Afropunk’s Alternative Style Brings People Together

Afropunk has grown exponentially since its birth at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2005. Fourteen years on, and it’s expanded way beyond its punk origins—now, the festival showcases a wide spectrum of sounds, which this year range from Jill Scott to Tierra Whack. Roaming around Commodore Barry Park, it’s clear that these days, Afropunk’s inclusive ethos encompasses more than just music—there are small vendors selling homemade wares, fine crystal jewelry, and handcrafted accessories, and organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Black Futures Lab, which essentially aims to politically empower black communities, set up with informational booths on the festival’s Activism Row.

Most conspicuously, Afropunk is now as much a communal celebration of self-expression as it is an arts and music event. Festival-goers come dressed to be seen, decked out in their most boundary-pushing looks, and there’s a mutual appreciation of those bold fashions that makes people watching particularly special here. It’s why many of the best-dressed attendees come carrying a camera, ready to snap a street style portrait for their own archive.

This year, the outfits at the festival certainly merited this sort of spontaneous documentation. From hand-painted leather pants to angelic tributes to African deities, it’s no surprise that the unbridled styles on display at Afropunk start conversations to bring people together.

Nigel Mackenzie and Izzy Benyamin, @ddeaddogs

Mackenzie and Benyamin might have only released their first official song, “Regina,” together under the moniker Deaddogs just a few days ago, but they’re already on the festival circuit—the duo opened for their sister Atlanta punk band Upchuck at the festival this year. Mackenzie, who makes clothes under the name Natural Born Fillers, created each of their performance looks himself, including the nail-studded, graffiti-covered jacket and matching boots that appear on their new single’s album art. “Wherever we go, I try to acquire something to attach to it,” Mackenzie says of the ever-transforming piece of outerwear. “These nails have become a really big part of it. I had this really gaudy rhinestone chain hanging from it—I spray painted parts of it red too—but I really want that to be a more intimate moment.” The jacket and the boots, which are actually Benyamin’s, are a visual representation of the song itself. “I think that beyond words, the jacket just personifies Regina. It’s just the idea of the worst influence you’ve had in your life. You know the time when you weren’t really in the driver’s seat, and your friend Regina was, and she was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this right now’? Those moments really mold you, like what you do when those worst influences are in front of you.”

Leikeli47, @leikeli47

Brooklyn-based musician Leikeli47’s outfit is coordinated down to even the minute details—her lilac Nike sweatshirt perfectly matches her lavender-painted nails accented with a tiny lime green Nike swoosh—but she says it was a complete coincidence. “I didn’t plan it this way; it just happened. I like to describe what I’m giving right now as comfortably dramatic.” Leikeli47 is performing this year among good company. “Rico Nasty is one of my good friends, and I’m super happy for her, and then there’s Junglepussy, and I’m bringing Rapsody onstage, who is one of my favorite artists—I was fortunate enough to be on her new album,” Leikeli47 says. “It’s super dope that I have these artists to look up to. Yeah, they’re girls, but we don’t care about that; we don’t have to state the obvious. These are true definitive artists, and to see where they were and to see where they are now, as a new artist, it’s motivating,” she says. “It’s so dope that Rapsody, Rico, [and] Cardi take you by the hand and let you come on up.”

ShaTerrica Hyder, @shaterrica.h

Hyder, a model-cum-writer and recent Harlem transplant via her hometown of Austin, Texas, says that her all-thrifted embroidered-vest-and-cowboy-hat ensemble was inspired by fellow Texan, Megan Thee Stallion. “As you know, it’s hot girl summer, and I’m here for it. I’m trying to hold on to it for the rest of the year as much as I can. It basically just means feeling your best self always and not really caring what anybody thinks about it,” Hyder says. Her cowboy topper is more than just homage to the Lone Star State. “I wore it to my mother’s wedding in Texas. It was cowboy-themed, so everyone had to wear a cowboy hat and boots in the wedding. That was back in June, but I brought the hat back to New York with me. I just got my braids done, so I wanted to keep my scalp protected today.”

Jorge Gitoo Wright, @gitoo_thoo

“I’m wearing Telfar, let’s just say that,” says Gitoo, who is a bonafide Afropunk pro by now, of the T-shirt underneath his beige Helmut Lang denim suit. The model and producer has hosted Afropunks past, and he’s yet again hosting this year (he’s even emceeing on one of the stages on Sunday). “I love Telfar. He’s black; I’m black. He’s my sis. Anytime I see someone around in Telfar, I just feel extra important, like damn, you’re really doing it. We’re out here and popping,” he says. “Someone told me that the Telfar bag was the black Birkin bag, so it’s kind of that moment—like I’m giving black elite.”

