The punk and post-punk explosion in late Seventies and early Eighties Britain is too easily perceived as a white phenomenon – but in truth it was anything but. The contributions of X-Ray Spex’s trailblazing singer Poly Styrene and DJ Don Letts, who managed The Slits and introduced The Clash to reggae, prove that the raw power of punk could transcend racial boundaries. The likes of Public Image Ltd, The Pop Group and Gang of Four drew from the heavy syncopated beat of funk and the echo-bathed production of dub. Allied in the Rock Against Racism movement with 2 Tone and ska revival bands such as The Beat and The Specials, punk musicians and music fans of all races found themselves to be rebels with a common cause.
It should come as no surprise then that, four decades on, people of colour – and in many cases women and queer people of colour – are taking renewed inspiration from the self-empowerment, fury and no-fucks-given attitude of punk, and refiring a revolution that suffered from a whitewashed revision of history. They’re not only breathing new life into the sounds and styles of punk, but even more excitingly, following in the footsteps of their forebears by utilising its DIY culture and traditions of radical activism for their own ends. Punk zines and self-promoted gigs and festivals have become platforms for the Black Lives Matter movement among other struggles at an intersection of othered peoples united in a fight for a better, more equal world.
In a recent radio interview, musician, writer and event organiser Stephanie Phillips bemoaned the “Stormzy or nothing” factor when it comes to being a black musician with a guitar today, and the lingering sense that the music industry still expects them to stay in their lane and rap or sing R&B or soul if they want to be properly recognised for their talents and experience commercial success. Phillips plays a mean guitar with Big Joanie, a black feminist punk trio from London who are doing much to rip it up and start again when it comes to such regressive attitudes, with their thrilling fusion of Jesus and Mary Chain-esque feedback and jangle and Sixties girl-group melodies. Since releasing their debut album Sistahs in 2018 via ex-Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore’s Daydream Library Series imprint, Big Joanie have supported Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney and been championed by Iggy Pop.
Big Joanie are at the forefront of a movement of punks of colour in Britain today who have come together the last few years to stage Decolonise Fest, a DIY punk weekender in London with a mission statement “to showcase the amazing, creative and talented contributions punks of colour have made to the punk scene since its inception” and “dismantle the white supremacy and patriarchy that infests the punk scene”. The 2020 instalment, due to have taken place in May, was postponed by the pandemic, but an online event is being planned in its place for September.
If there’s any one musician associated with Decolonise who encapsulates its energy and sense of purpose and potential more than any other then it’s Rachel Aggs – the Glasgow-based guitarist, singer and songwriter best known for her work with 2017 Scottish Album of the Year Award winners Sacred Paws, as well as Trash Kit and Shopping (she also recently put out her debut solo album).
Having grown up brown and queer in a white, straight rural area, a sense of otherness has been a fact of life for Aggs for as long as she can remember; even after discovering queercore and riot grrrl in her teens and starting to play in bands she still saw few people like her up on stage. With her wildly joyous and intuitive self-taught playing and singing style, influenced as much by Fela Kuti and West African highlife as it is post-punk, she’s become a hero to many.
Anyone who finds the concept of a breakout black punk band or musician somehow hard to wrap their head around would do well to look back as little as 20 years or so ago and a time when British rap struggled to be taken seriously beyond the underground. The success today of everyone from Stormzy to Little Simz didn’t happen in a vacuum, it took the likes of Roots Manuva, Dizzee Rascal and MIA before them to smash preconceptions and open doors. It’s exciting to imagine this new scene as being in its own similar kind of latency, and the wealth of possibilities it’ll present given time and space – not just for young musicians from the margins inspired to pick up a guitar when they might not previously have considered doing so, but for guitar music itself.