Updated: May 18, 2021
In several articles from our series on the empowerment properties of punk culture, we have already examined the importance of feminist trailblazers in punk's history and what they have done for women and queer people in the music industry. In addition to its eagerness to empower women, punk is also sometimes considered an anti-racist cultural policy. As the genre and way of life are largely associated with rebelling against the establishment, a radical anti-racist mindset and fight against white supremacy could be expected of punks. But how anti-racist is punk really? In this article, the newest music is her passion team member Sophia Hughes examines punk's historic relationship with bigotry and introduces us to some pretty awesome punks of color.
Thinking back to about a year ago, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests globally, one sentence and statement kept being brought up as a conversation starter: this quote from Angela Davis, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” Nowadays, the passivity of simply not being a racist is not enough. One must consciously and actively condone racist behavior in everyday life and society. It could be argued that being anti-racist is a kind of counterculture, much like the punk movement, which started as a counterculture and a rejection of the system and mainstream culture. Many of the deep-rooted ideologies of punk, such as anger against the government, economic inequality, fascism, racial inequality, etc. are the same ideologies held nowadays by those who are anti-racist and fighting for racial equality in our white-dominated society.
“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
IS PUNK TRULY ANTI-RACIST?
In its early days, the ideologies held by punks, namely being anti-establishment, attracted skinheads to the cause. However, many skinheads and some punks held racist views, contradicting punk’s anti-racist beliefs. These beliefs went away though, over time, and punks saw people from ethnic minority backgrounds as allies against the white establishment and authority. Another point to note, however, is that early British punks neglected to speak out against racist behavior towards British Asians in the 70s. And isn’t passivity exactly the point where something fails to be anti-racist?
PUNKS AS ALLIES
Further down the line, early punk bands such as The Clash and The Slits incorporated reggae music into their own music as a way of sticking it to the establishment and racist society at the time. Over time, the incorporation of blackness into the punk scene steered away from being just an anti-establishment method and into an allyship between punks and people of color. The Rock Against Racism movement was established in 1976 in the UK after growing numbers of racist attacks. It featured festivals, amongst other things, which brought together black and white people and celebrated genres like reggae alongside punk and rock. The band Anti-Flag is very critical of racism in their songs. For example, their song ‘Racists’ pokes holes as the many excuses people use when they say “I’m not racist, but…”
“Just 'cause you don't know you're racist
Just 'cause you don't know you're sexist
Just 'cause you don't know you're fascist
You don't get a pass for your ignorance”
P.O.C: PUNKS OF COLOUR
Despite punk’s perception as a white-dominated genre and movement, there are many incredible punk artists, particularly nowadays, from diverse backgrounds. Big Joanie, for example, is a feminist punk trio from London, formed particularly due to the lack of diversity and intersectionality within the genre. Another example is Maafa, a 6 piece Afro-Brazilian hardcore-punk band. Their name means “greatest disaster” in Kiswahili, and is often used in reference to the enslavement of millions of African people during the middle passage journey from Africa to the Americas. Finally, there’s the black, predominantly queer, female punk group, Fuck You Pay Us, who are unapologetically vocal about the systems of oppression and racism faced by black women. And of course, there’s the music festival Afropunk, which sought out to do exactly what the name suggests and celebrate punk artists across the diaspora, giving black people a stage within the predominantly white subculture, and outside of the stereotypical mainstream “black” genres like hip hop, R&B, soul, etc. However, nowadays it represents a variety of genres and is an overall celebration and showcase of Black culture.
To summarize: there’s a lot of history to cover when it comes to punk’s role as an anti-racist cultural policy, but it is clear to see that the genre and movement are rooted in standing up for, and besides, marginalized voices and criticizing the oppressive system that the movement was founded in, and which is still present to this day.