Chika Oranika, @oranicuhh

“I wanted to play my first Afropunk dressed like my dad,” says rising rap star Chika on the story behind her inaugural Afropunk outfit. Styled by Kelsey Lu and Solange’s go-to stylist Becky Akinyode, Chika wore a traditional, boldly printed Nigerian menswear set that really did manifest her intentions. “I dress like a tomboy anyway, so I thought Afropunk would be the perfect opportunity to incorporate my heritage into my everyday style,” she says.

Akua Shabaka, @shabakaaa

Shabaka, always one of Afropunk’s most stylish attendees, took her outfit in a more explicitly divine direction this year. “I was really thinking about the sainthood of black women, and that was my inspiration for the look—thinking about how Catholic saints are also African deities,” she says. Shabaka pulled the Madonna that she affixed to a gauzy white vintage dress from a young girl’s baptism dress. “It’s Madonna, but she’s also known as Yemoja in the Yoruba tradition. She’s the all mother, and the mother of water and femininity and nurturing.” Shabaka, who is one half of New York–based label House of Aama with her mother, says that she’s been trying to get back to her roots when it comes to her designs; this piece in particular was sort of a test run. “When I first started House of Aama, I was modifying garments and upcycling vintage clothes. I feel like that’s a statement that I’m thinking about in my life now: taking something that’s old and creating something new out of it.”

Aasadd Syriek Lawrence, @ssyriek

“I actually didn’t want to wear this outfit,” New Jersey–born and –based model-cum-photographer Lawrence says. “Everything was just last minute. My friend is volunteering, and she gave me her ticket, and I didn’t realize it was this week, so I was like jeez, I need to find an outfit.” His original plan was to wear some flared leather pants, a tank top, and a cowboy hat, but he couldn’t pull it together in time. Judging from his sleek backup plan, though, it seems he’s being overly modest: Lawrence styled a pair of flared Telfar pants with a classic ribbed tank, a Louis Vuitton bucket hat, and a carnelian crystal, which supposedly restores one’s motivation and engenders creativity. “This is a calm, basic outfit for me—I’ve really been into ’70s style and the whole disco scene recently, so lots of embellished jackets.”

Marcus Branch, @marcus.branch

West Philadelphia–based photographer and model Branch’s custom-printed tank top might look like a cool graphic tee from an underground label, but it’s actually a showcase of his own work. “It’s printed with all my photography. I made it myself. It’s going to be a merch line that I introduce with my works,” Branch says. He’s paired it with a pair of vintage pants wrapped in bondage leg straps for some added edge, as he puts it, and a vintage hat that’s one of his signatures: “It’s my baby.” Branch is shooting the festival for Afropunk, but beyond attending for work, he’s also curious to see how the event has transformed since he first started coming a few years ago. “I wanted to see where it is today, especially with the climate that we’re currently in. Whether you want to focus on the tragedies of our era or the beauty of our era, I think it’s wonderful to see the response in this space.”

Essence Taylor, @_essencetaylor

Chicago-born, Bushwick-based model Taylor created her very first Afropunk look with the help of her friends. “The top is designed by my friend—it’s a brand called Lmntte, and I just got the bottoms at Uniqlo. They’re a youth fit,” she says. Taylor let her friend style her too, and together they finished off the outfit with a (relatively) small Jacquemus bag and a Fossil x Opening Ceremony watch. “Afropunk is the perfect environment for free spirits,” Taylor says. “Everyone looks so beautiful expressing themselves in different ways.”

KT Thompson, @sanguineatl

New Jersey–born, Atlanta-based Thompson’s punk band, Upchuck, only formed about a year ago after her bassist friend told her to come sing with this new group he was trying to put together. “We performed our first track the night that we linked up, and we were listening to it, and we were like damn, this is something good; we need to get serious about it.” It’s clearly paid off—after a short tour with their friends Deaddogs, Thompson and the rest of Upchuck played a raucous set at Afropunk this year. Thompson describes her style and Upchuck’s music in the same way: “Tough shit, all day everyday.” That die-hard attitude has taken its toll on her clothes this weekend, which are all borrowed from the homespun closet of Deaddogs’ Nigel Mackenzie. “This is Gaultier, and I just ripped it onstage by accident—I grabbed it while performing, and I didn’t expect it to actually tear, but it did.” Most people might be mad if someone ripped their prized mesh Gaultier shirt, but Mackenzie actually beat her to it. “It’s actually already torn up.”

Ali Stewart, @alithecreator

Stewart comes to Afropunk each year—this year marks his sixth time attending the festival. This time, he’s dressed in a two-faced suit from Overlook, his very own streetwear brand. “I call it the versatile suit,” Stewart says. “My girl likes it when I dress GQ, and then there’s the other side, so I was like, why not put them both together? You know, the best of both worlds.”

