Bright Lights Film Journal

AfroPunk: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger Experience

Making up reality: race, rock, and wrestling

AfroPunk is a film that delves into tensions in American life, especially those about race that various contemporary individuals would like to forget in the name of equality of opportunity (not to mention the alleviation of white guilt).

The film’s director, James Spooner (right), traveled across the United States and conducted over 80 interviews with Black fans of hardcore music. Spooner was able to use his insider position as a Black punk to connect with his interviewees as they pondered topics such as the effects of being exoticized, discovering another Black person at a hardcore event, and facing rejection from Blacks committed to a tunnel vision of their racial identity. So much is offered in 73 minutes, and Spooner succeeds in providing a springboard for an honest dialogue about racial identity in the U.S. As a mixed/Black (mack) British person living in Toronto, I appreciated the ways in which AfroPunk charted an American obsession with race (because it is so consistently repressed), but could also observe the ways the documentary reflected Americans’ desire to appropriate “authentic” aesthetics and ideas from Africa and Europe, without dwelling on drawing meaningful connections with Africans who do not happen to be American.1 Although it is important to warn against Blackness becoming a synonym for African American hegemony, it is probably unfair to demand a more complete treatment of issues close to one’s heart, because the movie did not set out to provide the definitive “rock n’ roll nigger” experience, but rather to critique whites who feel they can absorb “authentic” Blackness and challenge Blacks who deign to dictate “realness.”

My review will not presume to provide a definitive interpretation of AfroPunk, or reduce complex experiences to a single narrative. Instead I’d like to grapple with Foucault’s idea that “there is no escaping from power, that it is always-already present, constituting that very thing which one attempts to counter it with,”2 by investigating the consequences of employing a position outside the (Western) mainstream. Such a task will lead me to reflect on my own values, but first I will analyse the ways in which journalists and Spooner have framed AfroPunk.

I must note the problems of buzz words like “alienation” being used to market and sell AfroPunk. The tactic is understandable in terms of “alternative” press selling to their markets,3 and mainstream Black outlets showing that they are aware of “radical” currents,4 but it leaves radicals committed to a “real” lifestyle of DIY and contempt for corporate culture that promotes suburban dreams of SUVs and trips to IKEA vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. Individuals locating themselves in opposition to “the man” need not note their (lack of) privilege just as an end point, but as a means of forging communication within and between groups, which, to the shock of some American readers, can traverse national, not just state, boundaries (despite the cultural prejudices of observers, such as I, who cannot resist petty comments about the America we have constructed for ourselves because of our need for an enticing, violent, and crazy Other).

I could connect with the individuals in AfroPunk, and value a marvelously open-ended documentary that can be used not simply to define the outsider’s position, but also to spark debate about our relationships with American cultures. James’ admiration is clearly with those people of color who have moved past’ trying to a) use their blackness to be an exotic object, and/or b) “fitting in” or being “more hardcore” than predominantly white punks (after all, hadn’t they dismissed conforming to their parents suburban values?). Spooner believes Mariko, a woman of colour, who tells the audience that she has been teased by Blacks for having a Valley accent, and has never dated a Black man, is going through an identity crisis. Thus, while sympathising with Mariko’s situation, Spooner selects certain interviews that seem to highlight her confusion (dwelling on her “ers” and “likes”‘). Such an approach can seem to reflect an African American avant-garde intensifying their own “special” status through their non-BET defined, “conscious” knowledge — a position often simplistically associated with zealous, light-skinned, or biracial converts to Blackness who have to dismiss their “unenlightened” past and insist that Blackness is about “where one’s at” while criticising those whites with privilege who think they can be down. Yet AfroPunk is committed to telling various stories and we are not forced to accept Spooner’s conclusions about Mariko. Moreover, the film shows how one can have various identities, with Tamar-Kali asserting her Blackness/African aesthetic in hardcore music.5 And, although it shies away from discussing how one can be black and white (and the booming market for chic tales of hybridity,6 or “we’re not confused, and we’re full human beings… dammit” biracial anthologies), AfroPunk is clearly a plea not only to whites to recognise their position in a society that privileges their skin tone, but a beautiful tribute to those valiant individuals who refuse to settle and find a rooted home in white hardcore or a version of Blackness that requires tacit acceptance of sexism and homophobia.

So, let me conclude by exploring why I now find such figures heroic, question my own past, and perhaps point toward a way in which we can avoid the short-sightedness and elitism of a Talented Tenth, and move closer to Du Bois’s conception of the Guiding Hundredth where good, honest people “do not think private profit is the measure of public welfare.”7

I was one of only two Black children in my primary school, and in my secondary school there were never more than five other people of colour. I didn’t become a fan of punk. Many reasons can be offered for this, the most obvious being that there is no one way people of colour respond to isolation and seek sites for catharsis. I could also add that my location and age made punk an unlikely choice (its heyday was around the time of my birth in the U.K.). Yet I must also note the ways in which I was somewhat accepted in the mainstream through my prowess in sport, and my horror of those who dressed in a way that projected weakness to undersensitive “jocks.”

