Filmmaker James Spooner goes in-depth with Afro-Punk: the “Rock N Roll Nigger” Experience

By Onome

With an unshakeable faith in punk’s do-it-yourself ethos, and a film title re-appropriated from a clueless white rocker, James Spooner documents and affirms the experiences of Black punks who have straddled uneasy alliances, even outright divorce, of their ethnic culture and their chosen mode of expression.
It all started with Spooner’s desire to define himself on his own terms. That vision fueled his cross-country trek as he searched for the stories of other Black people who embraced punk rock. Spooner goes in-depth about several issues, including the process of naming and making “Afro-punk: the ‘rock n roll nigger’ experience,” the archetypal aspects of its main subjects, his punk love affair growing up in southern California, missions next and lessons learned.

Did the idea for Afro-punk come to you in a flash of inspiration, or did it percolate for a while?

To do the film was definitely one of those laying-in-bed-but-can’t-fall-asleep because the idea was so strong in my mind. One day I was like, hey, why not?

What was your intent behind subtitling your film “the ‘rock n roll nigger’ experience”?

There’s a culmination of a lot of different things and it’s been kind of evolutionary. I’m really considering, for the first time, just dropping it altogether. It’s become more trouble than I think it’s worth at the end of the day. But, it all started with the original title being “Rock n Roll Nigger.” I had difficulties with that, although I thought that it was, in some respects, an appropriate title. “Nigger” is not a word that frequents my vocabulary, so I had a hard time approaching people about the film and saying the title.

Rock and roll n-word.

You know! It’s just a very uncomfortable term. On one hand, I like to challenge myself and other people. However, I certainly understand all the arguments against it. I thought that people might mistake the original title as a sub-genre, or think that’s what I’m calling the people in the film, neither of which is the case. I couldn’t think of anything else where it’s (claps) two words — we instantly know what the film’s about. Until I thought of “Afro-punk.” But I guess part of me didn’t want to be censored. A lot of people were really into the idea of the film’s original name. I figured if I subtitle it “The ‘Rock n Roll Nigger’ Experience,” then “rock n roll nigger” becomes an adjective for the experience, rather than a noun for the people. Even with the grammatical flip, a lot of people don’t see anything but “nigger”. That’s problematic when, for example, people walk up to me and ask, “didn’t you make that nigger punk movie?” and I’m just like, oh God, I want to kill myself now.
It all goes back to the days when I was a promoter making flyers and I’d tell people “oh, the way it was designed was intentional” and “what this really means is …” Other promoters would be like No. People are stupid. Write exactly what you mean and call it a day. That’s why in the last few weeks I’ve been reconsidering the subtitle.

Out of the 70-something folks you interviewed, how did the four people emerge as the main subjects of your film?

I had no idea how to go about it, so there was a lot of trial and error. Before I started doing interviews, I searched the internet for people and sent them all a bunch of questions. Based on the responses, I decided whether to interview a particular person or not. Then I scratched that and ended up interviewing every single person I could.
Matt Davis was the first person I knew I wanted to focus on. He represented the punk-rock lifestyle so well. He reminded me of me in a lot of ways, and this movie is ultimately about me. I’m honored that it’s touched and moved and validated so many people, but it’s really for me. Anyhow, here was this guy who was the same age and was where I would have been if I never dropped out of the punk scene. He wrote back pages and pages answering these questions. I’m like wow, he’s so amped to be talking about his life and being a Black person in Iowa. He was in for sure.
When I first met Tamar-Kali, my focus wasn’t actually on her but on her collective. They used to do an event call Sista-Grrrl Riot: Black women who write and play and front their own bands. I thought of structuring the film regionally and I figured these women collectively could represent New York. When I started hanging out with Tamar-Kali, I ultimately thought her story was strongest. She represented more of whom I wanted to be as far as finding a way to maneuver, balance and be comfortable with being Black and being punk.

