• Afro-Punk History
  • Afro-Punk Media
  • Scholarly Sources

Afro-Punk History

When most people think of Punk subculture, whether intentionally or not, they envision a group of white people who dress in dark colors, wear funky hairstyles, and listen to several kinds of rock music. Although African Americans have participated in Punk style and music since the late 1970s, those who are uneducated about the specifics of Punk tend to consider it a subculture that only white people can and do participate in. In response to the erasure and discrimination they have faced from white Punks and individuals outside of Punk subculture, African Americans have carved out their own presence in Punk style and media, called Afro-Punk (Jankovljevic 2006: 185). In doing so, Afro-Punks have created their own black-centered festivals, music, media, and style.

In this picture, there are three members of the band, Death standing next to one another. Two of the men on the left side of the picture are standing close to one another, with the man on the right of the other man closest to the left edge of the image pointing up into the air. The man on the right is leaning forward and to the left, cupping his hands together as he looks at them.

Band Members of Death

Similar to white Punks, many Afro-Punks listen to punk-rock music, which often includes fast-paced guitar and drums, with very loud singing, or screaming, and politically charged lyrics. Some of the first black punk bands from the late 1970s and early 1980s include, Death, Pure Hell, and Bad Brains. In 1971, Bobby, Davis, and Danny Hackney formed Death, a rock band from Detroit, Michigan. Formerly a funk band, Death switched their style to rock after attending a concert by The Who. Pure Hell, established in Philadelphia in 1974, became another early Afro-Punk band to challenge dominant ideas of what music black people could produce when they released their first and only single, a cover of “These Boots are Made for Walking”, and subsequently, an album called Noise Addiction. In 1977, Bad Brains emerged in Washington D.C, at first playing music that mixed punk and reggae style, and then later incorporating more heavy metal into their music when they released their album, I Against I. All three bands surprised society when they proved that black people could play Punk rock music.

This is a black and white picture of Karla Mad Dog standing in the center, facing the camera, with her hands in her pockets. Behind her, slightly to the left is another band member with their back against the wall, folding their arms. In the bottom right corner of the photo, is the head of the third members, who appears to be sitting down. His face cannot be fully seen.

Karla Mad Dog

While these bands were all composed of men, black women like Karla Mad Dog and Betty Davis participated in punk subculture as well, producing punk music from the early 1970s through the early 90s. Betty Davis released her first album, named after herself, in 1973. While her music was never explicitly labeled punk, it contained a mix of funk and rock. Many of her songs celebrated her sexual liberation and uniqueness, as demonstrated in her song, “They Say I’m Different”. In 1982, Mad Dog started her own band in the UK, called Jimmy the Hoover, in which their single, “Tantalise” made it to the #18 spot on the British music charts (Ensminger 2010). While Jimmy the Hoover was not necessarily a Punk band, Mad Dog later joined several explicit punk bands in 1990, when she moved back to the U.S and started playing with Legal Weapon, Leaving Train, and Skull Control, which produced “Radio Danger”. Both Betty Davis and Mad Dog challenged societal notions of the kind of music black women could produce, and the lyrical content that should be presented in women’s music.

Cerebral Ballzy performing on stage at the 2012 Afro-Punk Festival.

Cerebral Ballzy Concert

In regard to style, white punks and Afro-Punks alike have typically worn dark clothing, leather jackets, band t-shirts, spikes on their attire, tight pants, ripped jeans or jean jackets, converse or combat boots, unconventional piercings and haircuts, and tattoos. While these styles are still present today, it is not uncommon to see a mixture of different styles represented at contemporary Afro-Punk festivals in which a larger variety of music is played. At these festivals, one might see Afro-Punks with dots painted on their faces, in an attempt to resemble African tribal paint, and wearing brighter, colorful clothing, often with tribal prints on them. Moreover, both contemporary Afro-Punks and Afro-Punks of the past have made an effort to stick to hairstyles typically associated with their race by wearing dreadlocks and keeping their afro rather than straightening their hair.

The contemporary Afro-Punk subculturalist who is responsible for today’s AfroPunk festivals is vegan tattoo artist James Spooner. In 2003, he filmed a documentary called AfroPunk. The documentary was centered on African Americans who were involved in Punk, but felt like they were out of place or invisible within the subculture. After the documentary garnered more attention than he thought it would, Spooner started a website and a message board that was based on the film. His website contributed to the development of networks and tight relationships, leading many people to express their interest in getting together or having a picnic. Thus, the tradition of AfroPunk festivals began. Since 2005, Afro-Punks have held music festivals in the United States and the United Kingdom. This festival is advertised each year on Spooner’s website called www.afropunk.com, which also includes magazines, videos, music, art, and political writing that have been created by Afro-Punks.

