Rain didn’t stop the second Johannesburg iteration of Afropunk from ushering in 2019 with a lineup that potently made visible the connections between African artists and the diaspora.
It was Kaytranada—fresh from surfacing on Shawn Mendes’ Remix EP— who held down the stage when midnight struck. The Haiti-born and Montreal-based producer, whose own NOTHIN LIKE U / CHANCES mini EP was a surprise release late November, delivered a set that had the 20,000-strong crowd heaving in the mud beneath the cascading rain.
The Internet’s fearless experimental explorations followed—and proved an apt musical match for the festival’s theme, “The People Resist.” The LA band’s kinetic performance—preceded by a tweet that promised a “….hive mind world tour and solo albums” for 2019—was capped by the appearance of Kaytranada, Lianne La Havas and Thundercat on stage as the festival came to an end. Thundercat’s signature immersive jazz-fusion set had found a rapturous response earlier in the evening as the bassist and vocalist worked through a playlist of his critically acclaimed songs including “Captain Stupido,” “Jethro” and “Them Changes.”
If The Internet’s performance was the international spiritual repository for Afropunk’s defiantly anti-stereotypical expression of black culture, Thandiswa provided the African counterpart. Now two decades into a career that began with pioneering kwaito outfit Bongo Maffin, King Tha, as the South African artist is also known, carried a spiky, politically charged energy onto the Afropunk stage that never forsook her award-winning ability to combine traditional musical forms with futuristic ones.
This devotion to interweaving South Africa’s deep and unique musical roots with the contemporary moment was visible in Muzi’s DJ set. A collaborator of Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Stormzy, the KwaZulu Natal artist showcased his electronic-flavored African music with a thrilling set that built around several South African classics, including Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens’s “Gazette,” Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse’s “Burnout” and Margaret Singana’s “We Are Growing.” The enduring power of Maskandi was also evident on the night with an euphorically received appearance by Phuzekhemisi, an elder of this guitar-driven folk music form. Nonetheless, it was the expansive and unfettered musical journeys of South Africa’s newcomers that dominated the lineup, among them a performance by Dope Saint Jude. The queer artist’s multi-dimensional commentary on current gender and identity politics—heard on her 2018 EP Resilient— was perfectly pitched for the Afropunk audience.
Afropunk’s opening day had featured Flying Lotus introducing African audiences to his universe, with the help of the cinematic 3D visuals that have become a feature of his live performances. Other highlights included Soweto-based BCUC, one of 2018’s breakout international acts, SXSW 2018 attendee Moonchild Sanelly, and Faka, a duo whose music recently soundtracked the Versace menswear SS19 show. Kwesta, whose collaboration with Wale, “Spirit,” was one of 2017’s biggest tracks, turned in another performance that cemented his standing as the country’s leading rap innovator.
The two-day festival’s socially conscious roots were manifest in its location in the heart of Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, a former prison complex that’s intimately tied to South Africa’s journey from Apartheid to democracy. It’s also the location of the country’s Constitutional Court which acts to protect a constitution whose progressive principles (including protection of LGBT rights) echo Afropunk’s stated adherence to the values of no sexism, no racism and more. This year will see Afropunk stage festivals in Brooklyn, Atlanta, London, Paris and Johannesburg.