Adaobi Ugoagu, @disorderlyfashion

Ugoagu, who came all the way from her native Los Angeles to attend her very first Afropunk this year, wanted to go all-out when it came to her Lil Nas X–inspired outfit. “This is just me paying homage to yeehaw culture, or I call it the yeehaw renaissance,” says Ugoagu, who works at an advertising agency in L.A. “I think there’s been a lot of erasure with cowboy culture in regards to black people, and I think he’s reclaimed that identity and iconography.” Ugoagu’s everyday style tends to be a bit more ’90s nostalgia–themed—Afropunk provided the perfect opportunity for her to push those limits . “Afropunk really melds the different types of identities of the African diaspora,” she says. “There’s only one sort of understanding of what black people are as a collective that has been portrayed in the media, and Afropunk kind of removes those things—you can be punk; you can be a cowboy; you can be whatever you want.”

Terrell Finner, @finna.terrell

Houston-born Finner let his boyfriend help him choose his Rihanna-inspired Afropunk outfit, a baby pink slip dress that he picked up at Victoria’s Secret (he went to the store three different times, unsure of which size he wanted). “It’s Afropunk, so I just wanted to do something that was a bit more androgynous. Plus, my boyfriend said it would look good on me,” Finner says. “Ironically, he told me, ‘If you wear this, you’ll end up in Vogue.’ He said those exact words.”

Chris Williams, @bigg.poppa_

Brooklyn-based Williams is an actor by trade—he most recently played a role in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It Netflix adaptation. By necessity, he also knows what it takes to make a scene-stealing wardrobe. “I’m a 6’7” giant in a chair, so it’s hard to get clothes,” explains Williams, who gets everything he wears custom-made, including the vibrant Ghanaian print he sported to Afropunk. “This particular print is called sacred turtle. There’s green for the color of luck, and there’s a little navy blue in there, which is calming and mysterious.” He paired the suit with a pyrite crystal, which he says, “activates your inner shine,” a good metaphor for his overall approach to getting dressed. “I like to be able to stand out,” he says. “Have you ever seen a black-and-white film, and there’s a guy in color somewhere in the middle? I like being that person.”

Isaiah Benjamin, @ohdweeb

Seventeen-year-old, Brooklyn-based Benjamin says that he came to Afropunk for the second year in a row to check out the gloriously over-the-top street style, although he doesn’t subscribe to those fashion dramatics himself. “This is what I skate in. I live in this,” he says of the trompe l’oeil Death Wish T-shirt he has on with some good old blue jeans and vans. “I was wearing this shirt on the train, and when you look at the second [pixelated] design on this shirt in a glass reflection, it looks like a photograph—you don’t see the dots,” Benjamin says. He’s entering his senior year of architecture school in Manhattan—he hopes to go to SVA to study interior design or film studies—but right now he’s been focusing on skating and experimenting with his hair. “I wanted to dye my whole head, but my mom wouldn’t let me, so I said I was going to dye half of it to show her how it would look. My girlfriend did red spray-on dye on half my head, and my mom said that looked good, so I bleached half of it. I was going to put red in, but she said wouldn’t let me,” Benjamin says. “I’m eventually going to do mint green and blue and just random colors.”

J.I.D, @jidsv

As Atlanta-based rapper J.I.D is about to take the stage at Afropunk, he conceals a massive pendant with multi-colored diamonds underneath a charmingly askew scarf. “It’s a fake,” he jokes, before explaining that he custom-made the bling himself in the style of one of the main characters of ’90s cartoon Ed, Edd n Eddy. “I have on some Rick Owens pants, and my shoes are Margiela, a vintage T-shirt, and a Louis Vuitton scarf,” he says. “It’s nothing too crazy. It’s a simple fit.”

Lexxy Robinson, @lexxy._

It might be Robinson’s third time at Afropunk, but the Bronx-born, New Jersey–based R&B singer insists she’s just figuring out how to do the festival right. “I feel like I’m finally ready this year,” she says. This self-assured attitude certainly shines through in her fashion choices: Robinson layered a sheer organza gown by Los Angeles–based designer KkCo over a tie-dye bodysuit from the very same brand and a pair of pants that her friend, who runs a Charlotte-based brand Keeping Distance, made from burlap potato sacks. It’s a tad more dramatic than her everyday look, but dreamy enough to fit in with her self-described celestial vibe. “I call myself an angel babe, which derives from me being angelic and being able to be free-spirited and spread positivity. That’s my message.”

Directed by: Andy Madeleine
Visual Editor: Ruben Ramos
AC: Carey Hu
Set Design: Jesse Kaufmann
Production: Tristan Rodriguez
Editors: Laurel Murr, Matt Rosenbaum
Special Thanks: Afrodesiac Worldwide