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How Afropunk changed the world

July 12, 2017

© Drew Gurian / Red Bull Content Pool

Social entrepreneurship queen Jocelyn Cooper created Afropunk, and in so doing she’s changed minds and shaped cultural debate while helping others starting out on their own.

We’ve got a lot to thank Jocelyn Cooper for.

She founded Afropunk, an organisation that has transformed how black music is viewed, consumed and, most importantly, how it benefits the people who make it.

She was recently invited to the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy in South Africa so that upcoming social entrepreneurs could learn more about how she, her company, and the Afropunk community, have become what they are today.

As a young black woman in New York, Jocelyn used musical nous, entrepreneurial spirit and a caring outlook to put on festivals with everyone from Ice Cube to Dizzee Rascal, D’Angelo to Lenny Kravitz, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, all with the expressed intention of celebrating black creativity.

Afropunk is a community: a network of artists, makers, doers and creators across the globe that support, promote and encourage each other to meet success; the headliners of her festivals; the 10,000 daily attendees; the 250 black businesses Afropunk supports worldwide; and the 40 million people the site reaches every day.

People are featured on the site, and their business takes off.Jocelyn Cooper

All of this means that few are more qualified to show us what it takes to be a social entrepreneur.

It turns out however the work of one of our social entrepreneurs had made an impression on her already.

“We heard about Thato three years ago,” Jocelyn told the participants.

Thato Kgatlhanye
Thato Kgatlhanye© Luke Daniel / Red Bull Content Pool

Thato Kgatlhanye’s company Rethaka makes upcycled, solar-powered school bags that turn discarded plastic into backpacks during the day and self-sufficient lights at night time, an innovation that has provided two ingenious tools crucial to kids trying to study in her area.

“Her story was unbelievably inspiring for us. We talked about her for two years,” Jocelyn says.

“The idea you can create and change someone’s life with a backpack you make out of trash helps keep us going, knowing people like you are finding solutions. So thank you.”

Jocelyn has always been excited by what people of colour can bring to the table, particularly women.

Jocelyn says she has always harnessed her femininity to her advantage, even though it can be seen to impede professional progression.

Palesa, a mentee at Amaphiko, still wanted to know if her authority’s challenged because she’s a woman.

Sadly, and predictably, the answer was “Yes, all the time.”

Afropunk founder Jocelyn Cooper, talks at the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy in Mamelodi, Pretoria East, South Africa
Jocelyn Cooper talks at Red Bull Amaphiko Academy© Luke Daniel / Red Bull Content Pool

But Jocelyn assured the group that femininity doesn’t always have to be an obstruction.

“I’ve always loved being a woman,” says Jocelyn. “I’m pretty empathetic and that nurturing and caring is what I’ve used that to push my passion for music and my career forward.”

Three things helped Jocelyn keep going forward: experience, strategy and self-belief.

“I really believe in myself. I have age and experience and a strong sense of who I am.

“Sometimes, I fight like hell. Sometimes, I’ll be extremely charming. And sometimes, I just let it go. You have to judge what you’re dealing with, who you’re dealing with. If you bring the fire, I might put it out with water or I might fire it back at you.”

Jocelyn is equal parts formidable and nurturing.

18 hour days, an eye for style and a talent for spotting rising stars took her from working as a receptionist at a record label to becoming a music trendsetter and one of the co-founders of Afropunk.

As Drake might put it, a musician might not be shining so bright were it not for her trailblazing:

“We started from the bottom. Now we’re here.”

Any list of her most impressive achievements starts with how she discovered D’Angelo and signed him as the first artist on her label.

She later secured a fair distribution deal between Cash Money Records and Universal Music, with a deal that had previously been the preserve of huge rock acts. A deal that transformed the music landscape for black artists.

“That, for me,” says Cooper, “was an act of activism and being radical. I had to fight internally to get them that: they deserved that deal.”

Her work has paved the way for the successes of the likes of Nikki Minaj, Drake and Lil Wayne.

“I thought I should fight for them and I did.”

This passionate generosity now manifests itself in Afropunk and she has literally gone through a hurricane to keep it alive.

Hurricane Joaquin forced her to cancel one of Afropunk’s festivals in Brooklyn, just days before it was due to begin. Jocelyn had to cover the eye-wateringly high cancellation costs.

But nothing could stop the Afropunk army.

Jocelyn has brushed herself off and invests more of her indomitable spirit, time, love and money than ever into black culture, music and creativity.

Neo Hutiri, another of this year’s Amaphikons, took his chance to ask how she operates with the network of influential people around her.

It wasn’t big name music moguls or benevolent billionaires Cooper mentioned first.

“I have a tight-knit group of female friends I went to school with and grew up with. I spent a lot of time thinking about them, supporting them, and empowering them in an authentic way. I put in a lot of time and work checking, making sure they’re OK, that they’re safe and we come together and help each other.”

This care has guided Jocelyn through her professional as well as her personal life.

“In my daily business, from the time we started, we have people backstage, selling tickets, we believe in them and the mission. That came from our personal nurturing of each other and that creates a power.

“These spaces, particularly for women, creating your own spaces and uplifting each other is an example of how I live my life and the trust and unconditional love I get from my circle of friends.”

So much personal investment comes with a cost. A number of our entrepreneurs wanted to hear her advice on hardship and how to deal with it.

“We have been through some excruciating times,” said Jocelyn as she spoke about the hurricane that threated Afropunk’s very existence.

“We almost lost the place we were living, with bill collectors calling every ten minutes. My phone was blowing up.

“I literally felt like getting under the covers and crying and feeling sorry and defeated.”

“Did you cry?” asked Murendeni.

“For months,” admitted Jocelyn, “almost a year actually.”

But that’s one advantage social entrepreneurship has over cut-throat counterparts.

“When you have a vision that is bigger than your own self-interest, when people tell you it’s too niche, that it doesn’t make sense, that it’s too small, when people don’t want to support you, that feeling in your core, in your soul, will keep you going.”

Jocelyn did not warn against putting too much in but encouraged the group before her to pour their care into those around them, to “this community you have here.”

“Come together outside Amaphiko, make those connections, talk to mentors, absorb every single bit of information, and, in a year’s time, if you’re struggling, remember this moment.

Pick up a phone and call one another. Invite someone over, it’s folks who are going through the same challenges that will keep you going.”

Jocelyn has had to be flexible to evolve and cope with the challenges Afropunk has met along the way while staying true to herself and the movement’s original vision.

Murendeni wanted to learn how Jocelyn stays true to Afropunk’s authenticity and the clarity of the movement’s vision with the need to respond, adapt and evolve.

“The core has always been community. That’s our uncompromising focus, elevating and celebrating the community,” said Jocelyn.

As it has grown and thousands have joined, Afropunk has received its share of criticism.

“Our goal has always been to connect our world globally,” Jocelyn explained, a creed she lives and works by.

Even though the criticism was difficult, the team chose to reflect on their principles and check themselves.

As Afropunk goes from success to success, Jocelyn says her team and her return to their “pillars every day to make sure we’re staying true.”

Her words and stories are an example to any entrepreneur on how to turn each challenge into a moment for growth and each meeting into a chance to allow your community to flourish.

“Your mission has to be really well thought out, because you’ll always go back to that core. Keep that tight and everything else can grow from that.”

Visit Red Bull Amaphiko for more about its platform for social entrepreneurs, and find the world of Afropunk here.


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