Bob The Janitor
The Liberator Magazine 4.2
Days in which subcultures dominate the scene and Hip Hop has taken the forefront, a new movement is emerging with the possibility of creating a counter part to Hip Hop in urban areas around the world. A culture that was once identified with racist White kids, and often times misconstrued with alternative religious methods and a need to be different, has managed to find the glue to unite outcast Black youth from around the country. This new movement defined by its founder as “Afro Punk” started to emerge with the help of one of America's well-known Afro Punks -- a brother by the name of James Spooner. Spooner is the director of “Afro Punk: The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience,” a 66-minute documentary dedicated to tackling the hard questions, such as the issues of loneliness, exile, and Black power that sparked the Afro Punk movement.
What follows is a candid conversation I had with Mr. Spooner in his Brooklyn office regarding the concept behind the film and what is was like growing up as a Black punk rocker in a little desert town in California and then moving back to Brooklyn.
Bob: So where did you first discover punk rock music?
James: I first discovered Punk rock in California; we lived in this little desert town. The first punk rocker I met was this Black kid named Travis. I was a skate border and on the first day of school I saw this kid who had on combat boots and his jeans were all ripped up and he had like flannel wrapped around his waist, leather jacket and stuff and I was like damn who is that dude. Something was attractive about him. He just seemed like the coolest kid, you know. At the time I was in to skate boarding, and at that time -- not so much nowadays -- punk rock was the soundtrack for skate boarding. So even though I listened to Hip Hop all my friends listened to punk so I was just kind of hearing it and got into a couple of bands. So I met this kid and we could rap and we had bands to talk about. So I didn’t even think that Black people couldn’t be involved in Punk because the first Punk in my world was Black. Quickly I found out that was not the case you know; I was dealing with these kids that were racist. The first time I had been called a nigger was by a punk rocker. So I had to deal with that, like, in your face people would come up to me and say things like, "yo, you better watch your back cause I heard these kids talking about they are going to jump you for your boots." You know that kind of shit, so you know it was a rough time. So then like a year later we moved to New York and there were all kinds of punks of color.
So when you first came to New York were you excited about the diversity within Punk culture?
I was going through a lot at the time keep in mind when you’re 13 you’re like being peer pressured, you just wanna fit in but your creating your identity. And I was going through a lot of shit you know, while I was still in Cali. The Black kids at the school were young crips and were hounding me, so it was like, okay. They see a Black kid who’s not down with them and who is into this other shit so it was always like “why ain’t you down with the Black mafia gangster crips?” I’m like: “Black mafia who?” While I’m wearing plaid bondage pants. So I had a lot of harassment from those kids. Then I had all these White kids that were cool to my face but I would go in their room and they would have swastikas and shit and somehow they would justify it like, “oh you’re Black but those kids are niggers” and at that age I was ready to except that you know, it created self-hate. It doesn’t get much lighter then me but I would still look in the mirror like “I wish I was lighter, wish I had smaller lips.” I just wished the Black stuff would just go away so I wouldn’t be harassed by everybody.
When did you start to gain knowledge-of-self? Cause after reading up on the Afro Punk movement, it seems as though you are conscious of your situation and of other Black punk rockers, so when would you say that the consciousness and Black pride started to kick in?
That was way down the line -- I fluctuated. I moved to New York and all of a sudden I found all kinds of kids of color that were into punk and I wasn't actively seeking out kids of color but it turned out that way, although I still had White friends. There was this band called Bushman and they were a all-Black punk band and I used to worship the singer, this kid named Brian, and he was just a few years older then me and he was cool to me and this was my second show in NY. He gave me a flier and put me on the list, and I showed up at this show and they were all Black, there were brothers with green dreads, it was like the wildest band I had ever seen and it made so much sense you know, it felt right. They talked about racism and unity -- all the shit a 14-year-old wants to hear, especially at that time; you don’t wanna hear that segregation is real and alive, you wanna hear unity, you wanna hear my Black friends my White friends and we’re all cool. I had a lot of people of color around me and it was cool it made me not have to think about stuff you know. Then the New York hardcore scene got really violent and it got kinda gang influenced. All these cliques and crews and this posse wants beef with this posse, and I was never one of those posse-up kinda kids. So then I became straight edge [drug free] and there were no straight edge kids left, so I stop going to bars -- keep in mind I am like 15 -- so I started going to shows in Jersey and Pennsylvania and Boston. So, on Friday night I would be like “peace mom,” and be out for the weekend.
Were there other Black kids at these shows you were going to?
Nah, but I really didn’t think about it, I just wanted to find kids that were cool and artistic, and that were non-violent -- where people were coming to shows to see a show. The shows in the suburbs were a lot more community-based. Everybody had a record label and everybody was selling records at the show it was like people in New York were spoiled. It was like if you wanted to get a record you could just go to the record store and get it. In the suburbs it was not the case, so the kids created like there own commerce, and it was real exciting for me, I didn’t really think, “oh there are really no Black kids here.” It was not until a few years later that I started to question it again. I was hanging out in the scene called EMO [Emotional Hardcore] which had just started around this time which was like ’93, ’94. All these sensitive kids, you know. So, hanging out with these EMO kids and their style at that time was tight, high-water pants and they all had bangs, so I wanted to be like my friends, right? So I found myself wanting to look like these White kids. So when I finally cut off my dreads I went through like this three-month bad hair period, where I like didn’t know what to do and then I got a perm so I could have that hairdo. At that point I had a total breakdown like, “oh they are right, I am trying to be White.” Somehow I justified it to myself and had that perm for like 4 years, so if you look at my hair now it is kind of straight but when it grows it curls up so I had this big straight hair with these bangs, it was really crazy looking and at the time I am like still dealing with all these White folks. You know I kinda dropped out of the punk scene and was kinda dealing more with like Rock n’ Roll. I guess after you turn 21 and start going to bars and hanging out with the NY Rock n’ Roll scene, or whatever, in that journey, I just started questioning everything. So I asked one day what the fuck am I doing? My father is from Saint Lucia so I went to go visit him in Saint Lucia and when I got there it was a life changing experience I realized that the blinders had been on for so long and I got really angry so I came home cut off the perm broke it off with my White girlfriend -- it was all part of this, like, cleansing you know. You know, reclamation. And I just started building from there and was like, “I really wanna tell this story.” I wanted to make a movie that I wanted to see when I was like 14. If I would have had someone that I respected explain it to me, like if I would have been able to see my peers talk about it, I would not have had to go through all the shit, cause you know mom and dad could have like said something but who listens to their parents when they’re 14. So I needed to have like a manual saying, “this is what you are going through and you don’t have to. You are not alone and here are some examples of some options -- seeing what some other folks are doing.”
