Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright. James Spooner made a documentary in 2003 called Afro-Punk. It was a defining film for a generation of young Black people who felt like outsiders, like they didn't fit in any part of the mainstream, Black or otherwise. The film spawned a music festival that is today a global brand. A brand that while wildly popular just doesn't provide the same kind of space that James Spooner tried to carve out for punks like himself, so he's gone on trying to make that space in other ways. He published a graphic memoir in 2022, and this fall, he'll publish a collection he co-edited with Chris Terry called Black Punk Now.
I spoke with James Spooner recently as part of our ongoing series, Black History is Now. We talked about his place in the story of punk rock and about the future he's helping today's younger Black punks create for themselves. In your graphic memoir, you describe how you first get introduced to punk music. I think we want to start at that era in your life. What was life like for you at that moment? Just take us back to 1980 San Bernardino.
James Spooner: I moved from New York when I was four or five to a series of small towns. These are Barstow, Victorville, Apple Valley, but basically, we're talking two hours from LA on the way to Vegas. It's very white, very poor. That was all fine as a little kid, but I think once I got into middle school, that's when identities start to form and questions start to be raised. It was also a time when my parents were divorced, so it was just me and my mom who's white, and I just was kind of lost, kind of angry, had a bunch of questions that I didn't know I was asking.
James Spooner: I enter eighth grade and I'm a skater, and just on the first day of school I see this really cool Black kid with spiky hair and a leather jacket jumping all over his friends and stuff. He was a punk rocker who basically introduced me to that world. I think that the options at the time felt limited. When I looked around my school, especially at the kids of color, there was the beginnings of gang banging, which just was not anything that made sense for me.
I mean, it's hard to even imagine a time when people didn't know what gangster rap was or Crips and Bloods were or whatever, but at that time, 1988, 1989, Boyz n the Hood hadn't come out yet, so when people were talking about gangsters, I was totally confused. Then the other end of the spectrum was MC Hammer, and I just wasn't willing to wear those pants.
Kai Wright: [chuckles] I had some pants like that, I'm going to have to tell you, James. I, in fact, was willing to wear the pants.
James Spooner: Sorry to hear that.
Kai Wright: Of course, we are talking about more than fashion and music here. We're talking about who James thought he could be as a Black person in the late 1980s. What were the boundaries? That spiky-haired kid showed him a frontier and he ran for it. He says a big draw was the punk scenes DIY vibe.
James Spooner: You got to think about punk rock starting in the early, mid-70s and it not "breaking", going mainstream until the mid-90s, so for 20 years it was just a completely underground thing. Do it yourself is literal kids, 14, 15, 16-year-old kids putting on shows, doing photography, being on stage, and it's really empowering. I had a record label when I was 17, and I would go to a recording studio and be there while the band recorded, get my little DAT tape, send it off to get it pressed into vinyl, and send them to other punk distributors. I was a distributor, so we had this whole network, this whole underground thing going on, which still exists to this day.
Kai Wright: I want to pause here. You were 17 years old with a record label, and you were unusual as a teenager in a punk scene to do that kind of thing. I think it is certainly very difficult for me to wrap my head around that.
James Spooner: Yes. It does sound crazy, but you're also thinking, you're picturing me in some recording studio behind glass with an engineer being like, "Yo, put more bass up in that." This was literally some dude's home. The singer is in the bathroom screaming on the mic. There were mentors. There were people who had been doing it for five years already, so when I would go to them and say, "How do I get this into a piece of vinyl?" they would say, "Oh, you have to get it mastered." "Well, what does that mean?" "Well, just send it to this person. They'll do it for you."
I know that mastering now is an art that you're supposed to be there and watch every knob get turned and whatever. I never even listened to it because how am I going to play a DAT tape?
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America, we'll be right back.
Kai Wright: Do you remember the point that you started to think about racial identity in the context of the scene that you were helping create?
James Spooner: Right off the top, I was forced to think of it because I was a Black kid in a scene that was filled with Nazis, like just straight-up violent white supremacists.
Kai Wright: Can you give us the history of that? What is the relationship between neo-Nazis and punk music?
James Spooner: Yes. The brief history of skinhead is you've got these Jamaican working-class kids in England who are going to school and working alongside white poor kids and they're all listening to soul music and Ska music, which is the beginnings of reggae, and creating bands. It's really about unity between the races. Some of the dumber members of that community are infiltrated by the national front, which is the white power political organization in England at the time and they take on the same look.
In the early '80s, when the Nazi skinheads start making news, they start getting on Geraldo and these kind of talk shows or whatever, they win the publicity battle on what a skinhead is. It wouldn't be the first time that racist white people took somebody else's culture for their own, right?
Kai Wright: James moved to New York City in his later teenage years, and their race came up in a whole different way.
James Spooner: I met a group, a band called Bushman, and they were all Black and totally punk rock. When I went to see them, I was like, for once I felt like they were the coolest people in the room, and by association or by proximity, I was cool. It made me feel like my Blackness was an asset. There were times where my Blackness didn't feel like an asset and I wanted to just fit in or fade to the background or whatever, but it was in my early 20s that I really started to contemplate this stuff, to want to ask those questions publicly. That's where I decided that I wanted to make a documentary.
Kai Wright: How did you get started with that? Who did you find to interview?
James Spooner: This is the year 2000 before social media, and I remember going on message boards and asking [unintelligible 00:09:16], "Who is the Black punk in your scene?" People would respond like, "Oh, you got to talk to Black Chuck."
Kai Wright: Wow. When you found them and they started talking to you, were you surprised about the things they had to say? What took you when you started actually talking to them?
