Director James Spooner was on shaky ground when he decided to make a documentary about black punk rockers. If in the wrong hands, a topic like this might have easily done the opposite of what it intended to do. Instead of portraying black punks as a group of struggling outsiders, they might have come across as poseurs, or even worse—self-haters.
Since the documentary, Afro punk toured the film festival circuit three years ago, it has spurred a movement of sorts. Afro punk classes are now offered in select schools, Afro punk curriculum is being developed for museums, a compilation featuring musicians from the film was released, and the official web site is a haven for Afro punk kids to meet other like-minded people. The Brooklyn Academy of Music even hosted a five-day music festival related to Afro punk.
The Afro punk movement has been long overdue. It’s no secret black punk bands existed for years, but lately a growing sense of, “I’m not the only one!” has echoed through the scene, thanks to the Internet. In a way, Afro punk is a gift to those people. Afro punk doesn’t say anything new about the scene or delve into unknown territory, but instead relies on being a celebration for misunderstood people.
The film follows the lives of four blacks who are devoted to the punk rock lifestyle. Their story and the interviews from more than 80 others are incorporated throughout the film. Most of their stories are similar as they describe how they grew up and how they got into the punk rock scene. Most grew up in the white dominated suburbs, the lone black kid in their neighborhood. Some tell upsetting accounts of their friends and family looking down on their dyed hair, body piercing, and questionable music taste. Other issues such as interracial dating and being ostracized by other blacks are also told through honest and at times humorous commentary.
Tamar-kali Brown, a musician, felt it natural to find her identity through the punk rock lifestyle. To her, the punk rock aesthetic is merely a Eurocentric, contemporary adaptation of what Africans have been doing all along. She points out specific examples of the similarities between the piercing and hair styles of the two cultures.
Moe Mitchell is a musician who performs with an all white band in front of an all white audience. The only catch is that his lyrics sprout messages of oppression and black power. In one scene, Mitchell shouts lyrics about slavery and The Middle Passage to a room full of seemingly angry white males. The men memorize the lyrics and shout along with Mitchell as if their lungs depend on it. It’s not until after the performance when they are asked if they knew what the song was about that they reply with a collective round of ‘Uhhh’s.
The most controversial and infamous of the features is Mariko Jones, a DJ who publishes a flyer about the SoCal music scene. It’s clear from the beginning that Jones suffers from identity issues, but it’s not until she speaks candidly about interracial dating that her confusion is magnified. Jones says she finds it hard to date black men because, she says, she respects herself and is “not a whore”. During the commentary, Spooner mentioned when the film was shown in theaters the audience booed and threw popcorn during Jones’ scenes. Jones might be the most loathsome (and self-loathing) person in the film, but near the end we begin to pity her more than hate her.
The minor critiques of Afro punk are mostly technicalities. Although Afro punk advertises the presence of legendary bands like Fishbone, Bad Brains, and TV on the Radio, their contributions are minor. Besides the 30 seconds of Bad Brains footage, all other live concert footage is from underground nobodies. Too much time was wasted on Cipher, Mitchell’s band. The DVD seems lazily put together with no chapters or audio for the commentary. The deleted scenes, additional interviews, and concert footage is good for one-time viewing, but that’s it.
Afro punk targets alienation in this sub-sub-culture (for example, some kids mention how their white friends would say racist things around them because they were not considered a certified “real” black person). Spooner mentions in the commentary that the phrase “punk rock” could be synonymous for “America”. Punks who talk about being the one black kid at a show share the experience of the one black person at a white-dominated workplace. Each example of life as a black punk rocker reveals how hard it is for blacks to go against societal norms when they were never part of the societal norm to begin with.