By Joey A.X.
The light is dying in Highland Park. It's the type of dusk that only LA is capable of, where the orange and pinks cut through the splinters that only palm tree leaves can create, only to cast watercolor shadows that drip down interior walls. Inside, a lamp warms Monocle Tattoo, an eclectic, appointment only Vegan tattoo shop with a gorgeous view of the City of Angels and a steady transistor radio buzz of the needle as the soundtrack.
It's a far cry from the throngs of the dreadlocked and the pseudo-woke huddling in masses to see Beyonce's little sister on the Staples-Starbucks-McFish-PetSmart Stadium stage. It has the genuine energy that only a humble scene kid can create, with the emphasis on output and creation, and less on who or what powered said creation. But it's here in the tattoo shop that you'll find one of the most enigmatic visionaries of the new millennium, hunched over, shading pencil in hand, crafting whatever is in his head. Meet James Spooner, the founder of the seminal AfroPunk festival and a global indie icon in his no frill natural element.
The shop is monochrome and minimalist, yet it feels more in line with AfroPunk than AfroPunk has since roughly 2010. For one, it operates organically and on that audacious DIY spine that only true punk can create. It's a truly safe space, in an era of horseshit college "safe spaces" that operate on fickle offense and trigger warnings. The black and white decor and sparsely adorned walls make it a clean pallet for those who were square pegs in round holes to paint on, who herald the audacity and the creativity and never gave a hot fuck about how big the logo was. There are no logos here. And Spooner likes it like that.
James Spooner is a bi-racial punk rock kid from Brooklyn who turned his identity crisis into a documentary that became a social movement that became the global powerhouse that now is AfroPunk but by 2009 he walked away, upset at the machine it was becoming. More recently, it's been noted by thousands that AfroPunk swallowed up the scene and the kids it was supposed to help and sold them out. It's a tale as old as time.
Today Spooner is in his early 40's, and despite his still punk appearance, is more of a family man than a mosh pit legend. He has evolved into the sage we need in the era of corporate co-opting. He's reflective, soft-spoken, and rather refined as he reflects on the real story of what went wrong with AfroPunk for one of the first times, yet he's hopeful we can get it right and grow from the wreckage.
You see, everywhere in the world, failure is the crumbling pillar one can hang a noose on, and never a hat. Failure in the USA means something far different. In the land of opportunity, you fail your way to success. The Mt. Rushmore of failure features giant busts of Jobs and Edison. Under the stars and stripes, failure is an opportunity to progress and learn from mistakes.
The issue is not so much whether AfroPunk has failed, but why. And although it's now more successful than ever on paper, its drawbacks have been widely noted. The soul was taken out of the equation in the process, and Spooner's vision, clearly compromised. We sat down with Spooner to talk candidly about the detrimental moves made by today's AfroPunk Corp. and how it tragically crushed and marginalized the marginalized even more. But more so, we discussed how we can still right the ship now. We discussed how AfroPunk in its current iteration could be the gateway drug to OG AfroPunk, and how, more than ever, culture really needs that punk audacity to retag the walls.
The kids still need this.
Joey A.X.: Prior to founding AfroPunk, what was the vision behind it, the AfroPunk 1.0 beta if you will?
James Spooner: I can tell you that it was definitely not supposed to be some universal music fest. It had really personal roots. Every 5 years or so I had this identity crisis as a biracial person. Around 22 it hit me pretty hard. I decided to go to St. Lucia and connect with my black heritage. While in that process, I started to get angry at the punk scene that raised me. I felt there were important things that were being left out. I think it's important to state as a backbone disclaimer that all of my politics and self-identity started in punk roots at 15, 16. However, despite being a vegan, and politically progressive person of color, and like, being a 16-year-old vegan feminist that was down with gay rights, I felt like the punk scene wasn't addressing my needs. And it wasn't really addressing my needs as a black dude. It was a hard spot to be in due to my love of punk at a core level. I started using the DIY punk ethos to make the film, I just kinda went for it. That was the most punk thing I could do, right? I wasn't a MFA kid or film student, I just thought about making the project as a therapeutic bit of art, so to speak.
JAX: What were the beginning stages of AfroPunk like? And what made it so special?
JS: So the beginning stages were simple tasks on paper. I just set about to interview as many black punk and hardcore kids as I could find. This was like 2003-ish, so it was a total labor of love. I was using pre-Myspace chatrooms and message boards. I spent a couple years firming up my identity and connecting with others who were in this same marginal space. What it did was create connection and community in ways I never knew it would. It resonated. When the doc was done, I started out screening it. I ended up doing 300 screenings at film fests and shows.
About roughly 100 screenings in I felt this urge to throw a show or gathering. I was seeing how strongly people connected with it and was blown away and felt I needed to do something in the physical to bring together what was digitally happening. I reached out to Santigold and her band Stiffed, and she was down and connected me to her manager. Her manager was Matthew Morgan at the time, and we saw eye to eye, to a degree.
