Former associates, staff members, artists, vendors, festival goers are sharing their Afropunk stories of lies, abuse, conning, threats and more. Many are calling for a boycott.
Update August 2019: The Afropunk corporation has launched a campaign to improve their image, claiming that they’ve “changed”. They also held dinners for “influencers” in several of the cities where they hold their festivals, in an effort to spread the word about their supposed newfound ethics. However, we have been able to confirm that behind-the-scenes, the corporation continues to harm members of the community and show sociopath-like behaviors. For example, several people who are suing the company for the harm it has done are subjected to intimidation tactics and threats. Afropunk counter-sued some of them for hundreds of thousands of dollars, in an effort to discourage them. Fortunately, these tactics have proved unsuccessful so far. Linda Lorenzo (former Afropunk Brooklyn production manager) recently won her lawsuit against Afropunk and was awarded $30,000, in spite of the company’s owners doing everything they could to discredit and discourage her (she was just asking for money that was owed to her). This loss for the company sets a precedent, but also shows that the owners of Afropunk are not truly looking to change their harmful behaviors. Several other lawsuits against the corporation are coming up, including the one filed by photographer Mambu Bayoh (read his story below).
Update December 2019: Writer Myles E. Johnson, who was hired by Afropunk as Culture Editor shortly after their long-time Editor-in-Chief denounced them and resigned (see below), published a scathing open letter and warning. Like many before him, Johnson describes the company’s owners (Matthew Morgan and Jocelyn Cooper) and Chief Content Officer (Emil Wilbekin)’s alleged harmful behaviors and lack of integrity. He also explains how the situation led him to the point of considering committing suicide.
Event production company Afropunk’s ethos has been called into questions numerous times over the years. Most recently, guests of their Brooklyn festival reported being violently removed from a backstage area for criticizing the brand, and the long-time Editor-in-Chief of Afropunk’s online media resigned, citing unethical behaviors and performative ‘activism’ coming from the company’s owners and their ‘entourage’.
Many more people are now coming forward with their accounts of how they were mistreated by the corporation and/or its management in this exclusive investigation. Some are speaking here for the first time, some have spoken out before but most of the previous reports, albeit very concerning, didn’t get much traction.
While unethical behavior is not unusual in corporations and other organizations alike, many point out that Afropunk builds its image and marketing on the idea of being socially conscious and politically aware, which makes their alleged actions all the more problematic.
This brings the question: is a company really serving a community if it regularly harms people from said community, and builds its business on the backs of people it took advantage of?
Before we go into individual accounts of misconduct, it should be noted that Afropunk has worked with sponsors that actively fight against the values it claims to stand for. For example, beer brand MillerCoors with its Trump-supporting Chairman and its related ‘foundations’ that defend “family values” (conservative coded language to refer to bigoted policy that opposes progress on women’s rights, LGBTQ+ issues and more). As reported by Rewire News in 2015, “the Coors family foundations have contributed at least $12.5 million to conservative organizations in the past six years alone, making the Coors one of the most formidable right-wing donor families on the national stage today. (…) Coors family members—including those who control the family’s charitable foundations—retain substantial ownership and control of the for-profit companies that carry their name”. In other words, when you support these companies, your money goes in the pockets of bigots and is invested in harmful causes. Former members of the Afropunk editorial team also report that the company’s owners deleted parts of an article calling for the boycott of Trump-supporting companies, to remove any reference to MillerCoors. Besides, they say that an article about Philip Anschutz, conservative owner of Coachella’s parent company, was removed from Afropunk’s website and social media.
All of this indicates serious contradictions between Afropunk’s radical image and what happens behind-the-scenes.
