Monday, July 6, 2009

Monday Night at BAM's Afro-Punk Skate Park: The Fifth Annual Afro-Punk Festival's Finale with Janelle Monae, Saul Williams and more

We've just come back from the spectacular finale of three wonderful days of the Afro-Punk Festival's annual stay at the BAM parking lot, aka Afro-Punk Skate Park. We had the high privilege of watching two dynamic, engergetic performances by faves Saul Williams and the goddess Janelle Monáe. There was an incredible spirit in the last few hours of the Afro-Punk Festival that's left us feeling exhilarated and energized even while our 58yo body not used to standing for so long is wiped out.

We came in sometinme after 6 p.m. via the Flatbush Avenue side and got a peek backstage, where the performers, staffers and VIPs were.

The Afro-Punk Festival is beloved by the weather gods, especially in this rainy summer. This was another day with a nearly cloudless sky, and not too hot.

We made our way to a spot where we could at least see a little of what was going on. This was the most crowded day. DJs were playing The Fugees and "One Love" when we arrived.

In the crowd, we spotted a man conversing with a human boombox.

The festival's chief sponsor, Mountain Dew, kept everyone hydrated and caffeinated.

Although the majority of the crowds at the Afro-Punk Festival were, clearly, properly, members of the African diaspora, during our three days in attendance we saw people of every conceivable race and hairstyle. We spotted hijabs, yarmulkes, dastaars and a patka along with do-rags, baseball caps, fedoras, several berets, a straw boater, a snood, and other head coverings. But then we spent a lot of time looking at the backs of folks' heads.

The fashion sense on display was incredible (said the alter kocker in the $13.99 Medgar Evers College T-shirt),

Also, the work of our fellow members of the legal profession was in evidence:

"How did you hear about Janelle?" the woman next to us asked. She said someone had sent her an email, that she'd never heard of Afro-punk before. Later, after her set, a young white guy with good gaydar asked us if Janelle had already gone on. He was sad to learn he'd missed her, but he stayed for Saul Williams. So clearly tonight was getting a crossover audience.

As we waited through what seemed like interminable sound checks, a skinny guy in a do-rag saying "one, two, one two, hey hey..." into the mike, you could feel the anticipation.

Finally "the most phenomenal performer of all time" was introduced, and the crowd roared as Janelle made a very slow and very dramatic (what else?) appearance onstage.

Since we were standing behind the tallest people in the audience, we got good glimpses of Janelle, but mostly through the spaces between other people's heads. We were pretty much hemmed in, but we saw her through most of her wonderful set, although sometimes we lost sight. At a couple of points, she moved so energetically that her signature hairstyle became undone. Magically, it reappeared as perfect, one time after she went offstage as the guitarist riffed maniacally. So we couldn't always see Janelle. But that counted was that we could always hear her! As of Monday morning, we could actually get a view of her crowd-surfing here, but it didn't beat being there!

Any pics we have of Janelle or Saul Williams are so bad and distant and small that they're likely to inadvertantly demean what were two amazingly intimate and dynamic performances, so we'll just post stock photos or steal from the people who were using actual digital cameras with zoom lenses. There's probably better print coverage on other blogs, but maybe not by anyone older!

We're ancient enough to have grown up with pre-rock "standards," and we heard "Smile" throughout our childhood in the '50s and '60s, but nobody but nobody does a version like Janelle Monáe. It brings tears to our eyes and goosebumps to our wrinkled skin. The audience at the Afro-Punk Festival, as it did last year, was absolutely transfixed by this song. She got up really high so everyone could see her.

At the end of "Smile," Janelle said, "Thanks, God.!"

Someone shouted out, "That's the best!"

But there was a lot more. We first saw Janelle at last year's Afro-Punk Festival and were blown away.

Her staging, her moves, all are impeccable. But it's not just her vogueing, mugging and vamping, because she has a voice of tremendous power, sweet and commanding. And, yes, the dry-ice-created smoke helps the air of drama, as does the way Janelle can move her fingers, but it's all done sincerely, and that's what the audience relates to. Speaking of "sincerely," here's "Sincerely Jane":

During that song, a couple of people yelled out, "Get out of the way!" - meaning the videographer who was getting in front of Janelle. You can't blame them. At some points we mostly had to watch her by looking up at the screens of other people's cameras, held high above their heads.

She was still amazing. We'd love to see her in a Broadway show, if there's one that can contain her.

These two somehow climbed the fence or whatever and were dancing to Janelle's songs from Flatbush Avenue.

After Janelle got off to terrific applause, we got treated to the high-flying spectacular tricks of Brooklyn-based Jimmy Mac's Bulldog Bikes riders. We got a nosebleed just watching. Also that sick sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach.

The skill and practice to do that kind of stuff, not to mention the leg and upper-body muscles, are really impressive. Some of the younger, littler kids were pretty cool, but the older veteran riders made some astonishing moves. They were just killing it.

That's our lame-ass cell phone effort. Now check out the pics from a really good still photographer in a whole different universe from we pathetic amateurs, New Joisey's pcimprezzive, on YouTube:

The crowd got fired up too: "When I say 'Afro,' you say 'punk'!"
"Get your Brooklyn on! . . . Get your Obama on!"
"This is a movement. . . Peace and love!"

We were getting a little claustrophobic and afraid if we didn't move our feet, we'd be planted in the BAM parking lot for eternity, so we gingerly made our way through a crowd of - we don't know, thousands? - for a little more space in the area between the skate park and the bike track.

That gave us a pretty unobstructed, if distant, view of Saul Williams' vigorous, fast-paced yet thoughtful performance. He's an incredible showman. And like Janelle, whom he gave his love to, at one point, he dove into the crowd, mosh-pit style.

Saul came on in a Revolutionary War-style red military jacket with a long proclamation of names, including: Hughes, Baldwin, Ginsberg, Coltrane, Siddharta, Medusa, Robinson, Shakespeare, Rachmaninoff, Dickinson, Tesla, Fellini, Nostradamus, four little girls, Hiroshima, Marley, Shakur and more... ending with Michael Jackson.

Saul Williams' "Black Stacey" always takes our breath away. The crowd tonight went wild. It's both a powerful statement and first-rate entertainment.

During Saul Williams' performance, as night fell, some nimble kids climbed onto the skateboarding platform to get a better view.

We found his cover of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" amazing from our distant perch, but you can see it here close up:

" . . . Now is the essence of my domain/ but it contains all that was and will be/ and i am as i was and will be/ because i am and always will be/ that nigga/ i am that nigga . . . "
"the future is you . . . "

Saul said it was good to be back in Brooklyn, "so many familiar faces, hello" and he introduced his son and gave a shout-out to his beautiful 80yo aunt on Euclid Avenue.

He thanked his band, whom we think were Davin Givahn, Kwame Brandt Pierce, Tchak Diallo. . . Our ears are 58 yo and we've been going to hear live music for over 40 years.

There was a call and response: Be somebody! Be somebody!

The energy in the crowd just grew stronger and stronger as Saul sang, did spoken-word, riffed. Before his finale, a really good rapper came on, someone we should know, whose name shamefully we couldn't catch. We were sort of blissing out anyway, even as festival-goers trying to get an early start filed out past us.

Blessings to everyone who made the fifth annual Afro-Punk Festival such a joy and such a community.

Hey, wife of Lot, don't look back. Tomorrow it turns back into a parking lot.

As Saul Williams said tonight, "Even death is a part of life . . even death is a part of life . . thank you, Michael."

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