AfroPunk: The Rock And Roll N***er Experience!

Last Wednesday Sarah, Kia and I headed to BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music, not the Brooklyn Museum of Art, that’s BMA) to view two of the movies selected as Best Films of the 2003 African Diaspora Film Festival.

We saw “Stolen Moments”, “AfroPunk: The Rock And Roll Nigger Experience”, and a live performance by Tamar Kali.

The first short was a documentary called “Stolen Moments” by Shaka King. It dealt with the commercialization of Hip-Hop culture, and its effect on both black and non-black people. The movie made some interesting points about how Rap music has the potential to be used as a tool for the disenfranchised, but has instead been used mainly to create jingles for car companies and jewelry makers. However, there were quite a few moments that I felt were patently unfair. In one sequence (culled from an MTV broadcast I think), rap impressario and founder of Def Jam Records Russell Simmons talks about a super rare watch which he was especially proud of. That clip was immediately followed by another movie clip featuring someone whose name I should really remember yelling “WHo CARES?”. I guess that was intended to add a bit of levity to the otherwise sluggish pace of the proceedings, but it just felt cheap to me.

To be completely honest, I was also put off by the fact that most of the people featured in the movie have never had a chance to turn around the big corporate dollars. When I had a high school band, we had two different songs about not selling out for corporate megabux…as soon as I had to pay my own rent I sold out to the man as quickly as they’d let me. I do tons of things everyday that don’t match up with what I really feel is important. Most of us do. I would have been much more interested in hearing an intelligent and even handed conversation by some people who have actually made a choice to reject sponsorships and record contracts for what they believe. Perhaps they’d have something constructive to offer in terms of moving towards a solution.

The reality is, or at least my uninformed interpretation of reality is, that corporate money will always distort and render impotent any kind of edgy grassroots movement. If that hadn’t happened, if Rap music hadn’t been sanitized and commoditized, most people probably wouldn’t have ever heard of it. That’s not an excuse for the people that are quick to do the jig for a fat check without thinking about the impact it has on everyone exposed to it. It’s just the truth.

The second movie was “Afro-Punk: The Rock n Roll Nigger Experience” by James Spooner. It dealt with the experiences of black kids involved in the punk rock/HC scene. Having grown up as a black kid in that scene, often the ONLY black kid in that scene, this movie really resonated with me. When I was younger it seemed like everyone knew me, or at least everyone in the LI scene. I’ve always wondered how much of my notoriety was because of who I am as a person versus the simple fact that I was “the big black guy” in a scene full of mostly little white guys.

I have to say, I wasn’t totally comfortable with some of the messages I think the movie delivered.

For example, it focused on the alienation that blacks sometimes feel even after having finding a bit of belonging in the punk scene. Was race really the only reason they didn’t feel completely comfortable? Aren’t there tons of white kids at any punk show that don’t feel like they totally fit in? Come on.

Why are there so few black people involved in punk rock? Is it that black people are somehow genetically predisposed to not like three chord noisy music? Is it because people in the punk scene are racists? Personally, I think a lot of it has to do with society’s discomfort with people who break stereotypes. I’ve been accused of wanting to be white for speaking with the wrong slang, listening to the wrong music,wearing the wrong pants and even having too many white friends. When will we finally move past the idea that race should determine the type of music or fashion that you like?

The audience seeing the screening I attended was primarily black, and probably not big into punk rock. Rather than challenging the preconceived notions they might have had that anyone who is black and into subculture is somehow ashamed of their background, the movie seemed to re-inforce that type of prejudice. The two cast members who were portrayed (IMO) as proud of being black claimed to do so only because:

  1. She feels body modifications reflect her black and native american heritage
  2. He wants to tell people about the coming revolution

Cast member #2 sang in a HC band, and was the only black person in that band. At one point, he mentioned that he loved HC, but he knew where he stood when the revolution comes. “There’s no HC contention when the revolution comes…”, he says. He also refers to his bandmates (to their faces!) as honkies. It was in jest, but in the context of the films focus on racial identity it didn’t come across like a harmless joke. That’s Crazy. I’m not sure what that does to advance the cause of racial tolerance.

I was also a bit uncomfortable about a scene where they discussed interracial relationships. Several pictures of black punks with white signifigant others passed across the screen, and for a second I thought I was at a White Power anti-miscegenation screening. It’s not that the movie came out and said that interracial relationships were bad, but I can totally imagine that anyone watching the movie with those prejudices would have felt them being reinforced by those shots. Sitting to my right was my beautiful girlfriend…the person that constantly makes me feel good about myself, and encourages me to have new experiences. Oh yeah, she’s also white. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hoist the old cliche: If loving her is wrong, I don’t wanna be right!

Enough negativity! The movie was pretty cool overall, so I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I just expected that someone who had spent time in the scene, and who had experienced what it was like to be looked at askance by both blacks and whites, would have done more to confront some of the prejudices that his audience may have brought into the screening with them.

The absolute best part of the movie was finding out that the director had never gone to film school, and self funded the whole project. In fact, that’s the coolest part of Punk Rock (whatever that means) in general…DIY! Do it yourself! Don’t just sit back and consume; make music, make movies, start zines. With the technology we have today there’s really no excuse for not having your say in some way.

After the screening, the crowd headed upstairs to the cafe for a live performance by Tamar Kali (aka cast member #1). I’m not sure how to describe their music, other than to say that they definitely have some HC records, but probably not the ones I like. Tamar has a wonderful voice, but I never really felt that she was pushing her limits. sometimes I’d prefer to hear a bad singer leave everything he has on the stage, rather than a great singer sitting back in the cut. Especially for HC type music…I just didn’t feel the passion. There’s something about hearing somebody push their voices to the limit and maybe a bit over, that really brings you to a different mindstate as a listener. I also found the songs a bit slow and uninspiring. Then again, I’m overly critical. The crowd seemed to love the music, and I’m sure I would have felt differently with a little more crunch in the guitars and a little more danger in the singing.

The crowd loved the music, but showed it mostly by bopping their heads. It was really weird to see a somehwat HC band play to a crowd that didn’t move…bizarre!

Tamar definitely seems like the kind of person who it would be really cool to be friends with.

Oh, best part of the show? Open bar with the price of the movie ticket. MMM, sweet open bar. Booze just tastes better when it’s free.

BTW, I know two of the guys in the movie. Of course, by know them I mean I say what’s up when I see them in bars, not that I’m expecting an invite to their birthday parties..I can’t remember the name of their band, but it starts with a D…