This started the "Liberation Sessions"- a monthly party that had 4 bands and dance party at The Delancey in the East Village. I would like to state that intrinsically I know the difference between an event and a scene and it started to feel like the beginning of a scene. I used to have a mantra that goes "It’s not a scene if I’m the only one throwing shows. If other people are doing it too, then it's real. " This was real. There were meetups happening in Chicago and other cities, but the holy grail was NYC and what we were doing. The message board scene kids were meeting up on their own. It felt like we were not only suiting a need but helping those that needed it and were marginalized culturally.
JAX: Were the vibes spot on in the early stages? I guess what I’m saying was “did it resonate correctly?”
JS: Yeah, they really were, man. It was the height of the bling and "Jiggy Era", and honestly, the relationship between punk and the Questlove founded OKPlayer circle as a response to the ignorance that was around us seemed to say- "We can do better." OKPlayer catered to the neo-soul, and backpack rap circles. We saw each other as creative allies. Black America wanted something more that Cristal bottle popping. We offered an outlet that was not there prior but culturally existed. In NYC alone, there were a few hundred people who could be considered AfroPunk-OG's who were at every show and made friends that they are still friends with today. There are a people who got married that met at shows and events we threw. They found each other right on the message board.
JAX: When did you notice a change for the worse? And was there a single event that turned it for the worse that you noticed?
JS: Things happened kinda gradually. Matthew (Morgan) had a burning desire to make money and grow it, but I was comfortable coming away with my portion and catering to the scene. Matthew and I started butting heads, and the scene was becoming more of a draw. It became a game of numbers and how to get bigger acts; less about community and far more about business.
At one point, my partner started another thing that was sort of an event series that was a way to get bigger commercial or white trending acts to play the show, using AfroPunk to sort of leverage the acts. It was a ploy to get CMJ and bigger headlines etc. Sure, we were getting sponsors to pay for skateparks and such for outdoor events. But the compromises were soulless and felt soulless. One case in point that was a huge red flag, no pun intended, was when Mountain Dew sent only red soda. Upon my inquiry on why there was only red soda, Mountain Dew's response was "target market research says that black people like red drinks."
JAX: What was going through your head when you decided enough was enough?
JS: Capitalism doesn't support grassroots communities, and at a certain juncture, it has to sell out the people it was made to grow. This is just the truth of how big business works. This wasn't unique to AfroPunk. Ask the founders of SXSW and Burning Man. The community, the true heart, those who really need them get totally screwed. See the mainstream doesn't need this stuff. The mainstream sees this stuff as profitable.
JAX: What was the fall out of you leaving your baby so to speak like? What was the first thing you did after?
JS: We had an original message board, this sort of 2003-ish AngleFire/GeoCities type joint, that had a gazillion messages and actual communities and interactivity since our start. It was the lifeblood of the scene outside of those in NYC that we could directly touch. The AfroPunk board didn't have a way to upload pics or media, so Matthew pushed to find a new community board with profiles, kinda like MySpace, that people could use. The caveat was we wouldn't be able to move the message board from the original to the shiny new profile. When we did this, a big piece of me died. There was no message board, and there were thousands of posts and shit that never got ported over. People's entire existences in building what we did was gone. It killed us. I was done. A few years ago, I just walked into the NYC fest casually and no one stopped me and no one recognized me. It was like I was a ghost in this shiny new afterlife that didn't even get me.
JAX: What was the reaction like when you finally walked? How did the people receive the news?
JS: It wasn't news, I just kept quiet. I left in 2009 ish- when it had gotten massively corporate. I didn't want to say anything to cause a rift in the scene or blow a hole in the heart of the kids who needed it. At that point, it was not about me. I initially left with the hope that they could restore it because the kids in the OG scene didn't have any options. When people on FB would ask me "why is it not for us?" I would answer honestly. You see, AfroPunk has value, just not punk values.
JAX: What are you doing now, several years later, for the scene and community?
JS: The thing that has been really inspiring to me, is the collective conscious of free thinkers and punks of all colors. All these new DIY festivals have spun up in response to what AfroPunk now has become. There are about 7 of them, and there's a new scene responding and growing. Philly's Break Free Fest is awesome. PunkBlack ATL and Black and Brown Chicago, as well as Texas-based Xichanas In The Pit, have done expert jobs at being true to the soil and roots. I’ve been in contact with them, just to give 'em props. They have been awesome to me, and clearly stated they are doing it in reaction to the AfroPunk corporate shit. I have even screened at PunkBlack. It was epic. The scene doesn't need me anymore, and that's why I can call it a scene.
JAX: What do you wish to accomplish now with your latest ventures?
JS: I'm screening (the original AfroPunk documentary) again. It's gotten a new life and I'm blown away by the positive reaction. I'm 42 with kids now. I have the tattoo shop that's appointment only and doing very well. I'm focused on working on a graphic novel on my first year in punk and discovering the true meaning of punk. It's steady and organic.
Spooner has proved to be the man we need more than ever, even if he believes the scene works better without him. The truth is, it works because of him, and while his humility is no act, it doesn't mean it’s true for everyone else. Scenes don't need corporate sponsors or red drinks and more shiny new VR tents. Scenes need visionaries with heart. Scenes need a soul.