Festival Review: Afropunk at Alexandra Palace

Afropunk have been fighting the corner of alternative black culture since 2003 through their website and live shows in New York, Paris and now for the first time in London. They’ve put on an impressive and eclectic line-up ranging from iconic headliner Grace Jones and established acts such as Young Fathers and The Noisettes to the cream of the punk, grime and hip hop scenes.  The whole shebang is set across three stages in the opulent setting of North London’s Alexandra Palace, with a market and street food area thrown in for good measure.


As we wander through to the ID Stage to catch opening duo The Connectors blast through a set of bluesy garage rock the crowd is somewhat sparse, with most of the gradually growing audience still checking out the festival site, and they’re suffering from a mix that drowns out frontman Andy’s fleet fingered guitar work with overbearingly loud vocals.  Not that it seems to bother him as he struts around the stage like a cross between Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix.


They’re followed on the same stage by Vodun whose tribal get-up of face paint and colourful prints attracts attention from a crowd that in some instances are even more extravagantly dressed than the band.  They’re treated to a set up heavy, fervent psyche rock and to the mesmeric stage presence of Oya, possessed of a soul-searing vocal and an arsenal of percussive implements.


The set-up of the main live room is rather unusual, with two perpendicular stages spread across the vast space, and we’re beckoned across from one to the other by a pair of enthusiastic comperes; on this occasion in the direction of the No Hate Stage, whose vast floor space rather dwarfs North London trio Skinny Girl Diet.   More used to the cosier confines of smaller venues their raw riot girl sound lacks its usual bite for much of the set, though when bassist Amelia Cutler shrieks into the mic there’s not a single hair in the room that doesn’t stand on end.


Back on the ID Stage, South London duo Nova Twins smash dirty rock and roll riffs together with bassy hip hop beats and lyrics, an approach that nine times out of ten makes us cringe, but in their hands it’s punchy and danceable and they’ve got the presence to keep the crowd onside during a lengthy break when a bass amp blows mid-set.

After a quick break for a cup of tea and a tasty bowl of chilli con carne from the street food area, we take a wander out of the main live room to the Soulection Stage, which is housing most of the festivals dance, hip hop and soul acts. In comparison to the relatively subdued crowds we’ve witnessed for the bands so far, the room is an exuberantly undulating mass of immaculately clad limbs – and having had my nervous indie boy shuffle thoroughly shown up by an acrobatic six year old, I make retreat to more comfortable territory back at The ID Stage.


Thankfully by the time that Youth Man take to the stage the crowd is beginning to filter through and is beginning to show signs of life, with a mini-mosh pit forming at the front.  The band have been cutting a swathe through venues around the UK and it’s not hard to see why tonight.  Their lithe, dynamic punk sounds veers from the ferocious snarl of ‘Fat Dead Elvis’ to the broken glass glimmer of ‘Painted Blue’, dedicated on stage to Jeremy Corbyn as the news of his re-election as Labour leader filters through the audience.


Benjamin Booker,over from New Orleans and fresh from playing a Stateside Afropunk event gives a low-key performance of gentle blues rock, winning plenty of friends on the No Hate Stage both with his friendly between song chat and his well crafted songs.


Back across the room at The ID Stage, Big Joanie are perhaps the band that exemplify the spirit of the night most fully.  Formed a couple of years back at a DIY punk night, they’re evangelical in their position as black feminist punks – tomorrow they host a ‘how to form a punk band’ work shop.  Their music is raw, at times ungainly, but always fuelled by a spirit than runs back through Bikini Kill, The Slits and X-Ray Spex, right back to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and that’s always going to be worth paying attention to.


The last time I saw The Noisettes, back in 2007, they were a promising garage rock band playing in a barn as part of the Lounge On The Farm Festival.  They’ve since gone on to proper pop stardom with a string of hits, having undergone a complete change of sound for their second album Wild Young Hearts.  It’s been almost four years since their most recent album but they’ve lost nothing of their sparkle, particularly singer Shingai Shoniwa, who dominates the stage from the moment that we first glimpse the glittering green streamers that flow from her outfit.  Their set perfectly balances the high voltage sound of their early work (from which a surprisingly large chunk of tonight’s set is taken) with the smoother more mainstream feel of their better known work, finding a middle ground that pleases fans of all eras of the band who groove and pogo, all the while transfixed by Shingai’s magnetic charisma.  It’s not long before she’s in the crowd, eventually ending the set atop the shoulders of a security guard amidst a sea of camera phones and cheering fans.


Living in the insular world of obscure DIY rock & roll as I generally do, bands with the profile of Young Fathers rarely cross the Joyzine inbox and other than being vaguely familiar with the name I could have told you little about them beyond the what was on the festival press release.  Judging by the sense of anticipation in what is rapidly becoming the largest crowd of the night so far it seems that I’m pretty much alone in my ignorance and rightly so, for within moments the trio have lit up the No Hate stage with their loosely flowing vocal interchanges and easy-going charm.  They look like they’re having fun on stage and there’s absolutely no doubt that the crowd are off it too.


After their set I make my way to the front of the ID Stage, where a slightly confused couple are watching the stage being set up for the next act. “Is this where Laura Mvula is playing?” they ask.  A brief temptation to answer in the affirmative flirts with my mind before sending them in the direction of the Soulection Arena, where the popular soul chanteuse is preparing to take the stage.  Here though something darker, heavier, more malevolent is imminent.  I’d seen footage online of the mayhem and destruction that has taken place at Ho99o9‘s US shows, and after a day in which the crowds have been surprisingly subdued, we could do with some of that right now.  The cult LA outfit, stripped down to core members theOGM and Eaddy, a live drummer and a backing track for tonight’s show, proceed to tear the palace down brick by brick with a savage collision of devastating hardcore punk and furious hip hop, performed with artery bursting intensity from start to finish.  They put on a hell of a show too – theOGM first appears with a contorted sack mask over his face, a second head protruding from his cranium, later he’ll don a head torch and grossly distended tentacle fingers while spitting his venomous rhymes into the mic.  Eaddy meanwhile conducts a circle pit, placing himself at the eye of a storm that whirls chaotically around him.  They leave us in a sweaty heap; bemused, beaten up and thoroughly satisfied.

Review and Photography by Paul Maps

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