Punk rock culture has many manifestations – music, clothing, politics, art, philosophy – and one of its main characteristics is an aggressive indifference to the narrative and prevailing norms. But how does racial identity emerge in cultures like punk rock that are supposedly full of foreigners?
In 2003, the critically acclaimed documentary Afro BankDirected by James Spooner, he introduced the world to how black people live in the punk rock community. The film has not only spawned a movement (and a festival circuit), but remains a cherished example of how race can be examined in marginal spaces.
This spring, Spooner published a graphic novel titled High desert: black. punk. Nowhere. (Harper Collins). It serves as a memoir of a pioneer in black and punk narrative narrative, and an extended metaphor for how blacks do—and need to—pay for spaces outside of the white gaze (or any establishment), where weirdness, originality, and authenticity are the only laws.
Spooner spoke to Andscape about his book and his inspiration to document his experience and practical advice for young black creators.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to tell your life story in a graphic novel?
Before I started this project, I had been drawing tattoos for several years. And I think I’m starting to settle in terms of my motivation. There is always room for improvement, but I was comfortable in my abilities and was bored. Obviously I made Afro Bank Years ago I had a road trip with that. I’ve had the experience of doing something personal and having it reach tens of thousands of people on a personal level for them and I feel like my art made a difference. Doing tattoos makes a difference to this person, and that’s been enough for a while. But eventually that high is starting to fade and I think I need to do something with more.
I was looking for a technical outlet. Seven years ago, I met my partner and she gave me the photo memoir. And after reading a little, she was trying to get me to tell some of my stories. And I think at that point, I was pretty burned out and probably burned Afro Bank I was like, “I don’t even want to…” but in the end, I got that hungry again.
Take a look at comics like this Voltron One of the skill sets I’ve acquired over the course of my life. After I made a movie, I knew about speed, blocking, and making it look just right. Writing the script was again like the movie, but it was the tattoos that really taught me how to draw. And revisiting the speed, even DJing really helps with that kind of thing, just knowing when to let go of the rhythm and things like that.
I read two graphic novels and immediately said, “Yes, I can do that.” So, I just set out to do it. I bought some books on how to make a graphic novel. There is a lot of trial and error. I drew everything on paper at first. Then I got an iPad and then ended up redrawing everything again, just learning on the job and even a lot of my style is based on things I learned from tattooing.
Move on to us through your complex relationship with Afro Bank The film then Afropunk, the movement.
I have made Afro Bank Documentary in 2003 and then the festival started in 2005 with my partner Matthew Morgan. We met in 2004 and he became my all-time partner, in making Afropunk something more than just my movie. And the idea, the end goal in my head, was to create a conversation and have a safe space for blackbird lovers. Obviously, I came from the punk scene. My trademark for being an eccentric black is through music.
Today Afropunk is present in seven countries, and it is in three cities in the United States. Each festival attracts between 80,000 and 100,000 people. The vast majority of them are owned by a corporation. I object to the idea that it is a movement because I don’t think the movements are run by LLCs. But it is a brand and it has value. But it is a brand that no longer has rotten values.
I had no interest in being at that level, because my interest is a third lane for blacks, not widening one of the existing lanes. I really don’t have anything with all the people that were moved to open up because of Afropunk today. You’re still making a copy of what you were supposed to do.
One of the healing elements of this experience on a personal level for me is that the punk scene I know and love that I brought into this project is not much different today. There are still teens today doing the same thing in basements the same way I used to.
and here where high desert they enter. They say that the more personal the project, the more global it becomes. So Afro Bank The movie is personal to me, but I’m not into it. I wasn’t interviewed, I told my story through these guys. This time, with high desert, I will be more special and I will tell my original story, not my whole story, but the part where I came to punk rock. This is where the transition from childhood to the next step in my life began.
So what are black strangers doing today? Are there things you have seen that are inspired by you?
The thing I love about the punk community is that you don’t need a thousand people to be successful. It was among the best shows I’ve been to 20 people in one room.
I think mainstream capitalism will tell us that in order to be successful you have to have a three-stage festival and 60,000 people there. In fact, there is very little community going into it. And with punk rock, that doesn’t have to be the case. So punk rock can always exist, because anyone can get 20 friends together in the basement or backyard and play a show, and it still happens today. Absolutely.
