Anytime James and I get together, he is always surprised by my excited persona. The tables were turned when I approached him with this project. As he put it, he has never discussed this subject with anyone before. There was no platform for it. He was so well prepared, I just sat back and enjoyed the story. I know you will, too. Ghouls and Goblins, I give you Part 3 of African American Goth History X. The candid story about one of my favorite humans, James H Carter II.
I grew up on the East Coast and the West Coast. That definitely forms who I am. I was adopted and while I don't actually know my exact back round, other than black, I do know I am mixed with something. I've never done one of those tests that you send away. My parents, the only parents I've known my entire life adopted me when I was about six months old. The are both black. In my early years, up until ten years old, I lived in a predominantly black area, so as far as I knew... I was black. It wasn't until I was a bit older that I learned about my birth father. I knew he was black and that my birth mother was white. I don't know how white she was. I imagine she was probably interracial herself, cause' I know I just don't look straight up mixed. More than a 50/50. What's interesting about all of this is, since I don't really know, I don't really care. But, it seems like everyone else cares! Everyone else kind of puts that label on you. It's like, "Oh, you're black because I can see that you're not white."
In in 1987, when I was ten, our family moved to Thousand Oaks, CA. This is where I spent my formative years. I lived there from when I was ten until I was 17. And for most people, that are unfamiliar with Thousand Oaks, CA, here's a little crash course: It's about 20 miles North of Los Angeles in Ventura County and even though it's that close to LA, it might as well have been 100 miles away. This was especially true in the 80's and 90's as there was not a lot of diversity - or culture- in that area. It's kind of a typical suburban, boring place. So, I went from living in an urban area in Jersey City, where I wasn't allowed to ride my bike around the block in Jersey City to "Hey, go do whatever you want, the town is yours!" Gosh, If we ever even saw another black person, we would be shocked. There was more of a Hispanic presence, but I still have to say it was 99 percent white. With that, I was exposed to a lot of things I hadn't been exposed to before. For example, surfing and skateboarding culture was pretty predominate. I was kind of getting into that, but what was interesting was I was experiencing racism and I didn't even know it. It kind of had to be explained to me. For example, my parent's pointed out that my sister and I weren't being treated fairly by certain teachers. There were a lot of problems like that.
So, you know its, my formative years and I'm trying to find myself, but I also want to fit in. Now, my journey as to how I came to be who I am really started in Jr. High. Basically, some time around the end of seventh grade and the beginning of eighth grade, I just started skateboarding and l was already listening to Top 40 radio, and watching MTV. The craziest thing I would listen to at that moment was Guns N Roses Appetite for Destruction. That was the first time my parents looked at the music I was listening to, and were like, "uh..."
It's funny, because now I go back and listen to that album, and I realize how fucking obscene it was, but it went over my head as a little kid. That was my real first step into heavier music. It was so mainstream, though. The first real music that put me on this path would have to have been Metallica and Iron Maiden. It was so heavy, and I was like, "YES! I love this! I am about this!" It was such a complete culture change for me. Also around this time is when I discovered Gangster Rap. N.W.A and Ice T. It was like audio pornography! Between the metal and the Gangster Rap, I loved the anarchy energy! It was all so abrasive!
Coming into my own with the music and skateboarding, I figured I had to hang out with the "skater's." Back then the skate scene was also more of a punk scene. But, at the beginning of ninth grade, I was still in my own little world of thrash metal and gangster rap. I was feeling pretty alienated, didn't have too many friends, and I would even eat lunch by myself sometimes. Shortly thereafter, I discovered Jane's Addiction. They were the perfect band, a gateway of endless possibilities of what music could possibly be. On the surface, they are kind of hard rock, but they added so much weirdness to it, that I had never been exposed to before. I thought the band members were so fucking cool! Even though I was only twenty minutes away from where they were, you didn't see anything like that in Thousand Oaks. The crazy clothes, the dreads, and the eyeliner, man, I just thought they were the coolest people on Earth. I became obsessed with Jane's Addiction overnight, and suddenly really wanted to see them in concert. I still loved my thrash metal and gangster rap though. My parents reluctantly let me go to this show when I was only 13 or 14. There was one opening band at the show, and while I didn't know who they were, I was hoping they were good, too. When they came on, my head exploded. My brain couldn't handle it! I had never heard music like this before! The band was Nine Inch Nails.