James Spooner: This is a documentary with an agenda. I definitely already knew the answers. There was only one answer that I didn't expect. I asked, "What does it feel like when you see another Black person at a show?" The response I was looking for was like, "Oh, I give him a nod, it's exciting, and say, what's up?" But other people were like, "I was like, 'Yo, why are you at my show?'"
Kai Wright: Oh, wow.
James Spooner: Like, "I'm supposed to be the only one here." When they said that, I was like, "Ooh, I felt that too." I felt that experience of being like, "Yo, I'm the Black person here."
Kai Wright: Tell me about that, James, this moment of protecting your otherness almost.
James Spooner: For me, I remember feeling that when there was another mixed-race boy in the room, I felt like gatekeeper-ish. I remember this other mixed-race kid and just having this desire to clown him or just make him feel unwelcome. There's a lot of self-hate that I had to work through while making the film, and editing really was a talk therapy kind of thing. Listening to other people tell their stories and relating so well, I'm like, "Yes." That project healed me from a lot of pain.
Kai Wright: James also didn't expect how the Black punks who recognized their own stories in his film would react. He had created a website with a message board because this is pre-social media.
James Spooner: It was just a place where all these Black punks from all over the country and parts of the world would connect every day, so there became this conversation about like, "Let's do a meet-up." I understood these are punks. They're going to do this with or without me-
Kai Wright: [laughs] Right.
James Spooner: -so I better get in front of this. I met this dude, Matthew Morgan, and he's a music manager. Santi White is the singer of Santogold. She was in a punk band called Stiffed, and he was her manager.
[MUSIC - Stiffed: Ain't Got Enough]
James Spooner: He was trying to get her signed, and he liked the idea of Afro-Punk helping to do that. We started doing basically monthly events. Right off the top first one, we're in a room at the Delancey in the East Village, probably 150 people, 97% of them are Black, and we have a mosh pit. I'm like, "I have the thing," but the thing just happened.
Kai Wright: It was the space he had been searching for all his life, a space where people like himself were just comfortably doing their thing together.
James Spooner: Fast forward a year and these message board kids are talking about meeting up, and that's where the festival comes in. Basically, the first Afropunk Festival was a Black film festival of radical Black films and three concerts at different parts in the city. Then at the end of it all, a punk rock picnic in Fort Greene Park. We actually combined forces with this other collective who were doing shows called the Sista Grrrl Riots. That was for different Black women who would put together these shows to spotlight Black female punk musicianship.
Kai Wright: It took off, sponsors got interested, and there became a pressure to grow the space beyond just the few hundred Black punks to add the kind of bands that would draw larger crowds of Black youths, to book more hip-hop, for instance.
James Spooner: Not that I have a problem with hip hop, but the things that people were saying on stage, now I'm dealing with homophobia on the Afro-Punk stage. Now I'm dealing with sexism on the Afro-Punk stage. This is stuff that we were adamantly against and now we're essentially promoting it. There were a number of compromises that I couldn't stomach doing things that just feel really not organic and not punk.
Kai Wright: Though to be super clear, James is not out here to trash the expanded Afro-Punk. He says if he was 20-something now, he'd probably be there having fun too.
James Spooner: I try to tread lightly here because I am not mad at what it became. It's just that it's different. When I first started doing the shows, I was excited because it was the early 2000s and I felt like Black people could or were shoved into one of two lanes. You could either be like Puffy, poppin' bottles, Chris Dow, Jiggy Black, or you could be Neo Soul, Erykah Badu, André 3000, Black. Those were the lanes, choose one.
I felt like Afro-Punk could create a third lane and for a short time, it did. There is a question that's worth asking is like, "Is it okay to gentrify out one marginalized group in order to make space for another one?" That's what a lot of the kids who built Afro-Punk that's how they feel. They feel like they've been gentrified out.
Kai Wright: How have they responded to that feeling? Did they create more new spaces?
James Spooner: Yes. If you look at the entire history of punk, all the best parts of it are all in reaction to something else. In this case, there's at least 10 different people who went to the festival, were disillusioned with what they found, and went back to their hometown and started their own Black and brown festival. Whether that's Break Free Fest in Philly or Decolonise in London, these festival organizers are much like I was at 17 with my record label just saying like, "Yo, I can do better than that," and doing their own thing.
Kai Wright: Are you in touch with them? Do they turn to you for advice or support or help in any way?
James Spooner: Yes, I've been in touch with all of them. Now we're friends. It's funny because I gave them something to react to, but they're trying to emulate what they think those early days were like. Quite frankly, I think they're doing better. Earlier, when I said a lot of the Black kids that I came up with felt like they wanted to fade into the background, that's not happening anymore. All the Black-fronted punk bands, I could rattle off a number of them that are very explicitly Black. They're some of the biggest bands in the punk scene period, bands like Soul Glo or Zulu.
You could ask any white hardcore kid in the Midwest, and they'd tell you like, "Yes, this is one of the best and biggest bands." You can tell that these kids, they grew up with a confidence in their Blackness that I didn't and a confidence in the scene that they could be themselves. These bands feel so authentic to me. It's so exciting. Whether they're women fronted, queer fronted, there's just more stories and they're so much more exciting than what we've been hearing for the last 45, 50 years of punk rock.
Kai Wright: James Spooner's seminal documentary, Afro-Punk, debuted back in 2003. His new book, Black Punks Now, will be out this fall. To catch more of our Black History is Now segments, go to notesfromamerica.org and look for the tab labeled Specials. This is Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright and thanks for hanging out. Notes from America is a production of WNYC Studios. Mixing and theme music by Jared Paul. Additional mixing this week by Liora Noam-Kravitz. Reporting, producing, and editing by Billie Estrine, Karen Frillmann, Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa, Kousha Navidar, and Lindsay Foster Thomas. André Robert Lee is our executive producer, and I am Kai Wright. Thanks for hanging out.