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Although she has been playing the New York club circuit and building a name for herself for over a decade, Tamar-kali is perhaps better known for her appearance as the face and voice of James Spooner’s 2003 documentary Afro-Punk, a groundbreaking exploration of the experiences of black kids in the predominantly white American hardcore punk scene. Since its release, the film has helped spawn a vibrant community for alternative African Americans that goes beyond punk rock, attracting musicians as diverse as Hollywood Holt, Ninjasonik and Janelle Monáe.

Of course, African Americans have been involved with punk rock since the genre’s inception. Think Bad Brains, Living Colour, Fishbone, D.H. Peligro from the Dead Kennedys, people like Don Letts who worked with The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite, and ’70s bands like Death and Pure Hell who were playing fast, aggressive rock music before the word punk had even entered the popular lexicon. To say that punk rock is a white suburban movement is to overlook so many crucial African American artists who have helped to define the genre.

With Afro-punk gaining traction across the globe, Naked Eye decided to catch up with Tamar-kali to hear her take on where the movement stands today and ask her some questions about her own musical career. After years of developing her sound and artistic identity, weaving together influences as diverse as PJ Harvey, Bad Brains, Quicksand, Grace Jones and Betty Davis, she has finally released her debut full-length, Black Bottom.

I’ll start with a fairly broad question: what sparked your interest in punk rock? The raw honesty. I was really initially into new wave stuff and then I progressively got into harder music, and it seemed to coincide with a development of awareness, and me learning more about the world and things that were going on. I was slowly shaping a political identity, and punk rock really spoke to that kind of quest for information and suited my curiosity at that time. It helped me understand my identity in the context of American society and my cultural history. Hardcore really suited the anger and the angst that I was experiencing.

Let’s talk a little bit about Afro-punk, both the movement and documentary. It seems that Afro-punk as a concept was never really solidified until the release of James Spooner’s documentary. It made it into a conversation. It was interesting because punk rock is definitely the place where you’d think those issues would be addressed because there is so much political punk, there’s riot grrl and the queer punk movement, but with the race thing there wasn’t a conversation until Afro-Punk. We were just trying to have a more true representation of what exists and to deal with issues in a scene that is supposed to be about freedom of expression and an awareness of everyone having a say, so it was great to be a part of the film where this conversation got sparked in a really big way and a national way. I think that anyone who has actually seen the film can look at it as a social study and a race piece of sorts.

What kind of legacy do you think the documentary had? Afro-Punk just basically created opportunities for kids to bond and talk about the things that they did not want to talk about. As it stands now the concept has grown into this whole lifestyle brand. It has definitely grown beyond the whole conversation piece of the film, which was talking about black kids in hardcore and punk, whereas now it’s just kind of an alternative lifestyle brand, which is really cool but one thing that I hope it can stay away from is being typecast as a genre. Calling Afro-punk a genre is similar to the truly non-existent genre of urban, which just means black. We don’t want to fall into that bracket and make a genre based on race, because that is ridiculous. Genre is based on musical style, and it should remain that way.

Coming from Brooklyn, did you ever feel alienated as an African American in the hardcore punk scene? In terms of a scene, I was fortunate and came from a scene with a lot of diversity. I never had to engage in the fashion play of the dominant culture in my neighbourhood. In general, that was what was happening to punk and hardcore kids everywhere, but particularly because I lived in New York City metro area my scene was full of people of colour. I got to interact with a lot of black, Latin and Asian kids, but I know that I am lucky because I lived in New York City metro area. I didn’t have the same experience as someone in Chicago, or a smaller town in the Midwest or in upstate or whatever the case may be.

Those scenes oftentimes provide you with an infinite space of expression where people aren’t going to get on you too hard. I think it’s easier for boys though, because when I fronted a hardcore band [Song of Seven] that was the beginning of the end. The other band members started trying to suggest my lyrical content for me because they weren’t comfortable with what I had to say politically or just speaking from my perspective as a black girl. That’s why I decided to start doing solo stuff because when the band broke up it was pretty stressful. I was the only female in the band, but also the front person, so these guys couldn’t very well get behind a lot of my story and my lyrics. We’re all cool now, but it was a very interesting time. And we were all in a different place, and I was much younger and a lot more immature and specifically in that kind of way where hardcore took a very hard turn, which kind of ended up making emo possible since everything was just so aggressive. And I had that really aggressive spirit as well, so we weren’t really great at communicating. I was pissed that they were trying to control me, and they didn’t necessarily see themselves in my lyrics and it ended up in an explosion and ended up breaking up.

I’m curious about your name, because in Hindu mythology Kali is the goddess who is often associated with rage and anger, but she is also considered the kindest Hindu goddess and a maternal symbol for the universe. It’s related to Hindu mythology. You can’t really use the word Kali and not know that. I use it in my name with a small k which means “black” or “the black one.” It is an energy that I tap into that is present in different cultures as well. In West African and Yoruba mythology there is Oya which would be similar to Kali. If you see my live show, you see that energy present, you see that spirit present, so I’m definitely acknowledging that part of me. The exact translation of my name, it means “to heal the bitterness, the black one.” In Hebrew, “ta” is to heal and “amar” is bitterness. I sing with a reggae band and they thought I named myself after weed because they call weed Kali as well, but there is definitely no relation.

This past July, you released your first full-length. It’s called Black Bottom and it specifically relates to a period in my life where I felt a little lost musically, and I felt like I needed to scrape my way out of this hole. So that theme is definitely there, just the journey of finally delivering an album. Coming from a DIY background and with technology as it is, everyone is like, “Just put an album out.” For me it was a bigger task than that. I couldn’t just put anything out, it really had to be right and I had to be saying something from my heart. The EP was a very hard learning experience for me. Everything that you can think of that could go wrong went wrong – the cost, who I got involved to work with, drug problems (not me) – all that serious rock and roll drama. And I was just so spent from it that I was traumatized and this time I was looking at the recording process in a really daunting way. So me coming out of that dark place is a central theme for the album. Making an album is definitely an art. We keep talking about how it’s not about albums anymore, but then we have these undercurrents of people who are really into albums, and really into vinyl even, so you have these two energies that are crossing each other and are kind of incongruent music interests. Putting together an album is a piece of art, I feel like all of those conversations and conflicts are in there, as I’m trying to find my way as an artist to express myself and record with integrity.

Where do you hope the album will take you? When I think of success as a performer and a recording artist it pretty much entails just being able to do what I want to do on a regular basis and sustain myself without struggle, and being able to effect change in my own community and the world around me. I hope to make the playing ground a little more even for women and for people of colour who are playing alternative rock, being able to give people more of a reference in terms of what is out there.