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Black Punk Now — Beyond Bad Brains: An Interview with James Spooner and Chris L. Terry

I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of Black Punk Now—which both Nylon and Literary Hub had listed as the “most anticipated book of the year.” Admittedly my main interest was personal. As an aging punk rocker, I’m always eager to check out the direction that punk is taking today.

I was there, in the early years of the late 70s, when punk rock emerged: disruptive, in your face, anarchistic, nihilistic, fatalistic, screaming to be seen and heard, and itching to make a difference. A much-needed alternative to the bloated impersonal arena rock scene that had homogenized the spontaneity and soul right out of rock and roll. It was also hectic time for politics. A right-wing movement was ascendant, and two of the most dangerous and conservative world leaders, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, were given full reign to permanently alter and influence politics and government in such a disastrous way that it still affects us today.

Unfortunately, as history repeats itself, we find ourselves once again struggling under that familiar boot of oppression, combating Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, religious fanatics, right-wing dictatorships, racism, sexism, gender discrimination, homophobia, xenophobia, and censorship. In reaction to this tumultuous atmosphere, much like in the 70s, we need a strong artistic response. And while the original punk scene was much whiter, the punk of the last twenty years is much less so. I was excited to hear from a group of today’s punks who had picked up the proverbial gauntlet, who were fighting the good fight, and who were making punk their own.

So with that in mind a few weeks ago, on a Thursday night, I headed across East Los Angeles to Skylight Books for Black Punk Now’s book release. After snagging a copy I slipped into one of the seats in the middle, having arrived on time and ahead of all those younger punks; “old punks don’t go away, we just stand in the back.” I waited as the venue filled up with an audience half my age.

Meanwhile, book in hand, I perused the first 100 pages and realized that this was quite an ambitious project—a beautifully compiled graphic driven anthology with multiple interviews, stories, and discussions from the perspective of Black writers navigating a punk scene that had been predominantly white, and finding a footing of their own.

When it all finally got underway, the event, crowded to full capacity, was dynamic and energizing. James Spooner and Chris L. Terry radiated compassion and commitment to what is obviously a labor of love for the both of them. Spooner and Terry were not only editors and curators, but also contributors. “A goal of Black Punk Now is to give punks—especially the Black ones—a wider frame of reference,” writes Chris L. Terry in his editor’s note at the beginning of the book. Likewise in James Spooner’s note, “no one thought about how white punks saw us. No one cared if they knew we existed. It was everything punk rock should be.”

However, I think this blurb from Los Angeles punk legend Alice Bag sums up the book release perfectly. “Dig deep into the Black Punk experience and legacy and get more out of punk, because If there’s no Black in your Punk, then you’re missing out!”

At the end of the event, I held back when it came time to ask questions, still digesting everything I’d seen and heard. To be honest, I harbored an uncomfortable consciousness of accountability for having been part of such a non-diverse scene, while at the same time immensely proud of everything “we” had done and accomplished—and even weirder found myself grappling with a nagging sense of abandonment, a “hey don’t forget about us” urgency that was equally confusing. In the end, I stayed in spectator mode and enjoyed the show.

Thankfully, weeks afterwards, Air/Light gave me an opportunity to talk with James Spooner and Chris L. Terry. So without further ado, let’s get this conversation rolling.

Patrick O’Neil

James Spooner

Patrick O’Neil: I want to start out getting your reaction to something I read online in response to Black Punk Now, because it sets a precedent on what we’re going to be talking about. On Goodreads, a “reviewer” posted, “All I know is if this book doesn’t include Bad Brains then it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on!” Care to comment and explain why addressing this “distinction” is important?

Chris Terry: For the uninitiated: Bad Brains are a Black band who are probably the first, best, and most influential hardcore-punk group. And, they’re in the book. I think this reviewer should read it!

Bad Brains are a great starting point for Black punk. Our book Black Punk Now provides the next steps. We wanted to show readers that there are many, many ways to be Black and punk. You can be a lightning-fast band like Bad Brains. You can be a zinester and ceramicist like Osa Atoe. You can be a festival organizer like Scout Cartagena. You can write poppy songs like Mars Dixon. The list goes on. Our hope is that sharing this variety will help more Black punks feel seen, and give any non-Black readers less of an excuse to tokenize us.

