‘Afropunk' Film Sheds Light on Music, Lifestyle
By Nikki Osei
What exactly is "afro-punk"? On Feb. 18 Fine and Performing Arts Prof. Tewodross Melchishua screened the documentary "Afropunk" by James Spooner, allowing students to delve into the lives of "afro-punks."
There are many definitions of punk rock. One definition states, "Punk rock is rock music with deliberately offensive lyrics expressing anger or social alienation." Another classifies punk rock as "an anti-establishment rock music genre and movement that developed between 1974 and 1976 in the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia."
Whenever one does think of punk rock, rarely do images of African American people come to mind. However, there are vast numbers of black people who have adopted this genre of music and lifestyle as their own. The documentary followed self-proclaimed afro-punks to gain their perspective on what it is like being black in culture dominated by white rockers.
Punk rock music and culture is directly influenced by African and Indigenous cultures. Tattoos are modern day scarifications, which is an ancient African tribal body art involving purposely scarring the skin to create raised marks or patterns. The music is derived from African ceremonies in which there was loud chanting and screaming. And if you have ever seen rockers dance, it is quite similar to the erratic style of dance in many African cultures.
Many think that because you grow up in the 'hood you are limited to hip-hop and R&B music, when in fact many featured in the documentary grew up in the 'hood. Some participants said they felt alienated by their own people for who they were, yet they felt punk rockers, which are predominately white people, were nonjudgmental and accepting. This is partially because punk rockers are generally frowned upon due to the bold attire, multiple piercings, tattoos, brightly colored Mohawks, etc. Many people fear or shun things they cannot relate to.
One person said, "Most people follow radio, music, and clothing norms, completely unaware of other options." Many afro-punks found themselves alienated from friends and family and some were cast from their homes. Some black parents even thought their kids were gay due to their style of dress. Most participants found solace within their punk rock families.
Other commentary included, "There is energy in the music that you don't get from other music." Many participants stated that punk rock is, "political music for the most part. Punk rock music is more socially aware." There are several classifications of punk rock including punk, rock, political, drunk, skinhead and Nazi.
Despite the acceptance many participants spoke of, not all were excited to see black faces rocking to their music. Some felt as though black people did not mesh. "Blacks have to go 9 times harder to prove themselves punk," said one participant. Whenever a black person comes onto the scene the entire room freezes and "everyone turns around to look at the black person." There was a stigma associated with being black at white clubs. Many afro-punks felt conflicted knowing they were not fully "black or white." And while some whites were open to sharing the lifestyle, some would only associate themselves with "safe blacks." A white participant said, "we know you are black, just don't remind us."
A hot topic on the documentary was dating. Most afro-punks found themselves in interracial relationships solely because they were constantly surrounded by white people and found they could not relate to black people because they were not accepting of their lifestyle.
There are countless black punk rock bands and this trend of black rockers is not a new one. Dating back to the early 70s, there were black punk rockers including Jimi Hendrix and later the group Bad Brains.
Society seems more accepting of the black punk era as the style and culture has become mainstream. Anywhere you go you see Mohawks, skulls, chains, skateboards and piercings on black people. And there are even more people broadening their tastes in music. Run DMC was among the first to dabble in mixing rap with rock and now more rappers are integrating the two. Lil Wayne is even rumored to be working on a rock album. But the underground subculture is what truly defines the afro-punk. Most said that if an artist or band goes mainstream, they lose respect for them.
Some of the Afropunk participants said they felt, "more black when wearing a Mohawk" because they know where the style originated, which was the motherland. Most were at ease with their afro-punk status, while others, particularly a girl by the name of Marieko Jones, was clueless about her identity and only recently "accepted her blackness." Marieko got the biggest rise out of students watching the documentary and she thoroughly angered many. Marieko even went as far as to say that, "I am finally accepting my blackness. I am making a shirt that says, "Black is beautiful."
After the film, many students spoke against Marieko, saying that she sounded stupid. One student defended her saying that sometimes the road to self-discovery is a long one, which is primarily what the documentary was about: the road to self-discovery and those featured discovered themselves and found their comfort in punk rock.
The message in "Afropunk" was to be accepting of others and to follow instincts, allowing nothing to prevent a person from whom they are or want to be and they should not be afraid to venture out and try new things. According to the filmmakers, "All black people should give punk rock a try." For more information on Afropunk, click here.