tamar-kali: the not so but so afro-punk poster kid

August 23, 2010
If I knew Tamar-kali lived right up the street from me, I would have stalked outside her home long before meeting her last week. Before moving to New York and starting my exploration of the black alternative subculture coined the term “Afro-punk,” I became in awe of Tamar from James Spooner’s Afropunk documentary, in which Tamar was one of the women depicted as a person of color who enjoyed real instrumentation, had a deep appreciation of her African heritage, and who associated piercings and tattoos as a rite of tribal passage and not something for angst troubled youth. Hearing Tamar express herself, for me, was like a therapy session that I didn’t even know I needed at the time. I grew up in a predominantly white community in Stone Mountain, Georgia, but my parents were very conscious of our Caribbean and African history. I constantly struggled with my love for white punk culture and the heritage my parents pushed me to be proud of. Tamar, however, didn’t see the two worlds as something separate, but had actually readjusted the perception of punk herself. General aesthetic, Tamar currently has 5/8 gages in both ears, three piercings in her nose, her tongue pierced, her lip pierced, four tattoos on her right arm, two on her left, and some other body modification that she chose not to specify on location.

Tamar-Kali: The not so but so Afro-punk poster kid
Words and photos Whitney Summer Boyd

It’s been seven years since Tamar was featured on the Afro-punk documentary and five years since the release of her solo EP, Geechee Goddess Hardcore Warrior Soul (yes, she happily acknowledges that the title is lengthy). This month she released her first full-length album release, Black Bottom, which she says is a 13 track memoir of what’s been going on in her life for the last five years. She’s married now, and even teaches free belly dancing classes twice a week on her off time. Even though she cringed when I called her an Afro-punk poster child, she still embodies what I consider the very essence of punk.

What’s a Black Bottom and why did you decide to name your first album this?
Black Bottom comes from a period of frustration in my life. I got so jaded by supporting myself as an independent artist. You get to a point where you can almost loose your creativity trying to manage yourself while making music. I felt like I was loosing my joy. I began to feel the weight of it all.

So why now? What made you come back to life to release the album?
I finally raised enough money to where I could do it properly. I spent the last six years trying to clean up my space. My friend has a reggae label, and for a while I thought I was going to record it in Europe, but then I realized that it wasn’t the most cost effective thing to do. I was actually traumatized by my first recording experience. There was fighting , getting kicked out of studios, drugs.

Is the name Black Bottom a reflection of how you felt about your life?

No, I was depressed around my art, not my life. It’s the frustration of knowing that there’s something there that you have that’s special and having it not happen the way you know it should. Dealing with the reality of the music industry can be hurtful.

You mean financially not where you think it should be?

Now don’t get me wrong. I get love from the people when I perform. But the thing is, I would perform, but not even have money to pay for cab home with all of my equipment. The reality is, you need money to survive, no matter how much you love what you are doing.

Do you think it’s because New Yorkers are used to getting everything for free?

The New York metro is shady like that. New York metro people are used to being on the VIP list and getting back stage access and not paying for any of it. They will come out for a spectacle. A very high profile base is in the city. I always find bands popping up in the Midwest. You can practice in your garage, charge people to come out to your show. You can’t do that here. Everything costs money.

(Tamar would compose her own music, strings included)

Is it easier to stick with a niche market with your music?

No, I think that’s a slave mentality. Like, only a small amount of people should know about the good stuff. Doing things like that is an addiction to the underdog status, once you mature you realize that can restrict you.

Do you think that has limited your music career?

I used to say things like, I don’t care, just as long as I’m singing for my babies, I’m good. But that’s bull. Why wouldn’t I want as many people to hear me if it’s so good? That’s just as bad as fascism. There is a trap that people can fall into. You can start to cling to the negative aspects of punk, like, I am the opposite of what people are used to and that’s what makes me special.

How does it feel to be a face of the early stages of the documented Afro-punk movement in Brooklyn?

What’s crazy is that I never felt like I was part of an Afro-punk scene. I grew up going to shows with Asians, Whites, Hispanics. Afro-punk was a movie. I knew James when he was Razzel and was promoting parties around the city. I thought the film was a great look at how these particular Black kids were still being marginalized inside a community known as outsiders. James was a creative force, but if you think about it, he always has been. He had a record label at 18, he’s an artist, and he’s always had great ideas. That’s what is was for me.

(trailer for Afro-punk documentary)

How has Afro-punk changed since you became a part of the scene.

I’ve seen it transition into a lifestyle brand, but I try to be a creator not a consumer. A great example of how music can change culture is hip hop. If you listen to hip hop, if you’re not rapping about hoes and money, then you are immediately a conscious rapper. Why? I hope Afro-punk doesn’t fall into the trap of homophobia or become another extension of the mainstream mind. It seems like whenever things get visibility, that is an easy trap to fall into.

What do you mean?

Like, I was very disappointed at the lack of female presence on the Afro-punk 2009 tour and even with this year’s festival. Where were the female artists?

You didn’t completely disappear from the music scene though.

When people reach out to me, I feel like it’s more of a novelty. The fact of the matter is, I actually rock out. When people say things to me like, oh my gosh, you’re an Old Afro-punk “G” or you’re a veteran, I’m like, why? But see, my big ass mouth was on the cover of the Afro-punk documentary DVD that was toured around the world. I understand, but I don’t think I’ve done enough in my life to be considered a veteran at anything.

Are you nervous of what your tattoos and piercings are going to look like when you get older?

For me, I can’t wait to see my piercings when I am older. Piercings and tattoos are not about rebellion. In our history, you would seldom see the young with piercings. I equate them with wisdom and a point of reference.

Have you ever had any issues with your aesthetic functioning outside the music arena?

I used to work at CitiBank, then at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. I didn’t have any piercings at the time. When I decided to get my nose pierced, it changed what jobs I could have. I did work at the Gap once, but they would hide me in the dressing room on corporate visits simply because I had braids. I then shaved my head and would wear wigs. When I wore wigs, I felt like I was loosing my power and strength. I even got pick pocketed wearing a wig. After a while, I just couldn’t do it. I would be like, this is how I come, and if being intelligent isn’t enough for you, then, oh well.

Who was Tamar-kali in the teenage years?

Well, I’m from East Flatbush and went to Catholic School for 13 years of my life. I was the girl who wore combat boots with my uniform. My dad was a bass player so I was always around music. There were the group of people that I fit in with but didn’t. I always had my own perception on life.

What inspires your music? What inspires you as a person?

Love and revolution. They are two in the same. As I have gotten older, I realized that I love love.

What are you hoping to accomplish with this new album?
In the beginning, it was just about taking baby steps. Now, it’s about taking bigger steps. I want people to be able to experience me live and continue having a voice for women of color. The music I am trying to create is a boys game, more specifically, a white boy’s game. If I can crack it, that would be awesome.
If you are in New York, On Friday, September 3rd, 10th, or 17th and would like to see Tamar-Kali perform, check her out at 11:30PM, the Black Bottom Revue: A Rock n Roll Cabaret will perform. It features Tamar-Kali with special guests each performance Tickets are $15.
What do you think about Tamar’s new album? Let us know here!