Coloring Between the Lines of Punk and Hardcore: From Absence to Black Punk Power


For three decades, African Americans have often been depicted in the popular press and in independent media as embodying the legacy of a hip hop nation, which the media would signify as an urban, misogynist, and materialistic musical genre and lifestyle. Such representation diminishes or negates, through absence or scant coverage, African American participation in punk and rock’n’roll. In doing so, the media perpetuates hegemonic notions of African Americans as a homogeneous community without nuance and individuation. This essay interrogates the misconception that punk is essentially a white (or Anglo) Do-it-Yourself participatory subculture, and argues that the neglect of a mixed, diverse, and inclusive punk history demonstrates that African American punk cultural productions are undervalued, absent, or deleted. Such interrogation leads to what Stuart Hall has termed “making stereotypes uninhabitable” in his lecture, “Representation and Media” (1997). The essay reclaims the roles of people of color in punk, thus undermining fixed, normative assumptions about race in American pop culture, rendering them unstable and arbitrary. Rewriting punk music as a transhistorical, crosscultural, and synergistic negotiation between African American and Anglo music cultures creates new potentials for meaning and a mode of empowerment for a generation previously unaware of punk’s truly democratic ethos.

“There aren’t any blacks.”

—”Slam Dancing: Checking in With L.A. Punk.” Woody Hochswender. 1981. Rolling Stone.



“A large number of hardcore people in New York are Hispanic, black, oriental, and Jewish.…”

—the editorial staff of Guillotine (#8), 1984.


“There is no hint of any derivation from Black music.”

—”England’s Screaming: The Music.” Greg Shaw, Bomp, Nov 1977.


“Punk is white and suburban.”

—Mykel Board, Maximumrocknroll. 1986.

