Post (Racial) Punk: Black Folk in the Alternative Music Scene

The Strokes were my favorite band when I was twelve. They’ve never exactly been punk, per se, but the early 2000s New York indie rock scene that the Strokes came out was very much inspired by the aforementioned style of music. I regarded myself as higher up being obsessed with electric guitars and leather jackets instead of whatever interested the teenyboppers I that I was surrounded with (my interest very much formed a culture of detachment around genres of music/aspects of popular culture that I thought I was way cooler than) because I focused on a style of music. My preoccupation with Julian Casablancas is corny looking back, but I write a lot about these years in my life because they were probably the most formative times of my life. Even when I write about music for other publications, I always seem to come back to my years as an indie rock fan as they hugely altered my perceptions of my race and other parts of my identity. By the time I got into actual punk music, I felt more confident about who I was, and was able to dissect the aspects of the scene that were exclusionary. The Clash were the first seventies punk group that I remember being so dedicated to listening to, as I first began their discography sometime during a boring series of snow days. I remember being a group chat with several friends around the time that I had first discovered the Clash. Two of my friends had gotten into the Clash prior to I did and we had a lot to discuss about their music. Much to my chagrin, we noted problematic topics such as Orientalism (Sandinista! standard “Charlie Don’t Surf” is a notable example of this) ,the white gaze, cultural appropriation and so much more as the Clash altered the punk soundscape by borrowing styles and stories from around the world. Which is why they appealed to me in a time where I had blown off the indie music scene for being too lily-white and formulaic, but also why I wanted to take a deeper look into the music I was listening to, as they were still noticeably privileged white men.

Punk music is a sub genre, a branch of rock-n-roll. The more and more I think, I feel like I’m not even qualified to write about punk rock as a genre. I’ve never gone to an actual punk show, I’ve never spray painted a denim jacket, and the closest thing to a mosh pit that I’ve ever experienced was a slightly tipsy woman thrashing her arms about at a Maccabees concert. Nevertheless, I’ve gone through experiences of expressing myself through colorful hair and makeup, I’ve written scathing, angry lyrics to vent about my life, and I’ve yearned for musical restitution from the real world. When I relate it back to the fact that punk came out of mainstream rock music to value rebellion and DIY- which were beliefs I emphasized with as an indie rock fan; looking at what was beyond the mainstream. While my music tastes have become a little more “normie” than twelve or thirteen year old me would have liked, the culture of the alternative still resonates with how much I’ve constantly felt as an outsider.

I’m surely not important enough for this, but if my message was able to be broadcasted on a wider platform, I know there would be backlash- I’ve seen it in think pieces drafted by black punks who have been personally slighted whilst in the scene, only to face responses and comments telling them that punk is naturally anti-racist (because apparently if you SAY you’re not racist, you can’t be racist), that people of color in the punk scene should look beyond race because that’s what divides us, and the classic “then why is rap and hip hop allowed to be so black?”. It’s the natural response of white people heavily involved in these scenes because they’re so desperate to maintain their veil of purity. One important thing to realize is the first step to not being racist is acknowledging when you may be racist! These are, many times, the same people who will get angry when certain black artists that aren’t exactly “punk” or even in the rock genre get coded as punk for their give-no-effs spirit.

This is where I look towards wonderful organizations like Afropunk, which stemmed from a movie about black people as a minority in the North American punk scene and grew to the size of a festival in Brooklyn, Paris and Atlanta, showcasing alternative black acts making all sorts of music. This is where I look at black punk pioneers like Poly Strene and Bad Brains, the former a Day-Glo wearing, braces-sporting ball of utter coolness and the latter a DMV-originated band dubbed the inventors of hardcore punk, no biggie. This is where I revel in newer groups such as all-femme UK trio Big Joanie (please listen to their extended play, Sistah Punk and member Chardine’s TED Talk on Blackness and punk– she’s better at this than me) and Aye Nako, a Brooklyn-based queer-positive DIY act. The growing nature of activism in underground rock scenes makes me optimistic for the future.

I’ve written on a very similar topic before, and Blackness many, many more times. I’ve realized how frustrating it is for me to constantly categorize myself as an artist that is consumed with the color of my skin, but I write almost all my race-oriented pieces with a heavy heart. This time around, I want to know what others can do. Like I’ve mentioned, I’ve separated myself from a most underground music scenes, so I’m not as qualified when it comes to punk’s race problem. I do know that the erasure and invisibility of people of color, specifically Black people, in the alternative music scene is a consistent issue. I won’t stop talking until little Black pop punk kids, hardcore kids, emo kids, skate kids, metal kids can stick it to “The Man” without worrying about “The Man” of white supremacy first.

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