Patti Smith sang "Rock and Roll Nigger," but 25 years later filmmaker James Spooner has really taken a look at what it means to be marginalized in the white rock world. His 66-minute documentary called Afro-Punk explores the uniquely American phenomenon of African-American kids going doubly underground black in the white punk scene.
"I made Afro-Punk out of a need for validation," the 26-year-old Spooner says from Brooklyn, N.Y. Growing-up in Palm Desert, Calif., in largely white neighborhoods, Spooner was drawn to alternative causes, punk rock among them. "I was like, 'If you're gonna make fun of me, let me choose what it is you make fun of me for,'" he says. For all the community he found in the punk rock scene, he never quite felt at home.
"The first time I was called 'nigger' was actually at a punk rock show in California," he continues. "I got to the point where I was a strict vegetarian, I was demonstrating for women's reproductive rights outside of abortion clinics, I was doing everything for [punk rock] causes. But I was like, 'What about my issues?'"
By 2002, the 22-year-old was promoting parties in New York and making sculpture. "Then one day making sculptures about being black just didn't cut it anymore," he says, laughing. The admitted Luddite ("I didn't even have an e-mail address") maxed his credit card buying a DV camera and computer, and started taping interviews with everyone he could remember and locate who was black in the punk rock scene.
The result is Afro-Punk, with its scores of interviewees talking in wildly varying arcs about being black and into punk rock. There's Tamar-Kali from Brooklyn, a tattooed and tribal estro-punkess who explains Mohawks and piercings validate her Native American and African heritage; there's Mariko Jones, a nerdy college radio DJ-type from Pomona, Calif., who maintains "race is not an issue." Alterna-punks, like New York's Peter Gabriel-meets-Parliament TV On The Radio and hip-hopper Mike Ladd chime in. But most fascinating are the kids in the middle of nowhere, like Ten Grand's late, great Matt Davis, an Iowa City, Iowa, punk who sold blood and played in three bands at house parties and then died suddenly of a rare heart disease just as Afro-Punk was being released to the public.
"The people who grew up in large urban areas where they were always taking shit for how they looked had a really developed way of articulating who they were and what they stood for, because they'd been dealing with it their whole lives," Spooner says.
The documentary inevitably, if frustratingly, resists drawing any conclusions Fahrenheit Black-11 this ain't. But it has spawned a nationwide discussion, and not just among black kids with Mohawks: BET.com gave the doc 4 out of 4 stars when it first premiered in 2003.
Spooner's aware that the novelty of his subject matter accounts for Afro-Punk finding its above-ground audience. "It's the freak-show part of it 'Oh, let's watch these weird-looking black kids hit each other.' But then people see the humanity and being able to relate to what these kids go through in terms of validation and identity," Spooner says. "One thing that most black people have in common is the desire to find a place to call home." And many have. The message boards at afro-punk.com have spawned an online community and inspired screenings and shows around the country.
An accompanying Afro-Punk compilation album has helped further the cause of bands like Long Island's groove-metalists Cipher, who now have a second black member and a "browner" audience, as Spooner puts it, since being in the movie.
Afro-Punk includes interviews with Detroiters including photographer Ewolf and Lacy X, late of Cass Corridor's Son of Sam and now of the Hillside Stranglers. Ewolf drummed for '80s hardcore punk band Angry Red Planet and, more recently, as a part of the twin-drummer throb of Mick Collins' Dirtbombs. Lacy now runs his own label.
Though a fan of the movie, Ewolf wishes it would have concentrated more on individual struggles to be black and punk. "I see more power in having a variety of people describing the various ways they all came to the same place, so to speak." (One highlight of the film is a Bad Brains homage where Afro-punks talk about the influence of the seminal hardcore punk band on their development.)
Ewolf grew up in Royal Oak Township attending Oak Park schools, and hanging out with the burnouts by default. They listened to the Nuge and Zep; he was drawn to '50s and '60s rock and pop. "My drumming was more inspired by the Monkees than by Flipper," he says.
Ewolf credits Detroit radio as being a heavy influence on Detroit's first generation of Afro-punks. "WRIF used to play 'new wave' with an occasional Earth Wind & Fire track, since the group had a track on that wretched Sgt. Pepper movie soundtrack," he says. "W4 was even better: Mark McEwen [a black DJ, now a CBS anchor] hosted a show which introduced us to bands like the Pretenders, Suburban Lawns, Oingo Boingo, Devo, Talking Heads and the Police."
Couple that with Electrfyin' Mojo and other black new wave kids inventing techno, and Detroit was on the map, if still underground. But, Ewolf noticed, radio quickly became more segregated. He recalls Lacy another Oak Park alum who once gave a class report by standing on a desk and playing a Parliament Funkadelic tape calling "free-form" FM station WABX to request the Plasmatics, only to be told by the jock, "We cannot and will not play that song!"
A handful of black kids could be found at Detroit hardcore shows back in the day. And most of them soon founded their own bands: John Bunkley sang for ska legends Gangster Fun; Odell Nails founded mantra-rockers Spahn Ranch and Tony Drake played in several new wave bands.
These days, Ewolf says, the pickin's are slim. "Of all the local bands I've photographed over the years, I can't recall one black person being in any of the punk bands. They must be out there, though."
They are. There's Cass Corridor gangster bliss band Paik, who have released a DVD showcasing their fuzz-rock psychedelia, and Siddhartha, an MC5-influenced product of fashionista Ziam Silver's glam-happenings. The latter's all-black lineup boasts a sound that teeters between soulful garage and Lenny Kravitz. And there are others too.
But the real importance of Afro-Punk isn't in inspiring or promoting black underground rock; it's the forum for letting kids find themselves. Says Spooner, "I get e-mails from 13-year-old kids saying, 'This movie saved my life.' It's doing for them what Minor Threat did for me when I was their age.
The big disappointment for Ewolf, though, has been on the message boards: "I found a number of people referring to each other as 'nigger' not only using the word but defending its use. [And] discussions on what mannerisms, actions, or hairstyles qualify one as 'black enough.' I expected more enlightenment from this group of people who had likely felt the sting of racism outside and inside the punk scene. That they couldn't transcend that type of cultural and self-depreciation is sad."
Afro-Punk is out now on DVD. The Afro-Punk: Vol. 1 CD is also available. Go to afropunk.com for details.
Hobey Echlin is a freelancer writer. Send comments to [email protected]