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Taking It All Back
Afropunk: The "Rock n Roll Nigger" Experience
B eing white in the United States means never having to think about what that means. And most white folks don’t. In fact, any frank discussion of race makes many liberal or left-leaning white people immediately nervous or defensive. The U.S. is supposed to be “colorblind,” after all. And what better way to prove blindness than by intentionally ignoring something or someone?
James Spooner’s documentary Afropunk: The “ Rock and Roll Nigger" Experience rips the blinders off mercilessly, but with an obvious love for the people, the music, and for some parts of the punk scene such as the DIY ethic. The title “ Rock and Roll Nigger” is a reference to a Patti Smith song by the same name in which she compares her struggle as a white feminist in the rock music scene to that of Black people fighting against white oppression. Spooner reclaimed the title in an act of cultural re-appropriation.
Afropunk follows the lives of four Black people involved in the punk rock scene: Tamar Kali, a woman in New York City; Moe Mitchell, singer for the band Cipher from Long Island, New York; Matt Davis, late member from the band Ten Grand from Iowa City, Iowa; and Mariko Jones, editor of the zine Social Inflight in Orange County, California. The film examines how various Black punk rockers from the ages of 15 to 50 years old, in a mostly white punk hardcore scene, deal with issues ranging from how it feels to be the only Black kid at a show, to interracial dating, to feeling unsupported by the Black community because of being punk.
In many ways, Afropunk gave much needed recognition and validation to Black punk rockers. One recurring theme in the documentary was challenging the idea that punk music isn’t “Black music.” Numerous Black punks (separately) argued that rock and roll was actually African music first and pointed to groundbreakers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jimi Hendrix to illustrate their point. Another insists that facial piercing too is African, going back to “the bush” long before it was “punk.”
Often, Spooner’s questions—as well as the answers of those interviewed—hit too close to home for comfort. I cringed when I saw brown kids say things that showed how much self-hate or at least lack of self-respect they had internalized and how their white friends seemed to make it worse. I squirmed because those kids were saying things I probably said at one time while trying to grapple with my Chinese heritage and my identity as an anarchist kid. Spooner too commented, “I think a lot of Black people in the scene feel resentful about being the only one in their group of friends who has to think about race. This shows them why it’s important.”
It was uncanny how people interviewed hundreds of miles and many months apart, but who shared the common experience of being the only Black punk kid in their community, echoed each other’s sentiments, sometimes verbatim.
One particularly painful yet funny scene explored how people reacted to seeing another Black person at a show. Several people responded that, although they were quick to seek out fellow punks of color, they had experiences where the other person snubbed them: “I want to go up to them, but I don’t want to be like, ‘I’m Black, you’re Black; we should talk’ and come across weird.”
“Sometimes I’ll get the dis…. Like that person might be Black, but they didn’t come here to be Black.”
Another common experience for Black punks was being told by their white friends, “You’re not really Black.” This “safe Black” phenomenon—the idea that Black people who don’t act within the allowable parameters of white peoples’ stereotypes of them weren’t really Black and were thus “safe”—was particularly insulting to Black punks and exposed how deep white supremacist thinking permeates so many of those who have been socialized as white, even the ones who are “open-minded.”
Luckily, the film is also rife with examples of Black punks (mostly in their late 20s) who show that self-love, cultural knowledge, creativity, individuality, and dedication to the Black/African struggle can transcend the isolation, alienation, and stagnation of an unsupportive white punk scene. Tamar Kali continues to live and make music on her own terms and challenges the musical sensibilities of her perplexed neighbors. Moe Mitchell, a practitioner of ancient African traditions as well as a driving force in the New York hardcore scene, continues to push boundaries of what’s punk and what’s Black.
Perhaps the best thing that came from the film is the message board marked “Community” on the Afropunk website. The message board is maintained by Spooner and he regularly participates in the discussions, but it’s evident that it is the 300-plus registered users, assorted guests, and other curious web surfers who spark the lively debates and find new ways to make punk and race relevant to each other. Topics broached include cultural appropriation, Black skinheads, and biracial identity. There is a section to talk about “the scene,” another to discuss politics and a place to recommend books and zines. Black punks in Chicago who met on the message board are now meeting for brunches and setting up shows. There is even talk of putting on a Black punk festival sometime in the future.
But for Spooner, who left the punk scene years before making Afropunk , the film was never just about punk. It is a film he made primarily for Black people. Ultimately, Afropunk reminds us that in punk rock or anywhere else, it will take people of color organizing to create space for themselves and challenging “whiteness” in order to move toward true equality.
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