For three decades, African Americans have often been depicted in mainstream and even independent media almost exclusively as embodying the living legacy of a hip hop nation, signified by such media as an urban, often misogynist and materialistic, “street level” musical genre and lifestyle. Such representation effectively diminishes, or even negates, through absence or scant coverage, their contemporary influence on rock ‘n’ roll and punk. In doing so, the media perpetuates hegemonic, master narrative notions of blacks as a homogeneous community, easily containable “others” without nuance and individuation. I seek to interrogate the common misconception of punk, essentially a Do-it-Yourself and participatory subculture, as a white (or Anglo) cultural phenomenon.
As Daniel Traber notes, the very nature of punk within the commodity market echoes black culture; punk established a permanent alternative to the corporate apparatus of the mainstream music industry by returning to a system of independent labels that resembled the distribution of post-World War II “race music” that influenced the white rockers of the 1950s (32). As punk writer Chris Salewicz posits, “more important is the way punk still is presented, which is through the rootsiest musical business set-up that exists outside of reggae.” Members of the Bellrays—guitarist Tony Fate and singer Lisa Kekaula—suggest that punk’s roots go as far back as 1918 and include Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, while Mike Watt, former bass player for the Minutemen, links his own tour circuit and DIY ethos back to vaudeville and burlesque (Testa). Bruce Davis attests that the Ramones were “like the jazz musicians of the 1950s and the blues players of the 1960s who would play in clubs to a relatively small devoted following, and then go to Europe where they’d be greeted as heroes” (10). Vic Bondi, singer for Articles of Faith (a 1980s Chicago band with a taste for reggae, funk, and three-guitar hardcore punk agility), suggests that punk gave people a voice to counter and denounce their oppression, an ethic that links back to jazz and slave hollers.
The discussion and assertion of a rich, complex, and nuanced black presence in punk rock frays the assumptions about punk rock being centered in a fixed, natural, and normalized white presence, assumptions cemented through a popular discourse that in effect undervalues or negates all other cultures present in punk. Such interrogation of stereotypes leads to what Stuart Hall describes as “making stereotypes uninhabitable” in his lecture “Representation and the Media” (1997). My emphasis on reclaiming the roles of people of color in punk is an attempt to undermine these stereotypes and assumptions and to create new potentials for meaning and empowerment for a generation unaware of punk’s diversity.
Such intent was partly established very early on in punk media. In Ink Disease, a fanzine from the early 1980s, Franz Stahl from the mixed race Washington D.C. band Scream argues, “There are certainly more Blacks in punk than there are in rock’n’roll.” His bandmate and brother Peter, the singer, responds: “Blacks aren’t exposed to it. The only exposure they get is from the media. It’s all twisted and distorted … I think it’s just a prime example of this whole country, it’s basically just as racist as when the Emancipation Proclamation was first signed.” This racism might manifest itself as a sometime invisible barrier, as noted by bass player Skeeter. When asked by Flipside interviewer Donny the Punk how being black affects his relationship to the hardcore punk scene, Skeeter responds, “It’s different. You notice it every time you walk into a town. There’s always some sort of hesitation. I feel a certain pressure, there’s a block there, a wall.” Perhaps the reclamation of punk history can become a way to unmask, understand, and destabilize this “wall” of ambivalence and racism.
Often racialized and derided as white rebel music without much cause, punk music has been far more multicultural than the genres of power pop, heavy metal, or even early hip hop. This, in turn, challenges David James’s notion that L.A. hardcore was a “white musical production” (167). Instead, I imagine hardcore and punk as a convergence culture that provided a space for participants like black lesbian female skater and drummer Mad Dog from the Controllers to reassert the flux and freedom of black identity in American music and culture. The presence of such African American punks is neither homogenized nor fixed. In fact, Mad Dog, who joined the Controllers even after Lorna from the Germs claimed they were racists (partly because bassist bass player DOA Dan painted a swastika on his chest), once told Maximumrocknroll that she is a “white man trapped in a black woman’s body. You have to print that and if people don’t get it, well then, fuck them.” Such statements may seem strangely assimilationist, or marked by a sense of transexuality, but I argue differently. Mad Dog’s persona reflects Traber’s notion of transgression—challenging the social order’s core stable narrative—perhaps even accidentally, by revealing that each and every identity is a performance, replete with a costume (Whiteness 181 n.15). Thus Mad Dog offers a critique of prescribed cultural restraints.
Mad Dog (Carla Duplantier), a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles, worked for the postal office and first heard punk rock via KROQ FM’s Rodney on the Roq, which spun tunes like the Ramones’s “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” in 1977. She promptly bought the single at Bomp Records, which was a store, fanzine, and record label behind local heroes like the Weirdos and Germs. A longtime skateboarder and drummer fond of Jon Bonham (Led Zeppelin) and Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix), she quickly learned songs by Blondie and Dead Boys and befriended Kira Roessler (future Sexsick and Black Flag bass player). Witnessing shows by West Coast legends like the Skulls and Avengers, she become a resident rocker at the Hollywood club The Masque and joined the Controllers, who released the EP Suburban Suicide (Siamese, 1978) with her on drum kit. She later played with the .45s, Skull Control, Legal Weapon, and The Leaving Trains. During the 1980s, she rooted herself in England, where she gained the attention of Malcolm McLaren, who managed her band Jimmy the Hoover. Having opened for Bow Wow Wow, Jimmy the Hoover were first signed by Innervision, a label affiliated with CBS, where they released the single “Tantalise” and reached #18 on the charts, which led to two appearances on Top of the Pops. Not unlike the syncretic sounds of Shriekback, they effused pop flair; Third World stylings and rhythm care of Flinto Chandia, their Zambian bass player-cum-multi-instrumentalist; and basic dance-floor grooves.
Undoubtedly, African Americans have been an essential force shaping rock music since they carved a classic form from a combination of sped-up blues, boogie-woogie big band piano, and rollicking rhythm and blues. Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton (“Hound Dog”), and Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti,” later reworked as “Tofutti” by the hardcore band MDC) were powerful musical engines that energized the form with gusto, panache, and deep dynamic skills.1 Malcolm McLaren, manager for the Sex Pistols, acknowledged in an interview with Greg Stacy that, “I never really believed that anybody was gonna write anything better than ‘Johnny B. Goode’ … [the Sex Pistols were] still in the very basic, raw, old-fashioned format, verse-chorus, middle eight, blah blah blah, R & B, Chuck Berry chords.” This appears to reinforce the insight of one rock ‘n’ roll social historian who also recognizes a “repetitive blues-based guitar solo” on “God Save the Queen,” which is nonetheless “harmonically more complex than most blues.” He also posits that The Clash dabbled in “Berry-style classic rock” on “Brand New Cadillac” and a Bo Diddley beat on “Hateful” (Friedlander 254, 257). Understood in such a context, British punk’s “ground zero” (from 1976) bands were still indebted to black music.
I rely on Dick Hebdige’s claim that “Black cultural forms (e.g. music) continue to exercise a major determining influence over the development of each subcultural style” as a cornerstone of my own theory (Subculture 73). Hebdige posits that each subculture from Mods to punks practices syncretic or hybrid tendencies, including re-working elements torn from a parent or dominant culture. This is especially evident in the semiotics of fashion—in “the idea of style as a form of Refusal”—when it reveals “maps of meaning” that offend the silent majority’s unity and cohesion (2, 18). As such, the music itself becomes a patchwork, a zone of convergence and negotiation, in which black forms become “imported,” mutating into the signifying soundtrack of the subculture, which demands new configurations (68-69). Punks were often enamored with reggae and black culture: on clothes featured in their photo for the “White Riot” single, The Clash featured phrases such as “Heavy Manners” and “Heavy Duty Discipline,” which alluded to Prince Far I’s single “Heavy Manners / Heavy Discipline” (Heavy Duty, 1976) and to repressive politics and security measures in Jamaica. The photograph itself, featuring the band pushed up against a wall, is an homage to the album State of Emergency (Record Globe, 1976) by reggae artist Joe Gibbs and the Professionals (Gray 223). Black DJ and filmmaker Don Letts avidly spun reggae records in clubs like the Roxy, the former gay-turned-punk club featuring flyers made by black artist Barry Jones. Punk bands covered soul and reggae songs in live sets, singles, and albums, played alongside them, politicized their worldviews in somewhat parallel fashion, offended “normal” society with their gear and clothing, and even joined together in street actions. Like their black brethren, punks attempted to seek autonomy and agency, though eventually their most rebellious forms, such as the style of bands like X Ray Spex, became part of the commodity landscape—neutered, assimilated, and perhaps finally recuperating portions of hegemony or capitalism. Hebdige’s work nevertheless has its limitations. He neither addresses songs as texts nor takes an ethnographic approach to interviewing participants, nor does he describe black/West Indian culture at length. While his book teems with analysis of subculture rituals as class resistance, descriptions of dominant culture remain slim. The context is hazy.
Countercultural icon and music critic Lester Bangs, once yelled at by New York City punks for playing Otis Redding at a loft party in the 1970s, adored the Clash. In the 1979 essay “White Noise Supremacists,” he admits that in an earlier essay in Creem magazine, he attempted a Lenny Bruce-style method of “defusing epithets” by reclaiming them:

Now, as we all know, white hippies and beatniks before them would never have existed had there not been a whole generational subculture with a gnawing yearning to be nothing less than the downest baddest niggers… Everybody has been walking around for the last year or so acting like faggots ruled the world, when in actuality it’s the niggers who control and direct everything just as it always has been and properly should be.


