James Spooner, like a lot of kids growing up in Southern California in the 1990s, was into punk rock.
But unlike most of the kids in the scene, he's black. Sometimes, this posed a problem.
"I was in this tiny desert town that was pretty much all white, and the punk scene was very racist," he recalled. "You would go to shows and it was blatantly white power, swastikas, all of that."
But when he moved to New York during high school, Spooner found "a gang of black kids" just like him. For the first time in his life, "I could be who I wanted to be," he said. "[They] made it OK for me, you know?"
The fundamental contradiction of black kids feeling left out of rock — which from its very beginning was based on black music — has played a large role in the creation of Afro-Punk. And while there have been many black artists who have been embraced by white rock fans, from Little Richard to Sly and the Family Stone to the
Afro-Punk has gone from the name of a message board to a movement in less than five years — and the scene just keeps growing.
Before the 2000s, Spooner said, "there were no black bands in the mainstream doing anything alternative." Sure, bands like the Bad Brains,
Now, British rockers the
Brooklyn rockers who meld punk, metal and hip-hop with a rudeboy 'tude.
A Washington, D.C., psych-rock foursome who masters a balance between goofiness and raw power.
This former UK TV star makes truly danceable post-punk electro-pop and
An old-school-style punk band that has worked with Rancid and Lil Jon.
A British songstress who mixes doo-wop and pop, and whose latest video is for her song
A hardcore-tinged rocker who's become a favorite on New York's downtown music scene, her debut LP, Black Bottom, will be released next summer.
So how did this thriving movement become a scene in the first place? T-Kali knows from joining Spooner on the road, when he was shooting his "Afro-Punk" documentary in 2001.
"To this day, I always get messages on MySpace from people saying, 'I saw you!' " she said. "That's a wonderful thing."
Spooner's doc, which debuted in 2003 at the Toronto Film Festival, also featured TV on the Radio as well as bands such as
"The film surprisingly has legs that a lot of other films don't," Spooner said. "I just did two screenings last month. The film continues to reach new people."
Part of that reach extends online. "Afro-Punk" the documentary inspired the messageboard AfroPunk.com, and from the fan discussion there, Spooner realized that they could turn the desire for Afro-Punk shows into a music festival, which now happens annually.
One of the first shows Spooner did was an afterparty for one of the documentary screenings, so he reached out to the band Stiffed (the band formerly led by Santi White, who is now known as Santogold) via manager Matthew Morgan, "and he was like, 'No problem — we'll do it for free,' " Spooner said.
As the popularity of Santogold and other artists loosely associated with the scene has grown, Afro-Punk has exploded beyond its musical definition, even including Grammy-nominated Bad Boy recording artist Janelle Monáe, whose music can hardly be considered traditionally punk (she's opened for Nas and has been called "the female version of Prince" by Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz).
"I felt it was my duty as an artist and as a young African-American woman to support Afro-Punk," Monáe told us at the
"I think it's very important to let people know that we're not all the same. Diversity needs to be promoted more ... I love being in that environment, and that is something I am trying to promote."
Some of the bands associated with Afro-Punk — like Santogold — helped support the scene and increase its visibility simply by showing up. Others who aren't associated, like Lupe Fiasco, helped out just by singing about subjects like skateboarding.
"Lupe was able to, in one song, propel the idea of black kids skateboarding into a whole new generation," Spooner said. "That's all out of
Spooner's since handed off the Afro-Punk torch to Morgan, who has taken the lead in managing the bands, running the Web site and promoting the annual festival. "He had a big vision," Spooner said.
The Afro-Punk brand now plays a key role in events like CMJ and South by Southwest, partnering with those larger festivals with the goal of introducing a lineup of bands to a diverse audience who might not have discovered them otherwise. Morgan plans to make the festival a national one next year, and to tour Africa in 2010.
"A festival in Africa is a really important step for us," he said. "We want to spread that sense of freedom."
Technology has helped, Spooner pointed out. "iPods change the way we listen to music," he said. "[With shuffling,] genre after genre, they all start blending together."
Still, that blending doesn't erase all racial boundaries. Spooner said part of the reason the scene is growing is because the issues addressed in the film are still affecting young people. Punk shows are still mostly white, and black rock fans
And even with Afro-Punk's growing popularity, some of the bands associated with it don't like to talk about it publicly for fear of losing their white audience, Spooner said. Could that be due to the scene's growing pains as it wavers between DIY and the mainstream? Or does it make Afro-Punk more needed than ever before?
"We will have succeeded when Afro-Punk is no longer relevant," Spooner said. "Clearly we are not there yet, but I'd like to believe that we are on our way. When that day comes, there will no doubt be a 14-year-old kid who flips off Afro-Punk and says, 'I'm starting my own thing,' and that's what they should do. I think that's the nature of scenes, and I wouldn't be mad at them. I would be like, 'Can I come to your show?' "