In Bobby Hackney Jr.’s piece, he talks about being one of a few Black students at his school in small-town Vermont. If another Black kid started at the school, white students would ask Bobby if they were friends or brothers. It’s that racist “all Black people are the same” bullshit. Black punk bands get flattened in the same way–people compare them to Bad Brains just because there are Black people in both bands. They might sound completely different!

James Spooner: Yes, I agree with Chris. Bad Brains are one of the great and important part of our history. That said, this reviewer is proving our point. I can’t know the race of the person who wrote that review, but I would love to ask them. If every conversation they have about hard-core references Minor Threat. Or if every single band with a white singer is described as Minor Threat meets “fill in the blank.” By stating that we can’t have a voice, 37 years after Bad Brains’ heyday, they suggest that Black people are monolithic. Disproving that idea has been an unpleasant part of my life’s mission.

CT: The lesson here for writers is: never read your own Goodreads.

PO: (laughs) Yes, very true. Never read the comments, man.

Okay, so now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like to give major props for your decision to focus your book on the last twenty years – which was brilliant as it showcases current punk, rather than slogging through the previous generations. Can you talk about the process that got you to that decision? What was your initial concept and intentions, and what did you want Black Punk Now to accomplish?

CT: I’m officially at the age where, if I’m singing in a punk band, it sounds like someone’s dad yelling. Clean your room! You’re grounded! So, a book felt like a less cringe-y way to interact with a scene that means a lot to me and that has gotten even cooler since my heyday in the ‘00s. Plus, I hope that the book is a way to support Black punks by providing a platform. It’s fucking cool to see your writing in a book.

We chose the last twenty years because James’s documentary AfroPunk came out twenty years ago, in 2003. Punk has grown a lot more diverse since then, and we wanted to see how things had changed for Black people in the scene.

That’s a funny thing about punk: it’s super irreverent and forward-looking but it also has a lot of nostalgia, and a strong desire to canonize itself and record its own histories. I think some of that comes from feeling overlooked, and wanting to preserve something meaningful, but it can also feel conservative, like it’s discrediting or stifling the people who are currently putting in the work and creating amazing things.

JS: When I got into punk, Black Flag had broken up only a couple years before. When I moved to New York City, I missed the CBGB’s matinee days by two or three years. I kicked myself when I found out that Nation of Ulysses and Bikini Kill played together blocks from my house, but I didn’t know who they were yet, so I didn’t go. At the same time, I managed to see the birth of the rise of a vegan straight edge squat at ABC No Rio. None of those experiences I thought would be something today’s generation would cover at the time. As much as I dream of time traveling to London in 1977, today’s punk is the best punk and tomorrow’s punk will be better. I truly believe that.

Chris Terry

PO: New music scenes are a reaction to previous generations and genres. Our culture will always have that responsive element as the pendulum swings from Neoclassical to Romantic to Realism and back again—hopefully resulting in some sort of progress to shake things up. However, that usually happens at the expense of the preceding generation’s negative reactions (in this case, old punks shaking their fists at the new kids on “their” lawn). Has there been any push back or resistance to Black Punk Now? And in that same vein. How was Black Punk Now received when you proposed it for publication?

CT: Black Punk Now reflects our corner of punk, which is very DIY, left-wing, egalitarian, and community-minded. I’ve been really glad to see our people enjoying the book. My guess is that the average punk rock hardhead who thinks we’re “too PC” probably wasn’t going book-shopping anyway, ya know?

Our editor Mensah Demary also edited my novel Black Card, which is about a mixed-race punk bassist with a Black imaginary friend. When I pitched him Black Punk Now, he really liked the idea, so we followed the energy and enthusiasm and worked with him. It was a great choice–he gave us the space to make the weird book we needed. And, while researching the market, Mensah realized that this is the first book of its kind. That makes sense–James and I would definitely have known about a similar book if one existed–but I was still kinda flabbergasted to hear it.

PO: In his nonfiction piece (as told to Chris L. Terry) “Punk Family Business,” Bobby Hackney Jr. states, “Being Black and punk challenges the idea of what people think ‘Black’ is supposed to be… and that is soooooo punk!” Which pretty much sums up how Black Punk Now reads. Yet, as if in total contrast to Hackney’s statement, in his essay, “Standing On The Verge,” Hanif Abdurraqib wrote, “The debate of what does or doesn’t make one ‘punk’ is the least interesting debate that can be had.” That being said, what is punk to you?

CT: It’s like the supreme court justice who said he knows obscenity when he sees it. From a plate of lentils to a loud band, I can sense when something is punk! Black Punk Now backs that up. It’s got sci-fi and horror stories, plus stuff about tech, gaming, and self-care, and it’s all got that punk-rock funk to it.

