In one of those strange and charming confluence of life events, I recently found myself at a “dirty reggae party” just days after I had started reading White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race. I was sipping my beer and watching tattooed, skully-cap wearing Bushwickites come in from the rain when I heard the opening band begin in a manner rather strange. Then I quickly realized what the weirdness was: the lead singer was white.
Despite his attempts to contort a white boy Brooklyn drawl (possibly itself an outcome of earlier affects) to his version of a hybrid bluesman-rastafarian croon, the result was incongruous and more than a little silly. His performance was book-ended by a band whose female singer encouraged the crowd to “get crunk” and then pummeled through a reggae-ska tune with a horribly contrived Jamaican accent.
If I hadn’t currently been reading “The Ultimate Collection on Punk and Race” I probably wouldn’t have given the night much more thought than a “das racist” aside. Now I was forced with much more complex evaluations. Were these performances more subtle forms of black face minstrel performance, white attempts to colonize the body of the other via the vocal chords or an earnest attempt to shed the traditional markers of whiteness and stand in solidarity with perceived fellow rebel travelers?
Despite how some of genres of punk developed, there is no denying that the early punk scene found its roots in the reggae, ska, and dub music of England’s Afro-Caribbean immigrants. When the punk scene came across the pond these influences remained, and American delta blues, which shares the articulation of anger in pared-down chord progressions, was added via good ole Rock ‘n’ Roll. The name “dirty reggae party” is a nod to this musical history and echoes Bob Marley’s 1977 song “Punky Reggae Party”, which is also taken for a chapter title in White Riot. Marley wrote the song after hearing and appreciating The Clash’s cover of a classic reggae tune “Police and Thieves”. It was a hopeful moment when it seemed the mostly white punks and the blacks might be able to build solidarity over shared musical forms and a shared fight against the powers that be.
The turn away from Marley’s conception of a “punky reggae party” to a “dirty reggae party” may mark a turn away from this political project of “radical whiteness” towards the more appropriation-based goal of authentic-sounding music. Thus, the “dirty” could be a less loaded yet parallel signifier to “punky” that acknowledges the gleeful corruption of an authentic black sound by white performers, or it could also perhaps come from the typically racist connotation that the whites are made dirty by their association with black music.
As I read more of White Riot in the week following the dirty reggae party, I came to see the book itself as a similar performance, a “dirty cultural studies party” where academic texts with their foundations in Barthesian semiotics or critical race theory and zine interviews conducted in a squatter’s basement or rants written in the linear notes met, mingled and sometimes made beautiful love children (Mimi Nguyen with her radical D.I.Y. theory is among these).
Being punk and being dirty have always been closely linked. To be a dirty punk is to attempt a self-marginalization that Daniel S. Traber describes as the desire to be “sub-urban”, that is to exist in what is perceived as a more authentic state (in opposition to suburban comfort and consumer affluence) by moving to depressed parts of town, wearing ripped clothing, etc. Although it begins as a rejection of the privilege of living in a “safe” neighborhood and owning “nice” things, it is articulated through a bourgeois discourse that relies on the binaries of decency/indecency, morality/immorality, cleanliness/filth, etc. Throughout White Riot this will be highlighted as one of punk’s tragic tendencies: the reinforcement of the very social categories it claims to reject.
In his review of Orange County punk band The Adolescents, Greil Marcus writes that the desire to disrupt the “smooth surface of American life” may really just be a “violent, spectacular accommodation of America’s worst instinct.” The Adolescents, and fellow L.A. punk bands such as Black Flag, Fear, and X, find their power through rage (making this collection also about the “the politics of rage”, particularly white rage) and this rage lashes out at a range of targets including queers, Jews, hippies, women, Mexicans, and, in one song, an amoeba. The early U.K. Scene embodied by The Sex Pistols and The Clash, despite their many differences, also shared this anger, however they more often directed it at the powerful whether that be the Queen or the cops. Marcus finds that in the L.A. scene this anger is instead directed at the traditionally less powerful or disenfranchised.
It is no surprise that punk came to a peak in a time when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were in power while simultaneously liberals were launching their political correctness campaigns: while it might have seemed to shock their parents that their children were listening to or even singing songs about beating up queers and black kids, perhaps they secretly relished in the unabashed racism they tried so hard to mask under concepts of “decency”.
As Steven Blush describes in another definitive book on punk, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, kids who got into hardcore music did so because they were angry, alienated and aggressive. Whether they had been abused by parents, other kids, or society at large, they were looking for excitement and a safety valve for violent desires the mainstream could not contain. The subtitle in Blush’s book points not only to racist associations of “tribal” with barbarism and a return to pre-modern violence, but also to the punk desire for communities based around certain rituals of belonging such as slamdancing, straight-edge codes, and style choices.
In this world of punk, I see a close proximity to Bakhtin’s description of the carnival and the grotesque as first articulated in relation to Rabelais and the folk culture of the Middle Ages. However while those carnivals were based on humor and laughter, the punk carnivals are more centered on anger and revenge.
Consider for example that swastikas were not just worn by anglo-saxon descendents looking to shock and maybe also to feel white power, but also by Jews in bands such as The Dead Boys and The Dictators. Steven Lee Beeber, who contributes the essay “Hotsy-Totsy Nazi Schatzes”, sees the use of swastikas by punk rock Jews as a rebellion against victim-hood, which is also used by Timothy S. Brown to explain some British punks’ affinity to Germany. Thus, in typical carnivalesque flip-flopping the victim becomes the abuser, and in following with the grotesque tendencies does so in a way that deeply offends the parent generation for whom the wounds of the holocaust and WWII are more memorable. It is what Beeber audaciously calls “concentration camp” adding further irony while maintaining the deeply offensive tone of Nazi symbolism.
