Faced with commercialization, the Black Punk community turns to its past for a guide to keep resisting
Despite the height of Punk’s white consumerist commercialization in the 70s, a persistent Black underground culture remained active.
By Monika Estrella Negra
The majority of the Black punks I have talked to were drawn to (or got lost in) the Punk scene in order to escape the rigidity and heteronormative idealism of traditional Black political organizing. This is not to infer that all Black punks identify with far leftist views, nor does it mean that they are all LGBTQA/GNC. However, within Punk, the ideas of anarchism and far leftist ideologies have always held ground, leaving space for a new world of identity and social change.
ANTIFA, SHARP, and anti-racist skinhead culture came directly from Black punks who integrated their cultural roots with the cacophony of rebellious whites. In the 1970s, Rocksteady music from Jamaica became the successor of “Ska,” music and eventually became mainstays in the underground punk scene. These aesthetics melded into the “Punk Rock” youth rebellion of the United States, Caribbean and UK. It also led to the speeding up of Rhythm and Blues, borrowing from Black Rock and Roll greats such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chuck Berry.
Two of the most prominent Punk bands of the 70s, Pure Hell from Philadelphia and Death from Detroit, meticulously crafted this wonderful blend of genres—but are only now getting the recognition it deserved. Many white Punk groups, such as The Ramones and The Clash, co-opted this original sound, and ended up representing a very Black countercultural world.
Despite the height of Punk’s white consumerist commercialization in the 70s, a persistent Black underground culture remained active. Though the white aspects of it have always been seen as a type of fashionable, cultural aesthetic, Black punks have been intermixed in the scene in hopes of reclaiming the communalistic politics and cultural traits they grew up with—with a bit of an edge.
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“My mother was radical, a conservationist and Black feminist without the title,” Obsidian, a non-binary tattoo and multi-disciplined artist in Buffalo, NY told me about their pro-Black, autonomous upbringing. “When I was in middle school, she graduated with a BA in sociology, tagged us along to protests and MLK Service Days. Growing up in my house, we were still definitely taught Black History in art, music, and other media.”
Kyle Ozero, frontman of the band THE BREATHING LIGHT, also experienced a similar upbringing. “In high school, I would fuck with a lot of Black Power/Afrocentric kids,” he told me. “My Moms was always about Black empowerment. Even as a little kid we would go to the Black Expo and the Black Woman’s Expo. She would buy me Black comic books and children’s books with heavy Black positive messages. We would also frequent the Dusable Museum (a museum of African-American History based in Chicago, IL and named after the founder of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Point Dusable).”
At the same time, the idea of Rock music or appearing to be alternative being a “white people thing” still infiltrates radical Black spaces. Sometimes, Black kids who are into Punk Rock, Heavy Metal, Darkwave/New Wave are regarded by some of their peers as being closely affiliated with white people.
“I received a fair amount of blatant and subtle bullying/judgement from family members, people at school and in my neighborhood,” Obsidian recalls about the period of isolation when they began to express themselves. “Anything that wasn’t perceived as conventionally Black enough defined by popular culture was considered self hatred, weird or ‘white people shit.’ In some ways, I am still recovering from this. It was nice and validating when I came across Black folks that were curious, didn’t view me as a threat or knew how most subcultures are whitewashed.”
This is not to say that all Black punks were cognizant of their identity and ability to remain culturally autonomous. There have been a considerable amount of punks who were faced with internalized racism and in return made the mistake of assimilating into the white world. For some it was because of their own unmitigated self hate and for others, it was environmental. Artist and dancer Indee Mitchell recalls, “I’ve always been Alt or weird or something as a kid and things shifted significantly for me in High School, when I assimilated to whiteness hard because I felt like I had to. I moved to Powhatan VA in 8th grade from Richmond and my 8th grade year was a complete culture shock for me. I was constantly getting in trouble, constantly in fights or some messy shit because I was no longer one of the ‘smart kids’ in a school where all my peers looked like me.”
“I felt super isolated, was mourning my mothers’ death, constantly bumping heads with my white peers (who were usually on some fuck shit), the school sheriffs and other authority figures,” Mitchell continues. “I’d never spent so much time with white people before in my life and it was very confusing for me. Suddenly, all my aunties were giving me a headache about my behavior at school, so I calmed my ass down and joined Colorguard! I started spending more time with band kids and theater kids, changed the music I listened to, how I dressed and how I talked. It was then, when I remember receiving the first push back from my family. My uncle Jerry (RIP) would ask me, ‘What happened to the old Indee’ or comment on how he ‘missed the Old Indee’ and ask me shit like when did I turn into a white girl.”
While a lot of white participants were first exposed to resistance against their parent’s generation upon joining the Punk subculture, many POC got their start from the environments that they grew up in.
“When I started Kindergarten, I remember my mom writing a note to my teachers saying that I was not given permission to stand for the pledge of allegiance,” As Obsidian said. “My maternal great and great great grandmother were D.I.Y. (do it yourself) before I knew that language. I learned how to sew, care for plants and their resourcefulness became a vital tool in both my survival and artistic practice.”
