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Afropunk pioneer James Spooner explores ‘The High Desert’ of his origins

After moving from filmmaking to tattooing to graphic novels, he shares thoughts on race, art and alienation, with practical lessons for aspiring creatives

The culture of punk rock has many manifestations — music, clothing, politics, art and philosophy — with one of its chief characteristics being an aggressive indifference to mainstream narratives and standards. But how does racial identity manifest in cultures like punk rock that are presumed to be full of outsiders?

In 2003, the critically acclaimed documentary Afro-Punk, directed by James Spooner, introduced the world to how Blackness lived in the punk rock community. Not only did the film spawn a movement (and a festival circuit), it remains a treasured example of how to examine race in fringe spaces. 

This spring, Spooner published a graphic novel titled The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere. (HarperCollins). It functions as both a memoir of a pioneer of the Black and punk narrative, and an extended metaphor for how Black people can — and need to — push for spaces that exist outside of the white (or any establishment) gaze, where weirdness, originality and authenticity are the only laws.

Spooner spoke to Andscape about his book, his inspirations for documenting his experience, and practical advice for young Black creatives. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to tell the story of your life in a graphic novel? 

Before I started this project, I had been tattooing for several years. And I think that I was starting to plateau in terms of my motivation. There’s always room to get better, but I just was comfortable in my abilities and was bored. Obviously, I made Afro-Punk years before and I had a wild ride with that. I had the experience of doing something personal and having it reach tens of thousands of people on a personal level for them and feeling like my art made a difference. Doing tattoos, it makes a difference for that one person, and that was enough for a while. But eventually that high started to wane and I think that I needed to do something that had more.

The High Desert.

I was looking for an artistic outlet. Seven years ago, I got together with my partner and she introduced me to memoir comics. And after reading a few, she was trying to urge me to tell some of my stories. And I think at that point, I’d been so burnt out and maybe burned by Afro-Punk that I was just like, ‘I don’t even want to …’ But eventually, I had that hunger again.

I look at comics as this Voltron of skill sets that I acquired over my lifetime. So having done film, I knew about pacing and blocking and making it look right. Writing a script again was just like film, but it was tattooing that really taught me how to draw. And revisiting pacing, even DJing really helps with that kind of thing, just knowing when to drop the beat and things like that.

I read a couple of graphic novels and I immediately was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ So, I just set out to do it. I bought some books on how to make a graphic novel. It’s a lot of trial and error. I drew everything on paper at first. And then I got an iPad and then I ended up redrawing everything again, just learning on the job and even a lot of my style is based on the things that I learned from tattooing.

Walk us through your complicated relationship with Afro-Punk the movie and then Afropunk, the movement.

I made the Afro-Punk documentary in 2003 and subsequently started the festival in 2005 with my partner, Matthew Morgan. We met in 2004 and he became my partner full time, in making Afropunk something more than just my film. And the idea, the end goal in my head, was to create a conversation and to have a safe space for Black weirdos. And obviously, I come from the punk scene. My brand of being a Black weirdo is through music.

Afropunk today has been in seven countries, it’s in three cities in the United States. They boast 80,000 to 100,000 people per festival. The majority of it is owned by a corporation. I take exception to the idea that it’s a movement because I don’t believe that movements are run by LLCs. But it is a brand, and it has value. But it is a brand that no longer has punk values.

I had no interest in being on that level, because my interest is a third lane for Black people, not widening one of the existing lanes. I really have no beef with all the people who have been moved to open their horizons because of today’s Afropunk. It’s still doing a version of what it was supposed to do.

One of the healing components of this experience on a personal level for me is that the punk scene that I know and love that I came to this project with, it’s not that much different today. There are still teenagers today who are doing the same thing in basements in the same way I was.

And here is where The High Desert comes in. They say that the more personal a project is, the more universal it becomes. So Afro-Punk the film is personal to me, but I’m not even in it. I’m not interviewed, I told my story through those people. This time, with The High Desert, I’m going even more personal and I’m telling my literal origin story, not my whole story, but the part where I came into punk rock. This is where a shift from childhood to the next step in my life started.

So what are Black weirdos doing today? Are there things that you’ve seen that you’re inspired by?

The thing that I love about the punk community is that you don’t need a thousand people for it to be successful. Some of the best shows I ever went to were 20 people in a room.

I think that mainstream capitalism would tell us that, in order to be successful, you have to have a festival with three stages and 60,000 people there. In reality, there’s very little community happening in that. And with punk rock, it doesn’t have to be that. So punk rock can always exist, because anyone can get 20 friends together in a basement or a backyard and play a show, and that’s still happening today. Definitely.