And for those kids under the age of 20 or 25, they are having the most important time in their lives. And it doesn’t look much different. So, yes, they do have social media. They probably don’t make flyers as much, but at the end of the day they still have to get together and get guitars and make people dance together, and for better or worse, COVID hasn’t stopped that many of these kids. So, I feel it has changed the way there is now sound. I feel there is a path for children of color, for girls, for gay people, for disabled people. I feel like punk is going back to that place.
Because I feel like there’s a comeback for a story like, “Oh, punk was that white thing.” But in a lot of spaces, punk was a very brown and black thing, in L.A. or whatever, a very strange thing. But then the white kids came from Orange County and took over after that. So I feel like she’s coming back, I often look at the pictures and say, “Wow, that’s a really brown audience.” I think the way it has changed is for the better. There are more opportunities for them, for those voices to rise to the top.
When we talk about social isolation and alienation, it seems that your embrace of the villain is connected to these experiences.
Well, I guess I was born into conflict with my identity. I’m mixed race, born in the ’70s and I don’t think either of my parents were equipped or even thought about what it meant to raise a biracial person. And I think my identity is shaped initially by some of those experiences, and some of my identity is shaped around poverty. Some of my identity was shaped around witnessing abuse and divorce, and all of these things were the perfect recipe for me to step into the punk scene.
And I think when I was 12 and I was skater and I was hearing punk music as the soundtrack to my skateboarding videos, the anger and anxiety reverberated. Before that, I was a little kid listening to rap in the mall, Run DMC, The Fresh Prince, and The Fat Boys. But in that middle school era, when people began to largely form their identities around music, there were New Kids On The Block, Paula Abdul, and Bobby Brown—things that didn’t resonate in the way Black Flag irritated and angered or Lost Youth or descendant. Those punk things were more real. And while I consciously didn’t know I was angry—I wasn’t a sad or depressed kid or I wasn’t destructive or anything else—but I certainly had a lot to be angry about. And I think punk rock has become a very constructive medium.
Do you have any ideas about creativity and productivity, and practical lessons for black creatives?
Sometimes people point out that I’ve done all these different mediums, and people say, “You just do this thing and then you master it.” I would argue with them about mastery, but I will say that I am not afraid to do it myself.
If I decide that I want to be an oil painter tomorrow, I will just start painting in oil. And I know it’s going to be bad. I would also like to know that it will improve, but I don’t need permission. And I also don’t need to be perfect right away. That’s what I’m trying to teach my child is just, don’t wait for someone to say, “You can do this.”
Every project I’ve done successfully, whether it’s making a movie, being a tattoo artist, or making this book, is that I do it every single day. It might take an hour, maybe six hours, but whatever it is, I do it every day.
I think part of it is knowing your limits too. I have a huge ego and can’t even tell you how many tears I’ve had with my partner over writing or whether the face looks right or something else, because she has skills that I don’t have. But at the end of the day, I have to go into these projects knowing I don’t know everything and it won’t be perfect right away. I know enough to know I’m just getting started. Yes, I have it Afro Bank Behind me – that doesn’t mean I can make a graphic novel. If I go in and say, ‘Hey, I can make this book. Here’s some half-baked graphics and here’s a script that needs work, “They won’t believe I can make it to the end. After so many rejections, I was like, ‘They’re not ready. I’m not giving them something they can see. That’s fine. That doesn’t mean they won’t’ be good.
Keep working on it every day and be a good self-editor, keep doing it and get it done. This is the main thing. Project completed.
look at me Afro Bank, there are a lot of technical problems. I could look at it and say, “Man, there was a heart, but there’s a lot of trouble.” But it doesn’t matter, because I’m done with it.
I work in the punk space, so I realized it could be flawed. With the graphic novel, I’ve been trying to get it published by a big house. But after all these rejections, I was like, ‘Maybe I should publicize myself. Big houses probably won’t get it. Maybe I need to go to a small house.
But none of that matters to me. It was like, I’m going to finish this book. Even if it is defective. Devotion to my children, even if they are the only ones who read it. I am a firm believer in the idea that payoff is in the process.