This is pre-internet, and I had been living my sheltered suburban life in '91. From there, I realized there was so much more music I didn't know about. I started discovering more similar music by reading liner notes and seeing what bands were thanking other bands -- and then I was going and buying those albums. I was going deep on this musical journey! That same year, I discovered Slayer, which, to this day, is still one of my all-time favorite bands. Next, I discovered Ministry, then on the flip side I discovered Sonic Youth, the Pixies and others like them. It was like this whole new world had been opened for me through Jane's Addiction. I don't mean to go on a tangent about my music but, this was the stuff I was identifying with. I just wanted to be a part of it.
Things began to click for me in 10th grade. When Alternative music went mainstream, around '91 to '92, I could see NIN was on MTV. I had found my people. Reminiscing on all this, I remembered there was this big tree in front of our high school, where all the freaks and alternative people went to hang out during lunch. And all the other people would call them - us? -"tree people". People would ask me, when I would see them between classes, "Why are you hanging out with the tree people?" To which I would reply, "Because I am one of them." I was really just a mix of punk and goth at that point.
Westlake Village, the neighboring town to where I grew up, was very, very wealthy. The kids that went to Westlake Village were really rich and spoiled - so much so that there was a made-for-TV movie starring Tori Spelling that was shot at my High School during the height of Beverly Hills 90210. I pretty much went to 90210 is what I am saying.
What's interesting about this is that one-fourth of the kids in Thousand Oaks kids had to go to Westlake Village, because it was too big of a town. There was a weird cultural divide between the little chunk of people who were super middle class or poor and the super rich kids, it created a weird dynamic. I was with the tree people, not the "90210" people. If I had to come up with a number of how many black kids went to Westlake Village High School, I'd say 15 max. Obviously, Southern California has a large Hispanic population, so they were the dominant minorities there, but there were not a lot of black people. Now, out of the black people that did go to Westlake High School, pretty much all of them lived in Westlake. So, they were super fucking rich, living a super privileged life but, at the same time, the way they dressed and acted as if they lived in Compton.
They [the few black kids] felt like because I was black, that was how I needed to act, too. But, that wasn't my experience - or theirs. Meanwhile, I'm just trying to find what I am into and enjoy my life. Eventually, I started getting harassed by the other black kids that were in my high school. The term they liked to use to describe me was "sellout", and they would yell it at me as they drove by in their fucking Bentleys as I was skateboarding down the street. That was a real trendy term for black people "trying to act white." I thought a lot about what "sell out" means. That shit would really fuck with me, because that's not what I do at all! I just did what I loved, which was skating and listening to weird music. I wondered, "What are they doing?" They were acting like they lived in the hood, when they were fucking privileged! They were literally the sell outs!
Here I was being accepted by my white friends, and the only black people I encountered regularly, outside of my family, were harassing me, judging me and making me feel like shit. I started to feel like I needed to show them that I was into black stuff, too. For example, I never stopped listening to Hip Hop. That was a strange time in my life that really made me feel insecure about myself. I had a weird cultural identity crisis. I had to ask my Dad, " Am I really less black because I like stuff that mostly white people like?" It's silly now to even say that out loud."No, you can like whatever you want to like. That doesn't change who you are, where you come from, your history, or your ancestor's history. Basically, you should enjoy your life, right?" he said.