And for those kids who are 20, 25 years younger than me, they’re experiencing the most important time of their life. And it doesn’t look all that much different. So, yeah, they have social media. Maybe they don’t make paper flyers as much, but at the end of the day, they still have to get together and have guitars and have people dancing together, and for better or worse, COVID didn’t even stop that for a lot of these kids. So, my feeling is that it’s changed in the way that there’s now a voice. I feel like there’s an avenue for kids of color, for girls, for queer people, for disabled people. I feel like punk is going back to that place.

Because I feel like there is a resurgence of a narrative that’s like, ‘Oh, punk was this white thing.’ But in a lot of spaces, punk was a very brown and Black thing, in LA or whatever, a very queer thing. But then, the white kids from Orange County came in and then took over. So I feel like it’s going back, I’m often seeing pictures and I’m just like, ‘Wow, that is a really brown audience.’ I think that the way it’s changed is for the better. There are more opportunities for them, for those voices to rise to the top.

When we talk about social isolation and alienation, it seems like your embrace of punk is related to these experiences.

Well, I think I was born into conflict with my identity. I’m mixed-race, born in the ’70s and I don’t think either of my parents were equipped or even thought about what it meant to raise a biracial person. And I think my identity is initially formed by some of those experiences, some of my identity is formed around poverty. Some of my identity is formed around witnessing abuse and divorce, and all of those things were a perfect recipe for me to enter into the punk scene.

And I think, when I was 12 and I was a skateboarder and I was hearing punk as a soundtrack for these skate videos, the anger, the angst resonated. Before that, I was a little kid listening to mall rap, Run D.M.C., The Fresh Prince and The Fat Boys. But in that middle school era when people started forming their identities largely around music, there was New Kids On The Block and Paula Abdul and Bobby Brown — that stuff just didn’t resonate with me in the way that the angst and anger of Black Flag or Wasted Youth or Descendents. That punk stuff was more tangible. And while I didn’t consciously know I was angry — I wasn’t a sad, depressed kid or wasn’t destructive or whatever — but I definitely had a lot to be angry about. And I think punk rock ended up being a very constructive avenue.

Do you have any thoughts on creativity and productivity, practical lessons for Black creatives?

Sometimes people point out that I’ve done all of these different mediums, and people say that, ‘You just do this thing and then you master it.’ And I would argue with them about mastery, but I will say that I’m not afraid to just do it myself.

If I decided I wanted to be an oil painter tomorrow, then I would just start oil painting. And I would know that it would suck. And I would also know that it would get better, but I don’t need permission. And I also don’t need it to be perfect right off the bat. That’s what I try to teach my own kid is just, don’t wait for anybody to say, ‘You can do this.’

Every project I’ve done successfully, whether it is making a film, being a tattoo artist, making this book, is that I do it every single day. It might be for an hour, it might be for six hours, but whatever it is, I’m doing it every day.

I think a part of it is also knowing what your limits are. I have a huge ego and I can’t even tell you how many fights to tears I’ve been in with my partner about writing or whether a face looks right or whatever, because she’s got skills that I don’t have. But at the end of the day, I have to go into these projects knowing that I don’t know everything and it’s not going to be perfect right away. I know enough to know that I’m just starting out. Yeah, I have Afro-Punk behind me — that doesn’t mean I can make a graphic novel. If I’m going in and I’m saying, ‘Hey, I can do this book. Here’s some half-baked drawings and here’s a script that needs work,’ they’re not going to believe that I can get to the end. After a ton of rejections, I was like, ‘They’re not ready. I’m not presenting them with something that they can see. That’s fine. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to be good.’

Keep working at it every day and be a good self-editor, and just keep doing it and finish. That’s the main thing. Finish the project.

You look at Afro-Punk, there are so many technical problems. I can look at it and be like, ‘Man, there was heart there, but there’s so many problems.’ But that doesn’t matter, because I finished it.

I work in the punk space, so I walked in knowing that it could be flawed. With the graphic novel, I was making the attempt to be published by a big house. But after all those rejections, I was like, ‘Maybe I have to self-publish. Maybe the big houses aren’t going to get it. Maybe I need to go to a small house.’

But none of that mattered to me. It was just like, I’m just going to finish this book. Even if it’s flawed. The dedication is to my kids, even if they’re the only ones who read it. I’m a strong believer in the idea that the payoff is in the process.

C. Brandon Ogbunu, a New York City native, is a computational biologist at Yale University. His popular writing takes place at the intersection between sports, data science, and culture.