Afropunk Philology James Spooner in Conversation with Donatien Grau
Donatien Grau: I’m interested in the relation between the notion of punk and—in your work, Afro-Punk—language. A lot of people think that punk is in opposition to language. Its life, its performance, its image. Do you agree with that?
James Spooner: My gut reaction would be to disagree with that: if we didn’t have the lyrics that were in these songs, if we didn’t have zines that are all language, we wouldn’t have the platform or the ability to communicate any of the foundations of what punk is all about. It would just be instrumental. So I think that language can’t be separated from punk as a political movement or as a music genre.
It seems absurd to me to suggest that punk could just be an instrumental music genre. The lyrics are what propels the movement forward. These are kids talking about things that are important to them, that they don’t have access to in the mainstream.
When I think about myself, just on my personal journey—when I was 16 or 17 and I wrote my first zine and started distributing it around shows—I kept going thanks to the letters that I received from random kids in different states, in different countries who had read my zine, who had wanted to engage in debates or just wanted to tell me that I inspired them to become vegan or whatever. Those things are what gave me a sense of purpose. It was the first time I felt like my words mattered, because most kids don’t get that experience in school.
Again, it was the language in my zines and then the language of those kids writing me physical letters—this is of course in the 90s … That kind of discourse allowed me—just somebody who wasn’t in a band but who was an active member of the punk scene—to be able to really feel empowered and therefore take that information, take that self-worth and turn it later into making film, later into adult life, having my own tattoo shop or making comics. It all starts from that zine, which was written language.
Donatien Grau: Did you write texts in that zine? What sort of text were you writing?
James Spooner: Yeah. I wrote several zines. The first one was all vegan. The second one was political, about intersectional politics. The last one was more personal and about relationships, both romantic relationships and relationships with my parents. It was definitely more personal. I was 19 or 20, and I was still very much rooted in the punk scene. So, yeah. It wasn’t a photo zine, it was largely text.
Donatien Grau: How did you connect the variety of your personal experiences to punk—the different layers, the political aspect of what you were writing about, the politics of intersectionality, your personal experience?
James Spooner: I think that I would listen to bands and hear their politics through the lyrics. I remember being a teenager and not being clear on how I felt about the death penalty, and I was listening to a band called Downcast, which has really informed a lot of my politics. And they have a song where the lyrics are, “Kill the killer and you become the killer.” And that for me, at 17, made perfect sense, and it helped me form my opinion around the death penalty. Then I could go and deliver that message through my zine to other kids.
Donatien Grau: Yeah, of course. Do you think there was a specific attitude that was related to punk?
James Spooner: Yeah. Punk rock definitely seems to attract kids who are angry. I believe, especially at that time in the 80s, 90s, it was that anger that was manifested outwards. Whether it was intelligent criticism of society or a nihilistic breaking of bottles, either way it was an outward aggression. So yeah, there’s certainly an attitude that even in my 40s is hard for me to shake, for better or worse. Sometimes it’s not a good thing, but I still have that fire in myself thinking of that anger.
Donatien Grau: You could say that, because of the lyrics, the form of language of punk is poetry in a way. How do you see the relation between poetry and punk, and is this something you engaged in yourself?
I definitely acknowledge that lyrics are a form of poetry. There’s very few poets that have moved me. Poetry as a written form is not a medium that resonates with me, but there’s no shortage of poetry zines. Obviously, like we just said, lyrics are a form of poetry. So yeah, there’s definitely a connection.
The thing about punk is that you’re allowed to talk about anything. Kids can talk about whatever they want. So if there’s somebody who’s particularly moved by either writing poetry or a particular poet or whatever, and they’ll end up making a zine, that’s all about that. There’s nobody saying, “No, you can’t do that, it’s not punk.”
Donatien Grau: There’s a freedom to punk, basically.