The idea of “white minority”, as articulated in songs by Black Flag and Minor Threat, seems like an inversion in the same manner. In this case the anger of the punk carnival comes from fear, the classic American fear of being overrun by the ethnic other whose imminent threat validates acts of violence.
The strongest affiliation between punk and the carnival is the desire for a sense of community and shared folklore. Just as carnival is never just about feasting, punk rock is never just about the music. Both are about creating a special space and time for its participants. The older carnivals sought to create a space outside the dogmatism of the church; punk scenes sought to create a space outside of parental and corporate control. Both did so by breaking down the boundaries between performer and spectator, art and life, high and low.
The freedom of such a space is what has allowed punk to become a template for a multitude of social movements, often with radically different aims. From the white supremacists to race riot zinesters, from rude boys to queercore, from straight-edge to anarchism, alienated people and ideas have found a way to build strong communities and powerful political critiques through punk.
It occurs to me now in thinking on the almost mind-blowing breadth of the punk rock spectrum that I have replicated many of my own qualms with White Riot. For despite its shout outs to Los Crudos (L.A. Band that sang solely in Spanish), Black Fire (the Navajo band produced by Joey Ramone), and the last chapter “I’m so bored of the U.S.A. (and U.K. Too)” the collection undoubtedly has an over-emphasis on the academic texts of white males that mostly focus on white male punks. Sure, this may be a honest reflection of a movement that has historically developed as mostly white, but it would be a ghastly erasure to critique punk for being too white without talking about the many people of color involved in various punk scenes across the states and all around the world.
This focus on whiteness and the England-America connection probably comes about because the well-established ideas such punk’s complicated history with white supremacy and cultural appropriation, as well as its very American-style “whitestraightboy” hegemony, become complicated or sometimes less important when we talk about punks in Mexico City, South America, Indonesia and communities of the Muslim diaspora. For instance, what do we make of the Brazilian band Virus 27 who played Oi! music, a punk style that developed from working class English skin heads and developed into nationalist, right wing white power advocates? In an interview published in this collection the band argues that their brand of working class nationalism is completely different in the Brazilian context where they would consider it absurd to argue for racial purity.
Despite these inclusions there was for me still one huge gaping whole in the history of punk. That’s right: I’m taking about my Natives. Throughout many of the essays and editor’s notes there is mention of the mohawk as a typical method for white punks to distance themselves from the mainstream, yet absolutely no reference whatsoever to the tribe from which the hairstyle and name come from. If this is truly the “ultimate collection on punk and race” there should be discussion of cultural appropriation in all its forms. I realize that Indians in comparison to blacks are a very small group, however the fact that such a typically overlooked population contributes one of the most lasting and pervasive symbols of punk identity should alone warrant investigation.
Just as White Riot inspired me to look closer at the the “dirty reggae party” in Bushwick, it has also seeped into my interpretation of Occupy Wall St. While there are certainly many different peoples from all kinds backgrounds, movements, and cultures, present at the occupation, there is no denying a certain punk aspect with its emphasis on a non-corporate controlled, non-hierarchical culture, as well as a large presence of crust punks and anarchists who favor black cut-offs and bandannas. Unfortunately, many of the criticisms against the white washed nature of punk could also be applied to Occupy Wall St. Both make claims to be entirely inclusive, while refusing to fully recognize their own methods of exclusion. Both wave a banner of unity that insists on its members forfeiting their signs of difference.
The relationship to space and outside communities also has some subtle similarities. The language of “occupation” in the anti-Wall St movement has recently come under scrutiny by indigenous activists and their allies who argue that activists replicate harmful colonial histories when they occupy indigenous land under the guise of creating a better, more just society. The sense of entitlement, obvious in such rallying cries as “Occupy Everything” which assumes the activists are entitled to everything because of their progressive aims, is also used in validating gentrification, an offense many in the punk scene are guilty off, not to mention less punky subcultural scenesters.
In one of my favorite pieces in the collection, zine writer Daisy Rooks calls out with sassy precision the privileged white kids who reinforce social categories of race and class when they complain about “how oh my god I can’t believe they don’t have that vegan cereal that they do in the Safeway near my parent’s house” and bask in the categorization of a “’bad’ neighborhood’” filled with “’those people’”.
One gets a similar sense from protestors who relish in their arrests, one man going so far as to march with a sign that had no message other than to announce that he was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. Just as white punks can always take out their piercings, buy a suit and cash in on the privilege they earlier tried to reject, so too can these protestors walk away from what was an exciting adventure without having to experience the true oppression of the prison system. Getting beat up for what you look like isn’t a choice for most people; neither is being arrested.
For it’s ability to get me making these connections, I think the discussion of whitestraightboy hegemony and how power is constructed around certain privileges is the most important contribution White Riot has to offer. It busts open the door between critical race theory and sub-cultures that often seem to escape or slip out of our discussions. However, if you want a thorough investigation of non-white punk movements or “The History of the Mohawk Hair-do”, you can sulk with me in the corner.
Books I talked about:
White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race edited by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay. Verso, 2011.
American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush. Feral House, 2001.
Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin. Indiana University Press, 1984.