Moe is another personality who is very headstrong in affirming his Blackness and his politics, but also being able to — having grown up around so many white people — figure out how to live comfortably with white people and still be who he is, which is something I still struggle with. I thought that he provided a great example of how we could live in an integrated society of sorts. Rather than feigning a world where race doesn’t matter, dealing with the fact that I am Black and I am proud to be Black and I love Black people and I have Black people all around me and at the same time, I have these white friends and everybody has to be cool with all of that. If you don’t like this or that part of me then you can’t be my friend, on either end. That’s the basic vibe I got from him. For his white friends to be so comfortable with issues of race that they can joke about reparations and have it not be taboo speaks to that.
Mariko, I felt like she was someone who I understood. I had been in that place before where I just didn’t have enough experience with Black people to really understand where I fit into the community. Also, the experiences that I had — and that I feel she’s had —  were negative ones of people checking her with animosity, rather than love. I think her denial of Black culture and stereotyping of Black people are based on, a) self-defense and b) an example of what can happen to people who don’t have people like them around them. I’m sure none of her friends are calling anybody niggers — it’s not like that level of racism exists around her — but just the fact that she is not one of them is enough to make her hate herself, or aspects of herself. I feel that she played a really important part in fleshing out the representation of all these stages of Black identity in coming to terms with the duality of being a Black person in America.

At the screening, I noticed that Mariko hit a sore spot with a lot of people. There was a palpable energy shift as her story emerged, which included mutterings and heckles throughout the audience. Was there a conscious intent in how you framed her portrayal?

I wanted to create as fair and accurate a portrayal of America, Black identity and the punk scene as possible. As much as it could be really uplifting to see a bunch of kids who are fighting for the liberation of Black people but happen to be doing it in white circles — that would be a giant falsehood. The majority of kids in the punk scene are not that way. I knew that Mariko existed before I ever met her. When I was thinking of what kinds of things I wanted to cover in the film, I knew it was only a matter of time. I met several people who were just like her, but she just happened to be the one who was honest and open and willing to talk about it. When I originally chose her, it wasn’t just because of all the stuff that came out in the film, but also because she’s such a big player in the scene. What do you have to sacrifice to be a leader amongst the white people? When people are like, I love your film, but I don’t like what you said here, here and there, I’m like, I didn’t say that — she said that, and I put that in there because it was important. That’s a reality. We can’t close our eyes to the unpleasant parts about our community.
But sometimes I wish I had two different movies — one for people of color, one for the white people. There are times when I’m at an all-white screening and I’m like, damn, I wish they didn’t have access to this information about us. I did a screening in North Carolina and there was a large group of Black people. I sat among them and heard them get really upset, so I figured during the Q&A session there would be some discussion about Mariko. There wasn’t. I asked somebody about it. He said “Oh, that’s because there were all these white people here and that’s our business. That’s our secret.” I think she affected so many people because she’s vocal about things that we maybe feel sometimes but don’t say. I mean, we have prejudices within our community, where we might consider someone “ghetto” or a “nigger” or somehow less than us, but you don’t want to say that shit out loud, especially if you’re a “conscious” person who supposedly knows better than that. And what’s the difference between us not saying it out loud and white people not saying it out loud? I think Mariko challenges people in a way that’s really good.

Out of all the other respondents who got a few seconds of shine in this documentary, whose story would you have liked to give more attention to?

The first person that really stands out to me is Karla Mad Dog. That woman was amazing and wonderful and scary all at the same time. I remember thinking, if I had the balls, I would quit all of this and just do a documentary on her. She was in one of the very first punk bands in LA. She’s had the craziest life. She’s homeless but has a website, and it’s all about her different bands like the Controllers, who were big in the 70s and 80s. She played drums and everybody who had ever seen her didn’t even care about the rest of the band. It was all about Mad Dog. She just has such a fuck-you attitude about everything. I go to the house where she’s staying and she gets right in my face and says “Gimme five dollars.” I’m like, um, for what? She pulls out this broken cigarette from behind her ear, shoves it at me and says “an interview with the Mad Dog’s gotta be worth a pack of smokes!” She mentioned being 47 years old and looking healthy because “Black don’t crack.” Later on I tried to get her to sign a release form and she refused, so I asked her to state on camera that she’s granting me permission to put her in the film. She states her full name and says “I give you permission to film me .. naked!” and she pulls up her shirt. I was like, woah. Throughout the interview she was so incredibly intelligent and breaking down so much shit. It was so wonderful to see someone so carefree. I’m going to try to do bonus features and add more clips from that interview.

You mentioned that you’ve had all-white screenings. Have you ever had all-Black screenings in low-income neighborhoods? What were the most striking differences between those audiences?