In addition, our investigation shows that the behaviors of the company’s owners have repeatedly harmed people from the local communities they claim to serve. Below, former associates, staff members, artists, vendors and more are sharing their own Afropunk “horror stories”. Stories of lies, abuse, conning, threats and more. Most revealed their names in spite of the risks, and two decided to speak on condition of anonymity due to having signed drastic non-disclosure agreements that go way beyond what would be necessary to protect a regular company’s trade secrets: the goal is to silence people. We have obtained such agreements to confirm these claims. Many people also report instances of not getting paid, then being ignored by management when they tried to follow up.
Janelle Monáe’s agent once had to file a lawsuit against Afropunk owner Matthew Morgan to get her paid, and won. Countless lesser-known other artists who can’t afford a lawsuit or are scared to be blacklisted went through similar ordeals.
Some former staff members ended up taking the company to arbitration and/or small court claim in order to avoid the high cost of going through a lawsuit. Some still haven’t got paid and dropped the ball. Some are still in the arbitration process trying to get paid. Some ended up getting paid years later, with no interest, after repeatedly insisting. Several former and current staff members also report being hired under independent contractor contracts while essentially working as employees and being asked to work from the company’s New York offices in most cases.
Mambu Bayoh is the photographer behind the black and white imagery that ended up becoming Afropunk’s signature aesthetic in their marketing.
Bayoh filed a lawsuit against Afropunk and its owners for allegedly using his work without permission at the Afropunk festival – his pictures were printed on large banners and used on promotional material. He also explains how one of Afropunk’s owners had him violently removed from the festival site.
He tells us:
“Maya Angelou once said “if you teach you have to live by your teaching.” I can assert with confidence and experience from my story and others’ stories that Afropunk has not practiced the very teachings that catalyzed and sustained their movement. Our bodies and freedoms have been intimidated, our creativity stolen and our voices silenced for “consumption.” In the last few years, key contributors of the Afropunk community have observed a public erosion of integrity and a mishandling of trust.
Many of us have had no financial means to fight against a corporate machine that evolved from an organic movement which was built by us (the people), its contributors and attendees. With the corporatization of Afropunk and simultaneous gentrification of the community many people were dealt with violently including myself, at the hands of Matthew Morgan, Jocelyn Cooper and their 1-10 silent partners and owners.
In 2015, after Afropunk Brooklyn, I confronted Matthew Morgan regarding the use of my work without my permission. We agreed he and the company would no longer do that. In 2016, I returned to take photographs. Morgan instructed the security hold me down. He walked up to me, dug his hands in my pockets and took my photo memory card from me. Then he forcibly and physically kicked me out of the festival, with the muscle of his security. The irony of the event was my images lined the festival ground, the app online content and the promotional printouts. I had to go to the police to retrieve a deleted memory card. My livelihood for that day and month was lost.
Within the next week, I sat in the bathroom of a clinic as my girlfriend and I grieved the loss of our first child. The violence perpetrated against me was so traumatic for my partner that we lost a life the following week.
In 2017, I watched my work expand from Brooklyn to Atlanta, as well as London, Paris and South Africa. It was at this point I managed to save enough to find representation and allow the matter to be decided legally.
Commoditizing identity by selling slogans, hats and tickets undermines the authentic experiences of the contributors to the Afropunk community, particularly when violence is used as a mechanism to silence their voices. I come from war (in Liberia) – I am an immigrant, a son, and a black man. Ericka [Hart] is a queer femme and cancer survivor, and her partner is a man who transitioned. Lou [Constant-Desportes] is a visionary who worked for Afropunk and built its identity. Others who are not mentioned here gave hours of their lives to promote an ideology of inclusion. When that ideology is distilled into a series of mantras lifted from the desk of an ex Afropunk employee, we can find egregious infractions and tyranny under the guise of progressivism. That is why I truly chose to RESIST.”