Band members of Rough Francis

Members of Rough Francis

Some contemporary Afro-Punk bands you might hear about are Rough Francis, Big Joanie, and Suffrajett. Rough Francis, formed in 2008, is a lesser-known band of primarily black men from Burlington, Vermont that produces a fusion of rock, punk, funk, and hardcore music. Their song, “Blind Pigs”, which criticizes police brutality, demonstrates their tendency to produce politically charged music. Similarly, Big Joanie, from London, U.K, and Suffrajett, from New York, produce political music that celebrate their independence as women, and embody the ideals of DIY Riot Grrrl bands. Suffrajett, for example, released a song called “Mr. Man” in 2007 in which they told men, “We ain’t buying what you’re selling. We ain’t listening to what you’re telling. Cus me and my girls are heading for the world, and leaving you right where you stand” (Suffrajett). Moreover, in 2016, Big Joanie released “Crooked Room”, where they expressed the difficulty black women have to overcome when finding confidence in a world where they are portrayed negatively in all forms of popular media. Through a black-centered lens, all three of these bands produce music that supports the anti-authoritarian and anti-conformity ethos of Punk.

Three members of the band, Big Joanie.

Members of Big Joanie.

Like Big Joanie, bands such as Project Black Pantera and Crystal Axis have proven that Afro-Punk is more than just an American subculture. Members of the heavy metal punk band, Project Black Pantera are based in Brazil. Like most of the above-mentioned Afro-Punk bands, PBP is a band that incorporates politics into their music. The word, “Pantera”, in fact, translates into “Panther” in English, suggesting PBP’s support for the radical politics of the Black Panthers. Crystal Axis, moreover, is an up-and-coming Nairobian band that has created music resembling that of the 90s alternative rock and embodied the style of punk in their dress and DIY ethos. Crystal Axis lists their band interests as “Saying no to authority, music, poetry, art, etc” (AfroPunk). With both bands, it is easy to see that Afro-Punk music and cultural values have extended beyond America and the U.K.

Themes of Resistance

Racial Activism and Resistance

While Afro-Punk subculturalists are very similar to Punks in their stylistic representation of themselves and in their production of media, Afro-Punks have a very uniquely raced and gendered experience that contributes to the way in which they interact and maneuver within the Punk world. Afro-Punk music, zines, festivals, etc. demonstrate the ways in which Afro-Punks have worked to provide a space for black punks to celebrate themselves and to talk about their experiences with various forms of oppression. It is important that Afro-Punks have the ability to do so because their presence in punk subculture has often been erased, ignored, and criticized. David Ensminger explains in his article on Afro-Punk history that a reclamation of punk history has the potential to “become a way to unmask, understand, and destabilize [the] ‘wall’ of ambivalence and racism” that exists within the punk subculture (Ensminger 2010). Thus, Afro-Punks face the continuous task of inserting themselves into the space and consciousness of punk subculture in order to combat the invisibility and racism thrust upon them by both punks and adherents of dominant culture.

A Rock Against Racism Pin

An RAR Pin

It is because of the racism and erasure African Americans have experienced within punk subculture as well as other rock spaces that the Rock Against Racism (RAR) music movement began in Britain in 1976. RAR was a movement that organized festivals and concerts in which the music performed communicated anti-racist ideals to its audience (Roberts and Moore 2009: 31). To symbolically bridge the gap between blacks and whites, RAR bands typically tried to mix punk and reggae music together, as many punk bands continue to do today, in order to represent the mixture of two types of music that are typically associated with one race, and to “[introduce] white youth to Afro-Caribbean perspectives on oppression and redemption” (31). In 1978 alone, RAR organized 300 local events and 5 carnivals in Britain, 2 events of which brought in audiences of around 100,000 (Dawson 2005: 1). Due to its wide presence, the RAR movement eventually lead to the dismantling of the political appeal that fascist and racist rock groups such as Britain’s National Front have created (1). Considering this history, it is no surprise that Afro-Punk festivals in the U.S and U.K still combat racism, in addition to many other –isms, today.

Feminist Activism and Resistance

Beyond racial activism and resistance, Afro-Punks have also used their music, writing, and style to resist the dominant culture’s restrictions on gender performance and women’s rights. In her article on black feminism and punk performance, Elizabeth Stinson claims that black punk women have used their performance to “undermine the myths of a post-everything world of linearity” and promote the “transcendence and transformation of homogeneous narratives” (Stinson 2012: 292). In other words, Afro-Punk feminist women have used their music to draw attention to the still-existing and often overlooked racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. that is promoted by dominant culture, and to change the overplayed white, heterosexual, male-centered worldview that exists in society. Moreover, Afro-Punk women are using punk’s general “attitude of fuck-your-articulations, spit-in-your-face symbolism, and aesthetics of disorder” to their advantage when challenging racist and sexist underpinnings of dominant culture (298).