Yet by the time he authored “White,” he regretted these same turns-of-phrase and his impromptu late-night party sessions when he would belt out mock blues like: “Sho’ wish ah wuz a nigger / Then mah dick’d be bigger.” The article candidly unveils Bangs’s realization that he blundered; moreover, he further suggests that racism is like a virus that infects invisibly, can cloud the brain, and can push poor judgment to the surface during moments of distress or clumsiness: “You don’t have to try at all to be a racist. It’s a little coiled clot of venom lurking there in all of us, white and black, goy and Jew, ready to strike out when we feel embattled, belittled, brutalized. Which is why it has to be monitored, made taboo and restrained, by society and the individual.”

This forthright cautionary tale might have been the result of Bangs having heard Andy Shernoff of the punk band Dictators calling Camp Runamuck the place “where Puerto Ricans are kept until they learn to be human” (likely not less ambiguous than Adam Ant’s controversial song “Puerto Rican,” with its lyric “greasy haired dagos”). The essay also may be a response to the “cartoony” band Shrapnel, which was fingered as “proto-fascist” by music critic Robert Christgau and featured Legs McNeil of PUNK fanzine. McNeil spouted songs like “Hey Little Gook” from stage and years later told writer Jon Savage that the original group of New York punks “were going: ‘Fuck the Blues: fuck the black experience'” (qtd. in Savage 123). Such antipathy was not the sole provenance of New York City, for in England, the band the Models produced a hand drawn flyer for a Roxy gig in 1977 that promised “No reviving of Old R + B” and a “Nazi party.” Luckily, none of these actions overshadows the fact that black, white, and Hispanic musicians were converging in punk.
Female punk pioneer Poly Styrene from X Ray Spex, who was raised by mixed Somali-English parents, became a pivotal figure. According to Public Image bass player Jah Wobble, during the early punk era she was considered “a strange girl” who spoke openly about hallucinating and “freaked Johnny [Rotten of the Sex Pistols] out” (qtd. in Raha 88). Greil Marcus problematically describes her voice as being able to disinfect a toilet, whereas Karina Eileraas explains that girl bands often use the ugly voice as a tool for

cathartic expression; a means to articulate the “self” while acknowledging that it is a site of fiction, contest, incoherence, social inscription, and performativity. Girl bands use their voice as weapons … the “ugly” voice also constitutes a form of revolt against the grammar and syntax of phallogocentrism … to remind us that language [like punk itself] is always pregnant with impurity.



If her voice was impure as a toilet, then that was her weapon of choice against the plastic world of pop music. She was unpretty and unbound.

Judith Halberstam has referenced Styrene’s lyric “I’m a reject and I don’t care” to illustrate punk’s “stylized and ritualized language of the rejected.” And Steve Rubio argues that Styrene’s other exhortation to “Bondage Up Yours,” perhaps the band’s most notorious single, still reverberates throughout pop culture:

The cultural force of “Oh Bondage!” in 1977 was empowering: the stagnation of the mid-70s, economic, artistic, psychic and social, was confronted with a NO so emphatic it became an affirmation, an insistence that things did not have to remain as they were … We love Rhino Records [which reissued the song], because we get one last chance to stare down bondage, but as long as we are dealing with remembered bondage, we are powerless. Only by using Poly Styrene’s cry as a weapon against our current, ongoing, bondage, can we be true to the spirit of 1977.


Rubio goes on to reinforce Hebdige’s argument in Subculture: The Meaning of Style that such an outcry as “Oh Bondage Up Yours”—the signifying sound of punk—becomes “codified, made comprehensible” through commodification (Subculture 96). As a result, such protests and exhortations are rendered innocuous and made safe by becoming a product such as a T-shirt slogan or a 45 rpm record. Yet, to remain committed to the ideals of the song—to distress normalcy and reverse the gendered roles of power—the fight against bondage must continue. I find it powerful that this signal to revolt emanates not from the voice of a white, middle-class teenager, but from the voice of an ethnically mixed woman navigating a confluence of identities and cultures.