James Spooner: Yeah. It’s a community. The reason that there’s forever and a day been a question of what is punk, or an argument over what is punk, is because it can’t just be one thing. We are humans who are diverse, and within that, as it becomes bigger, we form little sections and segments. As much as it doesn’t make any sense to me at all that there are Republican punks, there are. As much as it doesn’t make sense to me that there are homophobic punks, there certainly are. The mainstream is a reflection of the underground and vice versa.
Donatien Grau: You just said it was a community. Do you think there is a community, a punk community, or punk communities,
James Spooner: No. There’s several. I know that when I go to another country. One of the things that my girlfriend and I do is look for the punk bar, if there is one. The one I went to in Paris—I don’t even remember what it was called—but it was a little bar with probably seating for 20 or something, 15. It had a vibe that was paying homage to the 70s punks. Going to a punk bar in Glasgow is a lot more modern in terms of its focus, which is on DIY and veganism and activism. You can go anywhere in the world where there are punks and it’s going to feel different. Because, again, the underground is a reflection of the mainstream, and punk in specific is a reaction to the mainstream. Whatever that community’s mainstream is, they’re going to be reacting to it.
Donatien Grau: Some people say that punk was a reaction in the early 70s, mid-70s, late 70s. You speak about punk communities as if they exist today, as if they are here today in different places. Do you think there’s a continuity, or do think there was one moment in the 70s which was very specific and then it became another history?
James Spooner: I know that it exists today. I wasn’t around in the 70s, but I was around in the late 80s and I studied on it. I think that the punks in the United States that were reacting to Ronald Reagan and the punks in the United Kingdom that were reacting to Margaret Thatcher are the same punks today who are reacting to Donald Trump—and whatever the respective, oppressive governments are of that country, community, even towns, or even a high school.
I believe that different genres of music exist for different reasons, and punk rock exists as a reaction to the mainstream and as a reaction to authority, as a reaction to oppressive environments. When I lived in a small desert town in California, when I first got into punk, the oppressors were just the middle school principal. It was the gym teacher. When I moved to New York in high school, things became more worldly and the oppressors were Mayor Giuliani and George Bush. Depending on where you are and who you’re reacting to, who you’re flipping off is going to be a reflection of what your punk rock looks like.
Donatien Grau: Going further into that, what do you see as the forms of punk? The zines, the lyrics, the music, how do you see them and what do you see them being now? Do you think they’ve always been the same for the last 40 years, or they have changed?
James Spooner: Zines, music, those are the huge ones. There’s always been a film component and that becomes easier as video becomes more readily available. I think with the advent of blogs and whatnot, that’s a thing. There’s probably people who would even talk about memes. These are all forms of protest, they’re all ways of communicating. Something as simple as just silk screening t-shirts and putting your message on that. These are all ways that individuals in the punk scene can tell the outside world that A, “I’m punk, I’m part of a community that you don’t know about,” and B, or as a signal to other punks like, “Hey, I’m part of your community. I’m wearing a band shirt that you know about or a phrase that you’re connected to.” And it’s also a way of telling the outside world that in lay terms, “You’re fucked up.”
In my mind, the root of punk rock is like, “This situation out there is fucked up, and we can do our version of grassroots organizing or whatever to change it.” Or we can just throw a bottle at the building, whatever it calls for. It’s obviously not one way of being political and being in opposition.
Donatien Grau: At the beginning of punk, it was quite a violent movement related to anarchy. You spoke about anger, but do you see this violence as still something that is there, or something that has maybe softened a bit?
James Spooner: No. I think it’s still there. I would guarantee you that more of half of the people who were dubbed antifa in the protests are somehow connected to the punk scene. I don’t even know anybody who identifies as antifa who’s not part of the punk scene. There’s always been violence in different forms, like dancing, which can be totally friendly like some sports do, like, “No hard feelings.” But then there’s people that go to shows and they want to fight. That’s their thing, and they’re part of the scene, too. It’s dangerous to try to make a monolith out of any community.
