This year, general admission tickets to Afrofuture Fest cost $20 for people of color and $40 for white people.
The festival, based in Detroit, initially implemented this pricing system to address financial disparities that often bar people of color from attending local events. "Often times when dope events happen in Detroit the cheapest tickets are bought and then sold by people not from the community bc they can afford them first, leaving higher price tickets as the only options left," stated one of the event's organizers on Twitter. "Black and brown people deserve access to quality events in their city and it isn't fair when events happen in their city that they don't have a chance of being apart of because people who don't look like us take advantage and also have more access to collective wealth."
Afrofuture is an organization dedicated to overcoming these disadvantages. Part of the festival's profits are set to go to Afrofuture Youth, a charity organization for children. The festival's original Eventbrite page read: "Our ticket structure was built to ensure that the most marginalized communities (people of colour) are provided with an equitable chance at enjoying events in their own community (black Detroit)." It continued, "We've seen too many times orgasmic events happening in Detroit and other POC populated cities and what consistently happens is people outside of the community benefiting most from affordable ticket prices because of their proximity to wealth. This cycle disproportionately displaces black and brown people from enjoying entertainment in their own communities."
Image via Eventbrite
Sure enough, the festival's decision to base their pricing on race quickly ignited protests. It all started when biracial rapper Tiny Jag pulled out of the festival (she was the only performer to do so). Soon the story was picked up by the Internet, with many expressing outrage, citing "reverse racism" and threatening legal action.
Seeing that it's technically illegal, Afrofuture's decision to charge white people more money in such an explicit and intentionally divisive fashion may have been misguided. They certainly would've been safer requesting donations from white people instead, as other performance artists have; or at the very least, they could have prioritized local citizens without being so obvious about the color divide.
The fact that they chose to price the tickets the way they did is indicative of an intentional statement—one that actually seems in line with the festival's central theme.
The Dream of Afrofuturism
Afrofuture Fest describes itself as an "immersive, intimate, and intentional space-keeping for Afro-Black Futurist, a 360 transformative dreamscape" focused on "centering Detroit's black magic performers and artisans with community… Our destination is reimagination," it continues, adding that the festival is intended to "[anchor] the accessibility needed for its community."
This focus on reimagining is a key tenet of Afrofuturism, a broad category that generally refers to any vision of the future rooted in a celebration of black culture. The term—brought to life in films like Black Panther and drawn upon by many artists, including Rihanna in a recent W magazine photoshoot—was coined by white author Mark Dery in his essay "Black to the Future." Dery writes, "Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures? Furthermore, isn't the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers — white to a man — who have engineered our collective fantasies?"
Image via FTape
Ultimately, the term "Afrofuturism" proposes a vision for how the world could be while also acknowledging the far-fetched nature of that vision, as today's world makes it quite difficult for an equal future to emerge.
If reparations are a pathway towards this new vision, then by building them into admission fares—some of which would go to support children's futures—Afrofuture Fest's organizers were taking matters into their own hands, actively fighting a system that has shown time and time again that it's not going to change things by itself.
After all, white people have been stealing relentlessly from people of color for hundreds of years, while rarely facing consequences for their actions. And though the debate for reparations has made the national stage, it doesn't seem like reparations will actually be getting paid anytime soon.
The Case for Alternate Pricings
In his landmark essay "The Case for Reparations," which he summarized for Congress this past June, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that reparations for black people are far from optional niceties: they're actually ethically and legally obligatory, as deep-rooted processes that profit off the oppression of people of color are still very much present today. Coates cites factors such as redlining—the process of systemically denying various services to inhabitants of certain areas, based on race—as reasons why reparations are necessary. Redlining has prevented people of color from taking out loans and purchasing homes, essentially blocking many of them out of the middle class, and it's just one of the many examples that Coates uses to explain how people of color are locked into cycles of poverty based on existent racist structures.
The facts speak for themselves. The average black family has one-tenth the wealth of the average white family. Black women are four times as likely to die in childbirth. Black people are disproportionately represented in prisons and were three times more likely to be killed by police than whites in 2018. The list goes on and on.
This phenomenon extends to the arts, too. Both blues and hip hop originated in black culture but were successfully appropriated and commercialized by the white-led music industry, with blues becoming rock and roll and hip hop spawning today's modern pop landscape. One particularly telling example: Elvis Presley essentially made his name by plucking songs and styles from black culture and turning them into profitable, mainstream products. His smash-hit "Hound Dog" was actually written by black blues musician Big Mama Thornton, who received only $500 in total profits from Elvis's use of the song and died broke in a halfway house.
While the history of music is too multifaceted to be distilled into a binary divide, the fact that black artists have been chronically cheated out of royalties—and that their culture continues to be appropriated by white artists—cannot be denied.
A World of Unequal Divides
In light of all this, paying back stolen funds (or charging white people more for certain services) would be a reasonable way to address this legacy of injustice. Many have argued that reparations will only deepen racial divides, but that idea imagines a world where racial divides have somehow disappeared, as if they are not insurmountable obstacles for some while others are allowed to live their whole lives without seeing them.
In reality, racial divides are woven into the fabric of our lives. They affect many aspects of existence for people of color, dictating everything from our definition of beauty to our airport security systems; and to argue against reparations is to argue for the maintenance of a system built by and for white people. "Won't reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided," writes Coates. "The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say - that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt."
Reparations, therefore, would actually help us move past racial divides into a more unified future that remains impossible in our current structure of surface-level equality. This was always Afrofuture's intention: to focus on equity over equality, tangible action over theoretical ideas. "Equality means treating everyone the same," its organizers wrote in the original statement. "Equity is insuring everyone has what they need to be successful."
In light of this mission statement, the fact that a small festival created by and for black people might take matters into their own hands doesn't seem too outlandish or sinful. A race-based pricing scale for Coachella tickets might be more legitimately controversial; but Afrofuture Fest was created for black people, and the fact that white people are so desperate to secure an equal price is indicative of a colonizer's mindset, dedicated to occupying space that is not one's own.
This is not to advocate for a world where every white person pays more for everything— it is to advocate for one that allows black spaces to remain black spaces and that allocates reparations in a controlled, balanced manner. Since this world does not exist (yet), building (small, non-mandatory) reparations into the Afrofuture Festival might be read as a tribute to that dream.
White People Win Again
After the news broke about Tiny Jag's decision to leave the festival, its organizers received death threats from white supremacists, as well as widespread media backlash. Eventually, they were forced to make the prices the same for everyone—for safety, according to one of its organizers, and not for any other reason.
Many weren't happy that the festival was forced to backpedal its attempt to prioritize black attendees. "My white mom would be PROUD to pay more because she understands the history of economic exploitation of black folk in this country to benefit whiteness & she wants a better future for black folk, including her black kids," tweeted author Ijeoma Oluo. "Also note: publicly harming a black woman's business because you imagine that her efforts at helping the black community would make your white grandma uncomfortable is what internalized white supremacy looks like."
All that being said, today, white people can get a general admission ticket to Afrofuture Fest in Detroit for $20.