Afropunk :: "The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience"

Documentary gives alternate perspective of underground music

Two and a half years ago, James Spooner found his purpose. As an African-American punk who spent half his life feeling alienated in a white-dominated scene, Spooner decided to make a movie chronicling the experiences of black punks. With no formal (or informal) training, Spooner began a journey that would take him on a cross-country tour and introduce him to more than 80 influential black punks.

"I really just took what I learned in punk rock and applied it to filmmaking," Spooner says. "You don't have to know an instrument to start a band."

The result of his quest is a 75-minute film titled "Afropunk: The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience."

The movie follows the lives of four black punks -- Cipher vocalist Moe Mitchell, singer/guitarist Tamar-kali Brown, San Francisco show promoter Mariko Jones, and the late Ten Grand singer/guitarist Matt Davis -- as well as mixes in interviews with members of bands such as The Dead Kennedys, Orange 9mm, Candiria and 90 Day Men.

For Spooner, who moved to New York as a teenager and discovered black punk bands like Bushmon and Funkface, the film was as much about his own identity as it was about providing a forum for other black punks.

Past Event

Afropunk: The "Rock and Roll Nigger" Experience

  • Monday, September 29, 2003, 7:30 p.m.
  • Liberty Hall Cinema, 644 Massachussets Street, Lawrence
  • All ages / $8

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"I think that all of my childhood identity issues came from not dealing with my race," Spooner says. "If you try to live your life without dealing with it, you end up with a lot of self-hate."

Remembering Matt

The film's premiere in Lawrence will celebrate the life of Matt Davis, who died Aug. 10 of undisclosed causes at his home in Iowa City. Davis' band Ten Grand (formerly The Vida Blue) earned fans in Lawrence and abroad with exasperating performances throughout an intense touring schedule.

"Matt was the most powerful presence I have ever witnessed onstage," says his brother Dan. "There was a genuine honestly that was sometimes almost frightening. It was an amazing thing to see and to try to hold yourself next to, because to watch him play meant that you got everything he had to offer."

One of the people inspired by Davis' performances was Wade Kelly, who contacted Spooner about bringing the film to Lawrence.

"The main point of this event is to dedicate the night to Matt," Kelly says. "Hopefully people who didn't know him will have a chance to through the film."

Kelly was intrigued by the movie based on his own experiences as a black man playing in rock bands.

"When I met the guitarist in my first band he approached me because I was one of the only black people at a Weezer show," Kelly recalls. "His first question to me was, 'Do you bust rhymes?'"

Following the movie, three bands with close ties to Davis will perform: The Appleseed Cast, Volara and Ricky Fitts (Dan Davis' band).

Guitarist and singer Sean Bergman, whose various Lawrence-based bands (including Volara) spent weeks on the road with Ten Grand, asserts Davis' best qualities were his charisma, friendliness and bear hugs.

"It was hard to let the sadness of his passing overwhelm you when you really thought about how fully he had lived his life," Bergman says. "It's hard not to feel only gratitude for every moment we got to spend with him. He was a passionate artist and a passionate friend."

Locks of love

With one foot in the New York hardcore scene, Spooner already had a number of good contacts when he began seeking interview subjects for his film. He also sent out e-mails to punk sites and record labels and employed some guerilla tactics in his own backyard.

"I was like, 'If I walk around the East Village long enough I'm going to find somebody,'" Spooner says.

One of the first contacts Spooner made was Chicagoan Damian Locks, former singer for Trenchmouth. Locks came of age in the ethnically diverse Washington D.C. hardcore scene seeing bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat.

"In D.C. we were lucky enough that the scene was peppered with black people and many of the shows took place in black neighborhoods," Locks says. "Nowadays I think punk has exorcised any ethnic influence from it and established itself as a white genre. If I was growing up now I don't think I would be into punk rock."

Locks is featured in one of the film's most memorable scenes, where black punks talk about straightening their hair so they could fashion outrageous Mohawks.

"Regardless of how much you dyed it and colored it, it still looked like a fuzzy afro," Locks remembers.

Though he typically felt accepted in his D.C. and Chicago communities, Locks claims he occasionally felt the sting of discrimination while on tour.

"Sometimes you'd be in places where there were no black people," he says. "You'd walk into a club and people would stare at you. My bandmates would take notice too. They'd be like, 'What the (expletive) is that man; why do they have to do that?"

Black and white issue

photo

Special to the Journal-World

Director James Spooner screened his debut documentary "Afropunk: The Rock and Roll Nigger Experience" at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Since premiering "Afropunk" June 15 in San Francisco, Spooner has screened the film in 20 cities, including a spot at the Toronto International Film Festival. His stop in Lawrence will be part of a Midwest tour that will also take him to Wichita (Matt Davis' birthplace), Minneapolis, Rock Island (Ill.), Chicago and Detroit.

Though he originally interviewed a substantial number of white people for the movie, Spooner chose to only include one in the final cut of the movie.

"Historically, white people have always told our stories," Spooner explains. "I just wanted it to come from us."

The documentary's Web site (www.afropunk.com) offers a discussion board that has already received nearly 800 posts from 141 registered users. The board offers viewers a chance to continue discussions on topics raised in the movie. ("Maybe that anonymity of being on the Web makes it easier to ask questions," Spooner speculates.)

Though he welcomes all ethnicities to see the movie, Spooner's target audience is black.

"I'd like them to step away knowing this movie is about all of us," he says. "The vehicle might be punk rock but the issues are something we all deal with."

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