Donatien Grau: That leads to another interesting question: you were talking about the individuals manifesting themselves. What do you see as the relation between the individuals and the community?
James Spooner: Let’s say there’s somebody who’s very outgoing and they are an organizer. They put together shows, and they’re the person who’s in charge of gathering the community because they book bands. That person might also be a good delegator and have people working the door or providing security if they’re that organized. They’re individuals, but they’re also trusted members of the community that can handle the money and be trusted not to steal it and to give it out to the bands. Each member of the band is an individual that brings their own thing to the band and also to the larger community. And most importantly, I think, is every individual who attends the shows.
What I’ve experienced from other scenes is that the more mainstream the scene, the more expendable the individuals are. If you go to a Taylor Swift concert, nobody cares that you’re there and nobody cares if you’re not there. You’re just a number filling a seat and being part of the energy that makes the event enjoyable. But if you are not a Taylor Swift fan tomorrow, nobody cares. Whereas I’m part of a couple Facebook groups that are ‘90s hardcore specific, and however many thousand people who are in that group, I may not know them—or I may not know that I know them—but we’re all a degree away from each other. Somebody will post a picture of band, a record, and 50 people will chime in about being at the show and, “Holy shit! You were at that show?”
It happens all the time where someone will post a picture or a video from an event, and people will tag me in it because they see me in the corner there. I don’t even know who these people are who are tagging me, but we had some connection 20-something years ago. And they remember me, and I remember other people who don’t remember. We’re all important. This little community, I believe that for the most part these are not expendable individuals, because it’s a small tight-knit thing.
Donatien Grau: The notion of scene signifies a performance, a performativity, so maybe the performativity actually makes a community. After all, the punk community is structured around gigs, performances.
James Spooner: It’s around music, yeah. I wonder now, during COVID-19, how the punk scene works, because there’s no scene to go to. It’s got to be an all online kind of thing where, for the most part, people are talking about stuff that happened in the past. It’s hard to make new memories when you’re in lockdown.
Within the punk scene there are various places where things happen that aren’t musical. You can organize Food Not Bombs. If you go to a Food Not Bombs meal in Berkeley, it’s like a punk picnic. There’s like 50 punks there intermingled with random Berkeley homeless people. There could be no music. It’s just a place for people to hang out and gather every day and catch up. But that also requires a level of organization that might not exist in Waukesha, Wisconsin. It also depends on individuals of the scene.
Donatien Grau: What do you see the relation between the punk, the community, and the image—the clothes, the way people behave and present themselves? In the ‘70s it was an integral part of punk. Do you still see it being the case today?
James Spooner: Yeah. I think that there’s always a level of fashion. Obviously, English 70s punk was embarrassingly formulated around fashion. It was fashion first, as far as the whole Malcolm McLaren, Sex Pistols story. But what I’ve been told is that very quickly after, not everybody could afford that stuff, not everyone could get to steal that stuff. It has to evolve so that it can be something that everybody who’s involved can do. So there are ebbs and flows. But I think the most important part about punk fashion is just that thing of being able to see your community, just as an identifier.
There have been times in my life when I’m in a city or a country where I know no people, and I see somebody with a patch on their backpack or something that lets me know that they’re punk, and I can just start talking to them, and all of a sudden now I’ve got friends. That has definitely happened. If I see somebody with a patch of a band that’s very small, that has a seven-inch or two, then I know that we’re on the same team. If they have a Sex Pistols patch, well, they could have got that at the mall, and that doesn’t tell me anything. But I still have a better chance of connecting than with the girl who’s wearing the Taylor Swift shirt, because hundreds of thousands of people have that shirt.
Donatien Grau: Going back to what we were discussing earlier, you were talking about your zines, about intersectionality. How do you see the relation between punk and the politics of identity?
