Op-Ed: Punk of Color
Posted: by The Editor
“What is a Warped Tour? Are any of the people playing there gonna look… you know… like you?” Two valid questions from my mother, whose 17 year old daughter, wearing too much eyeliner and too much hair in front of her face, just asked if she could go to the Tinley Park Amphitheatre (now named something like Old Hollywood National Bank Theatre) to see a couple of her favorite bands play at an all day festival because her best friend won tickets from No Sleep Records. At the time, I didn’t understand why my mother was so worried. I hastily explained – to the best of my ability as someone who’d never gone – what Warped Tour was and why it didn’t matter if no one playing was black. You know how they say, “You’ll understand when you get older”?
I’m not going to talk about my experience at Warped Tour. That can be saved for a different op-ed about the manipulation of teenage girls or why “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry makes a terrible metal cover. I’d rather discuss why it matters if no one playing was black, what being a person of color in the scene is like for those who may not know, and what the scene can do as a whole to lessen the negatives of these experiences. TLDR: It’s hard to be an ostracized fan. Imagine that.
In one of my favorite articles ever written (mostly because of how impactful it is in such little words), David Britton of thehardtimes.net captures what it’s like to be the black person at a punk show. Not “A” black person, “The” black person. Britton states, “Local punk and black person, Mark Feeber, attended a show Thursday evening, and not a single person in attendance used legendary hardcore band Bad Brains as a conversation starter, sources confirmed”.
If you’re lucky enough to find another PoC at a show, you instantly gravitate towards them as an act of solidarity. The feeling of finding someone else of color at the punk show feels like being in a room filled with unity and passion. Almost like a punk show, right? So why don’t PoC often feel at home with punk? Well, the difficulties begin the moment we arrive at a show.
As Taylor Bryant of Nylon said in her article, Paramore have plenty of black fans, and yet… “Y’all aren’t coming in here, are you?” a Barclays Center employee asked my roommate and me as we walked inside the Brooklyn venue, heading swiftly toward the Paramore concert. Personally, I’ve had people ask if I were lost, if I were looking for the rap set, etc. I could be wearing a Menzingers shirt for the Menzingers show still get stared down while browsing the merch table until finally asked, “So like..are you really a fan?” Right off the bat, stuff like this makes us uncomfortable.
I love inquisitive people, but sometimes I feel I have to prove myself as a fan at a show when others don’t. I can’t help but think that I’m the only one getting interrogated. Back to Britton’s article, “When a white person sees a black person at a punk show, it triggers an overload of neural activity… not unlike a seizure,” he wrote. “Often, they’ll begin explaining how elegantly Bad Brains blended reggae and punk, without even realizing they’ve been talking at someone for over 25 minutes.” I’ve had this happen often and I think it’s funny. You know of black bands, that’s awesome, but that’s not my only identifier. Similarly, as a punk music writer, I get sent music and emails. I often get sent rap and hip hop music with an attached pitch of “For ur urban ears (-:” or something to that tune. I’m so happy and grateful I get sent such cool music, but thinking because of my skin color that I’d automatically like something is rough.
This is why we look for someone who looks like us, the only other person who won’t ask questions. Where my hunched shoulders can relax. “I *always* look out for other PoC whenever I’m at a gig,” Bahiyya Khan said. “It makes me feel more comfortable. Sometimes I see one or two and wonder if they do the same thing”. Imagine what it would be like to see that coming from the stage.
White musicians, the discrimination isn’t your fault (unless you’re a racist, in which case, fuck off), but also please use your platforms. This story is a good example. When Tash Moore (a fan) was at a Fake Problems/Smoke or Fire show years back, Smoke or Fire helped him get out of being discriminated against in the crowd. Moore explained the situation, “I’m having a blast, like everyone else. When I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s the bouncer. He tells me back away from the front. Which I did. Less than a minute later he taps me again. ‘Boy, I said move back!’ It’s getting uncomfortable for me and the group around me. I step back more. The bouncer’s eyes get wild! ‘I know you heard me, boy! Get back, NOW!’ I jumped in the knee high stage and interrupted Smoke or Fire! I took Joe McMahon’s (Singer for Smoke or Fire) vocal mic and shouted ‘What the fuck! I’m tired of your shit, I’m the only fucking person you fucking with and I’m the only brown person, too! Go fuck yourself!’ I’ll never ever forget the look in my man’s eyes. He wanted to hurt me. The crowd stood in silence. Thankfully, the singer backed me up. ‘Yeah, why you gotta bother this guy, he’s brown but he ain’t do nothing anyone else ain’t! Leave him the fuck alone!’ I felt safe. Smoke or Fire finished their set, but the bouncer was pacing, waiting for me to leave. I had to get Smoke or Fire to escort me to their van (I helped them load up). The bouncer was still waiting! I begged and the band had to drive me to the train station!”
Sometimes shows are a bit scary and sometimes they’re downright frightening. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll end up with all my limbs after a show, and I don’t even mosh. When having experiences like this, it’s not a hard jump to thinking the community and the songs you identified so heavily with might not be for you at all. I can’t explain to you what it was like seeing my first punk set back at Warped Tour. But suddenly I felt like “Don’t Let Me Cave In” by The Wonder Years was about me and not me at the same time.
Bahiyya Kahn shared, “When I’m surrounded by white people at a gig and they’re singing along to, for example, ‘Our Time To Go’ by State Champs, I find it funny that so many pop punk songs are about leaving your environment and for white kids it’s probably just cause it’s caustic suburbia, but for someone like me, I live in a ghetto where it’s hella violent and I really have to get out. Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder which tracks are with me and which tracks are just not for me. I’ve grown to discover that most songs from all white, all male bands that only have problems with being rich, living in a nice house and off parental assistance, acid, and anxiety just don’t speak to me anymore. Maybe they never did, and I just wanted to seem like I could keep up with my white counterparts, like I had to study hard for my next exam at the Sub-T show.”
Don’t get me wrong, the scene is improving vastly. By that, I mean the number of white dudes dominating the forefront dropped drastically. And I think within the next couple years, bands like Proper. and Mint Green will get to be as big as white bands in the same genre. Discrimination in the scene is a touchy subject to bring up to a white audience. I don’t expect y’all to identify with the racism we experience, but empathy and using your voice of privilege goes a long way. As Desmond Zantua said, “ I feel that many white peers in the scene, when you get into discussions about race, are grounded either in a defensive ‘Not All of Us’ type of response OR a particularly unproductive ‘Ugh, White People are the Worst!!!’ performative over-correction”.
What do I mean about using your privilege? How about starting your streaming with a PoC band? Proper.’s first record, “The Suburbs Are Ruining My Life!” (You might find it under their previous name, Great Wight), offers an introspective and head-banging look into growing up in the suburbs, being black, being a punk fan, being queer, and what it looks like to be all four. The point is, make an effort to listen to more PoC bands, and if you like them, tweet about them. Don’t have Twitter? They have shows. Don’t have access to a show? I lived in Indiana without a car for four years, I get that. Streaming still helps. Buying merch helps. Telling your friends helps, not just with popularity, but with solidarity. Knowing that PoC are fans of punk and not bombarding them with questions helps create that safe space everyone can rock out in. (Fun fact, not every PoC is willing to give you the rundown on why they’re allowed to like punk too).
I wrote this because I want others to know that trying to fit into a scene that promotes inclusivity to those who don’t fit in anywhere else is confusing and tiring. Because it sucks being singled out, stared at like you don’t belong, and damn near pushed out at some places because you don’t look like everyone else.
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