But in the post Reagan era, our communities saw the rise of Black Capitalism, revamped with the same assimilationist rhetoric as their forebears. Leaders murdered and the remaining ones of old were increasingly understood as being too easily bought and sold with every sponsorship. (i.e. Reverend Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton). In response to our parent’s generations of bipartisan, reformist, political leadership, many Black Millenials saw the need to oppose the rhetoric of “church house” politics, and it has shaped how they approach Punk.
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James Spooner, director of the documentary Afro-Punk, provided the visual representation of the generation who rejected such practice, both culturally and politically. It was with this documentary that a movement started to take foot. For a lot of Black punks/alt people, the ‘Afro-Punk’ forum board connected us to others who felt completely disregarded in the struggle for liberation.
“The very first Punk space I was exposed to was the original Afro-Punk website message boards,” Kyle remembers. “It was there that I interacted with a lot of Black punk and alternative cats who had been active since the 80s.”
“When it was first a thing, I used the AfroPunk’s website community social network for a bit to try and make new friends, peep Afro-Punk style and learn about bands that had POC in them,” Obsidian noted. “(But) I remember not feeling fulfilled and jumped ship to Tumblr to meet other punks of color from all over the states, which I am still friends with to this day.”
Within the new wave of American Black Images that AFROPUNK has promoted is a type of consumerist vibe (i.e. “Carefree Blackness” or MIGOS wearing punk leather jackets). The marketability is definitely apparent, but the radical politics are missing. It’s why a good chunk of Black punks/alternative participants balk at the entity that AFROPUNK has become.
While the organization still has co-opted “mission statements” that are the standard for most punk or DIY festivals, it doesn’t resonate quite well with those who live their lives by the code. “AFROPUNK needs underground Black content to stay relevant. A lot of people get featured on the website but it never translates to anything in the real world,” Kyle explained. “You or your group won’t play their events unless you’re mainstream or headed there. They aren’t willing to take the risk of being authentic to the ethics when at this late in the game it’s their only option other than closing shop.”
Because of the historically numerous attempts by white punks to co-opt Black Power and Civil Rights praxis within the Punk scene, including protest participation, collective action, food pantries, and anti-racist/fascist resistance, Black punks are still finding ways to create their own spaces within the eye of the storm.
A response to this corporatization has been the creation of POC led “DIY” Punk spaces, such as Black and Brown Punk Show Chicago, Or Does it Explode?, The Multivrs Is Illuminated, Decolonize Fest, Breakfree Fest—to name a few. These microcosms have become a safe haven for those who take a radical approach towards liberation. In each of these cities and venues, a platform for alt punks took shape in the form of radicalizing our communities—without the stake of popular (white) consumption.
With the creation of these POC-led spaces, many Black punks/alternatives are beginning to retreat from white punk spaces. When asked why they refuse to inhabit any other type of DIY space, Indee Mitchell replied, “I think about the white queers who I fucked, who introduced me to kink and polyamory, and the microaggressions I dealt with in order to remain likable and desirable to them. The fucked up power dynamics that went unchecked in our exchanges. The queers who told me I was being too violent or angry if I spoke above a whisper, or who ‘called me out’ for endearingly referring to them as a bitch.” Hidden underneath these white punk spaces is a latent anti-Blackness that continues to resurface.
“I don’t have energy for white people’s fuck shit and have spent too much of my life doing that,” Indee added. “I’d rather put my energy towards trying to transform the fuckshit Black people do to each other.”
It is with great optimism that the idea of Black autonomy is bleeding out of the underground world and into the thoughts and minds of those who look towards our broken system for answers. Though the appropriation of grassroots culture has been harnessed by Black Capitalism and Black Capitalist ideology, the DIY ethics that have served our communities for generations is breaking ground with each new movement that is created. While it may not remain in the Punk underground, one thing has proven true: Rebellion can contain multiple facets—as long as it achieves complete and total autonomy and divestment from white supremacy and colonialization.
Monika Estrella Negra is a queer, Black punk/goth hybrid of mystery. Her first short titled “Flesh” is about a Black femme serial killer navigating the Chicago DIY punk scene (of which was included in the ‘Horror Noire’ syllabus). She has directed three additional shorts, ‘They Will Know You By Your Fruit’, ‘Succubus’, and the in production ‘Bitten, A Tragedy’. A writer, a nomadic priestess, spiritual gangster and all around rabblerouser – Monika has written essays for Black Girl Nerds, Grimm Magazine, Black Girls Create, is the author of a zine series (Tales From My Crypt), the creator of Audre’s Revenge Film and Black and Brown Punk Show Chicago, a GRRL Haus Cinema Resident Filmmaker (2019), Co-Chair of Communications for Alliance of Women Directors, a 2018 Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grantee, and is aspiring to become a Meme Lord. Hailing from the Midwest, she now resides in Philadelphia, focusing on completing her Vengeance Anthology.