing interests of its members. For now, it doesn’t seem like Afropunk is jumping to change anything about its strategy in response to last week’s events considering they’ve remained mostly silent around Constant-Desportes’ resignation and public allegations. Since the letter also fanned some smoldering grievances, those tensions likely won’t be going away soon.
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