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New graphic memoir shows how punk rock helped a young Black man find his identity

(SOUNDBITE OF GORILLA BISCUITS SONG, "DEGRADATION")

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For James Spooner, punk rock is more than just some genre of music or a look or even an attitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEGRADATION")

GORILLA BISCUITS: (Singing) Tell me who's pure. Tell me who's right. Tell me the last time you fought a fair fight.

CHANG: In fact, it suffuses much of his life. He's a tattoo artist, and he directed the 2003 documentary "Afro-Punk," exploring the roles of African Americans in the then-overwhelmingly white punk scene in the U.S. And he co-founded the AFROPUNK Festival. Now he can add graphic memoirist to that list. His new book is "The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere." As NPR's Mallory Yu reports, in it, he tells the story of how he discovered punk music and, through it, his identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK FLAG SONG, "DEPRESSION")

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: There's a scene early in James Spooner's memoir where he's alone, surrounded by boxes in his new bedroom in a new town, feeling particularly sorry for himself. So he puts on a cassette tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEPRESSION")

BLACK FLAG: (Singing) Depression's got a hold of me - depression.

YU: As he looks at a picture of the friends and crush he left behind, lyrics to Black Flag's "Depression" splash across the panel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEPRESSION")

BLACK FLAG: (Singing) I ain't got no friends to call my own. I just sit here all alone.

JAMES SPOONER: There's no girls that want to touch me. I don't need your sympathy, you know? And of course, that's going to resonate with a 13-year-old.

YU: Especially as a teenager who'd just been moved to Apple Valley, a small town in the California desert, finding himself one of the few Black kids in his high school, a misfit.

SPOONER: I had the typical teenaged angst that is common in most kids, but there were underlying things happening in my family. My parents were divorced. You know, I grew up witnessing abuse. And just things that, like, probably I kept bottled up, punk was a great soundtrack for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T CARE")

BLACK FLAG: (Singing) I don't care.

YU: Spooner was mostly estranged from his dad, and he was starting to resent his mother, who, as a white woman, was well-meaning but couldn't really understand her son's experience as a Black teen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T CARE")

BLACK FLAG: (Singing) I don't care. Well, you're messed up anyways. Don't care. Gonna mess up anyways. Don't care.

YU: On his first day at his new school, Spooner meets Ty. Ty was Black, like him, and a punk rocker.

SPOONER: The first punk I met was Black, but he was struggling with some of the same identity issues that I was because we lived in this small town with so few people of color who were involved in anything alternative.

YU: Spooner says befriending Ty gave him a kind of permission to be himself. And the book follows that transformation - when he shaved his head into a mohawk, went from wearing skater tees and sneakers to leather jackets and combat boots, picked up a guitar for the first time. Spooner says it was fun but kind of superficial.

SPOONER: I wasn't political. I was just, like, a dumb '80s kid wearing these clothes because the other kids were wearing these clothes. And I was ripping my T-shirt because I saw it on whatever video was available to me at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FISHBONE SONG, "GHETTO SOUNDWAVE")

YU: Eventually, though, he started hearing more.

SPOONER: The things that really, like, got me excited after the initial shock of, like, a mohawk wears off was the politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHETTO SOUNDWAVE")

FISHBONE: (Singing) Another bourgeois politician hears our pleas but does not listen, never, never, never...

YU: Then he visited New York for Christmas break and found a whole new kind of punk scene.

SPOONER: I started meeting really smart kids who were getting involved with riot grrrl or would take me to the communist bookstore sharing zines with me.

YU: They talked about feminism and denounced racism and homophobia, introduced him to veganism. And some of them were even Black like him.

SPOONER: Meeting Black punks who weren't compromising their Blackness for their punkness, it blew my mind. I just needed an example, you know? It really, like, forged the path that my entire life took from that point on.

YU: The punk subculture helped James Spooner find belonging and his politics. And he hopes his book will help other misfits find their people, too.

SPOONER: I think that what they'll get from this book is a celebration of, like, otherness, a celebration of feeling validated and not alone. So you can embrace it, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KIDS OF THE BLACK HOLE")

ADOLESCENTS: (Singing) House of destruction where the lurkers roamed, house that belonged to all the homeless kids, kids of the black hole.

YU: Mallory Yu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADOLESCENTS SONG, "KIDS OF THE BLACK HOLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.