Jocelyn Cooper is the powerhouse behind Afropunk. The ‘platform for the other Black experience’ grew out of co-founder Matthew Morgan’s 2003 documentary Afro-Punk and now comprises weekender events in Brooklyn, Atlanta, London, Paris and as of December ‘17, Johannesburg. Cooper spoke at the Amaphiko Academy in Mamelodi, South Africa.
The core of Afropunk is always community That’s an uncompromising focus, that we elevate and celebrate the community… We sometimes have very loud interaction - fights - around the vision, the focus, keeping our brand and our platform pure. It is sometimes an hour by hour challenge to stay focused and the stubbornness all comes back to the community and the fundamentals. Whatever your mission, staying true. Sometimes that mission has to evolve. We’re getting some criticism for growing, for more people coming into the community, but if you have a very well thought-out vision, you can stay focused on that.
Be prepared to evolve There was an article recently about the growth of Afropunk and being criticised around not being this very small niche thing any more. For many people at the beginning, their total identity was wrapped up in Afropunk. And still, many people have their identity invested, which is an amazing thing. We’re very careful and considerate about that. At the same time, our goal has always been to connect our world globally. The criticism is difficult but we check ourselves, we have pillars we look at every day to make sure we’re staying true. If you have your mission it has to be really well thought out, because you’ll always go back to that core mission. Keep that tight and everything else can grow from that.
As a woman, your authority will sometimes be challenged Has my authority been challenged? Yes, all the time. But I am a real fighter. I really believe in myself. I have a very strong sense of myself. I am a lot older, I have experience. Sometimes I fight like hell. Sometimes I try to be extremely charming. And sometimes I just let it go. If I’ve done something I’ll apologise and we’ll move on. If I’m challenged around my personality then sometimes I have to take a step back and look at myself. If you bring the fire, I might put it out with water or I might fire it back at you.
Find partners and support other businesses We have struggled and continue to push to find partners where our ethos aligns. It’s been interesting here in South Africa, we’ve got a lot of mainstream press in a way we don’t elsewhere in the world. We have 100,000 people online here, we’ve got a really great community of folks here … To create an economic ecosystem in our community is really important. We support the makers and the innovators in our community. We support 250 black business worldwide and that’s a story that doesn’t get told. That’s the most radical thing you can do, keeping our dollars in our community and supporting each other and creating wealth for each other.
Dig deep when times get tough We have been through some excruciating times: almost losing the place we were living in, having bill collectors call every 10 mins it seemed, blowing up my phone. We had to cancel a festival in 2011 because of weather and we were underinsured. When you have a vision that is bigger than your own self-interest, it’s that feeling in your core that will keep you going.
It will all be fine I have a lot of faith, I believe in spirit and I believe that challenges come into your life to help you be stronger and to push through. I’m guided by my heart and knowing I will be OK and things will be OK. Even when something horribly tragic happens in your life or your business you will eventually triumph if you put in the work, if you put in the time, if your heart is in the right place. That’s how we get through it every day. I can focus on something for years. If I have a goal, I will literally stay focused on it for ten years.
Know that your socent matters Your work is extraordinarily inspiring. Matthew and I heard about a young woman called Thato Khagtlhanye [who makes schoolbags with embedded solar panels out of recycled plastic bags] three years ago. That was unbelievably inspiring for us. We talked about her literally for two years. I have never met her. I have never seen her. I hope I do one day. The idea you can create and change someone’s life with a backpack made out of trash – that helps keep us going. Knowing people are finding solutions, that keeps us going. So thank you.
Jocelyn Cooper was speaking at the third Amaphiko Academy in South Africa.