Director: James Spooner
Label: Image Entertainment
Catalog No.: JOS3223DVD
Date: 2006 (DVD release)
When most people think of punk music, or the culture associated with it, the image of a young, angry white male or female comes to mind. Rarely do people think of young black people participating in subcultures outside of hip hop. This idea, however, merely shows the lack of dialogue about the diversity within the black community. James Spooner set out to begin that dialogue in his documentary Afro-Punk. Roughly an hour long, Afro-Punk follows African American youth that dare to pursue the aesthetic that most appeals to them, despite what others may feel about their participation in this predominantly white musical and cultural genre.
Afro-Punk features interviews with youth from all over the country that associate themselves not only with the music but also the lifestyle that is affiliated with being punk. Many interesting issues are raised such as racism, loneliness, interracial dating, black power, and the rightful ownership of rock music. The interviews help the viewer develop a firmer grasp of what it means to be a punk kid, and shows that what may initially appear to be a contradiction to “blackness” actually very much parallels the black experience in America. One young lady featured in the documentary, Tamar-Kali Brown, states, “Being caught in a system you can’t identify with, or that you don’t support. . . and being contrary, that’s the true energy of what being punk is.” Brown even goes so far as to suggest that Nina Simone is a historical example of punk angst in black musicians. Also featured are exclusive interviews with members of Fishbone, 24-7 Spyz, Dead Kennedys, and TV on the Radio.
Included within the actual documentary are clips from Bad Brains performances from the early 1980s. Heavily influenced by Rastafarianism, the Washington, D.C. based group was notably the first black punk band to enjoy commercial success and their recording career now spans two decades. Band member Darryl A. Jenifer even goes so far as to suggest that Bad Brains was responsible for the mosh pit (many scenes of these pits are featured in the documentary). The inclusion of the historic Bad Brains footage is integral to understanding that the young people portraited in the documentary are not the first blacks to participate and draw cross-cultural influences from the genre.
Dedicated to “every black kid ever called nigger, and every white kid that thinks they know what that means,” Afro-Punk is a must see for anyone that considers themselves a cultural connoisseur. Although within the documentary itself there are very few musical performances, the bonus features include performances by Brown, Yaphet Kotto, Apollo Heights, Bushman, and a few others. Though some may disagree with Spooner’s decision to place the live performances separate from the interviews in the documentary, it does focus the viewer’s attention on the issues raised by the participants and allows them to then switch to the music to better grasp some of the concepts introduced throughout.
The sound quality on some of the performances is poor, making it difficult to actually hear the vocalist, but this is largely due to the fact that its taken from live concert footage. The viewer is still able to see and hear the performances well enough to understand what is going on. Also included in the bonus features are deleted scenes, additional interviews, and a director’s commentary. As with any documentary or other format that features interviews, one must ever be mindful of editing and the context in which comments are made. Afro-Punk is no exception in that regard; however, it presents a well-balanced exploration into the lives of young black punk rockers grappling with issues of identity and race.
Punk rock kids, and other young black people that find themselves outside of the black mainstream, will certainly enjoy the work that Spooner has done in helping others understand their angst. Afro-Punk is only the beginning of the dialogue. Spooner does a masterful job of jumpstarting the conversation by showing that there are alternative ways to be black.
Posted by Brandon Houston
Editor’s note: Originally released as a motion picture in 2003 under the title Afro-Punk: The ‘Rock n Roll Nigger’ Experience.