Mercurial beats, soulful flows, and iconoclastic messages pulse through the grounds of Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park at Afropunk Festival, the two-day event celebrating black culture across the diaspora. Entering its 15th year with a continued ethos of complete freedom and creativity, the codes of the festival naturally extend to beauty, both on and off the stage.
Energetic attendees present a flow of natural hairstyles that are woven into intricate braids, molded into sculptural shapes, or saturated in fluorescent color. Decorative accents—golden thread wound around locs, shells stacked into plaits, fresh flowers floating in buoyant coils—abound. Unapologetic expression is also entrenched in every liberal stroke of pigment, be it exquisite body paint or shocks of color on the lids and lips.
The sheer rapture of getting ready for Afropunk isn’t lost on this year’s lineup of rising, rule-bending performers either. From Philly rapper Tierra Whack, who is leading a rap renaissance with an insurgent spirit, to singer and cellist Kelsey Lu, who continues to capture the imagination with celestial sound, here are nine acts transcending boundaries with their evocatively rendered beauty looks.
“I’m always extra, but Afropunk is where I take my creativity and imagination to the next level.”
Jersey club queen UNIIQU3 sways, spins, and dips to the beat of her own set. “This is one of the few festivals you can hear black dance music and experience the culture that surrounds it,” says the Newark, New Jersey, native producer, rapper, and singer, who is known for her underground dance parties, replete with galvanizing ballroom and baile-funk sounds. She conceived her “heavy-metal neon princess” look in under 24 hours. Adorning her sculptural pigtail braids with a spangling of silver charms and chandelier earrings, she caps off a duo of face-framing plaits with ’90s-era, bright yellow hair tie baubles. And further emphasizing the tropical neon palette inspired by her new Chromat x Reebok trainers (she’s walked the runway twice for the swimwear brand during New York Fashion Week) are soft washes of frosty blue eyeshadow flanked by iridescent face jewels.
“Everyone wears what the fuck they want. They style their hair how the fuck they want at Afropunk. It’s a lot of camp, but it’s Afrocentric at the same time.”
Rico Nasty’s new EP Anger Management is chock-full of cathartic anthems, and “head-banging hair” was a prerequisite as she got ready for her thrashing set. Calling for a women-only mosh pit while performing her viral hit “Poppin,” the Maryland-bred rapper continues to create a safe and angst-cleansing space for her fervent female fanbase. “A woman’s rage is always undermined and underestimated,” she explains. “Watching that shit go crazy stupid—women just being themselves and letting their walls down—it’s amazing to break those barriers.” Observing attendees boundless in their fierce sense of style, Nasty likens the perennial spirit of Afropunk to this year’s Camp-themed Met Gala, crediting beauty as a driving force. “You get to transform into a bad bitch,” she says. “I love getting the chance to be the rock star I really am.”
“I’m all about doing what other people won’t or are too scared to do. That’s always been my thing and that will be my thing forever.”
While traversing the globe to promote the final part of her mixtape series Swervvvvv.5, which finds an extraordinary middle ground between jazz and trip hop, Manchester rapper and singer IAMDDB has shape-shifted between buoyant afros and elaborate braided styles at dizzying speeds. Mirroring her genre-mixing approach to music, she likes to showcase her range at both sides of the beauty spectrum. “Visually, it’s powerful to convey something new every time you perform,” she says. Blazing into Afropunk in a rave-ready fringed minidress, her mouth is painted a deep burgundy and her atomic orange braids are piled high in a labyrinthine updo. “For me, experimenting and having fun trying different looks has helped me build my confidence,” she explains. Her two enduring beauty rules are simple: “Do shit while you’re young and never take yourself too seriously!”
“Red is a very bold color. It stands out, and I like to think of myself in the same way.“
“I’ve wanted to play Afropunk since I knew I was a singer,” says Ravyn Lenae. “These are my people—and the love just radiates.” When it comes to beauty, the 20-year-old Chicago-born star borrows from the past while putting a modern, individual stamp on her favorite referential looks from the ’70s and late ’90s. Think Chaka Khan or Aaliyah with a Gen-Z twist. And for Lenae, who released her debut EP Moon Shoes as a high school sophomore, and toured with SZA on the CTRL tour, her brick red hair is as synonymous with her persona as her velvety neo-soul croons. As she mesmerized the crowd with “Sticky,” the first single off of her third EP Crush, she punctuated her crimson plaits with vivid beads in shades of white, lime, and lavender. “Braids are such a strong staple for women—and beads add a whole new dimension,” explains Lenae, who played up the verdant motif with flicks of electric green liner and matching holographic lips.