No single concise or cohesive history of black music’s impact on punk rock currently exists, partly due, as I describe above, to hegemonic assumptions—normalized within commercial and academic discourse—about the overall “whiteness” of the genre. Such a perspective is epitomized by Jim Curtis’s slanted claim that “punk renounced black music—it was the whitest music ever. (This was the principle reason why you couldn’t dance to it)” (qtd. in Rowe 56). Such declarations are problematic for several reasons. One, people frequently did dance to punk music, whether they engaged in fervid pogoing or slamdancing as hardcore became the aggressive 1980s punk musical mode. Secondly, as Don Waller notes, indirect links between white and black culture within the musical heritage of punk can be explicated: “First Generation [punk] is just a two-car garageful of white suburban horndogs falling off their fruit boots tryin’ to sound like the Stones tryin’ to sound like the voices of authentic African-American essperiance [sic]” (122). This offhandedly suggests that punk music bears the mark of the black man’s burden and blues—to teach white youth resistance through musical tropes. Authors like Zanes have even suggested that punk shares core aesthetic approaches with black artists like Prince, such as “a deliberate play with and challenge of the romantic constructions of authenticity” (45). Punk was both deliberate play and an attack on notions of authenticity: sterile, overly-trained musicians were not authentic, whereas raw power in the hands of amateurs was authentic.
To further fissure the notion of punk rock as solely white music, one can see punk affirmed as hybrid, cross-cultural, or convergence culture in a testament from Mick Jones of the Clash, one of the First Generation icon bands: “Any gig we do is Rock Against Racism because we play black music; we’re as interested in making sure that the black culture survives as much as that the white culture does. We play their music and hope they’ll play ours. We have a common bond with these people” (qtd. in Orman 171). Jones seems to hope that punk can be a stimulus and force of preservation, drawing people together to realize the power and excitement inherent in their related cultural traditions.
Coco Fusco posits that cultural appropriation and consumption cannot “substitute for equitable exchange” (69). Though punk bands’ repertoires and intentions may reflect interaction as an ideal and even support “integrationist ideas,” Anglos still become stars of “what began as [a] black cultural movement[]”—rock ‘n’ roll (69). This may even unintentionally strengthen Anglo “mass-cultural dominance” and “symbolic capital by means of commodification,” while exposing undercurrents of political, cultural, and linguistic control, as long as white bands take from, rather than trade with, their black peers and forefathers (69-70). The white punks retain the power to be identity-benders, the power to

choose, the power to determine value, and the right to consume without guilt. That sense of entitlement to choose, change, and redefine one’s identity is fundamental to understanding the history of how white America has formed ideas about itself, and how those ideas are linked first to a colonial enterprise and … mass industrialized culture.


In hindsight, though, Stewart Home has illustrated the not-so-latent racism in early punk as well, pointing out that The Clash sing about “kebab Greeks” on their self-titled first record (see Ch. 3). More ironically, Strummer would wear a “Chuck Berry is Dead” T-shirt (as if negating his earlier pub rock, R & B-based band the 101ers); yet later, the Clash covered Toots and the Maytals and invited Bo Diddley, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Grandmaster Flash, Lee Perry, Treacherous Three, and the Bad Brains on stage to open for them, though not without controversy. New York concertgoers heckled and threw trash at Grandmaster Flash, but the other opening band, Miller Miller Miller and Sloane—white high school youth, friends of the future novelist Jonathan Lethem, and discovered at CBGBs playing Aretha Franklin covers and disco-funk—did not get pelted and booed. NY Rocker did describe the same Clash fans as equally merciless to the opening white electro punk duo Suicide, “whose treatment was awful,” leaving the band “dripping in blood and spit” (Trakin, “Suicide” 31). British audiences threw bottles at reggae artist Mikey Dread when he once opened for the Clash as well. In Vancouver in 1979, agitated crowds catcalled opener Bo Diddley, but even the Clash themselves did not escape the ruckus:

The punks paid tribute to their heroes by slamming into each other, jumping onstage, throwing drinks and beer bottles at the band, and spitting at them. The Clash withstood the controlled riot for four songs, ducking and dodging the fusillade, then Strummer interrupted the music to mock them: “If anybody had any balls they’d be throwing wine bottles!”

(Wallenchinsky et al. 95)


Later, Joe Strummer pulled Bo Diddley back on stage to end their set with the Sonny Curtis and the Crickets / Bobby Fuller Four classic, “I Fought the Law” (95).

Tony Kinman, bassist and singer of the Dils, a First Generation Los Angeles punk band, provided me with a different assessment of the Clash’s choices for opening acts:

There’s a long, historical tradition now for British bands to come over here and hire black opening acts. The Who had the Toots and the Maytals open up for them and stuff like that. And I love Bo Diddley. To me, Bo Diddley is one of the gods. He is one of the untouchable icons of rock music. I didn’t expect the Clash to have ten punk rock bands open up for them, but when they had Bo Diddley open up for them, that was a failure of the imagination. It’s just like U2 having B.B. King open for them at Dodger Stadium. Now, I know U2 might be thinking, we want to introduce this great classic legend to our young stupid audience, there’s 70,000 of them out there. This gives B.B. a chance to stretch his legs, but … Bono came onstage to introduce B.B. King to his audience as somebody that we (U2) just recently discovered. Now, I know he didn’t mean, we discovered this man, what he meant to say is that B.B. was a man U2 just recently got into. But you know the way it just sounded, right? I can imagine that B.B. was thinking, you know, I remember when Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck gave me the exact same intro at the Filmore in 1968. You know what, get me back to Vegas. To me, it was a similar thing to the Clash having Bo Diddley open up for them. I can dig it if Joe and Mick and the dudes just dug Bo, he happened to be their favorite performer, and they were just thrilled to have him play with them.


Some might insist that Strummer’s earlier slight stabs at neo-racism were just a pretense to be “shocking” and “legit.” His relationship to world music traditions, given full breadth on albums like Sandinista and Combat Rock (which was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studio, the former site of a Charlie Parker club), was fecund and long lasting. He was even a BBC world music DJ before his death. Yet, some traces of prejudice might still remain on the song “Rock the Casbah,” depending on how one interprets the song’s vision of the Middle East, or the pantomime style of the video, which features a dancing Arab (played by their manager Bernie Rhodes) and a Jew, and a mishmash linguistic melting pot of Hindi, Arabic, Hebrew, and North African phrases uttered by Strummer. The potential problems with the song don’t necessarily lie in the Arab and Jew skanking together in the streets and in the Austin hotel pool, but rather in the Arab’s holding a beer bottle, given that alcohol is forbidden under Islamic law.