A former Afropunk staff member who speaks on condition of anonymity due to having signed an NDA told us:
“The first time I realized AFROPUNK was just using radical language to make money without operating based on any real politics of liberation is when we were asked to join a meeting about whether we would address cultural appropriation at the [Brooklyn] festival. Not how we were going to address it, but whether. It was clear that we were only having this meeting because the concerns of marginalized people on social media were getting too loud to ignore, not because we had any real interest in making sure they were heard and respected. It didn’t make sense that we would plaster “no racism” on our stages but not address actual racism in the form of appropriation, to which [Afropunk co-owner] Jocelyn [Cooper] said she doesn’t agree appropriation is even racism. It was a bizzare display of just how ignorant she and [Afropunk co-owner] Matthew [Morgan] are about issues of oppression. Likewise, when the editorial team would call out specific instances of injustice in op-eds, they would constantly be tone policed and told that they were making AFROPUNK seem “too angry,” and that they needed to focus on uplifting Black people, as if calling out injustice is mutually exclusive, or uplifting Black people is even possible without doing so.
But the worst example is when we were helping put on an event for a well-known artist, and her team gave AFROPUNK 50 tickets that they said were exclusively for white people to attend the show. Jocelyn explained that there would be European promoters in attendance, and the artist’s team wanted to make sure the audience didn’t seem “too urban.” I thought this was a joke at first. I could imagine the artist’s team thinking in this way, but I couldn’t imagine them asking AFROPUNK to carry the task out, and definitely not that we would actually do it. It was mind-blowing how quick the company was to appease these obvious racists with a negative view of Black audiences and what they are worth as soon as we had something to gain from it. In fact, the only people they seemed to not have a problem making uncomfortable was other marginalized people. I remember after Dave Chappelle was taking heat for his transphobic stand up special on Netflix that Jocelyn went around the office loudly claiming that the people who were offended, which of course includes transgender people who face fatal consequences for these kinds of jokes, were too sensitive. This lack of care naturally extended to how they treated their staff, which were primarily people of color. Not only was my salary far beneath what anyone working full time in my position could expect, but this didn’t discourage them from trying to force me to work nights and weekends.”
James Spooner is the creator and director of the original ‘Afro-Punk’ documentary, and the co-founder of Afropunk. He says:
“I’m not sure what to write in terms of my experience with Matthew [Morgan]. There is so much. In the early days he would borrow money from people who I know to this day he has never paid back. Thousands of dollars. On the last day of shooting [movie] ‘White Lies Black Sheep’ (he was the producer) he told me, ‘I need you to take out an 8000-dollar cash advance’. I didn’t want to, this was not what we agreed. He told me ‘well then you tell the entire crew they aren’t getting paid then’. I couldn’t do that to them so I took out the cash advance on the promise he would pay me back first thing. Years later I was still paying interest on that advance ’til finally my mom loaned me the money to get out from under the credit card bills and pay her back (which I did within a year). When he brokered the Japanese deal for ‘Afro-Punk’, we got 25,000 bucks. 10k of it was to go to the director of the Bad Brains short that was included, the other 15 was to be split between us. Part of the deal was that I was going to be able to premiere it in Japan at the Fuji Rock Festival. He thought he should be able to come too, which I felt was fair, but that didn’t come out of his half, it came off the top. Then he said he invested all the money into t-shirts that we would sell in Japan and make a ton of money off of. I don’t remember if I had a say , but I was pretty much pressured to do whatever he wanted. We did make those shirts and a lot of them did sell, but I don’t know whatever happened to that money. I only got 2000 of the original 25,000 from that deal…”
Lou Constant-Desportes, former and founding Editor-in-Chief of Afropunk’s online publication and social media, says:
“I have so many examples of inappropriate and unethical behaviors that it’s almost hard to single some out. It’s a way of operating, a philosophy, my story is just one of many. From constantly being lied to about everything and anything, to being gaslighted for years about past due payments, to false promises, to being grossly underpaid, in addition to having to regularly fight to protect boundaries around what was expected from such a small editorial team, and being called “negative” when I enforced these boundaries. I also hope the community understands that the politics of the owners are completely disconnected from the ‘radical’ image they use in their marketing. They basically think the community is oversensitive about everything from rape to trans rights, racism and more. It took me a while to understand that the community and radical marketing were a means to an end: advancing their own ambitions. All of this resulted in frequent conflicts between us.
