When James Spooner started working on his documentary Afro-Punk: The “Rock n Roll Nigger” Experience two and a half years ago, he was motivated by his own experiences of alienation. The filmmaker–who’d been in bands, put out zines, and started a label, Kidney Room Records–“basically wanted to tell my life story through the mouths of as many other people as I could find,” he says. But by the time he finished he seemed well on his way to helping mitigate that alienation for many. Made on a shoestring budget with credit cards and funds from benefit shows played by friends’ bands, Spooner’s 75-minute film traces the stories of four black punk rockers as they make their way through the labyrinths of ethnic identity, subculture, stereotype, and individual passion. Interspersed with their stories are interviews with about 80 other black punks from all over the country.

Spooner, who “found punk” in Apple Valley, California, and moved to New York at age 13 (he’s 27 now), says he thought getting black punks to talk about their lives might be hard to do. “Race is a difficult subject to speak on,” he says. But as he started looking for interview subjects–through “blind e-mails to punk sites, record labels, anything punk-related”–word of his project spread and names flowed in.

One person he hooked up with was Chicagoan Damon Locks–former singer for Trenchmouth, now front man for the Eternals–who was taken with the idea. “It was something I’d also been mulling for a while,” Locks says. “I remember thinking about it seeing [Chicago’s] 90 Day Men, and some indie rock band with a black drummer, and wondering ‘How’d he get there? What’s his story?’ I thought it would be interesting to find out what the common denominators were. But it would bring up issues people don’t always want to talk about.”

When Locks, who’s 34, learned he was one of the older people Spooner had lined up, he thought the “youngster” could use some broader historical perspective. He helped him track down veterans like D.H. Peligro of the Dead Kennedys, ex-Dag Nasty and Swiz singer Shawn Brown, and the manager for Bad Brains. He also put Spooner in touch with Rachel Caidor, a member of the local punk activist group Pink Bloque.

“Rachel came into [the scene] through riot grrl, in the early 90s,” says Locks. “I started around…oh, 1982 or so. There were lots of black people in the D.C. music scene. Lots of [black] people in bands, and also punk bands would play shows with go-go bands, reggae bands….In D.C. the shows had to be in affordable halls, and a lot of those were in black neighborhoods. So all the underground scenes were mixed together, and I didn’t really feel alienated. In the early 90s things had become more stratified. I think the scene became more Caucasian, and the bands became more strictly rock oriented. The collaboration with other ethnicities kind of dried up.”

Other bands whose members are interviewed in the film include Fishbone, Orange 9mm, Candiria, and 90 Day Men. Three of Spooner’s four protagonists are also musicians: Moe Mitchell, vocalist for the Long Island band Cipher; Matt Davis of Iowa City’s Ten Grand; and singer and guitarist Tamar-kali Brown, who mixes hardcore and soul. The fourth is Mariko Jones, who runs premiummagazine.com.

The protagonists symbolize “four stages in black consciousness,” says Spooner. “I think Mariko is struggling to find herself. Matt is confident in his blackness but is also very lonely because he has no one to share with. Moe also struggles with some loneliness but made active moves to find a separate community to share his problack ideals with. Tamar-kali represents the place we can hope to be–100 percent black and 100 percent punk. She is not compromising anything.”

The film’s most far-reaching effect may be the introductions it has made. Two months ago Spooner set up a community board on his Web site, afropunk.com, where 80 or 90 registered users now regularly discuss the film, politics, music, and culture. It looks like one band is already well on its way to forming out of these cybermeetings, and there’s been a brainstorming session on writing artists of African descent into punk history.

“I don’t expect to change the way white people interact with us,” says Spooner. “No movie made by and for black people will do that. I am, however, seeing a change within my community. In the polls we take after the film, 85 percent of the black folks who see this film had no interest in punk, but after seeing the film said they would go to a show and recommend the film to others. That says something. I think we are ready for a change. It is my goal to take the ideas in this film off the screen and into our lives….I am trying to mobilize a community. We are about to take rock ‘n’ roll back. Ready or not.”

Afro-Punk: The “Rock n Roll Nigger” Experience will be screened Sunday, August 10, at 5:30 and Thursday, August 14, at 8:15 as part of the ninth annual Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Tickets are $8. Call 312-846-2600 or see Movies for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jamie Watts.