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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

August 14, 2006
Rating: 9/10

Afro-punk is about identity - a roaring, trillion neurons firing simultaneously, demanding to be seen and heard. Afro-punk is about the universally undeniable urge to find a niche and explore it. Afro-punk is about the painful, hypocritical ostracism young black punks reap from their own families, other punks and society in general. Afro-punk is an examination and celebration of the music and culture for which black punks live and die.

The film documents the lives of four black punks, Markio Jones, Matt Davis, Moe Mitchell and Tamar-kali. These artists are from different walks of life, with different goals, different priorities and geographically scattered from sunny Cali 'burbs to gritty New York City streets. In the film, Mariko is a student and DJ in California. Matt is a guitarist and vocalist for several Iowa bands. Moe is a D.C.-based Howard University graduate of who fronts a hardcore band. Tamar-kali is a powerful vocalist from NYC who has performed with acts ranging from hardcore thrashers to Outkast. Director James Spooner studies the lives of these four individuals and splices the footage with interviews with other black punks, both well-known and obscure.

The differences among the subjects are striking. Mariko is quiet and graceful but often isolated, and whether sitting on the stairs at school or in the DJ booth she exudes a distinct sadness. Matt is driven to the point that he sells his own blood to pay bills, emerging as a lightning rod of focused rage during live shows. Moe tends to wax philosophical about his lyrics and work at Howard. Tamar-kali seems to be constantly creating something and her gorgeous, soulful voice serves as a sweet counterpoint to the hardcore screams that permeate most of the performances in the film.

There are commonalities in the lives of the subjects and topics, ranging from dating to the Do It Yourself mentality, which elicit similar responses from all involved. The divide between black punks and mainstream black society leads to black punks often dating white people exclusively. DIY is crucial to the movement and, as Matt Davis demonstrates, punks can live on next to nothing and thrive. Another commonality is inescapable geography. At one point or another all of the subjects express a frustration with location. Mariko seems lost in cookie cutter suburbia. Matt craves any black experience amid the great white backdrop of Iowa cornfields. Moe revisits Howard trying to maintain his connection to a place of acceptance. Tamar-kali's neighbors harass her for dressing punk as she walks down the street. The issue with locale highlights the isolation that black punks feel simply for where they live or how they dress.

Running throughout the film are intense musical interludes featuring performances by all four musicians. Moe Mitchell's performance is an aggressive and tragic song about the slave trade. Mitchell flies around the room while the rest of his band, Cipher, slams away at their instruments. Matt Davis' set was standing room only. Matt, guitar in hand and swaying back and forth, stands just a few feet from his audience. Suddenly everything explodes and Matt lurches forward, screaming unintelligible lyrics into the mic. To focus on his words would be to miss the point though - Davis's performance is about riding the edge between controlled intensity and unchecked chaos. Tamar-kali's performance stands in sharp contrast to her male counterparts. A twenty-piece orchestra or a single acoustic guitar could back Tamar - either way the focus would be on her and her lush voice. Tamar-kali's voice and stage presence have the kind of innate sexuality that draw all eyes to her. These musicians have learned to channel the lonely frustration of their identities into the kind of soul crushing performances that most musicians can never give.

An undercurrent of alienation dominates the course of the film. Black punks are often not accepted by their parents and the "Black Community" as a whole because the punk aesthetic is thought to be odd or even "white." Ironically, black punks are often not accepted by white punks, either directly or indirectyly, because of their skin color. Sometimes white punks will treat black punks as tokens, which is equally degrading. This lack of appropriate acceptance leads many black punks to feel isolated and, as is pointed out several times during the film, often leads black punks to alienate each other or find an odd sense of security in their token status. During the film several of those interviewed mention the difficulty in knowing how to handle seeing and meeting other black punks, ranging from insecurity at approaching someone at a show simply because they, too, are black to the feeling that having another black punk on "their turf" is an affront to their legitimacy and status. .

Ultimately the realization that one takes away from watching this film is that black punks must sacrifice their blackness to fit into the Punk Movement and are simultaneously forced to sacrifice punk rock in order to be accepted in the Black Community. The film opens with a quote from Patti Smith about black punks choosing to be on the outside of society. The four beautiful, talented individuals documented in Afro-punk want nothing more than to be an accepted part of society as black men/women and as punk rockers. Afro-punks, whether they like it or not, are on the outside - no choices allowed. A must-see film for anyone who has an opinion about issues of race, gender, rock & roll or society, Afro-punks is a real wake-up call that some of this generation's best and brightest are being shunned for ridiculously superficial reasons.

As a closing note I'd like to acknowledge Matt Davis' life and untimely passing shortly before the initial release of this film. He was 26 and had just begun to get the recognition that he so greatly deserved. Having toured the US and Europe, Davis was on his way to bigger things. Some asshole from Phish bought the rights to Matt's band name, The Vida Blue, for $10,000 and then, in a fitting punk rock "fuck you" Davis' band changed their name to Ten Grand. Southern Records had just released Ten Grand's critically acclaimed This Is The Way To Rule when, in August of 2003, Matt died. I knew Matt as one of my roommates from 1999-2000, a time when we would often stay up late talking about film and music, politics and ethics. I knew Matt as the guy who would make delicious, enormous pizzas with me, loaded with weird ingredients like potatoes and cucumber and jalapenos. I knew Matt as one of the most decent and caring people I'd ever met. I knew Matt as one of those rarefied music gurus who completely changed my thinking about what constitutes "good" music. At Matt's packed memorial service The Smith's song, "There is a Light That Never Goes Out," was played as we exited the building. It was a perfect way to remember our friend who, thanks in part to Afro-punk, will always be with us - his music, his smiling face and his voice.

SEE ALSO: www.afropunk.com
SEE ALSO: www.ten-grand.com/matt.php

--
Jon Burke
A contributing writer and a Chicago resident who will not be goaded by LASís editor into revealing any more details about his potentially sordid affairs.

See other articles by Jon Burke.

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