So with Afro Punk now being a movement that is making waves around the country, what came first the concept for the movement or the concept for the film?
Oh, just the film. I remember while making it I would go to shows a lot more and I started seeing a lot of things I had never scene. The way that race worked in the scene. I got this documentary about Latin Punk, there was like this one scene in it where they like scanned the crowd and it was all Latino Punks. I remember thinking like fuck man we will never have that, we don’t speak our own language we don’t have anything to unite us then I went to go see this one women perform -- and in New York at some shows they will have like 5 bands that have nothing to do with each other like one band will come on and play then the next and everybody will come and see one band then leave and then the next and leave -- so at this show, before the person I went to see came on there was this Japanese Punk band and there were like 200 kids crammed in this little spot; all Japanese kids, bands singing in Japanese, there’s a Japanese mosh pit, Japanese kids Jumping off-stage I was like, “this is amazing.” I was like one of seven people in the whole place that was not Japanese.
So while thinking of the concept behind Afro Punk what did you find as a common thread among Black punks?
When I started traveling around showing the movie and seeing who was showing up to see the movie -- I think it first hit me in Toronto where the first screening was nuts, it was like a 300 people seat theater and there were like hundreds of people waiting on the rush line, just in case they could get a ticket -- I was like “what the fuck?” They were all Black. I was like “wow I never would have had to make this movie if I had known that so many Black people were down with this already,” you know, wanting to see a Black punk. So I started doing the screenings and finding out that like Black people, mainstream people are not that different from one another, and that we all have this one thing in common and that is the oppression that we live under. Whether you are college educated or the kid on the corner, somebody sees you as a nigger. It sucks to be united under White supremacy but, the reality is that we did not know we were Black until White people told us we were Black, you know, race did not even exist until White supremacy existed. So, if we have to be united by the fact that we are not them, at least we can still be united. So then I started putting on shows and the film is getting a lot of word of mouth and everything, so I figured, let me use the film to start to put on some events, and help push other bands. So that is pretty much what I have been doing. It has gone from shows that were 30 percent Black to shows now where it is hard to find any White folks. So right now we are providing a space for those people that are looking for something the new movement consists of -- people that just go to house parties and, like, you know, their jeans just aren't that baggy, you know, people that are not into Lil’ Flip and T.I. Right now, a lot of Black people don’t feel that they have any options, and this is just an option. So the people that come are the ones that are looking for options.
Do you feel that you accomplished what you were trying to accomplish with the film?
Yeah, I am satisfied with it, it was more then I ever expected. We are coming up on our 200th screening and I never would have thought that it would go so far, especially given the fact that it is pretty much all word of mouth. It gives me energy to keep going, especially with the adversity that comes with it, you know. There might be a band that I want to introduce like a "T.V. On The Radio" or a "Bloc Party." I want to introduce them to a Black audience and introduce the audiences to these bands but we have to deal with all the bullshit that comes with being a rock star. My whole thing is like, there are no rock stars, I don’t want to put on shows where the stage is taller then us I want to have Bloc Party that sells out the Bowery ball room and have them play in a place that fits 250 people and I want those 250 people to be Black, is that wrong? What I am trying to do with Afro Punk is be very vocal about the fact that I don’t care about White validation maybe its because I grew up in the White scene and I know what that’s about, but at the end of the day, I feel like one of the problems that we deal with is consistently needing to be validated by White people. It's like our shit is not tight until White people tell us it is tight. Like Hip Hop, I remember when I was in the single digits and I remember listening to rap music and people saying, "that is a fad, I give it two years." You know what I'm saying? Like people criticizing it like "I don’t even know what they are saying." But I just liked it, like, whatever. But is it a coincidence that once White America found out that they could make money off it and they put Yo! MTV Raps on and all of a sudden everybody is Hip Hop? 35-year-old men walking down the street in like sweat suits trying to be Hip Hop, I mean everybody is Hip Hop. You then had people saying, "We are Hip Hop." Everybody in the world is trying to be like us, yeah, but only because White people told you it was cool, yeah while the White people that are running it are like "yeah you keep on thinking that as long as you keep buying the records and the apparel and buying the diamonds, you know funding all of our shit." So what I am trying to present is like, look we can do this ourselves. Everybody sweats us for a reason; cause we are talented, because poverty has forced us to invent shit. The system took away our band programs and so some kids came up with the idea of making music with two records.
We're a human development centered cooperative, producing in part through the generous and faithful contributions of our North Star members. Choose your membership: Annual ($36), Monthly ($3), ($5), ($10), ($15), ($30), ($70), ($200), ($500), ($1000).