Osa Atoe's Shotgun Seamstress Cover Page

Osa Atoe’s Shotgun Seamstress Cover Page

Afro-Punk feminism has often manifested itself in the form of Riot Grrrl bands, which are typically composed of feminist women who use their music, style, zines, and concerts as a tool to challenge –isms, and to create a safe space for those who identify as women. In addition to criticizing the violence of patriarchal practices within society, and more specifically, male-dominated punk spaces, Riot Grrrl has also worked to promote the “radical politics of intimacy or girl love”, in which girls learn to love themselves and each other in a world where they are punished for doing so, and oppressed for simply existing within their identities (Nguyen 2012: 176). Because black women experience these oppressions for both their race and their gender, Riot Grrrl groups and spaces have provided a means through which they can support themselves and one another while challenging the structures that harm them.

Incorporating similar tactics of Riot Grrrl bands, NighTraiN is an example of a black, feminist, punk band that has used their music to integrate race, queerness, and womanist politics into the punk sphere. In their song, “Lady Cop”, for example, the band chastises the use of “bitch” to describe women (Mahound 2012: 317). There are Afro-Punks, however, that use other forms of media to educate the public of black feminist politics. Afro-Punk feminist, Osa Atoe, for example, has written six issues of, Shotgun Seamstress, which is a “zine by and for black punks” meant to “support black people who exist within predominantly white subcultures” (Stinson 2012: 264). Like other black feminist punks, Osa Atoe uses her zines to challenge the –isms that dominant culture creates, and to celebrate the uniqueness of black punks, queers, feminists, and artists (265). Osa Atoe and NighTraiN stand as just two examples of feminist Afro-Punks who have used their talent to contribute black feminist politics into the Punk world.

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Afro-Punk Media

Early Afro-Punk Music

Pure Hell, “These Boots are Made for Walking” (1974):

This is the only hit single the band produced, which is their punk rock cover of Nancy Sinatra’s song.

Betty Davis, “They Say I’m Different” (1974):

Betty Davis celebrates her uniqueness and sexual liberation in this song, which contains a mix of funk and rock.

Death, “Politicians in My Eyes” (1976):

This is a song about the failure of politicians to fix the country’s problems and their tendency not to actually care about the public.

Bad Brains, “House of Suffering” (1986):

House of Suffering is a song that comes from Bad Brain’s album, I Against I, in which the band started to incorporate more heavy metal into their music. 

Skull Control, “Radio Danger” (1994):

Mad Dog joined the band, Skull Control, before they produced this song, called Radio Danger. 

Contemporary Afro-Punk Music

Suffrajett, “Mr. Man” (2007):

This is a song about women upholding their independence in a world that is dominated by men. 

Crystal Axis, “Devil Sold his Soul” (2012):

The band that produced this song is from Nairobi, demonstrating the global reach of Afro-Punk. 

Rough Francis, “Blind Pigs” (2015):

The lyrics of this song highlight and criticize police brutality against black men. 

Project Black Pantera, “Rede Social” (2015):

Project Black Pantera, a Brazilian band, stands as yet another example of Afro-Punk’s global influence, with their song, “Rede Social”, sung in Portugese. 

Big Joanie, “Crooked Room” (2016):

Big Joanie released this song to express the difficulty black women face in maintaining confidence in the face of discrimination they face in the world. 

James Spooner’s Afro-Punk Documentary

James Spooner, AfroPunk (2003):

This is a documentary about the lives and experiences of Afro-Punk subculturists. 

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Scholarly Sources

History

  • Ensminger, David. 2010. “Coloring Between the Lines of Punk and Hardcore: From Absence to Black Punk Power.” Postmodern Culture 20(2).
  • Jankovljevic, Branislav. 2006. “Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock’ N’ Roll.” The Drama Review 50(1):183–87.

Racial Activism and Resistance

  • Dawson, Ashley. 2005. “Love Music, Hate Racism: The Cultural Politics of the Rock Against Racism Campaigns.” Postmodern Culture 16(1).
  • Ensminger, David. 2010. “Coloring Between the Lines of Punk and Hardcore: From Absence to Black Punk Power.” Postmodern Culture 20(2).
  • Roberts, Mike and Ryan Moore. 2009. “Peace Punks and Punks Against Racism: Resource Mobilization and Frame Construction in the Punk Movement.” Music and Arts in Action 2(1):21–36.

Feminist Activism and Resistance

  • Mahmoud, Jasmine. 2012. “Black Love? Black Love!: All Aboard the Presence of Punk in Seattle’s NighTraiN.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 22(2-3):315–23.
  • Nguyen, Mimi Thi. 2012. “Riot Grrrl, Race, and Revival.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 22(2-3):173–96.
  • Stinson, Elizabeth. 2012. “Means of Detection: A Critical Archiving of Black Feminism and Punk Performance.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 22(2-3):275–311.
  • Stinson, Elizabeth. 2012. “Writing Zines, Playing Music, and Being a Black Punk Feminist: An Interview with Osa Atoe.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 22(2-3):261–74.

Other Online Sources

History

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