Why is the history of punk music so white?

True punk rebellion has always existed in black culture, and continues to exist today

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Death Gripsvia chartattack.com

The usual images you see of the punk era, which developed throughout the 1970s, portray it as ugly, raw and beautiful. Faces crisscrossed with safety pins. Black eyeliner bleeding into caked-white faces. Leather jackets and bright manes gelled into peaks. But while the multi-coloured hairdye is ubiquitous, another type of colour has often been noticeably absent.

There’s no denying that the UK punk scene was, in part, driven by the anger and isolation felt by the white working class. But punk music is not the sole property of whiteness, even though to people of my generation it may appear that way at first glance. Like many facets of pop culture, its historical image has been whitewashed: when you think of punk’s history, it’s bands like The Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones that immediately spring to mind. But the ‘spirit’ of punk is present, and has always been present, in music made by black people too, from obvious co-conspirators Bad Brains through to bar-spitting rude boys and today's radical, no-fucks-given rappers like Young Thug and artists like FKA twigs.

In many ways, black people were the original counter-cultural figures, racially excluded from a domineering white society, albeit not out of choice. Our music and culture has been intimately linked with the punk genre since its inception. Scratch the surface and there it is: “Black people gotta lot a problems, but they don't mind throwing a brick, white people go to school, where they teach you how to be thick,” sang the Joe Strummer in The Clash’s 1977’s anthem, “White Riot”. Just like creative polymath FKA twigs has shown us, punk is all about attitude. Blues artist Bo Diddley had it, for instance, but probably wouldn’t have appreciated being called a ‘punk’ – a word that had a very different meaning in the USA in the 50s and 60s.

Perhaps the clearest example of this comes from the intersection between British reggae and punk music, which both exploded in popularity at around the same time. My dad, a proud former punk rocker, tells me about the concerts he would go to in the 1970s, where they would play reggae music in between the punk acts. “There was no punk music recorded at the time,” he explains. Anecdotes like his permeate music criticism of the era.

As put by Dave Simpson in the Guardian, “If 1977 was the year of the punk rock explosion, it also saw the rise of another musical movement, intimately entwined with punk – a massive eruption in British reggae, which became the black counterpart to the white heat of punk.”

Like punk, reggae offered a new soundtrack for the working class, both black and white. The Rock Against Racism campaign, created to combat street-level racist organisations, put on many gigs with punk and reggae groups, spawning Marley’s 1978 song “Punky Reggae Party”. Later the 2-Tone movement, which arguably has closer connections with punk than the vintage ska music that kindled it, fought against racism in a different way.

“It’s not so much recognising black people in punk, it’s recognising the punk that already exists in black culture”

Although by the late 70s, punk found itself tarnished by the ‘Oi!’ movement, which seemed intent on ridding the black influence from punk rock to make it more pertinent to white youth, with many adherents becoming bound up in far-right white nationalist organisations such as the National Front and the British Movement.

The fascism that some punk later became caught up in is possibly one of the reasons why it is viewed as a predominately white genre. It’s not that the majority of the punk bands don’t respect and acknowledge the contribution of reggae to punk production and arrangements (as Viv Albertine of The Slits said in a 2012 BBC documentary, “I think what reggae really taught punk was about space. It was such a relief after the strictness and the minimalism of punk.”), it’s more that society has been caught up in a stereotypical image of punk, which, in its worst forms, has links to Nazism.

The perceived whiteness of punk may also be the reason why black people have often felt isolated from so-called ‘alternative’ culture. However, the 2003 documentary AfroPunk, which has inspired both a cult following and a successful festival, exposed the beating heart of alternative black culture to the mainstream, as well as the more indistinct links between black and punk culture. 

As one woman featured in the film put it: “I’m aware of the direct influence of African people as well as the indigenous peoples of America on the punk prototype image. It was a contemporary Eurocentric version of what people in the bush were doing.”

While AfroPunk isn’t to everybody’s taste, it’s empowering to a whole swathe of black people not attracted to populist black culture: those who don’t worship Beyoncé, love rap music and wear long, shiny weaves – or perhaps do, but don’t want to feel hemmed in by it, or defined by the stereotypes attached to racial identity.

These days, ‘alternative’ blackness is clearly everywhere, but the intersection between black music and punk most clearly exists in artists like Ho99o9, Death Grips and Mykki Blanco. In their music you can hear the raw sound, the energy and the focus on manic exhibitionism. Place Death Grips’ rapper MC Ride over the top of a Dead Kennedys track, and it would make perfect sense. Mykki Blanco is perhaps a more rap-inspired echo of one of the UK’s early and almost lone examples of a black punk frontwoman, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, not so much because they sound alike, more because they share an uncompromising vision of how they want the world to see them. As ever, it’s not so much recognising black people in punk, it’s recognising the punk that already exists in black culture.

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