I’ve done some stuff at inner-city high schools. I had a screening at a film festival held in the oldest projects in Canada. It was actually very multi-ethnic, but nonetheless, the Toronto ’hood. I’ve done tons of screenings where the audience was primarily Black, but not necessarily in poor neighborhoods. But even when I do, it’s still a selective audience. In fact, I’ve had screenings here in Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, but the kids hanging out on the corner — some of whom are even shown in the film — didn’t come. That brings me to another question of who I’m really reaching and if this film even matters in the greater scheme of things.
But as far as Black and white audiences, it’s like Black church and white church. At the predominantly Black Urbanworld film fest in midtown Manhattan, they were practically throwing things at the screen and screaming and booing at Mariko. In the Midwest, often it’ll be dead silent, no matter what is happening. One reason could be white guilt. “Will I be a racist if I laugh?” That kind of thing. They don’t really know how to react. This film was made for Black people, so white people are going to feel alienated from it, and that’s okay.

Have you ever had an audience that just plain hated it, or was otherwise very unsupportive?

The film was featured at a festival in Argentina where it cost 80 cents to see the movies, so people would just go — it didn’t matter what the film was. I went to one of my screenings and by the end of it, half the audience left. They were mostly elderly Argentineans who didn’t care about Black people or punk rockers. I didn’t take it personally. It’s individuals who harbor anger toward the film, never a whole audience of people. I couldn’t say, you know, all white people in Long Island hate “Afro-punk.” But there’s certainly one white guy in Long Island who made an ass of himself.

As for your own coming-of-age — why punk? As “opposed” to hip-hop, r&b, jazz or other idioms more commonly associated with Black culture?

Jazz was not an option. I mean, I love jazz now, it’s cool, but when you’re 13, it’s not cool. I listened to hip-hop from 3rd grade to 7th grade. I was the only kid. Everyone else was listening to Bon Jovi and other crappy hair bands while I was listening to “You Be Illin’ ” by Run DMC. I had the posters of them, and LL Cool J and the Fat Boys. I was living in the suburbs. Not even —  I was living in a desert town. I didn’t really get into the more urban stuff like Doug E Fresh. I also didn’t understand the gangsters and that mentality because I didn’t grow up around Crips, and I wasn’t about to perpetrate like I know what’s up. I was more into mainstream stuff. I mean, the Fat Boys — how dangerous is that? The other option was MC Hammer and I certainly wasn’t going to wear those pants. Kid’n’Play and Salt’n’Pepa seemed kinda lame to me.
Around the early 90s I got back into hip-hop. There were so many more options: the hippie Arrested Development, the urban sophisticates Digable Planets. At the same time you had Onyx, Das Efx, Pharcyde. You had the full spectrum of the African-American Diaspora. Now it’s just like, not.
I got into skateboarding in 8th grade and at that time, punk rock was the soundtrack for it. I didn’t know anything about the scene yet. There was a film about a skateboarding contest that had a soundtrack featuring songs from the SST label, which had Black Flag, the Descendants, Firehose, all these important bands from the early 80s punk scene. I bought all those tapes because I wanted to emulate my favorite skateboarders. Come to find out I’m listening to the same music as these other people who don’t skateboard. They looked really cool and others thought they were weird and we bonded around the music. No matter how hard I tried though, I never felt like I fit in. I could never get that Tony Hawk hair thing.
Also, I usually omit this aspect of how I got into punk, but there was a black punk rocker in my junior high and he was one of the coolest kids in the school. I really wanted to know him, and we became friends, and I started getting into the scene through him. I just really wanted to fit into something. I would get drunk because I thought that’s what punk rockers did, then I’d find out that there’s this scene called straightedge. They’re punks who don’t do drugs. I was like, cool, I’ll be straightedge! And yet again, I was the only one. Me and Ian McKay [of the band Minor Threat] seemed to be the only ones, then I moved to New York and found out there’s a whole world of everything. Punk rock just came naturally to me.

What’s next?

