In 2003, a documentary called Afro Punk emerged on the film festival circut. The film tells the stories of many young people who listen to punk rock and are in the scene as fans, musicians and promoters of the genre. The one thing they have in common is they all share the experience of being black.
Within a music genre that was historically known for being about a “minority” audience (i.e. working class youth who wanted to rebel against the upperclass elite), the concept of race within the scene was never really questioned. Everyone was equal under the punk rock flag. Afro Punk definitely turns that idea on its head. It forces the audience to look and question what it is like to really be the only black face in a sea of white.
The film has over 80+ “Afro Punks” but focuses mainly on four individuals, each of whom have a different relationship to the music and the scene. Spooner follows these four through their daily routines while each describes his or her own difficulties and insecurities with being a black punk. Each one raises different questions about the varying comfort levels many young black people in the punk scene feel. The sentiments range from denying any sort of connection to race as a form of identity to using blackness as inspiration from which the music stems. Interspersed are bits and pieces from the various other interviews Spooner conducted. Whether it is talking about the influence Bad Brains had on the punk rock scene to the feeling of being the only black person at a concert, it is clear that these experiences are common enough, yet seem to go unnoticed under the punk ideal of equality.
I was fortunate enough to see this doc at Amherst College. James Spooner was there to answer questions about his film. It was a mixed audience, which is not surprising for this area…lots of white liberals like these sorts of events. Makes them feel good about themselves. What was interesting was the reaction a few people had to the idea Spooner projects in his movie. Not to get on the cases of people of my “race” (whatever that means), but white people really don't get it sometimes. And while this film does give opportunity for conversation, Spooner made it quite clear in his Q & A session that he did not make this film as an explanation for white people. He made it for people like him who felt alone in their love for a music genre that, in a way, was not open to them. He made it for the Afro Punks.
My friend Forbes was in the movie and he was nice enough to take time out and answer a few questions about his experience:
Miss Hipstah: How did you get involved with the making of Afro-Punk?
Forbes: James heard about me from this dude John Davis who is in this band Q and Not U. Funny thing is me and James know a lot of the same people, and he is only a year older than me, but I got into the scene a couple years after him and we never met. He must have come down to DC for some shows at some point, people back then traveled for shows a lot but I don't remember seeing him, and maybe he wasn't even living on the east coast then..
MH: What was the experience like?
F: It was really chill. James and Tamar-Kali came over, we all hung out, and then they filmed me and my friend Tem. Like I said it was chill because we knew a lot of the same people and talked about back in the day type stuff. James even had put out a record that was a big favorite of mine back then by this straight edge band from the Philly area called Frail, so yea..they just asked us questions and we answered them! Pretty straightforward..
MH: What did you gain from the experience?
F: Umm..at the time not too much. But to see the community that is growing from the whole thing is really great. At the time of filming I was getting out of the whole hardcore scene. I'm not really into it anymore but the good friends I have from it and the decent people I still appreciate.
MH: What are some of your thoughts on the topic of the film?
F: To be honest I still haven't seen the film! Various conspiracies have prevented it! So I can't REALLY ruminate on that. BUT I can say that I don't personally think punk or hardcore are things black people should get DEEPLY involved in unless they want to have an identity crisis. I think it's better to enjoy art and music for what it is than try to conform to someone elses culture. I still dig some hardcore music but I'm not trying be a “hardcore dude” anymore. I'm just being me. But who knows maybe the growing afropunk community will change that, and we can all get down with each other with less stupidity in the future..