At the same time there was a rise of people turning into skinheads. I wouldn't say they came out of nowhere. For living there I knew a lot of these people since elementary school and Jr. High. I don't know if the recruiter came through and they drank the Kool-Aid, I don't know. But, since I knew a lot of them they didn't really fuck with me. Apparently, they talked a lot of shit about me when I wasn't around. But, for some reason, I was never directly harassed by these kids in school that I knew. It did become interesting how people interact with you inside the classes as opposed to the outside of class. Before I was kicked out of Westlake there was one black person that I was friends with in class who was very lovely and nice to me and had fun conversations with in class. But, outside of class she would never even acknowledge me. I found this interesting. This woman, was an actress and I believe she still is. She played a pivotal role in my childhood being the best friend of Punky Brewster. So yea, I went to school with Cherie from Punky Brewster! At the time we were in High School she was an occurring character on Family Matters. She was one of Laura's friends. So, she was acting then and I guess she's still acting now because I heard Punky Brewster is coming back. When I heard that news I posted a picture of me and Cherie on social media. Anyways, she of course hung around all the other black kids that didn't like me so she wouldn't really acknowledge my existence out of class but, in class she would talk all the time.
I ended up getting kicked out of Westlake for poor grades and went to a "work at your own place" school. I think they are called Alternative Schools? The problem with that actually was that most of the people that got sent to such schools were there for behavioral problems. Including me, there were about five or six other kids there for grades, while the rest were gang members and skinheads. Us "bad grade" kids would eat lunch in the library, and keep to ourselves. I didn't really have any issues there. None of the others bothered me, but outside of school I'm sure that would have been a different story. But, it was a very unpleasant place to be, so I wanted to get out of there really fast. I worked fast as hell, and ended up graduating six months early. Up to this point I was still dealing with this weird cultural identity thing. Looking at pictures of myself, I could see I was really incorporating a lot of urban style into my goth and industrial look. Rave culture was becoming really big, so that also got crossed into my style. I would wear cross colors shorts with my Ministry shirt and a long raver beanie.
Another thing that became really big at the time was Dr. Dre's Chronic album. I was really obsessed with that. I loved the music though not necessarily the gangster part of it. It was basically reformed versions of Parliament Funkadelic. So, I decided I was going to become super nerdy and get a Parliament Funkadelic shirt. So, now I was nerdy, cool, and into black stuff, too. In my senior picture, I am fucking wearing a Parliament Funkadelic shirt. I don't know where that picture is but, I do have one of myself in 9th grade, looking innocent, wearing an Anthrax shirt.
At the end of my high school years, I started my first band. As far as genre's go, it was kind of noisy punk. I wasn't really into that kind of sound but, that was just kind of but, my friends were. I played bass. It was really fun. When it came time to name the band, since we were in this really racially tense environment. The name we went with was ridiculous. We called ourselves "Mulatto Power" *The name was definitely derogatory, but it was a response to white power. There was nothing really too political about what we were doing or singing, but it was a lot of fun.
**Mulatto is a now uncommon phrase that was used to during slavery to describe the offspring of slaves that were impregnated by their masters. The first interracial children in other words.
At the end of High School, I was 17 and my Dad had to move back to Jersey. I wasn't going to college, so I had to move back with my family. I did not want to. I was gravitating more towards industrial scene while my friends really weren't. I really wanted to be part of it, and had I not moved back, I am sure I would have really gotten into the Industrial Hollywood scene. However, as I turned into an adult, the band that really culturally and musically sucked me in was My Life with Thrill Kill Kult. Listening to them, I thought, "Yes this is who I am, and this is what I am about. I am one hundred percent in. Take over my life!" My twenties were defined by MTKK.
What really was important and really impacted me was seeing black people in a fucking band! They were there, they were in the band and no one gave a shit. It was like, you can just be a person, in a band, who happens to be black. Race aside, the female band members were so prominent. They were more like an art project! I was on board every time they changed genres, and I loved that they did it even at risk of losing their audience. I was obsessed.