“This is me every time I get a chance to rock out. I’m always gonna pop.”
Last year, North Philadelphia’s Tierra Whack unleashed her experimental EP Whack World to much acclaim. The radical record not only cemented her fast and furious rapping prowess, but her expertly curated aesthetics, offering a trippy, surrealist music video for each of the album’s 15 tracks. And as she took the stage Saturday evening, it became all the more clear that disruptive beauty is an essential part of the equation. Her onyx lengths slicked taut in a serpentine, knee-grazing ponytail accented with flaxen twine at the base, the updo deftly highlighted her graphic Day-Glo gaze. A nod to the past, Whack’s delicate face paint and topographic dashes of vivid eye paint are inspired by a vintage photo of ’60s model and singer Marsha Hunt. “I had this picture I found of her on Instagram saved for a while,” she explains. “I was up at 4 o’clock in the morning and showed my makeup artist. I’m like, ‘Yo, I gotta do it. Today’s the day.’”
“I can wear my nipples wherever I want, but here I’m liberated. I’m free.”
There’s nothing filtered about Little Rock–born, Los Angeles–based rapper Kari Faux. And since her critically acclaimed mixtape Laugh Now, Die Later caught the attention of Donald Glover, and her conversationally charged tracks found their way onto HBO’s Insecure, she’s only become more open and honest. “I’ve never done this before,” says Faux of her exposing her nipples through a black fishnet top layered underneath a leopard jacket. “But what’s a more appropriate setting?” Defying antiquated notions of what a woman is and isn’t allowed to do with her body feels more important than ever to Faux, who, having revealed that she suffered a miscarriage at 15 years old on her latest EP Cry 4 Help, is deeply troubled over the recent attacks on women’s reproductive rights. “In our culture, men try to limit what women can do and feel,” she says. “Why can’t women have free agency over their body?”
“Afropunk inspires individuals to express what they really feel inside. I’ve always done that, so I’m right at home.”
When Brooklyn-born rapper and actor Junglepussy first spotted her spiky, highlighter yellow mullet wig, the jumping-off point for the custom metallic, plume-trimmed bustier bodysuit, there was no question it belonged to her. “I saw it in a shop window and knew that it was made for me,” she explains of the punkish trompe l’oeil coif, which she whips out whenever she becomes “emo queen” Sylvia, one of the alter-egos she slips into as part of her #JPtv video series. To further amplify her above-neck impact as she recited ferocious lines from her 2015 hit “Pop for You,” her gaze was encased in ultraviolet to match the lettering on a sign she held that read the lyrics: “This pussy don’t pop for you.” Never one to shy away from making head-swiveling statements, Junglepussy still believes there’s no place like Afropunk to let your freak flag fly. “Thousands, millions of black people worldwide come here to connect, relate, and be their freest self,” she says. “It’s beautiful, harmonious, and sets the tone for the future.”
“Walking around this space, tapping into life, history, and beings of music around the diaspora, generates all kinds of energy.”
During Kelsey Lu’s spine-tingling set, which saw the avant-garde singer and cellist writhing hypnotically as she cooed the lascivious lines of “Foreign Car,” she offered a visual ode to her first full-length album, Blood. “These are my blood braids,” says a slyly grinning Lu of the penny red plaits that flitted around her onstage. Grounding her latest chameleonic hair transformation as only she can, Lu sports her signature turquoise brows, the handiwork of countless swipes of a now-discontinued shade of NYX Color Mascara, she laments. Supply hurdles aside, she’s certain the aquamarine hue is written in the cosmos for her. “The last time I was home in North Carolina, I went to the house I grew up in and my mom painted my bathroom a new color,” she explains. “I walk in and it’s the exact color of my eyebrows. I was like, ‘Really?’ I’m going full circle.”
Directed by: India Sleem
DP: Evan Burris Trout
AC: Douglas Lennox
Set Design: Jesse Kaufmann
Production: Tristan Rodriguez
Editor: Ben Hype
Originally Appeared on Vogue