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Afropunk Festival | © Versus and Company/Flickr
Afropunk Festival | © Versus and Company/Flickr
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10 Artists You Can’t Miss At Afropunk 2016

Picture of Ryan Kristobak
Music Editor
Updated: 23 August 2016
Brooklyn’s Afropunk Festival was launched in 2005, born out of a desire to connect the black community with the predominantly white punk scene. While this spirit of unity and celebration of black culture still serves as its foundation, the event has since evolved into a two-day, four-stage, three-city — London and Paris included in 2016 — carnival featuring some of music’s biggest names. Among those headlining 2016’s Brooklyn event are Ice Cube, TV on the Radio, Tyler the Creator, Flying Lotus, Janelle Monae, George Clinton, The Internet, CeeLo Green, Earl Sweatshirt, and Angel Haze. However, beyond the heavy hitters, there are a number of rising acts and fresh faces that equally demand your attention. Here are 10 artists you need to include in your festival schedule for this weekend.

SATURDAY, AUG. 27

Laura Mvula

Upon first listen, there’s no denying that British singer-songwriter Laura Mvula is possessed by the mad spirit of song. Your ears are her megaphone, each word critical like buckshot and black powder. A classically trained vocalist, Mvula naturally draws comparisons to neo-soul stalwarts like Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone, but as her 2016 LP, The Dreaming Room, demonstrates, there’s no box big enough for her. “Show Me Love” sounds like the heart-stopping, climactic moment in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s next great score — your pulse syncing to the crescendo’s steady pound of the timpani; “People” the soundtrack to the pending revolution, the repeated phrase, “How glorious, this light in us, we are a wonder,” now the marrow of your bones. By the time you reach closer “Phenomenal Woman,” based off the Maya Angelou poem of the same title, you’ve embedded yourself so deeply in her narrative that you’ve completely forgotten that she is equal parts a pop star.

Thundercat

Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner, is best known for his work with acts such as Flying Lotus, Suicidal Tendencies, and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly — TPAB was greatly shaped by his basslines and impromptu jazz lessons with Lamar. As well as sporting eccentric headwear, including an eagle-feathered Indian war bonnet or wolf fur, and being a bass god who also happens to have perfect pitch, Bruner has released three solo records, the most recent being 2015’s stellar The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam. The six-track, jazz-fusion foray into his forest mind balances buoyant instrumentals with themes of death and its aftermath. Bruner insists that TB / WTGR is a mini-album, not an EP, and with all that’s packed into its 16 minutes, you have to believe him.

Trash Talk

While Afropunk has shifted more towards genres like soul, hip hop, and electronic, there will always be a few spots in each year’s roster saved for its namesake. While groups like In the Whale, Ho99o9, and Radkey are sure to stir some mosh pits, Trash Talk are guaranteed to deliver the heaviest set of the circuit. Signed to Odd Future Records, the Sacramento outfit having been pouring out crushing hardcore punk of the purest brand since 2005, led by the by the ever-punishing barks of Lee Spielman. If you don’t want a face full of anonymous fist, you might want to take a few steps back from their set.

SUNDAY, AUG. 28

Kelsey Lu

Recording your debut record with only your voice and your cello is brave; recording your debut record live in a church is borderline mad. However, Kelsey Lu is far from your typical artist, and growing up a Jehovah’s Witness is just one part of the artist’s technicolor framework. Even Lu is relatively new to the scene in terms of her original content, she’s already picked up a laundry list of accomplishments: recording and touring with legendary southern hip-hop collective Nappy Roots, earning a Best New Track from Pitchfork with her track “Dreams,” and a Dev Hynes co-sign. The EP, appropriately titled Church, doesn’t spare a single inch of its host, and just as the void willingly bends to the sovereign of her stretching vocals, its warmth leaks into your head, drifting through all the empty spaces you never knew you had. Lu’s voice and cello move like siblings, picking and sliding hand-in-hand; for its lack of any other instrument, there is little more to be wanted here.

Sango

Sango might be Soulection’s — a record label, radio show, and niche collective that works to promote producers and DJs around the globe — finest offering available. A familiar name for anyone who has spent some time shuffling through SoundCloud’s producer cluster, the Seattleite is as likely to hook up with hip-hop artists like GoldLink and the rising Dave B, as he is to blend hip hop with Brazilian funk, like on 2015’s Da Rocinha 3, securing samples that can’t be found without knowledge of Portuguese and Brazilian forums. If you’re looking to dance at Afropunk, consider Sango your new boogie sherpa.

Sir the Baptist

Since the release of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, there’s been plenty of chatter about “gospel-rap.” While some might view the mingling of the secular and the spiritual as controversial, fellow Chicagoan and preacher’s kid Sir the Baptist, legally William Stokes, would argue that promoting phrases like “take your ass to church” are essential to faith’s forward movement. Labeling himself an “urban preacher” and recently inking a deal with Atlantic Records, Stokes’ music derides the status quo, features the gospel hammer of backup crew ChuchPeople, and his live appearances boast a heavy dose of shock — he emerged from a casket at Lollapalooza. It’s no coincidence that Sir the Baptist is performing on Sunday at Afropunk; his 2016 festival recaps like Bonnaroo’s play — play being the key word — an acid trip into the Zeitgeist nebula, menacingly flickering between shots of performance fervor and crowd members screaming “baptized at Bonnaroo.” Wherever your religious opinions fall, Stokes’ and co.’s sermon is guaranteed to have you on your feet with your hands held high.

Roman GianArthur

Part of Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland Arts Society, we have yet to hear much of Roman GianArthur’s personal output. There was the Kevin Barnes-featuring (Of Montreal) “Depraved Valet” in 2010, the funky “I-69” in 2013, and the R&B-tinted “iKnow” in 2015. However, the best of his work might be his OK Lady EP, which mashes up and reimagines covers of Radiohead and D’angelo, something none of us would have ever dreamed possible. There’s no certainty to what GianArthur’s afternoon set will look like, but you can bet it will be one smooth, sexy affair.

Gallant

There’s no denying it: Christopher Gallant is 2016’s breakout star. Emerging from near obscurity, Ology has earned Gallant a slew of comparisons to the late Prince, most notably for their similar voices, and snagged a studio duet with Seal on his hit “Weight in Gold.” While serving as the most radio-friendly cut, “Weight in Gold” is not the sole album standout. Records like “Jupiter,” “Counting,” “Episode,” and “Skipping Stones” pack on the pounds, showcasing his penchant for atypical vocal patterns and swinging between his lower register and unhinged falsettos with machine-like ease. In a year where everyone was waiting for Frank Ocean’s new album, Gallant has proven he is the future of R&B.

Esta

Another one of Soulection’s top producers, ESTA started out on Tumblr, flipping the theme songs for shows like Rugrats and Doug, as per request of his followers. Once discovered by the powers at Soulection, ESTA quickly rose in the ranks, pushing out tracks at a rapid rate. Serving up a wide variety of ambient-laced beats that range from trap to house, ESTA will deliver one of the weekend’s grooviest sets.

Kelela

Carrying the banner of alt-R&B with acts like FKA Twigs, Kelela’s music combines heavily-processed vocals — her natural tone shining through at the most opportune moments — with dizzying arrays of synthesizers and left-field drum patterns. The majority of her 2015 EP, Hallucinogen, functions as a collection of downtempo cuts with the mesmerizing equivalent of a lava lamp, all ready for pumped-up remixes, her voice working as part of the backdrop, chopped and layered, as often as it does the lead. However, the EP is halved by the uptempo standout “Rewind,” providing a more traditional dance format that will prove most festival-ready.