Up until my last conversations with the owners, they were still using the same tactics and lack of integrity, to the point where I told them that I wouldn’t pay attention to what they say anymore, I would just watch what they do. But it was a long process for me to understand that this is how they operate, not something that can be “fixed”. There’s a general sense of pettiness, greediness and entitlement, even when they act like they want to do ‘the right thing’. Their last gesture when I told them I was leaving the company was to pretend that the final compensation I had negotiated in recognition of past sacrifices and contributions was simply ‘hush money’ that I had no rights to, and they falsely claimed it was being offered to me only in exchange for signing a drastic confidentiality agreement prohibiting me from talking about what happens in the company, and making me give up my rights to sue them for the harm they had done. I ignored this unethical contract and left with nothing. They can keep their money, I’ll keep my dignity and freedom of expression. The Afropunk Instagram account also blocked me a few weeks ago, which is hilarious or pathetic depending on how you look at it. For the past few years they’ve also been surrounding themselves with corporate types whose mission seems to be to make it look like things are better, while they still practice the same unethical ways of dealing with people. It’s cosmetic, the harm is now done with a smile and a wink, but it’s still inappropriate.”
A community organizer who speaks on condition of anonymity shares the following story with us:
“Several years ago, I worked for a small POC non-profit institution. We had the grant to produce several community-centered block parties. For one of our events, we approached Afropunk to partner with us by co-producing one of the block parties. The purpose was to highlight different black businesses, artists, and makers.
We paid Afropunk. A couple of weeks prior to the event happening, we were told that Afropunk needed to cancel. We expressed that our organization would need to use the money for our community, which was aligned with our mission as well as required by our funders. Matthew Morgan and Jocelyn Cooper stated they would rectify the event being canceled by giving us a chance to partner with the Afropunk festival’s DIY market. We were told this would allow our institution to have a visual presence at the festival, a booth to sell our merchandise, and a chance to contribute to the success of black business owners.
We felt really unclear about the offer and attempted to have phone conversations with both Matthew and Jocelyn. They became less and less communicative as the festival approached and we were left without answers. For example, after they’d missed a call I remember being told they were “sorry they missed our meeting, but (they) had to meet with a much bigger sponsor.” We knew, based on their actions, that our community organization was not a relationship they valued.
Upon arrival at the Afropunk festival, we weren’t given any support to see through any of the promises made. Our leadership determined that it was more valuable to allow Afropunk to keep the funds, because legally pursuing them may “burn bridges”. I felt that they stole from us and the communities of color that would have received the funds.”
Andrea Dwyer is a former Afropunk staff member who started as a writer, then worked on the production of Afropunk festivals:
“I began writing for Afropunk at the tail end of 2013. The articles I wrote varied in content but the ones I’m proudest of highlighted a trans man’s journey and a civil rights lawyer who was fighting for LGBTQ rights in my country of birth, Jamaica. My editor, Lou Constant-Desportes gave me free range to talk about issues myself and the AFROPUNK community cared about. In April of 2015, Lou connected me with partner Jocelyn Cooper. (…) My initial business deals with Cooper and Matthew Morgan went exceedingly well and I was invited in June 2015 to work the Brooklyn festival, the year Lenny Kravitz and Grace Jones headlined. Professionally, Brooklyn was life changing but the things I started to witness first hand from Cooper and Morgan were baffling.
To put it bluntly, Cooper and Morgan are calculating, manipulative business people who do not care about the community they say they represent. To them the AFROPUNK community are overly sensitive radicals who care too much. I’ve said it to both Cooper and Morgan, many a times, that they have done good work where the brand is concerned but their toxic behavior continues to cause harm to especially POC, the exact same community they claim to love and care about (fun fact: they don’t care about us.)
