James Spooner is an American tattoo artist and graphic novelist from New York City, living in Los Angeles. He is best known for his seminal documentary film Afro-Punk (2003), exploring the African American experience in the punk and alternative music scene, and for co-creating the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn, New York.
After Afro-Punk's release, Spooner curated the Liberation Sessions concert series which promoted black artistry via music and film, and then subsequently co-founded the annual Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn, working with it from 2005 through 2008, and later parting due to philosophical differences with its direction.
Spooner later wrote and directed White Lies Black Sheep (2007), a fictional feature set within the punk world that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. He also wrote the foreword for the book anthology "White Riot" which examines where race, identity, and punk music intersect.
Presently, Spooner is a co-curator for the Broad Museum's Summer Happenings, and contributed to the Broad Museum's three-part documentary series, "Time Decorated: The Musical Influences of Basquiat." Spooner's segment, "Punk and No-Wave," covers Basquiat's participation in downtown New York's art and music scene, and where the punk scene that nurtured Basquiat connects with Spooner's ten years later.
His first graphic novel on the year he found punk, entitled "The High Desert," is set to release May, 2022. He is co-curating a second book entitled, "Black Punk Now: A Punk Anthology," set to release in 2023.
Spooner grew up in the desert of California, Panama, and the urban sprawl of New York City where he delved into the hardcore punk music scene and engaged in its culture. Later, he trained and produced work as a sculptor with gallery shows in both Seattle and New York.
After visiting his family in St. Lucia, Spooner began to explore identity and race which later inspired the themes in his films and art. During his teens and early adulthood, Spooner was part of the predominantly Eurocentric hardcore punk scene, participating in the creation of zines, releasing records via his label, and attending shows. His label, Kidney Room Records, was a DIY punk record label putting out mostly emo-core / straight edge 7 inches. The name originates from the book Animal Liberation in which an animal, suffering from a vivisection experimentation, was referred to as the kidney in room 101. Spooner's label put out three records: Frail - Idle Hands Hold Nothing, Elements of Need/Jasmine split, and The Swing Kids first 7 inch.
During his punk years, Spooner grew increasingly disillusioned by the absence of dialogue around race among his friends in the scene and the disparity of visible black punk bands: Mick Collins, Fishbone, Vaginal Davis, and Bad Brains to name a few. Spooner understood punk rock as an offshoot of rock and roll and the pioneering work of black innovators like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Jimi Hendrix, so he began to navigate why there were few people of color represented in the alternative punk music scene and why his peers did not engage with racial injustice in the way it had with animal rights, drugs/alcohol, feminism, and homophobia. Spooner also did not identify with mainstream media's representations of "blackness" and became focused on broadening the spectrum through his films and events by connecting alternative black people in the scene. Furthermore, he wanted to provide a platform for alternative black performers that were sidelined by the mainstream.
Spooner also worked as a prominent DJ in New York City, spinning at AfroPunk events, as well as The Limelight, Black Betty, Enids, Beauty Bar, Spa and the Edison in Los Angeles. He also promoted ON!, a popular mod soul night featuring Djs Daniel Collas of the Phenomenal Handclap Band and Nick Marc of TisWas. He also DJ'ed at SPA and promoted the long running Wednesday night parties "Shattered" and "SMF" featuring hip hop dj's spinning soul music.
Spooner's documentary film, AfroPunk, explores identity and the black experience in the alternative punk scene—then overwhelmingly white and taking place as the world shifted with the galvanizing power of the internet. Spooner's investigation into the untold stories of disaffected black youth and the black punk experience via film lead to the emergence of the Afropunk Festival, and gave a voice to alternative black youth who felt they did not fit into stereotypical notions of black identity propagated by the media.
AfroPunk traces the experiences of a variety of black punks throughout the United States. In the DIY tradition, Spooner toured the film across the country like a band, screening it over 300 times at college campuses and film festivals. He amassed a devoted cult following, largely among minority punks who were active on a message board within his website afropunk.com. Through continued collected interest and participation from the film's followers, the film was a catalyst for a cultural black movement that lead to the AfroPunk Festivals (2005 to present). He discontinued participation in the festival after repeated conflicts with his partner.
