Things I Learned Watching Afro-Punk
Do yourself a favor
A couple of years ago, I started reading articles about this documentary called Afro-Punk, about black kids involved in the punk scene. It's a pretty relentlessly fascinating subject, considering that there's probably no music-based subculture as overwhelmingly white as punk rock; even death metal is about a kajillion times more diverse thanks to Sepultura. The original New York punks were all white art-school junkies, from what I understand, and Johnny Ramone is pretty much singularly responsible from forcibly removing virtually all black influence from the past thirty years of punk rock, or at least from fundamentally reductionist punk rock. In England, the OG punks all listened to reggae and hung out with Don Letts, but that was a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. There was some crossover between Afrika Bambaataa and downtown art kids in early-80s New York, which must have been an exciting time and place to be alive, but that didn't really have much lasting influence beyond the Beastie Boys and the red leather bodysuits and bullet-belts that the Furious Five used to wear. When punk turned into hardcore, it really jumped headlong into some white-male rage shit, and the Bad Brains were really just an anomalous blip in that story. But every mid-sized city still has two or three black kids who go to every punk show, and this documentary is about them. The movie was on the festival circuit for a long time, and it always seemed like the sort of thing that was guaranteed not to get proper distribution, so I pretty much resolved myself to the idea that I was never going to get a chance to see it. But then the DVD showed up out of nowhere in my mailbox yesterday, and the proper DVD release is coming in August. There's going to be an Afro-Punk festival at BAM next month with a bunch of movie screenings and performances, but if you can't make it out to any of that stuff, the movie is well worth Netflix cue-space come August.
James Spooner, the movie's director, basically travelled around the country and found as many black punks as he possibly could and then asked them a series of pointed questions. A lot of the people are in bands, and a few of them are pretty famous (Carley Coma from Candiria, D.H. Peligro from the Dead Kennedys, Angelo Moore from Fishbone, a pre-beard Kyp Malone), but the movie never turns into a quasi-celebrity puff-piece; it never even identifies most of its better-known interview subjects. These guys get equal time with random-ass squatter kids. And so we get to see patterns emerge across these lines: people either talk about being the only black kids in their high schools or about getting clowned hard every time they go back to their neighborhoods, they talk about straightening their hair so they can have spikes and stuff, they talk about never dating black people and about how the black people they know often don't accept them as black. One girl, one of the main subjects, says she hasn't met any black guys she's attracted to, partly because she doesn't think they'll accept that she has respect for herself or else they'll look at her like she's white. Another of the main subjects, the singer Tamar-kali, discusses the African tribal influence on the punk aesthetic and says that she feels more black as a punk. Many of the people in the movie mention that their white friends continually look at them as "safe blacks" and end up saying racist shit to them constantly or else talking about how they're all the same and how color doesn't matter, which is an easy thing to say when you've got white privilege on your side. Yet another of the main subjects is Moe Mitchell, the singer of a hardcore band called Cipher. The other three kids in the band are white, as is pretty much their entire audience as far as we see, but Mitchell says his songs are about slavery and black power and that "my music is not for white kids." And then we see shots of white kids waiting in line outside a Cipher show fumbling questions: "I know that it's, uh, partially about racism." Some of the stuff in the movie should be plenty familiar to white kids, especially the how-I-got-into-the-scene stories, something that punk kids love to talk about like evangelical Christians love talking about the day they accepted Jesus into their hearts. But even some of this stuff carries a heavy extra punch when race is introduced to the equation, especially the stories about kids' families not accepting their lifestyles, really wrenching stuff. It's a short movie, barely over an hour, but you could dig through all the tangled emotions and impulses and mixed feelings in the movie for hours and still be no closer to understanding them.
In the sprawling world of music-based subcultures, there's probably nothing as racially fraught as punk rock with all its monochromatic utopianism. The divide between punk rhetoric and real-life scene politics couldn't possibly be any more vast. There's that Rancid lyric about "he's a different color / but we're the same kid," but I sure don't remember seeing a whole lot of different-color kids at Rancid shows. And so black punk kids are in a much tougher, weirder, more anomalous position than, say, white kids who love rap, which has been the dominant strain of American pop music for at least ten years now. The movie starts with a quote from Patti Smith's "Rock N Roll Nigger": "Outside of society, that is where I want to be." Slowly, a line comes up under the word want. If white kids are really excluding themselves from society (and that's a big if), that's their choice to make. People of color don't have that option; they're excluded whether they want it or not. And so black punk kids are at a double-remove, and there are onion-layers of complexity between what they choose and what chooses them. Afro-Punk does as good a job as anyone could possibly do of peeling a few of those layers back. It deserves to be seen.