Mick Jones’s own mixed tapes from the fertile time period of the early 1980s include music by Vanity 6, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Peech Boys, Indeep, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross. Looking back, he has described that formative era’s Hip Hop as symbolizing “community, the Zulu Nation, like an extension of reggae, and not boasting or gangsta” (Snow 88). Other Clash band members even created the alias Wack Attack for him, since Jones was thrilled by the rap phenomenon. Don Letts, friend-maker and close ally of the band, suggests:

These guys were at the peak of their game, man.… I mean, they basically ran New York for the few weeks they were playing there. There was this amazing cultural exchange going on. I can’t tell you what a buzz it was. WBLS, a totally black station, started playing “The Magnificent Seven” on heavy rotation, and they did a remix of it, where they had samples of Clint Eastwood and Bugs Bunny, and that was the soundtrack of the city for the whole period that the Clash were there, and beyond.

(qtd. in Orshoski)


A version of it from 1980, titled “Dirty Harry,” has surfaced on Clash bootlegs like Golden Bullets.

The triple LP Sandinista features a wide range of genre-defying songs that blur borders. Allan Moore, in his book Rock: The Primary Text, outlines several instances in which the Clash eschew simple punk three-chord referents and rely on Jamaican Mikey Dread behind the mixing board to develop textures via extensive multi-tracking and the use of echo. They use a 1930s-period chord sequence and jazzy horns on “Jimmy Jazz,” incorporate James Brown-esque horn parts on “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe,” place gospel voices on “Corner Soul,” dollop “Washington Bullets” with Caribbean-style xylophone and pedal-steel guitar, hone in on funk bass lines for “Magnificent Seven,” and adopt wooden reggae bass beats (known as “riddim”) and reggae-infused tomtom drums on “One More Time” and “Guns of Brixton”—the latter of which, lyrically speaking, is psycho-geographically located also in the heart of multicultural, working class England (133-34). In an overview of the Clash in Uncut magazine, Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family reminds us that the bass line of “The Magnificent Seven” is actually culled and adapted from “London Calling,” while Norman Cook explains that the instrumental version of the song, known as “Mustapha Dance,” vividly foreshadowed house music and is still routinely spun by club DJs today (“The Clash”).2
By the mid-1980s, singer and guitarists Jones and Strummer parted company, forming two different Clash bands. When pressed to explain the situation, Strummer replied that Jones was no longer making “our music. He was playing with beat boxes and synthesizers. I was thinking ‘It’s time for us to stop ripping off the black people so much that they don’t get on the radio anymore.’ I didn’t want to play South Bronx music, you know” (Goldberg 41, 47). Strummer suggests the Clash had been sidetracked into believing they were revered musicians and artists, which is self-indulgent and fatal, especially when considering black blues pioneer Robert Johnson “never thought he was an artist.” So, even though Strummer rejected his former line-up’s exploitation of black music, he still used a black legend to prove the “new, authentic” Clash’s antecedents in black music history. Ironically, it was this version of the Clash that released Cut the Crap, replete with a fusion / hybrid urban sound (synthesizers and drum programming) in 1985.
Many consider this record a low point in the band’s career, a misadventure because they used a markedly different, ill-fitting approach compared to their first punk / reggae fusion ventures, like the recording session for “Police and Thieves” that debuted on their first, self-titled album from 1977. As Strummer vividly recalled that moment, “We were jumping up and down. We knew we had brought something to the party. It wasn’t like a slavish white man’s Xerox of some riff. It was like: ‘Give us your riff and we’ll drive it around London’ … Scratch Perry liked it. Him and Junior wrote it” (qtd. in Egan 57). The Cut the Crap album seemed to lack such riffs, energy, and convergence. To many, it was limp and lackluster, a truly white version of beat box America with fuzzy punk shading overlaid with poetic conceits.
Clash manager Bernie Rhodes has taken responsibility for the evolution of Jones’s taste towards such a musical sensibility, highlighting his own role in these terms: “I hipped Malcolm [Sex Pistols manager, and] Mick Jones … to the importance of Hip Hop, Burundi, graffiti, and new sampling technology during the Bonds’s residency” (qtd. in Snow 84). He also takes credit for tracking down Grandmaster Flash, remixing the Clash’s “Magnificent 7,” and forging “Magnificent Dance”: meanwhile, Jones visited radio stations WBLS, Kiss FM, and WKTU, eager to hear DJ Red Alert. Meanwhile, Rhodes’s counterpart, Malcolm McLaren, became equally infatuated with the youthful, syncretic, DIY mix and mash style of black hip hop music culture fermenting in New York’s boroughs. “The Sex Pistols had been heard of. But the interest in punk in Harlem was being generated out of DJ scratching,” he informed Interview magazine. “I somehow found my way to a party that they were holding, completely black, where they were playing records like James Brown, the Monkees, the old Supremes, Diana Ross, and some punk records” (262). Almost akin to white punks, the kids were “fierce, volatile … jumping up, gesturing and screaming”; as such, it felt “magical” to McLaren, unlocking a sense of possibility, especially since the kids “could regurgitate something that was packaged and make it sound magical again” (262). Like punks, the kids felt authentic, and they created and maintained a powerful and direct relationship to an audience while keeping their approach down-to-earth, spontaneous, and unlimited. More so, their impromptu style was not hindered by inherited musical chops or expensive equipment. McLaren later would hit his stride as a record maker himself with the single “Buffalo Gals,” an example of a fertile period in which he mixed songs and traditions from “Zululand and the mountains of Lima and the Dominican Republic and Cuban priests and Appalachian hillbillies all together under one roof” (qtd. in Isler 22). Not unlike a punk folkorist and bricolage-based mixmaster, McLaren understood that both impressive dance potential and pagan power might be tapped and culled from such “primitive” convergences.