Moving back to Jersey I was able to clean my own slate, make new friends and do my own thing. I wanted to do something like MTKK. That's when I started this band that ran for about eight years. It was called "Betty's Trash". Whether or not we sounded like MTKK is up for debate but that was definitely my launching pad. I started getting in really deep in New York City industrial bands. That where I would read the magazine "Industrial Nation" and mail order all these albums they featured. Again, the internet didn't come into my house until 1996. I would see all these bands in New York and I didn't have any fucking friends. I just started going to these shows at small goth clubs. I eventually did start making friends. The late 90's for me were really about being a part of the New York City Goth scene.
At this point, Betty's Trash was the biggest thing I had ever been a part of. We ended up developing a following locally. Our shows were about theatrics and over the top. Again heavily influenced by Thrill Kill Kult. There was this scene brewing in New York City in the late 90's and early 2000's. There were electronic bands that were pushing the envelope and doing weird shit again. What was happening in New York was getting broadcast-ed across the country in these weird little pockets. I kind of became a celebrity in that little world. What was funny was that the band member I was with the longest, Allison we were very accessible. We were just kids too. We figured we'd be a part of AOL chat rooms. With that a lot of people would come at us. Most people were really cool. But, it was also when a lot of negative attention started coming at me. This began the time when people were allowed to anonymously talk shit to other people. Because of me putting myself out there that negative attention kept coming at me. This all came to a head in the mid-2000's. This band that we associated and played shows with, Mindless Self Indulgence, just got signed to a major label. They were being pushed to go out on tours with mainstream bands. The biggest band they ever played with was in 2000 with Korn and Staind. At the height of Korn's career with the Issues album! Then there was this weird little band opening for this mega bands, in stadiums with arenas full of kids going and maybe five percent of them are like, "Holy shit I never even knew that I wanted to listen to something like this!" And they loved it. So they go back home, get online and search into more bands that are like that because they need more of this.
When that happened, my band was lumped in. The point is, we and all the other New York City bands were getting national exposure. That never calculated into any kind of success or money, but it did bring a lot of attention to us. We had a lot of people come at us and then you have me putting himself out there. I was the singer of the band and I was crazy and over the top but, I am also the black guy. The amount of pure racist garbage that was being sent to me on a daily basis was unreal. At first I was so hurt and wondering what the fuck was going on here? I just wanted to have a band and have some fun and wireless people would fucking hate me so hard. I was wearing my heart on my sleeve. But eventually a light went off in my head. I realized something very important. It was I am not trying to get this type of attention, all I'm doing is being myself and putting out there the kind of art that I wanted to create. And if that alone is angering people so much that they would take time out of their day...that is fucking incredible! I am making an impact by me just being myself. That's why I came to terms with when you create something and you put it out into the world, you have to be prepared for what comes back. Of course you want everyone to like you but, not everyone is going to. And the ones that don't like you are the loudest. That mentality has really helped me navigate who I am as a person. Even today.
It was then when it clicked for me that this was who I am. I found my people, I had my weird band that fit into my world. But, everything I do is weird. I never do anything cookie cutter, especially when making music. I was at a point where, my whole life, I was told, this is what a black person is and what society says how black people should be. We should be living in ghettos cause we're not allowing you to live in our neighborhood. And while you're living in these place, these are the activities you should be taking part in. And so many people let society's limitations define who they are. And I said, "NO!" I could be whoever the fuck I want to be and still be black. I will not be put into a box. That's why I was so honored that you wanted to talk to me about this because it is something that is important to me. I have never discussed this with anyone! At this point in my life, I'm forty three years old and I am comfortable in my own skin, literally and figuratively. Even the way I live my life now it's unconventional to people my own age. I thought about all the kids coming up behind me that are not just black but are people of color who are into alternative culture. And the abuse we suffered, meaning you and I [Michelle Halloween], and our generation, kind of led the way for them.
James even put together a playlist for this interview. Available on Spotify
Songs That Made James '89-'93