James Spooner: I remember three or four years ago, I started hearing the word “intersectional,” and I had to look it up because I wasn’t familiar with it. I looked it up, and then I was like, “Oh, I’ve been intersectional since I was 16.” Punk rock has provided me the tools to embrace intersectional politics since I really understood punk to be more than nihilism. I feel like I’m seeing the mainstream catch up in certain ways to punk.
There’s an acronym that I’ve been seeing all over in the last month of protesting: ACAD, all cops are bastards. That, to my knowledge, comes from the punk scene. Before a month ago, I only ever saw that in relation to punk bands. It’s almost jarring to see it on mainstream Twitter handles and stuff. When it comes to gender politics or race politics, I think that—because the punk scene has been this place for individualism, for angry weirdos—we’ve been open to hearing people’s experiences for a long time. When I first met some transgendered people, it was easy for me to accept them as humans with an experience and not have any judgements because I’d been primed for it for years before with just meeting other queer people and hearing their stories, and understanding through the punk scene that it’s good to want to be an ally.
Donatien Grau: It basically means that the punk scene is a space where people can allow themselves to be what they want to be and what they are.
James Spooner: In the best-case scenario, yeah. Again, because there isn’t one monolithic punk scene, there are certainly places where it’s not safe to be a transgendered person in that scene. I wouldn’t be comfortable as an openly gay person in the New York hardcore scene, but I would be comfortable in the New Jersey hardcore scene. It’s just a different vibe. The punk that I want to promote—and that I want the underground to be more receptive to or wave the banner of—is a very intersectional punk scene, though it doesn’t exist everywhere.
Donatien Grau: You’re talking about the underground, but in a lot of discussions there are people saying that the mainstream was taking over and destroying everything. Do you still think there is an underground where this punk scene can live?
James Spooner: 100%. I see it all the time. Since 1979 there have been people saying punk is dead, and those are usually people who have been involved for a number of years, and they get to be a certain age, and it doesn’t speak to them anymore. So they say punk is dead. I have always understood that punk isn’t dead, I’m just too old for it now. But there have been many occasions, because I still enjoy the music and believe in it, that I go to shows and I’ll just be the old person at the show. I’m watching and I’m like, “These kids are exactly the same.”
The difference between today’s punk and the punk from the 70s and maybe early 80s is that there are members of the punk scene who have made it financially. To use the tired example of Green Day, they obviously were a legitimate punk band from a legitimate punk scene, and then they signed to a major label and they got insanely huge. Some would argue that they’re still punk because their music sounds punk. I would argue that they sound like a punk band but they’re no longer a punk band. To me punk rock is underground, and once you’re not in the underground anymore, you’re not punk rock anymore.
Donatien Grau: When you just talked about “all cops are bastards” going into the mainstream—this form of rebellion, protests, that comes from punk and that then goes into the wider discussion—do you see it as a good thing, or as a sort of flattening of what was once a radical message?
James Spooner: I think that it has to evolve. We can’t just be like, “Well, we want this.” We have to want the mainstream to take our shit. We have to understand that the mainstream is looking to the underground to see how to live. And then they’ll take our shit, and we in turn have to move on and create some new shit. To use a very superficial example: from 1980 till 1991, if you saw somebody with a flannel tied around their waist, unless it was an extremely hot day, you could probably guess that they were a punk rocker. That was just a signal of this is a punk rock style. In 1992 grunge hit, and hundreds of thousands of pre-teens saw Nirvana and saw that style, and then they did that style. Then it was no longer a punk signifier anymore, and punks had to abandon it and there were lots who were really upset about it. But who cares? We just keep it moving.
It’s annoying when you can buy a Joy Division t-shirt at the mall. It does make it so that that a Joy Division t-shirt no longer means anything, but we’ve got a whole arsenal of stuff that is ours that are signifiers, and we’ve got the politics to see the mainstream adopt those politics. We just want it to actually be real.
Donatien Grau: I’m interested in the way you look back to these times from the 1990s, when you were younger and when you did Afro-Punk. When you did the film, for part of the mainstream it was a revelation of a real scene that was known to the community but wasn’t known to people who then saw the film. You knew that punk was not a thing only for white males in Britain and New York, and you opened it to a wider discussion. 17 years later, how do you look back on what you unveiled to a wider audience?
