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Film Looks at Lives of Black Punks


Punk rock: it's loud, it's political, it's aggressive. And did I say loud? It's really, really loud. And in James Spooner's documentary Afro Punk, punk rock is also black. NPR's Christopher Johnson has more on the film, which screens in New York this week at the CMJ music marathon.

But first, a warning: this story has language that will offend some listeners.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Black people do everything, even punk rock. And Afro Punk is a collage is of died, spiked and leathered black kids doing punk rock at full volume.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: I think the punk rock lifestyle might mean something just about not settling, you know, ever.

Unidentified Woman: Maybe today, like, my hair's blue. Maybe tomorrow I might shave it all off. And that's just how I felt that day, and then I don't care if people think it's ugly. And that makes people so uncomfortable.

JOHNSON: Afro Punk is meant to prove wrong black people who think punk would never appeal to black kids. James has a point to make to a very particular audience.

Mr. JAMES SPOONER (Director, Afro Punk): I made this film for the black community. This is my way of showing us what we can be. I really wanted to open up a discussion within the black community about the ways that we limit ourselves.

JOHNSON: And there were other reasons for making Afro Punk, which is subtitled The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience. The opening frames carry this dedication: to all the black kids who have ever been called a nigger. James uses the N word to show that this film is about more than maximum rock and roll.

Mr. SPOONER: This is a story about identity. When it comes down to it, this movie isn't about punk rock at all.

JOHNSON: Instead, it describes a process that a lot of black Americans go through, punk or not. The film is about how black people come to know themselves as black people. And it's about how hard it can be to be black in a mostly white environment - any environment, not just the punk scene.

Mr. SPOONER: I had somebody in Chicago tell me, they were like, man, if you would've just take out the world punk and just change it with like the computer world, it'd be the same thing.

JOHNSON: But James knows punk, so he made a movie that raises some of the tough race issues blacks face trying to live the punk rock life, issues like white liberal racism, interracial dating and being criticized by other blacks.

Mr. SPOONER: I wanted to make a movie that I needed to see when I was 14. I didn't need to see this movie because it was a movie about punk rockers. I needed to see this movie because it was a black liberation movie by people who I would consider my peers.

JOHNSON: The film is focused on the voices of black punk rockers themselves. They describe their experiences living, loving and rocking hard in the punk scene. When it comes to race, that scene isn't always as radical or progressive as a lot of punks might claim.

Unidentified Woman #2: People want a multicultural vision of punk rock. They want to have all of the (unintelligible) out and be like, look at all the Negroes. But at the same time, they don't want to deal with you as a person who experiences race.

Unidentified Man #2: It's almost kind of like, we can see you're black, but you don't have to keep rubbing it in our faces.

JOHNSON: James was drawn to punk as a teenager growing up in Southern California. He had his own record label, became a radical punk activist and organized lots of punk concerts. Then he took a trip to the Caribbean to visit his father's native St. Lucia. There, James was surrounded by black culture, an important part of himself that James neglected as a teen.

He felt like and outsider looking in on his own black self - the feeling that he'd manage to drift far away from that black identity while devoting so much energy to punk, that feeling hit James hard.

Mr. SPOONER: And I got angry mostly at the punk scene because, you know, that was my life. It was my family. These were people who were so political. And there was never any question of like why are you perming your hair? You know, why are you only dating white girls? Like what - you know, there was never any question.

JOHNSON: So James decided he'd ask those questions himself. Three years ago, he went around the country interviewing his punk peers. He asked them to talk about some of the same complicated issues of race and punk that he himself had been wrestling with since he was a teenager.

Mr. SPOONER: Anything from how do you feel when you see another black person at a show? Have you ever been accused of trying to be white, and like where do you think that comes from? You know, we would talk about interracial dating. First, I usually ask like what is it about the punk scene that you love? And is there anything that the punk scene can offer that if you don't have any interest in the music you can still take from?

JOHNSON: The answers that James got - answers that are the focus of the documentary - those answers reveal a passion for all things punk: the clothes, the politics, the mosh pit. That passion is, in a lot of ways, bigger than race. It's as explosive as punk itself.

(Soundbite from movie, "Afro Punk")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Oi!

Unidentified Man #4: There's an energy from it, you know, what you don't hear from any other music.

Unidentified Woman #3: And the first time I got into that pit, it was power. I got so many bruises.

Unidentified Man #4: It felt natural to go out, and for me to go out and stage dive because it was the way I let out all my aggression.

Unidentified Woman #3: Maybe it's some pain (censored), but I absolutely loved it.

JOHNSON: James says the punk scene is especially appealing to teenage blacks who are coping with two kinds of rejection.

Mr. SPOONER: A lot of black kids who grow up in the punk scene feel a sense of alienation from the black community and a sense of alienation from the mainstream white community. And the punk scene will accept you, at least on the surface.

JOHNSON: Afro Punk dives beneath that surface. It reemerges with voices from black punks, describing what happens when a warm, open-armed, radical punk community turns into a frustratingly cold alienating world.

(Soundbite of movie, "Afro Punk")

Unidentified Man #5: People don't think twice about the (censored) they say to you because they're always around a bunch of white kids.

Unidentified Woman #4: I moved into this punk rock house when I got here. And I was like sitting in the living room combing my hair, and my roommate came out and started just laughing. She'd just like never seen a black woman's hair out before. And it was just like this joke to her.

Unidentified Woman #5: I have had friends who really, really, really thought that everybody except for me, they were niggers.

JOHNSON: Like black people in general, every black punk is made different, but Afro Punk shows how much black punks across the country have in common - like how hard so many of them work to be just as punk and sometimes just as white as other punks in the scene.

(Soundbite of movie, "Afro Punk")

Unidentified Man #6: I totally didn't fit in with the white punk kids, you know what I'm saying? It's like I had to go out of my way to prove that I was punk to them.

Unidentified Man #7: One of the first times I actually grew dreads was because I felt that I wanted to have the flowing hair of the Caucasian.

Unidentified Man #8: I really wanted to have spiky hair. And eventually, I think at the end of high school, I straightened my hair to have spiky hair...

JOHNSON: James avoided turning Afro Punk into a film that could just as easily be called the History of Black People in Punk Rock. There are no timelines, no talking head university punk professors, no charts, no statistics. Instead, Afro Punk is a discussion, one that brings to the surface the hideous and the beautiful experiences that come with being a black punk, one like James Spooner, who says punk rock still moves him with its power to change people's lives.

Mr. SPOONER: And I hope that I have a little bit of that for some generation, for them to watch the movie and just be like, wow, I love being black. You know?

JOHNSON: James Spooner wrote, directed and produced the documentary Afro Punk: The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience.

Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #9: (Singing) Do you really know me, you know the color skin. The way I take myself, you think I do it for you.

CHIDEYA: To watch clips from Afro Punk and to find out where the movie's showing at this week's CMJ Music Marathon in New York, go to our Web site, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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