Black to the Future: The Politics and Dynamism of Reggae

Don Letts is one of the most notable figures in all of punk rock. As a West Indian DJ and filmmaker who spun highly influential reggae records at the Roxy, London’s premier punk club, he also directed two pivotal documentaries on punk, The Punk Rock Movie and Punk: Attitude; managed the all-girl punk-reggae band the Slits; and authored Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers. In addition, he took part in the pivotal Brixton riots. A photograph that captures the tension of the day—a “dread” making his way towards a police line in Notting Hill, and that graced the front cover of Black Market Clash—is of Letts himself (who also appears on the back cover). In 1980, Joe Strummer told Creem‘s Susan Whitehall that he rented a spare room from Letts for a time. While Letts was immersed in new “roots rock reggae,” he passed on a Trojan Records album full of blue beat songs to Strummer, who quickly became smitten by the “cream of all the … stuff.” In this way Letts likely shaped the future aesthetic of tracks that would become part of the Clash’s repertoire (60).
Reggae made a tremendous impact on early punk, helping to shape the music of the Clash, the Ruts, the Members, Gang of Four, Stiff Little Fingers, Leyton Buzzards, the Police, Newtown Neurotics, and Public Image Limited, while even Canada’s more hardcore D.O.A. made forays into reggae by the early 1980s. Blondie covered the soft reggae tune “The Tide is High” by John Holt of the Paragons. Found on the album Autoamerican, the song was part of the band’s effort to create music forms, à la tunes like the early hip hop / rap-based “Rapture,” that converged genres and cultures. Guitarist Chris Stein admits:

We wanted to make music that would cross over. I would like to see the record resolve racial tensions by bringing different audiences together. When the new wave kids and the rapper kids get together, that’ll be something. Eventually, they’ll all meet in the middle, where you’ll have a strong race of young people that won’t be divided by stupid racial issues.

(qtd. in Trakin, “Blondie” 6)


In Stein’s view, vanguard music could, and perhaps should, create a de-racialized youth movement. Letts, writing for The Guardian online, describes the punks’ taste for or kinship with reggae in these terms:


[Reggae] was a culture that spoke in a currency with which the punks could identify. It was the soundbite-type lyrics, the anti-fashion fashion, the rebel stance and, importantly, the fact that reggae was a kind of musical reportage, talking about things that mattered. Songs like Money in My Pocket, I Need a Roof, and Chant Down Babylon struck an obvious chord with “the youth.” The third-world DIY approach to creating the reggae sound was something else that the punks could relate to, as most of them had no formal music training.

(“Dem Crazy Baldheads”)


Many punk acts joined the efforts of Rock Against Racism gigs.3 Bands ranged from the Clash playing to 85,000 people at Victoria Park in 1978 along with X Ray Spex, Tom Robinson, and Steel Pulse—filmed as part of the Rude Boy film—to gigs including bands like Joy Division (in Manchester, at the Factory, in Oct. 1978), Adam and the Ants (Ealing College and Southbank Polytechnic in 1978), and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Some of these bands were able to play alongside reggae bands like Aswad and Steel Pulse. In later tours, the Clash shows also featured opening reggae acts Mikey Dread and Prince Hammer as well. Old school reggae stalwarts Toots and the Maytals, whose song “Pressure Drop” was avidly covered by the Clash, were invited to tour once as well, but could not afford the six-week financing of the Clash’s 16 Tons 1980 tour.

Still, critics leveled charges about punk songs that denigrated Puerto Ricans (“Puerto Rican” by Adam and the Ants); the use of swastikas and anti-Semitic lyrics (“Love in a Void” by Siouxsie and the Banshees); and Nazi prison camp references, including band names, album art, and lyrical lines taken from memoirs (Joy Division and the Skids). In 2001, Paul Hambleton argued on that Siouxsie was using a crude metaphor equating Jews with bankers, but reminded readers that Siouxsie later dedicated the song “Metal Postcard” to avant-garde Jewish photomontage artist John Heartfield / Helmut Herzfeld, while another song, “Israel,” evokes the dreams of a liberated country singing “Happy Noel.” In addition, Hambleton notes that Adam Ant’s father was part of a British tank crew that liberated Belsen, and Joy Division’s “Nazi” figure pictured on the “Ideal for Living” EP is actually stripped of its Nazi signifier, thus matching the look of a Komsomul (Soviet youth group organization) member too. Hence, he seems to imply, “rehabilitation” of these bands is actually unnecessary, as long as a more nuanced media analysis is applied.
The Rock Against Racism gigs partially served as a front for the Trotskyite-led Socialist Workers Party campaign against insurgent right-wing National Front activities and countrywide race tension, including controversial statements like David Bowie’s suggestion that England was ready for a fascist leader and Eric Clapton’s declaration that immigrants were overrunning the country. The RAR gigs utilized

cultural forms of the Black Diaspora such as reggae and carnival and juxtapos[ed] them with the renegade punk subculture … RAR sought to catalyze anti-racist cultural and political solidarity among Black, Asian, and white youths. RAR thus offers a particularly powerful example of what Vijay Prashad calls polyculturalism, a term which challenges hegemonic multiculturalism, with its model of neatly bounded, discrete cultures.