James Spooner: It’s a really interesting trajectory, because it started off as a critique of the punk scene. Then in showing the film, I started to realize that there were all these black and brown punks who wanted a community of their own. So I started putting on shows, then there became an Afro-punk scene; previously it didn’t exist, at least in New York. Then things spiraled out of control and it became a corporate venture and no longer was a scene, and instead was a brand. Some people get caught up in the brand thinking that it’s a scene, but a scene is not based off of a once a year event.
Subsequently, as the festival grew larger and larger, it spoke to fewer and fewer of the actual members of the underground. And punks being punks have to react. Now Afro-punk is a thing that they’re reacting to, so they’re saying, “Fuck that. Tha’s not punk.” And they started their own black and brown collectives, and now what I’ve seen in the United States and in London is that there are POC punk collectives, punk festivals, punk gatherings that are all over, that happened autonomously in reaction to this thing that accidentally happened.
It’s a beautiful irony. I ended up getting what I wanted accidentally.
Donatien Grau: Do the people that create these different spread-out communities speak to you? Do you relate to them?
James Spooner: Yeah, yeah. Because I’m not involved with Afro-punk and I’m fairly vocal about that, they know that I’m a legitimate or a real punk rocker, that I’m actually about the underground. So in times when I first started hearing about these different collectives, I’d find out who’s the main organizer and would write to them. I’ll say she, because all but one of them is run by black women, and they all are very excited like, “Oh, my god. Thank you. It’s great to hear from you … that film is everything to me,” and all of that. It definitely makes me feel moved. In certain ways these are like my children.
Donatien Grau: The political move you made present in the early 2000s, the Afro-punk scene as a separate scene, do you see this as being still relevant today, or do you think that history has changed now and that your children aren’t dealing with the same issues as the people you were highlighting?
James Spooner: The one piece that’s different is that Afro-punk was specifically black. In all of the ones that exist today, they’re black and brown. So there’s a solidarity that is larger, and sometimes they’re black, brown, queer. They’re more inclusive of the various “minority” groups, and I think that’s a testament to what is important right now. At the time I really needed it to be a black-only thing. Anyone could come, but I needed it to be a celebration of blackness. I understand why this generation would, in the cases of these punk shows, want it to be inclusive.
Donatien Grau: You were talking earlier about the kids. When the kids go to punk shows today, how do you see them? Do you see them as similar to what you were doing 25, 20 years ago? Do you think they have different ways, different approaches? How do you see the punk kids, if I dare say?
James Spooner: Yeah. Technology’s changed. They’re not making paper flyers to promote the shows. They’re on Facebook and Instagram. They do crowd funding and stuff like that. There was a group called Xingonas in the Pit out of San Antonio, and they put on a event where they showed my film and they crowd funded in order to afford to fly me out there and talk about it. I thought it was amazing that they set a financial goal and they were able to pay all the bands, me, and the flyers, the venue, everything, before the doors even opened, just through the support of the community. So that’s different, but that’s just technology.
Donatien Grau: But the spirit is the same?
James Spooner: Yeah. The spirit is definitely the same. I’m a witness in a lot of ways, because I’m an old man with kids of my own, but I feel the energy. When I’m there I’m like, “This looks and feels the same. I understand what these kids are doing and what they’re feeling right now.” So that’s where I go back to that thing where people are like, “Oh, punk is dead.” It’s like, “Yeah, because you’re paying attention to these insanely huge Bad Religion shows.” And yes, that band is not what it was in the 80s, but there will always be an underground, because there is always going to be a mainstream. And there’s always going to be a group of kids who are like, “Fuck that thing.” That’s all punk needs.
Donatien Grau: What about zines?
