Taking It All Back




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.