(Dawson, par. 2)


Instead of leaving subcultures fragmented, isolated, and subjugated, RAR activities allowed for some kind of common front—an uneasy alliance at times, and one that not only confronted white and African cultural issues but Asian as well, though many historians fail to notice that aspect.

In defense of such multicultural punk history, Ian Goodyer reminds readers that:

Although Asian music was not a feature of RAR gigs, solidarity with Asians under racial attack was very much a part of the organisation’s remit. To cite a single instance, RAR was part of the coalition that built the 1979 Southall demo against the NF, at which Blair Peach was murdered. This was a mass mobilisation in an area with a large Asian community. [In] the police attack on the demo … RAR supporters were beaten and arrested.

(qtd. in Hambleton)


The mid-1980s also witnessed race solidarity in street activism and revolt, as Bo reports for Maximumrocknroll: “It is a well-known fact that skins and black youth fought side by side against filth/cops in the… Tottenham Riots,” a melee in North London instigated by the death of a black mother whose home was raided by police after the arrest of her son. By no means were RAR gigs, or other riots, simply multicultural spectacles; instead, they included real witnessing, confrontation, and even extreme danger.

The Clash’s close affinity with black culture has already been noted. One can also discover such links in Bob Marley’s 1977 song “Punky Reggae Party,” which name-drops the Jam, the Damned, and the Clash. Marley demonstrates their similar conditions: “rejected by society, treated with impunity, protected by their dignity.” Fan reaction to the Clash’s combinatory agit-prop and social realist songs of the period has been largely unaddressed. In order to position the band in a greater context, and to see if their symbolic interrogation of “whiteness” in fact was modeled on black resistance, one can look at the discourse of fans. For instance, the song “White Riot” recounts the Notting Hill race riot, a 1976 melee in which police arrested a pickpocket, instigating black youths to come to his defense. A picture of the tumult is pictured on the back of the band’s self-titled debut album (1977). Clash biographer Marcus Gray characterizes the song as “envious” not “racist,” meaning the song was not intended to stir up white anger towards blacks but to implore white youth to stop doing “what they’re told to” and stop “taking orders,” perhaps even pick up a brick like black youth (228). Another explanation is: “Exhilarated by what seemed to them a spontaneous example of revolt against oppressive forces—the black community had often complained of police harassment and discrimination—they wondered why they couldn’t have a riot of their own—that is, a ‘white riot'” (Egan 47). This did not sit well with drummer Terry Chimes and original guitarist Keith Levene. On one hand, Levene refused to sing it, while Chimes, who believed in the power and fury of the song, felt it was nonetheless naive (Egan 47).
One central challenge is to ascertain whether songs like this led listeners to examine their own sense of status, power, and privilege. Martin James, who was able to meet with members of the band 25 years later, notes in The Independent that he still (albeit through reflection) is able to situate the lyrics within his own life at the time:

Did I not understand that “White Riot” was all about his respect for black people and their stand against oppression? Had I not listened to the lyrics, in which he sang that he wished white people would take the same positive position? … despite going to gigs in the multi-racial town High Wycombe, I had never previously been forced to face up to my own inherent racism. It was an attitude that had been born from the simple fact that there were no black people in Marlow. I was ten when I met my first black kid. Some nice white middle-class family had adopted him. I can still remember being told in the playground that if the black kid touched me his colour would rub off on me. Even as a 14-year-old, race riots – or indeed the very concept of “racism” – meant little to me. So, Strummer forced my eyes open.

In 1976, during the peak of the Clash’s early heyday of power and resistance in the UK rock press, Barry Miles of New Music Express interviewed them. Strummer, an avid fan of bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Blind Willie McTell (whose songs he busked in the London subway, earning the name “Strummer” in his pre-Clash era), and Mick Jones, who was a fan of Mott the Hoople, ska, and blue beat before seeing the Sex Pistols, explained their lyrics. Almost exasperated by the press’s inability to grasp the meaning of the song “London’s Burning,” they retort:


The only thing we’re saying about the Blacks is that they’ve got their problems and they’re prepared to deal with them. But white men, they just ain’t prepared to deal with them—everything’s too cozy. They’ve got stereos, drugs, hi-fis, cars…


We’re completely antiracist. We want to bridge the gap. They used to blame everything on the Jews, now they’re saying it about the Blacks and the Asians… every body’s a scapegoat, right?


The poor blacks and the poor whites are in the same boat… They don’t want us in their culture, but we just happen to dig Tapper Zukie and Big Youth, Dillinger and Aswad and Delroy Washington. We dig them and we ain’t scared of going into heavy black record shops and getting their gear. We even go to heavy black gigs where we’re the only white people there.


Hence, not only do the Clash find affinity with black music,4 a sense of community, and street-wise agency, they recognize that they are margin walkers, borrowing from black culture, but ultimately not part of black culture. They were not mere exploiters either, but they might be considered translators negotiating their whiteness through black cultural signifiers as a means of Othering and authenticating themselves in the punk milieu, against a backdrop of garage punk bands simply churning out bellicose versions of yesterday’s rehashed rock ‘n’ roll.

