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James Spooner is an American tattoo artist from New York, 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. After its release, he 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 forward for the book anthology "White Riot" which examines where race, identity and punk music intersect.
Spooner grew up in the deserts 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. Though bi-racial, Spooner identifies as black. After visiting his family in St. Lucia in his twenties, Spooner began to explore his identity 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 put out 3 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 fascinated by the absence of dialogue around race among his friends in the scene and the disparity of 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. He also 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 race 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.
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 is a tattoo artist at Monocle Tattoo Los Angeles, where he pioneered vegan friendly tattooing. He is presently working on his first graphic novel, and he is co-curator for the Broad Museum's Summer Happenings. Spooner continues to screen AfroPunk at colleges around the country and gives talks on the punk ethos and black identity. He also posts snapshots of his life and observations via Instagram @spoonersnofun.
- How Afropunk Became a Movement, Racked Magazine
- Afropunk No Longer Punk, Vice Magazine
- 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 on IMDb