As for the film, it will be out in video stores in a few months. My company, Afropunk LLC, got a home video licensing deal with this company called Image.
We’re going to have a monthly music series starting early next year. We’re really trying to promote artists who are challenging black identity and traditional concepts of what it means to be black, and validating ourselves. We’ll be doing more concerts and expanding the idea of what “Afro-punk” is. It’s not necessarily this or that punk band, but it’s Fela and Miles Davis and Sun Ra, and contemporaries like dead prez, and all the folks who played at the “Afro-punk” Bad Brains tribute. There were only, like, two bands there that fit under the guise of punk or hardcore, but they’re all pushing boundaries and challenging us to re-examine what it means to be black. I want to create environments for us to freely express ourselves.
We’re also working on doing a film and music festival next year. I’m collaborating with a producer and screenwriter on a narrative adaptation of “Afro-punk.” We just finished a curriculum, which has been implemented in five high schools so far. A clothing line, record label; all kinds of things are starting to build.
As far as the next film, I’ll be shooting a documentary about the promise, illusion and failure of integration in America. It’ll all be taking place in the seven neighborhoods that run along Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.

What was the biggest lesson you’ve learned throughout the making of “Afro-punk”?

That the possibilities are endless. One of the greatest things I achieved for myself is a sense of self-validation. When I started the film, I had a lot of questions about who I was as a black person and where I fit. The other day my friend said, damn, man, you just carved out a niche. I took that to mean that I’ve created my own sense of who I am. Punk rock was a huge part of my life and I would never want to give it up. I love punk rock. Punk rockers however — I could take them or leave them. Being black is also a really huge, important part of life, so I brought my people to my music.
I never would have had the nerve to make this movie if I didn’t have punk rock. I took to heart all the things I learned from punk. I was all about do-it-yourself, and I’m still about it. I was 17 years old saying hey, if you wanna make a zine and get your voice heard, just do it. (In a whiny voice) Oh but, how am I going to get it printed? Find a way. Scan it. Get access to somebody’s office. Or get a job and pay for the shit. Do something. There are ways of doing everything.
So I asked myself, what would be the best medium to tell this story and get it to the audience I want to get it to? Video is the one. Black folks watch tv and go out to theater. They don’t really go to art galleries and huge, expensive concerts en masse. I figured I’d get my shit to where the people are. I don’t know anything about film but I’m just going to do it. I talk to my friend who’s a cinematographer and he speaks a whole ’nother language. To this day, I don’t know much about lighting and microphones and such. It’s like picking up a guitar for the first time and being like, fuck it, I’m gonna be in a band. Sometimes it sucks and sometimes it doesn’t. The musicians I admire most are the ones who I can tell just picked up a guitar at 14 and didn’t have to think. It just became an extension of them. It’s like talking and you can hear words come out of their fingers.

This film is strong from a technical perspective — not just “pretty good for someone with no formal training,” but well-made, period. Are you one of those perfectionists who spends 90 consecutive hours editing?

Oh shit, more like 90 hours every four days. I edited for a year and a half. I think that ultimately what I learned from making this movie is that there are certain things I have a natural ability to do, and I need to focus on those things. I believe we all have a tool within us for liberation. Not everybody wants or cares about getting free, but for me, that’s my end goal in life. I want to know what it’s like to think without having my thoughts informed by white supremacy. Even the phrase “the ‘Rock n Roll Nigger’ Experience” is a reaction to a white woman [Patti Smith] and her privilege. I want to be able to have thoughts that aren’t reactionary.

What’s the opposite of that?

I don’t know! Can you even begin to imagine what music in America would sound like if Black people weren’t oppressed? The very structure of the verse-chorus-verse pattern is a reflection of the constraining aspects of being an African-American. So the freestyle emerged. The solo. Improvisation represents our continual need to celebrate today, since we don’t have a past and can’t envision a future as a community. If we were truly liberated, our music would have to change not just in sound, but in structure. Sometimes I wonder if white people in America lack a culture to call their own, at least in terms of music, because their sense of freedom is different. It’s as if they look to us to serve as their conscience. In all the shit that white people have done throughout the course of American history, look at the damage that’s done to them. Now they can’t even imagine what it would be like to make a sound that wasn’t influenced by us and our oppression. I would love to be in a place where I could truly feel like I don’t have to make a movie about being liberated because I already am. I could just make a movie about flowers or something.

Like Wole Soyinka once said, a tiger does not declare its tigritude.

Exactly. Films are what I have to offer. I don’t get in fights and I’d be afraid to hold a gun. But I want to make movies that will inspire other people to hold guns, if need be. We all have our role, and over the course of my life I want to be able to look back and say: this is where we were before I came to present my view of humanity, and this is where we are now. I want to see progress and know that I had something to do with it.

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