Music

Big Joanie is keeping the DIY, no-frills spirit of punk very much alive

The inclusive, DIY attitude that came to the fore in the divided UK of the Seventies is very much alive and well among a series of artists who have had their own struggles

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.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Soweto Kinch on ripping up the jazz rulebook and how his new BBC show is building community
Soweto Kinch
Music

Soweto Kinch on ripping up the jazz rulebook and how his new BBC show is building community

Iron Maiden legend Bruce Dickinson: 'You don’t need some rock star saying war is a bad thing'
Bruce Dickinson
Letter To My Younger Self

Iron Maiden legend Bruce Dickinson: 'You don’t need some rock star saying war is a bad thing'

How a band formed in an asylum hotel is giving refugees hope: 'Each note comes from the heart'
Ardavan of The Unknowns
Music

How a band formed in an asylum hotel is giving refugees hope: 'Each note comes from the heart'

Grassroots music venues need your help to survive now more than ever. Here's why
The Nefarious Picaroons play at Fiery Bird in Woking
Venue Watch

Grassroots music venues need your help to survive now more than ever. Here's why

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know