In 1982, a small group of students at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia arranged a picnic for those who could not afford to go home for spring break. According to Sharon Toomer, a freshman at the time and one of the organizers, the event was named “Freaknik” in a nod to the various cultural uses of the word, such as a dance called “The Freak” and Chic’s popular song “Le Freak.” Approximately 50 people showed up the first year, and the gathering became an annual event that grew in popularity.
Freaknik moved to various parks as it got bigger and began to attract students from all over the country, mostly from historically Black colleges. Eventually, it became a massive Spring Break festival and took to the streets of Atlanta. In 1994, Freaknik attracted 200,000 people and the city heard numerous complaints about noise, public misbehavior, and the sexual harassment of women. By 1999, the city reportedly arrested 350 people and towed 400 cars; this was the last year of what had become a famous street festival.
But if Freaknik’s days as a citywide street event were over, it was by no means dead and gone. Fueled by a desire to recreate what he saw as the spirit of Freaknik, the rapper T-Pain recently produced a one-hour animated musical that premiered on the Adult Swim channel on March 7, 2010. Featuring the voices of Snoop Dogg, Young Cash, and other rappers, it follows the adventures of a group of teenagers who summon the ghost of Freaknik (voiced by T-Pain). They are told of a rapping contest in Atlanta, the winners of which will get “a lifetime supply of money, clothes, and hos.” Along the way, they run into the Boule, a secret society of African Americans that seeks to control Black culture. The Boule’s leader, a thinly-veiled parody of Oprah Winfrey accompanied by caricatures of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, wants to destroy Freaknik.
Freaknik’s appearance on Adult Swim, a cartoon network that runs adult-themed animation works, means that it is already directed at a particular demographic that does not include younger children. Segments of the film have been deemed too risqué for public viewing and are no longer available on the web, but that has not prevented a controversy from brewing. The issues have to do with the language and the implied misogyny of freely-used epithets like “bitches and hos.”
There have also been complaints that the musical encourages the stereotyping of African Americans. On Essence.com, Yolanda Sangweni wrote: “We’ll need a minute to process how someone would pay homage to an event where women were often treated like ‘freaks’ by relying on negative stereotypes about African Americans (T-Pain’s character has gold teeth, holds a gold pimp cup and wears a black cape tricked out with dollar signs).” Erin Evans on The Root.com gives the musical more credit, saying that, “The most compelling part of Freaknik is its exploration of class tensions within the black community—W.E.B. Dubois’ ‘talented tenth,’ or the Boule, as the musical calls it, versus, well, everybody else who’s at Freaknik.”
Evans also points out that the controversy surrounding Freaknik the musical is much like the attempts to censor, “N.W.A., Tupac, and Biggie [who] were just a few of the rap acts in the late-’80s through mid-’90s who came under fire for rapping about their truths—police brutality, gang-ridden and crack-cocaine-hustling streets. Then, civil rights leaders like C. Delores Tucker were on a rampage to get them to drop the mic.”
Adding to this controversy is a speculation that Freaknik the festival might be returning to Atlanta in April. A glance at some of the previous coverage of the event reveals that that it was marked by complaints of police brutality or at least heavy-handedness over the revelers, the kind of reports that we rarely hear about in coverage of mostly white-dominated Spring Break events in Florida or California. While some accounts say that Freaknik disappeared on its own, others point to the role of increasing police restrictions. In the film, according to the synopsis on Wikipedia, one character claims that the police “killed” the festival. At the same time, residents are concerned that the return of the festival will mean a return of what they saw as a disruption of their peace.
Freaknik and its surrounding controversies speak to the conflicted and racialized narratives that often accompany African American cultural productions. While the film was made by an African American, much of the criticism of it also comes from within the African American community.
What do you think of Freaknik? Can a film be said to have stereotypes if it is made from within the community it appears to stereotype, and if so how? Is T-Pain stereotyping African Americans or is he providing a satirical look at the excesses of the music industry and designated cultural “leaders” like Oprah Winfrey and Jesse Jackson? Is Freaknik about racial stereotypes, class issues, or both? Should we prohibit the making of such representations or let them be made and then discuss their relevance or lack thereof? How does the controversy around Freaknik the musical echo the one over the festival? Can or should they be separated?
- Freaknik Promotional Video
- NYT: The Spirit of Freaknik Comes to TV
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC): T-Pain resurrects Freaknik – as an Adult Swim cartoon
- T-Pain brings back the spirit of freaknik in cartoon musical
- Freaknik: Musical Bourgeois Beware
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC): Street party became its own undoing
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