While we made this book for punks, most of it should be of interest to people who don’t like loud guitar music, and I hope that the non-punks who read it come to understand that you don’t have to be, like, a Sid Vicious nihilist with a blue mohawk to be punk. Punk is a lifestyle.

JS: I would actually disagree with Hanif on that point, while I’m not necessarily interested in which bands are “punk”, I think it’s essential for us to communicate as a community so we can continue to define and redefine ourselves. If it weren’t for debates about barcodes on punk records in the early 90s. I don’t know if I would have the same feelings about the mainstream versus the underground. These conversations helped me to find not only what is punk but who I am in society.

PO: I’ve noticed a smattering of articles in the mainstream press proclaiming, “Punk’s looking ‘different’ now.” Which is basically a coded message for “Wait, what? Black people are punks?” What’s your reaction to journalists, in the year 2023, “discovering” there are Black punks?

CT: Keep calling us, and mentioning our book in your articles!

It’s true, punk is way more diverse now than it was a generation ago, and I am glad to see that being celebrated. Hopefully some weird Black kids read those articles and get inspired to get involved. You’ve gotta start somewhere.

There have always been Black punks, but it feels like there are more now, and that they are creating their own scenes instead of tenuously existing in the white one. In the book, we’ve got a roundtable discussion by the women and nonbinary people who organize most of the current Black-and-Brown punk festivals–they’re creating an entire world for non-white punks.

JS: We actually don’t know if punk is more diverse than it once was. When I look at a photo from NYC or Los Angeles from the 70’s I see a ton of white people— at first glance. Then when I actually investigate, and really look at the faces I see Asians, Latinos and light skin Black people who blend in with white majority. It’s only dark skin people who pop out. But the other POC punks are there uncounted.

There can never be a census, so we never know. What I do know is that Black and Brown punks are a lot more vocal than they once were. Instead of trying to blend and not stir up trouble amongst their friends, today’s Black and Brown punks are centering themselves in the conversation. That is the step forward, the stale white punk scene he needed to become interesting again.

PO: You have an amazing amount of content, people, artists, stories, and material (not to mention James’s killer graphics and comics). Can you talk about how you were able to curate all this diversity, DIY energy, and inclusion into this cohesive book and somehow make it all work? Were there artists that didn’t make it into the book? And how did you decide what to use and what not to include?

CT: We lucked out. A lot of people were interested, and gave us exciting, unique work. Punks get shit done, and don’t you forget it!

We arranged the book thematically. Mars Dixon’s essay about developing his trans-masc identity through video games sits right next to Camille Collins’ short story about a young woman gaining understanding of her Blackness in a white space. They’re narratives with very different details, but they’re both about finding yourself, and they hit similar parts of the heart.

To create a running order, we gave each piece a few keywords, like “Family,” “Liberation,” or “Grief,” then grouped the pieces with similar keywords.

JS: I knew a lot of these people personally, so in many cases creating the book was a phone call. We let people tell their own story in their own way, and for that reason, their diverse experiences come through. Still the thing that unifies us is the experience of being a Black punk rocker for us. There are certain unavoidable experiences that come with that, and so you can see in the book how those experiences tie us together.

PO: I’d ask if you have any advice for any BIPOC punks out there that are still trying to find their own way in the scene, but you’ve basically written them a blueprint to do just that. Yet one connecting thread with the majority of the writers and artists in Black Punk Now is they describe initially being the only person of color in an all-white scene. How has your writing/music/art helped you navigate through similar experiences in order for you to find your own way?

CT: Thanks for catching that. We want Black punks to read Black Punk Now and feel like they have options.

Monika Estrella Negra’s fiction piece shares that experience really well. It’s a horror story about a Black woman partying with some white punks while being haunted by the Black people who lived in her house before her–it speaks to the connection of collective trauma.

I got into punk as a teenager as a way to avoid thinking about my complicated multiracial Black identity. But I couldn’t ignore race, and wrote some lyrics about it–I was living in Richmond, Virginia, and the local punk scene had a terrible Confederate flag fetish. It’s a lousy feeling to walk into a supposedly anti-racist space and see people rocking a pro-slavery flag on some “heritage not hatred” bullshit.

