The black punk pioneers who made music history

The rebel icons who defied cultural stereotypes to kickstart a musical revolution

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Bad Brains
Bad Brains live circa 1979via Afropunk.com

The meaning of ‘punk’ is hard to define. Is it an attitude? A genre? A willingness not to conform? Despite such ambiguities, punk is streotypically portrayed as the preserve of white, working-class musicians. Although as Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff pointed out last week, “Punk music is not the sole property of whiteness, even though to people of my generation it may appear that way at first glance,” adding, “Like many facets of pop culture, its historical image has been whitewashed.” To celebrate the true punk rebellion that has always existed in black culture, and continues to exist today, here are just a few punk pioneers that changed the game and made their mark.

POLY STYRENE

Although 1970s punk band X-Ray Spex were self-confessed underachievers and only managed to release one album, the oddball five-piece created a beautifully discordant soundtrack to teen rebellion that remains relevant today. Spearheading their distinctive sound was Poly Styrene, one of the most effervescent and influential artists to emerge from the punk movement. “I just want to be like me,” she told NME at the time. “I said that I wasn’t a sex symbol, and that if anybody tried to make one I’d shave my head tomorrow.”

DON LETTS

You can’t talk about pioneering figures in punk without mentioning Don Letts, the creative polymath and subcultural icon often credited with injecting the bouncing sounds of Jamaican reggae into the London punk scene. From spinning reggae records during punk nights at the Roxy, to managing The Slits and starting his own band (The Electric Dread), Letts passed his musical obsessions on to a generation hungry for change. “Don will always be an influential figure for youth culture in Britain because he channels his experiences and history,” designer Nicholas Daley told us earlier this year. “And he continues to collaborate with a variety of people and is always willing to work with creatives.”

PURE HELL

Pure Hell, the leather-clad, tatted-up, brooding four-piece, are often cited as one of the first all African American punk bands, and when they burst on to the scene from Pennsylvania to NYC in 1974, they found kindred spirits in the New York Dolls. “The Dolls took to us right away,” they commented. “We tended to remind them of themselves when they were younger. Part hoodlums, part musicians, the same mould.” Weirdly, their first album Noise Addiction was released over 30 years later – but better late than never.

BAD BRAINS

Hardcore punks Bad Brains might have been flung out of Washington in 1977, but they sound like any given band you might find these days in some sweaty, cramped basement hangout. Although obviously – they came first. With their lightning-quick drumbeats, intense guitar riffs and lacerating vocals, Bad Brains pushed sonic boundaries and redefined people’s perceptions of what a group of Rastafarians were like in the 1970s. “I don’t care what people listen to, really,” the band’s bassist Darryl Jenifer once commented. “And I don’t care if black people ever get Bad Brains; that’s not on me. All I got to do is stay inventive and keep doing what I’m doing.”

DEATH

Long before The Clash, the Sex Pistols or the Ramones came Death, a proto-punk band from Detroit made up of three young black brothers, who started off as a soul band but quickly ditched that sound once they heard the hard, discordant rhythms of The Stooges. As Peter Margasak wrote in the Chicago Reader, their guitarist “pushed the group in a hard-rock direction that presaged punk, and while this certainly didn’t help them find a following in the mid-70s, today it makes them look like visionaries.” Their music has since been documented in the 2012 documentary A Band Called Death, a film that has won them a cult following decades after they disbanded.

MYKKI BLANCO

As an artist who’s emerged in the past five years, Mykki Blanco might seem like an anomaly on this list, but the pioneering punk spirit of NYC’s fearless riot-grrrl rapper shouldn’t be downplayed. With a subversive attitude to gender, genre and artistic medium, Blanco has redefined what it means to be punk in the present day. “I chose the name Mykki Blanco as an homage to Lil’ Kim’s persona Kimmy Blanco and also because I loved the name DeeDee Ramone – a feminine name on a punk rock singer,” she told us in 2012. “I did not grow up rapping; I grew up in the riot-grrrl queercore scene.”

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