The Bands Taking British Punk Back to Its Multicultural Roots
How acts like Nekra and Sacred Paws are taking up space to give UK people of colour punk role models.
Art Trip and the Static Sound at Decolonise Fest 2017. Images by Elise Rose Photography
It's a sunny Friday in June, and I'm struggling to make my way across a heaving room in Peckham's DIY Space for London. I'm shoulder-to-shoulder with a bustling throng of people – a kaleidoscope of melanated shades – and the 20 steps it takes to reach a vantage point from which to see band the playing in the southeast London community centre's main room feel like a thousand. Reader, I haven't taken any mishmash of time-altering drugs. I just can't make it more than a couple of paces at a time without being practically smacked in the face by everyone's visible joy.
A woman thanks me for putting on the festival; another person says they've never felt comfortable in a punk space until now; someone else decides they wanted to see similar festivals happening across the UK. By the time I make it to watch Sacred Paws, guitarist Rachel Aggs is asking for "people of colour to come to the front" – a rejig of Kathleen Hanna's Bikini Kill-era "girls to the front" demand. This is Decolonise Fest, and it's the future of UK punk.
You don't have to be a cultural anthropologist to know that early UK punk's history has been largely seen as a white one. And yes, the UK is a predominantly white country. But 70s punk often linked arms with reggae, with white acts like The Ruts, The Members and the Clash and gleaning inspiration from the likes of Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse – or, in the case of The Slits, having an entire album produced by a dub soundsystem legend like Dennis Bovell. But born out of frustration with how overwhelmingly white the punk scene can still feel today, a group known as the DIY Diaspora Punx collective joined forces to set up the UK's first music festival created by and for people of colour (AKA POC). We rarely see the Latinx woman writing about her heritage or the working-class South Asian guy making doom music in his bedroom. So why does the UK punk scene still feel like it has a race problem – and how are people of colour working to create a space for themselves?
Cassie Agbehenu, bassist in Fight Rosa Fight, zine maker and anti-racism workshop leader, feels people of colour are creating spaces for themselves as they're "sick of waiting" for the punk scene to catch on. "I find it frustrating because it's like POCs have to do the work as per usual, but at the same time, if we are creating spaces for us, by us, there's something really powerful about that," she says. "Not only do we make amazing spaces like Decolonise Fest for ourselves but we show the rest of the punk scene that there are punks of colour out there who want to go to shows."
Though some people of colour have felt pushed aside, they're not going to keep quiet about it any more. The last decade has seen the sort of shift in the conversation on race that's probably left the guy in the pub who mutters about "Britain for the real Brits" reeling. Political groups like Black Lives Matter, the celebratory popularity of black-centric, now-global festival Afropunk and social media's ability connect black and brown people around the world has allowed us all to argue for better representation in various parts of public life. We're slowly learning to account for the ways structural racism bolsters the stereotypes attached somewhat arbitrarily to how much melanin someone's skin contains.
Many punks of colour have taken the same approach, and grown to critique the scene they know and love. Kai Stone, bassist in London-based, hardcore band Nekra feels the scene suffers from being too pale. "A lot of the conversations I see, even among my friends, are so centred on whiteness. I see people understandably up in arms about promoters not booking bands with women, non-binary or queer people," she says. "But I've been playing in bands for over a decade and the number of shows I've played with bands with other people of colour couldn't be that far out of single digits, honestly."
Corners of the UK's punk underground like to think of themselves as woke and beyond accusations of racism. Really, it's more selectively woke. Though issues such as homophobia, anti-fascism, transphobia and sexism are regularly discussed in punk spaces, little thought is given to racism and how individuals might play a part in it (let alone to ableism, which warrants its own piece altogether). I once had an incident at a show in Bristol where the promoter spoke about creating safe spaces free from transphobia and sexism while white gig goers were walking around in bindis and wearing shirts that read "Will never be a slave." That contradiction seemed only evident to the people of colour in the room.
So some punk collectives are trying to counteract the inequality in the scene today. Annual festival First Timers encourages marginalised people to pick up instruments and start a band. To make true change, people of colour have realised that, as Nekra vocalist Spooky says, "we need to seek each other out more and do more things" together. Bands across the UK are doing just that by writing songs about their identity, taking up space in usually white scenes and encouraging others to piss off their parents or housemates by borrowing some instruments to start bands of their own. South London's Screaming Toenail write songs spiky with staccato spoken vocals about white saviours and founding DIY punk bands. Sacred Paws' complex rhythms are inspired by South African pop music, decolonising each punk space they play with every lick of a guitar string.
And so the question of how people of colour are pushing into a space of their own comes down to representation. Though Cassie of Fight Rosa Fight doesn't see herself as a martyr for punks of colour, she understands the power that comes with taking the stage. "A few weeks ago, a young black woman came up to me after a show and said it was amazing, and talked about a song we'd played about being a black punk in the UK. That spurs me on to write more and be more visible."
One of the most beloved and influential icons for punks of colour is Poly Styrene, lead singer of the short-lived punk band X-Ray Spex. She died in 2011 after being diagnosed with cancer, but as a young working class woman of Somalian, Scottish and Irish descent in the 70s, she shocked the punk scene with her Day-Glo attire and prophetic lyrics about identity. Unlike icons such as The Sex Pistols or Joe Strummer from The Clash, her influence hasn't yet been lionised in the same way. Well, until now.
"She did break a lot of boundaries," Poly's daughter Celeste Bell tells me, "and that's not necessarily being recognised in music history." Tired of seeing endless punk documentaries that ignored her mother and her background, Celeste took it upon herself to ensure her mum's legacy is not forgotten, digging up Poly's archive of lyrics, diary entries and artwork to fuel both a book – to be written by music writer Zoë Howe – and a documentary, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché , directed by Paul Sng. "What's really been touching," Celeste continues, "is some Somali women who've been in touch about how much my mum meant to them as a role model for Somali youth. They talked about how amazed they were there was a woman of Somali heritage making punk rock music in the 70s."
Director Paul Sng, of white English and Singaporean descent, says he feels a responsibility in bringing Poly's story to life. Rather than rely on big funders – the lack of whom can often kill a film before it gets off the ground – the filmmakers are crowdfunding to finish the biopic. "It's reclaiming that DIY ethic that you don't have to wait for someone to write you a cheque in a big office somewhere," Paul says.
You can see that ethos in motion, as people sweat and dance during Nekra's Decolonise Fest set. Watching them perform is an exercise in channeling anger. Spooky stalks the stage, extending her small frame to appear larger than life. She jumps into the crowd and darts across the front of the stage, taking up the space she deserves. Like many that attended Decolonise, Kai says she felt empowered to be "surrounded by so many people of colour in an environment that had always been associated with whiteness. I thought about myself when I was 14 years old and how much it would've meant to me to have seen something like that. I wanted to play to represent the aggressive hardcore punk music we play and our presence in it as women of colour." While the scene won't change overnight, more signs point to promoters no longer having no excuse for booking all-white lineups.
As Cassie puts it: "After Decolonise Fest I emailed a promoter with the list of bands from the festival and said 'never tell me again that you can't find bands with brown people in. Just choose from this line up'."
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