So, writing got me through by helping me to organize my thoughts and vent. Lyrics. Contributing to Razorcake Magazine. Exploring my identity in essays and fiction. It all gives me perspective by forcing me to sit with my thoughts. Writing has helped me know and love myself, and made me capable of doing more for others, especially punks.

JS: For me, it’s all about validating my own experience through other people’s experiences. They in turn do the same for others. There’s a lot of healing in this book and all the projects I’m involved in.

PO: In your roundtable discussion with femme organizers of BIPOC punk festival “No Whites On The Mic,” Shanna Shawnté states “I think punk is probably the only musical avenue, besides hip-hop, that really adequately expresses Black rage.” And “rage” being one of the quintessential elements that birthed punk, in a political atmosphere unfortunately very similar to what’s happening now. Do you see Black punk music as a revolutionary vehicle that can make a difference?

CT: I love that quote from Shanna and, yes, I do think that finding a safe outlet for anger can make a huge difference for Black people. We have to police ourselves and repress our feelings so that we aren’t viewed as threats, so that we aren’t policed by people who don’t care about our safety. Held in, that anger can become a cancer. Punk gives us space to let it out. It turns it into joy.

JS: I believe pride is an essential part of the Black experience. For me, it was difficult to find pride in my Blackness, because so much of pride is interwoven with joy and feeling safe with a community. As a punk teenager I felt neither of those things in the larger Black community, even among my very mainstream Caribbean family. It wasn’t until making Afropunk and later curating a Black underground community that I found my pride. I needed to be among other underground Black folks to feel safe, and then the joy came out. Pride was right there waiting for me to embrace it. I’m hoping this book can do that for other kids struggling to find their joy.

PO: There’s been an ongoing and oftentimes tedious debate in the music press on whether punk is dead. We all know the death toll of the ’70’s punk scene came about in the ’90’s when bands such as Blink 182, Green Day, and The Offspring somehow managed to hijack punk into syrupy commercial pop nonsense (while the old bands were just touring playing the same shit for the last 30 years not putting anything new out). But as James scribed in my copy of Black Punk Now at your book release in Los Angeles, “Punk rock is Black music.” Can you comment on the state of punk music today, and where do you see punk going from here?

CT: I was a teenager in the ‘90s and Green Day were one of my gateway bands. I still listen to “Dookie.” It’s so good.

In that era, punk definitely felt like the realm of straight white men. That homogeneity drove me away from the scene for a while. When I started paying attention again, punk had diversified–it isn’t just Blacker now, it’s also browner and queerer and representative of far more gender identities. And, people are creating their own equitable, unapologetic scenes within punk. For example, I went to see two newer Black hardcore bands, Soul Glo and Zulu, and the show felt like a Black space. If that’s how things are now, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

JS: I think that anyone who says punk is dead, has either outgrown what, for them, was a phase or isn’t paying attention. It’s easy to get older and turn around and feel like there are no more shows, because if you aren’t actively involved, then you aren’t necessarily being invited. Where punk lives and breeds is in the underground. In basements, VFW halls and backyard barns, there’s no way to know about those kinds of shows unless you’re really invested. So for those who grew up, listening to commercial music and never dug deeper. eventually it’s going to feel stale and dead.

PO: Looking forward to what you both have next on your agendas. Can you talk a bit about what you are working on now?

CT: I’m on the fourth draft of a horror novel set in the “Black Beverly Hills” section of Los Angeles. The story touches on gentrification, nostalgia, and hustle culture. I’m also teaching a bunch for UCLA Extension, Emerson College, and Goddard College. Teaching feeds me as a writer and I can’t believe that I get to talk about writing at work. I’m applying to tenure-track jobs. I really want to do it full-time.

JS: I’ve got another book on the horizon, said to be published with Pantheon hopefully in 2025. It’s a story of all the ethics and values I learned in my 10 years as a punk and how one by one they were compromised by turning Afropunk into a brand instead of a real movement. And how the underground thrives despite the commercialization of the things we hold dear.

PO: Excellent. I’ll be keeping an eye out for both projects. Thank you.

Patrick O′Neil is a former roadie and road manager for the seminal punk bands Dead Kennedys, Flipper, T.S.O.L., and Subhumans. He is the author of the memoirs "Anarchy At The Circle K", and "Gun, Needle, Spoon"; and the co-author of, in the company of an amazing list of writers, "The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison" from PEN America's Prison and Justice Writing Program. O’Neil holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, and his work has been widely published in publications such as: "Juxtapoz", "The Fix", "Decibel", "Salon", and "Razorcake".

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