I work in the film and music industry. I’m more seasoned in the industry than I was when I worked for the toxic duo. I’m especially privy to how they took advantage of me. I was overworked (often working 10-12 hours days); a far cry from the 8 hours per day that was intially discussed. Additional duties were constantly being added to my scope of work, again, things that were never intially discussed. Boundaries with them are never respected. I essentially was underpaid and overworked all while they claimed I was ‘family.’ In addition, I was verbally accosted and attacked by Matthew Morgan especially during AFROPUNK Atlanta. With Morgan it was a pattern of misbehavior coupled with attempts to pacify with gifts and outings to nice restaurants.
I often think about my relationship with both Cooper and Morgan. The extent to which I loved and trusted them. I liken my relationship with them to one of an abusive relationship. When the abuser misbehaves you rationalize the abuse saying, ‘oh, but I care for them. They aren’t completely bad people. No one’s perfect’, so on and so forth. But Cooper and Morgan have a long pattern of behaving badly. They wreak havoc without consequence or thought about who’s affected in the aftermath. There’s no attempt at change or reconciling the harm they have done.
I often think how I survived severe childhood physical and sexual abuse. How I survived one of Jamaica’s most dangerous hoods. How it has taken me years to heal from my childhood traumas, something I’ll likely never completely heal from. I also often think about my experience at AFROPUNK and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that I thought Cooper and Morgan were actually family and that they really cared about me. It breaks my heart that I had somewhat freed myself from the demons of my past only to be taken advantage of again by the most charming monsters I have ever met.”
Ericka Hart is a writer and activist who has shared her testimony on Instagram.
She stated: “The incident where Ebony, myself, and my good friend were removed from the VIP backstage area by the owner’s demand because of Ebony’s shirt which reads, “Afropunk sold out for white consumption” has marked the end of my participation at Afropunk”. Hart added: “The feeling that follows calling out a major institution is not fair and likely what stops people from speaking out. I do hope people get the issue is way bigger than being forcibly kicked out of a space for wearing a shirt. Afropunk’s Instagram photo reads #notrumpism and yet I’m pretty sure Matthew Morgan behaved in the same ways Trump does: I don’t like what you have to say, so you are out (…) The most disheartening part about speaking up about something is that we don’t have hella celebrity backing or a large machine behind us to protect us from any retribution or fallout or upset that comes with it by the institution especially one that colludes with Instagram to take messages down or stop a hashtag, etc. (…) It’s my own internalized antiblackness that I know people have been harmed at Afropunk and by the festival organizers, people who look like me, and I went anyway. And that’s a larger intracommunal convo of all the sh*t we participate in even though we know it’s harmful. I don’t want to support an event that doesn’t care about black people even one that I like.” Hart’s partner Ebony Donnley also published an article recounting this and other Afropunk-related incidents.
Kendall S., a former intern at Afropunk, tells us:
“When I was working at Afropunk, I was a graphic design intern. We were tasked with creating collaterals for both print and web. During a design meeting, Matthew [Morgan] told the graphic design interns to make the marketing materials more “accessible”. He told us to put more white people on them to attract them to Afropunk. His reasoning was that American Blacks don’t have any money, therefore it was a waste of time to market to them. I believe this was the first year the Afropunk festival had a charge and not a suggested donation. They took on a lot of corporate sponsors that year and conducted themselves as such.”
The Brother Moves On, a South African band, reports being abused (manhandled and threatened) by a white crew member at Afropunk’s festival in Johannesburg in 2017.
They told Channel 24: “Instead of [Afropunk co-founder] Matthew [Morgan] being a protector at that moment of us, the brown artists in that space, he blamed the artists”. Channel 24 also reports: “Other creatives 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 organizers could give him tickets instead. Even these did not materialize, though he was eventually paid for his work. He said he felt sidelined by Afropunk once the organisation had his work.”