James Spooner: Zines are bigger than ever. In Los Angeles, they have several zine fairs, and they’re so big they can’t even accommodate all the people who want to participate. That zine scene is like a utopia of free identities: here is the black trans person selling their zine right next to the punk girl in the wheelchair right next to … It’s just every kind of person just selling their wares. I couldn’t even imagine that zines would be as big as they are, paper zines.
I will say they are more expensive than they ever were. In my day we used to steal copies from Kinko’s so we could sell them for $1. Now it’s like, eight pages and it’s five bucks, and I’m like, “What the fuck?”
Donatien Grau: Punk started out as a historical phenomenon 40 years ago, 50 years ago. We could sort of trace it back before that time—we can say that there were people who were punk without the name—but really what’s interesting is that this energy that was named continues and has become a space of its own. Then also, as you were saying, there are many different communities. But it also has become a space for fluidity, where people can be themselves in their own way.
James Spooner: Yeah. There are people who I meet all the time who identified as punks when they were kids, and they have no idea about the bands that I listened to when I was a kid. That’s because there are so many scenes and so many kids who have access to different things. There’s no one way to do it. You absolutely could be a CIS, white, straight edge kid or you could be a queer, black, drag queen, and you’re still flying the same flag. You’re still living under the same umbrella, even if those people never enter the same space.
I think that I’m kind of unique in that I grew up in New York, so I found myself going to places where there were black, drag queen punks, and I was going to shows in New Jersey and Philadelphia, where it was super hetero, white, straight edge kids. I just have always enjoyed various aspects, so I was kind of a crusty punk who was also straight edge, who squatted but also would be at rich suburban kids’ houses on the weekends. I’ve kind of always been open for that kind of stuff.
Donatien Grau: One of the ways I see your journey from zines through the film, through tattoos and comics is the relation to writing, and different forms of writing. Tattoo is literally a form of writing. How do you see your relation to writing?
James Spooner: If I could have one selfish wish, it would be that I could sing or play an instrument. I played bass for eight years, and I suck. It just doesn’t work with my brain, but art always has. Visual art always has—writing, just story-telling, I should say. That’s always been something that comes natural. And that’s not to say that I don’t work at it and I don’t get critiques and see how it can be better, but it’s something that my brain just knows how to do. Luckily the punk scene isn’t just about music. There are all of these various ways of communicating this underground, reactionary message.
I think it’s actually been a blessing that I’ve been able to participate in the ways that I have been, because it actually is something that I can bring into the rest of my life as an adult. I haven’t had to compromise and get a job where I felt like I was a slave to the man, because I tattoo. I opened my own shop three years into tattooing because I couldn’t deal with authority, and I just have always had my own private studio and been able to pay my bills, make sure my kid gets what she needs, et cetera.
Donatien Grau: Then maybe I have one last question, which is about veganism. It’s something you’re a passionate advocate about. Do you see this as somehow connected to punk or do you think they’re two separate things?
James Spooner: 100%. I think that it comes back to this punk rock, political intersectionality agenda. The same year that I became sensitive to gender issues is the same year I became vegan. The same year that I was learning about prisons or just all of the atrocities that happen in this world, I also learned about factory farming and vivisection. I have friends who I love, who I respect dearly, who are super politically on point, who I come to for advice and questions about all kinds of this, who once were vegan, and dropped out at some point. When we were kids we were all vegan. They quit, and I do not understand it. I just don’t understand how you can have the information and be like, “I don’t care about that. I’m not going to allow myself to look at that piece anymore, but I’m going to still be over here talking about intersectionality.”
It’s all connected to me, and I don’t see a way for us to have any sort of fulfilling liberation as humans while we still eat meat. The environment, all of this stuff is so connected. Anyone who debates that is just doing it for their own selfish desires.
I learned about veganism through punk. There is no shortage of bands in both the straight edge and crust scene that push an animal rights platform. That’s where I learned about it. And again, I just see the mainstream slowly catching up to punk in terms of politics.