Johannesburg - The critically acclaimed music collective The Brother Moves On ignited the inaugural Afropunk Joburg concert at Constitution Hill on New Year’s eve. Their angry, politically bold set established a tone that was to peak as midnight struck, hailing the success of the South African edition of the hip brand that is black-owned, anti-racist, anti-bullying and pro-respectful discourse, among the many values Afropunk trades in.
But while most local artists told City Press they had a positive experience at Afropunk Joburg, others have revealed they felt abused, exploited and bullied at the event. Afropunk has strongly denied the allegations, saying that the artists did not follow the rules and were abusive in turn.
Manhandled and threatened
The Brother Moves On’s anger, it turns out, was fuelled by a series of run-ins the band had with stage crew at the event, apparently over photographers and the setting up of cameras on stage and, in particular, a white male crew member.
The band said the trouble with the man began ahead of the performance. It then spilt into a physical scuffle with a black woman photographer, who was trying to document the band.
City Press has spoken to eyewitnesses, who have confirmed her account.
Another member of the band’s crew, also a black woman, said: “I’m talking to her and this white man comes, this huge white man, and he starts yelling. The photographer is tiny, a petite little person, and he grabs her camera, which is hanging from her neck, and yanks it, and he threatens us and he says something along the lines of, ‘I will get you thrown out of this festival’.
“So I step in and say: ‘Please don’t touch her like that, what the hell is going on with you?’ and he’s shouting: ‘Don’t give me f*cking cheek. I’ve been telling you people to stop!’
“So there’s a scuffle in which he’s pushing me and he’s trying to get to the camera. Eventually, we all broke apart.”
Afropunk’s public relations officer, Maria McCloy, said the crew member in question was brought to Afropunk through a black South African event producer who had worked with him before.
“As is the case at any festival or concert, the only photographers and cameras allowed on stage are from Afropunk’s content team. This was explained to The Brother Moves On, who were told their camera person could be in the media pit but not on stage. The band was informed many times that they could film from the press pit only. The stage access is reserved.”
The band say they had permission to set up cameras on stage, and the photographer said she respectfully left to shoot from the pit but was denied access and returned to the stage.
McCloy recounted the man’s version of events: “I approached them for a third time with the intention of stopping the filming, stating I would ask security to remove them from the stage if they continued to disregard the instruction. I acted as was necessary to deliver on my mandate.”
He says he was called a racist by band members.
But things did not end there, said witnesses.
When learning what had happened to the women, band leader Siyabonga Mthembu angrily confronted the man after the performance and accused him of being a bully. Mthembu and other witnesses said crew and security then closed in on Mthembu as Afropunk co-founder Matthew Morgan strode on to the stage. Mthembu says Morgan swore at him, accusing him of being trouble.
“Instead of Matthew being a protector at that moment of us, the brown artists in that space, he blamed the artists,” said one witness.
It was then that a woman crew member grabbed Mthembu and led him away, warning him, he said, that “these guys want to kick your ass”.
McCloy offered the man’s version of events in which he says Mthembu swore at him and again called him a racist: “I asked him to leave me alone ... I did not want to provoke him in any way – so I repeatedly asked him to please leave me alone, explaining that I was simply doing my job.”
Other creatives this week also told City Press of problems they had encountered. Graphic designer Sindiso Nyoni, who created the Joburg event’s logo, said that it was used in advertising before he was fully paid for it. He said he had to wait for months on end and eventually said the event organisers could give him tickets instead. Even these did not materialise, though he was eventually paid for his work.
He said he felt sidelined by Afropunk once the organisation had his work.
Morgan said: “I had no idea there were any issues. I have since looked back at our last correspondence, which was very friendly; no mention of any problems. I just read that he did, however, contact me the day of the 30th of December to request tickets, which I did not see until now. We have reached out to Mr Nyoni to apologise directly.”
Some of the young artists entering Afropunk’s Battle of the Bands competition also complained that their images were used on advertising in conjunction with a beer cider product that was sponsoring Afropunk. They were neither remunerated nor informed, and some did not want to be associated with alcohol.
Said McCloy: “Every person photographed was asked to sign a release. Branding at The Battle of the Bands, amplified by Hunter’s Edge, did not feature any SA artists or acts.”
Another artist, DJ Cleo, told City Press this week he felt “insulted” by Afropunk, which had not paid a deposit just days before the event and he withdrew.
Afropunk said: “DJ Cleo wanted to be paid in full in advance and we do not do that for any artist. We felt it unfair to change terms for a single act.”
Afropunk was in the headlines this week when the editor-in-chief of its website, Lou Constant-Desportes, resigned with an angry post on Facebook accusing Afropunk of not living up to its values. Last week it was widely reported that at Afropunk Brooklyn guests were removed from a VIP area by security after Morgan became upset because one of them was wearing a T-shirt that read, "Afropunk sold out for white consumption." Afropunk said: “We are sorry that they feel mistreated” and claimed the couple were escorted back to the VIP area later, which the couple has denied and has accused Afropunk of lying.
Said Mthembu: “The whole world understands the need for safe black spaces right now. What’s sad is when dissenting black voices raise critiques of those spaces, they’re met with violence. We all talk about it but everyone is afraid of not being booked.”
- This article was amended on September 10 2018 to reflect Afropunk's reaction to the incident.