Mika Kenyah, founder of alternative casting company Sugar & Spikes tells us:
“One year we had a booth at the Afropunk Brooklyn festival. It was supposed to be a joint project, an idea I created, a tattoo competition and they completely took it over and made it seem like it was their idea. At the booth, Afropunk had promised to have a tattoo calendar of all the finalists made that I could sell. I promoted this on my end heavily and they didn’t come through. They never printed the calendars and were dismissive when I questioned them. And they were demanding when it came to social content that I was contributing voluntarily. I had made it known if they wanted me to continue writing, I would need some form of compensation… I was treated rudely for requesting that. Then I have friends who have shared with me situations where they were treated badly by [the owner] and not paid for work that was agreed upon.
To sum up my issue would be: they only care about the bottom line (…) Not only did they move away from Afropunk’s core mission and fan base, they alienated the artists and fans who they claimed to represent and undervalued the many people who dedicated their time to contributing their talents to keep Afropunk running. I contributed an idea I was excited to partner with Afropunk on, and in the end they didn’t deliver on their end what was promised to me which resulted in hurting my brand’s image. (…) Simply put, the persons leading Afropunk allowed ego and greed to blind them from seeing the importance of investing in the people that made Afropunk great to begin with.”
Eric Todd, President of BML-Blackbird, a technical event production company that was hired by Afropunk to work on their Brooklyn festival, explains the lies and gaslighting he dealt with:
“The short version is that BML was hired to provide lighting and video for Afropunk for 2017. In 2016 we provided video only I believe and it was a total disaster and as far as I recall, it took almost a year to get paid the balance. For 2017 Matthew [Morgan] “MM” wanted camera packages on 3 stages instead of just one. MM wanted live streaming, involving an uplink truck if I am not mistaken or some other expensive component that raised the cost considerably. He was on a conference with [production manager] Linda Lorenzo and my team and reviewed the entire scope of work, a budget was submitted which essentially was the prior budget less the extra 25-30K for the extras MM shot down. This is not a hard math exercize except when your head is most often found up your @ss.
At the 11th hour, this package was confirmed by Linda Lorenzo to our director of production, and Linda, whom was handling the entire event, worked with a large shovel to have to deal with all of MM’s bullsh*t and evasiveness. We know Linda Lorenzo knows what is going on and would never have stuck her neck out without this @sshole being aware of his obligations despite him denying them.
BML did a 100% complete job with no issue. When it came time to getting paid, somehow MM never managed to get a deposit to us (…). After many attempts to get paid that went nowhere, this came to my attention and I emailed MM letting him know that I had spoken to numerous other unpaid vendors and we were going to alert the media about this and consider legal action, including a possible RICO case since he seems to have a pattern of f*cking people as often as possible which is something that falls within the scope of a RICO action. Finally, when I got enough vendors to put the pressure on, he finally paid BML [a part of the amount due], and then paid a few others.
When inquiring why the last 20K or so was not paid, MM said he had to “look into” what happened, despite knowing exactly what happened. He got his lawyer involved whom, after I allowed him (the lawyer) to review all our documents and discuss with my team, we never heard from again. Why? Because there is no defense to not paying a bill for services rendered unless we failed. I finally told MM that BML, Mountain, and the labor co and possibly a 4th vendor that was a small creditor (some banner guys from NJ) would file for involuntary bankruptcy. No response. (…) So here we are, well over a year later, $20K plus out of pocket and we basically did the job for him for zero profit. Matthew is a total piece of sh*t, and I don’t mind telling this story to anyone.”
It should be noted that these stories are examples of a pattern.
There are countless other instances of people reporting being lied to, taken advantage of, and sometimes threatened by Afropunk’s management. These people opted not to talk publicly about it but were nevertheless harmed. Recent instances of negligence and overspending were also reported to us. All of this lead to several people calling for a boycott of Afropunk, as the corporation operates in a way that is not compatible with the principles it claims to have.
* Banner image courtesy of Mambu Bayoh