Spooner also curated the film and music component of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's African Arts Festival and was the recipient of the ReNew Media Rockefeller Grant. He later wrote and directed a feature film entitled White Lies Black Sheep (2007), a fictional drama set in New York City's nightlife circa early 2000s. Both of his films premiered at national and international film festivals, including Toronto International Film Festival, The American Black Film Festival, Festival International de Cine de Mar del Plata, Milan International Film Festival, and garnered various awards such as Best Documentary at Jamerican International Film Fest. Later in 2008, Spooner directed a "Rock The Vote" commercial featuring Henry Rollins and produced various spots for Brave New Films. His work has been recounted in various publications, including NPR, Vice Magazine, The Village Voice, The New Yorker, Vibe, Fader Magazine, MTV, NBC News and Variety.
Graphic Novel: The High Desert
Spooner's first graphic novel is slated to release with Mariner Books (a division of Harper Collins) in May 2022. Set in the desert town of Apple Valley, California, in the eighties, "The High Desert" captures the transformative year Spooner found punk.
Synopsis: "Teenage James Spooner hates that he and his mom are back in town after years away. The one silver lining —new school, new you, right? But the few Black kids at school seem to be gang-banging, and the other kids fall on a spectrum of micro-aggressors to future Neo-Nazis. Mixed race, acutely aware of his Blackness, James doesn't know where he fits until he meets Ty, a young Black punk who introduces him to the school outsiders—skaters, unhappy young rebels, caught up in the punk groundswell sweeping the country.
A haircut, a few Sex Pistols, Misfits and Black Flag records later: suddenly, James has friends, romantic prospects, and knows the difference between a bass and a guitar. But this desolate landscape hides brutal, building undercurrents: a classmate overdoses, a friend must prove himself to his white supremacist brother and the local Aryan brotherhood through a show of violence. Everything and everyone are set to collide at one of the year's biggest shows in town..."
Weaving in the Black roots of punk rock and a vivid interlude in the thriving eighties DIY and punk scene in New York's East Village, the memoir captures the beginnings of a budding punk, artist, and activist.
Upon his move to Los Angeles, Spooner taught himself to build bikes and began a monthly bike ride entitled "Freedom Ride: Black Kids On Bikes" that rode through predominantly black neighborhoods, but also made a statement with rides through wealthy white neighborhoods.
Spooner continues to screen AfroPunk at colleges and DIY spaces around the country and gives talks on the punk ethos and black identity. He is also a tattoo artist at Monocle Tattoo, where he pioneered vegan friendly tattooing. He currently lives in Los Angeles with his partner and daughter.
- How Afropunk Became a Movement, Racked Magazine
- Anderson, Stacey (2014-08-20). "Rebellious Diversity in Song". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-02-05.
- Afropunk No Longer Punk, Vice Magazine
- Time Decorated: The Musical Influences of Basquiat, Hyperallergic
- Time Decorated: The Musical Influences of Basquiat, The Broad Museum
- James Spooner on the Lasting Influence of Basquiat, Autre Magazine
- , Publisher's Weekly
- Afropunk Lives On, The Village Voice
- Truly Indie Fans, New York Times
- We Still Need to be Seen, The Guardian
- Looking for the Punk, Nylon Magazine
- Followers of Fashion, Village Voice
- Afropunk: A Black Punk Documentary, NPR
- Afropunk Grown Up, Village Voice
- Gentrifying Afropunk, The New Yorker
- Has Afropunk Lost Its Soul?", Huffington Post
- White Lies, Black Sheep, Afrotoronto.com
- Black Kids on Bikes
- Vegan Tattooing, Organic Life Magazine
- Afro-Punk Film Official Site
- "Looking for the Punk", Nylon Magazine
- "AfroPunk Grown Up", The Village Voice
- "Is AfroPunk No Longer Punk", Vice Magazine
- "The True Story Of How Afropunk Turned A Message Board Into A Movement", Fader Magazine
- "Gentrifying AfroPunk", The New Yorker
- AfroPunk, Official Website
- Monocle Tattoo, Monocle Tattoo
- James Spooner at IMDb