Nonetheless, I was aware of the objective social reality of not being white, and resisted dominant values by viewing spectacles in transgressive ways; I didn’t design my own clothes, dye my hair, or obtain any piercings, but I did cheer the villains in wrestling matches. I did understand the struggles of babyface Black wrestlers to be “more than their skin” in a racist world, but I identified more with the “foreigners” demonized in the United States, and I began to think about the ways women were devalued and why crowds felt the need to shout “bitch” and “faggot” at Others. Like punk artists, I began to draw connections and think about a postmodern world where people viewed their fears and fantasies in front of a TV screen or behind a guard rail. In a similar way to the Black hardcore fans who were overjoyed to see other people of colour down with punk, I had a magical sensation when I found other wrestling “smarks” (those who understand the mechanisms and intricacies of the spectacle, appreciating its sublime moments and its propensity for the ridiculous). I voraciously lived through the cocky villains, who became anti-heroes when the owners realised how much money they could make selling the bad guy. You can read this detour into American wrestling in various ways, but I’d like to emphasise not only the commodification of cool, but also the opportunities reading popular culture offers, so that committed artists who love AfroPunk don’t just scoff at the sexist WWE and heterosexist BET, but try and see how such apparently crass television can be viewed in various ways, and offer progressive changes, if not radical solutions.8

If I may promote alliances once more, and tell another personal story, a friend I met through my commitment to extending educational opportunity and our shared love of wrestling introduced me to Extreme Championship wrestling, which “was founded on the premise that wrestling is a sport that belongs in the mosh pit with really loud music blaring away as the hardcore grapplers blast away at each other.”9 ECW presented female and male wrestlers from all over the globe as people who deserved our respect, not just silly caricatures that represented cartoon evil-doers or American idols. I loved it, and couldn’t help but admire its uncompromising beliefs that forced the WWF to add Attitude to its programming, and I appreciated the music that conveyed sheer energy and commitment to a cause. My friend (of South Asian descent) took me to a Pitchshifter concert where I wanted to front (at the back) and pretend I was just a reporter. I have to admit, my personal history, and knowledge of Black history, made me wary of rowdy crowds full of white people. However, the electricity from the stage (sans Rock!) and the mosh pit could not be fought, and I bounced and fought and bonded with a guy who happened to love the ECW T-shirt my friend had bought me.

I can support Spooner’s project10 as one offering a radical alternative to dominant images of Blacks in the American media, but I can’t underestimate the various ways cultural products are consumed — fans of Other groups can wear identities on their sleeves that offer a springboard to connections within their territory, just as racialized minorities can look to connect with one another across boundaries in the face of white supremacy. Nor can I ignore the ways “revolutionaries” are embroiled in power, or forget the privileged position of an artist with the opportunity to produce and display new art forms (or the critic with time to write extended reviews).

My review comes from a position of love for AfroPunk and the individuals who aren’t just searching for a comfortable space where everyone looks like them,11 but one in which diversity of opinions is cherished. “I think people need to feel uncomfortable” remarks “thundercloud” in the AfroPunk discussion forum,12 and I agree. Safe spaces are needed while other areas refuse to discuss troublesome or minority issues. Yet I am also committed to providing a basis for communication that is founded on respect, so that groups may include dissenting opinions and not just affirm one’s “natural,” “fixed,” “real” identity. I’d like us to face our contradictions and help build societies committed to intellectual growth, empathy, and the formation of identities through politics. We can’t do this as just individuals, national citizens, or racial subjects; we must continually strive to become “global, human citizens not simply concerned with ourselves, or ‘one of us,’ but justice.”13

NOTE: This article appeared in slightly different form in the estimable online journal multiracial.com. Reprinted by permission.

  1. Afrocentricity “is probably only the nationalism of black Americans — a discourse of racial particularity that does not translate very easily to other circumstances and which in my view expresses a distinctively American understanding of ethnicity, kinship and cultural difference rather than a nationalistic or exilic relationship to Africa itself. Afri-centrism is therefore more properly identified as Americo-centrism.” Paul Gilroy, “Between Euro-centrism and Afro-centrism: Youth Culture and the Problem of Hybridity,” Young 1 (2). http://www.alli.fi/nyri/young/1993-2/y932gilr.htm. []
  2. Michael Foucault, History of Sexuality, New York: Vintage, 1990, 82. []
  3. “Music Notes: Say It Proud — I’m Black and I’m Loud,” Chicago Reader, August 8, 2003. []
  4. James Hill, “‘Afro-punk’ Brings a Chord of Fresh Air,” http://www.bet.com/articles/0,,c3gb6834-7637,00.html. []
  5. “I sought to get more in touch with my Blackness only to realise that the things that made people think I was white were the things I identified as Black; a thinker, an artist, a creative person, a free mind,” ‘Alleykat,’ 17 June 2003, AfroPunk forum, http://www.AfroPunk.com/community/viewtopic.php?t=6&start=0. []
  6. See D. McNeil, “Bend It Like Beckham,” http://www.multiracial.com/readers/mcneil5.html. []
  7. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Talented Tenth: Memorial Address” in W. E. B. Du Bois: A Reader, ed. D. L. Lewis, New York: Henry Holt, 1995, 350. []
  8. “Progressive gains… enlarge the space of action for the subordinate; they effect shifts, however minute, in social power relations. They are the tactics of the subordinate in making do within and against the system, rather than of opposing it directly.” J. Fiske, “Understanding Popular Culture” in Reading the Popular Culture, London: Unwin Hyman 1989, 11. []
  9. Paul Heyman, Executive Producer of ECW, ECW: Extreme Music. []
  10. See http://www.AfroPunk.com. []
  11. See D. McNeil, “People Who Look Like Me,” http://www.multiracial.com/readers/mcneil4.html. []
  12. 24 June 2003, http://www.AfroPunk.com/community/viewtopic.php?t=11&start=0. []
  13. D. McNeil, “Me, We: Individuality and Social Responsibility That Knows No Boundaries,” http://www.multiracial.com/readers/mcneil3.html. []