Strummer’s intentions will likely never be quite understood, but the result—an awakening or re-evaluation of person, place, and power in an “everyday” budding fan like Mardi—is a legacy that Strummer would likely have found comforting. Strummer and Jones wanted white youth teeming with bigotry, and consequent Paki-bashing tendencies, to wake up, even while Clash manager Bernie Rhodes appears to approve of race-bashing in some instances, as a Record Mirror interview illuminates:


What’s your reaction to kids doing that?


What, bashing Pakis? I f—tell `em to lay off.


I tell `em to lay off. I said to them, you’re just doing it for the papers.


They should go down the House of Commons and bash up the people in there.


Or Radio One…


But you’ve still got kids beating up Pakistanis …


There’s a lot of Pakis who deserve it.


I don’t think anybody deserves that.


The signal seems clear, though. The powers that be—hegemony, from Parliament to the Radio One officers, those who shape national policy and marginalize youth—should be the target of white frustration, not immigrants and people of color.

Bassist Paul Simonon himself had long, deep affections for reggae music, and black music in general, as his homemade tapes made for the trek across America for the Clash’s Pearl Harbor 1979 tour attest. Among his collection included four volumes of “Dread Control,” Big Youth, The Temptations, “Natty,” three volumes of “Dreadnought,” Bo Diddley, “Blues,” and “Motown.” Such an assortment, featured on the same tour when Bo Diddley joined the British punk legends as the opening act, might surprise punk purists who imagine punk rock as a white genre ensconced in a cocoon, but comes to no surprise to those who understand punk as a fluid, syncretic genre. The Clash’s gig and studio song lists circa 1979 also reveal the band’s immersion in fecund black music during this era. With finesse, they covered a large array of black musical acts, including Desmond Dekker (“Israelites”), Althea and Donna’s (“Up Town Ranking”), Sonny Okosum (“Fire in Soweto”), Matumbi (“The Man in Me”), The Rulers (“Wrong Emboyo”) and Danny Ray (“Revolution Rock”). Some of those tracks found daylight on albums like London Calling and Black Market Clash, while others remained buried in rehearsals and sound checks, only offered up to the public in rare recordings.
Such musical fusion, interpenetration, and co-habitation between punk and reggae, Anglo and West Indian, and black and white cultures didn’t come without some confusion as well. As Strummer once walked back through the time when the Clash released “Bankrobber,” a reggae-infused tune produced by Mikey Dread that reached #12 on the national charts, he remembered:

One day I went up to Ladbroke Grove to get a newspaper and a bunch of black school girls got off the bus, and one of them went, “There’s that guy who did ‘Bankrobber'” and they surrounded me and stood staring, ‘cos they couldn’t believe that some weird-looking white dude had made this record. I’ll never forget it, they stood there staring at me, and didn’t say anything. They couldn’t compute it.

(The Clash 256)


They were not the only black girls seemingly infatuated with the Clash’s music. As a Creem writer reporting on a Clash gig in Detroit commented, “Hippies like the Clash. So do black people – I watched two black girls dancing, to see whether they favored the reggae-flavored numbers or not. They didn’t. They’re American girls, after all” (Letts, “The Clash” 43). In the UK, the Clash’s reggae-tinged numbers appeared to win them a black audience, while in America songs like “Train in Vain,” with its R & B underbelly, held the attention of people like Bootsy Collins. The well-admired black funk bass player, who had long stints in the band Parliament and in James Brown’s band, supposedly listened to the song every day after he bought a copy in 1980 (41).

Strummer’s admiration for reggae star Jimmy Cliff is well-noted too, but it was not the Clash but the other old guard punk band Chelsea who covered Cliff’s powerful “Too Many Rivers to Cross” on their self-titled debut LP in 1979. When asked why this song resonated with the band, guitarist James Stevenson told me:

It was Gene’s idea—and I think the angst he gets across in the delivery of the vocal is really special. At the end of the day, the song is about pain and the difficulty we all face in moving forward through life. I think that’s a subject we all have in common, and it rears its head in every form of music. There was a big riot at the Notting Hill carnival in 1981. I remember being there with Mick Jones. It was a very mixed race battle against the authorities, and I remember saying to Mick—”See, this is our battle too!”


This articulates the fact that white punks felt that convergence was desirable, and quite possible, between black and white youth culture, even within a society that had forcefully segregated and Balkanized the two communities for decades.


Black Vanguards in the Age of Hardcore

Despite punk rock being an avenue for racial or cross-cultural symbiosis, the outside world, with its master narrative of segregation, suppression, and race-anxiety, always reminded punks of their marginal status by exploiting the issue. The tumult and legacy of complicated race relations in the UK, including massive riots and small gig upheavals, are far too numerous and complicated to explore, but the US scene does offer some revealing moments too. For instance, as MCD lead singer Dave Dictor testifies in an interview, “Cops have been known to take punks to black housing areas just because they know the punks will get the shit beat out of them.”
Australia has a history of racially tinged violence experienced both directly and indirectly by both American and British punks. In the case of the Clash tour in 1982, bassist Paul Simonon recently recounted meeting local aborigines who wanted to speak at a Clash gig to “talk about their situation” in front of their audience, only to have one member’s wife beaten at home by the police as they spoke. This soured the Australian leg of the tour for Simonon (The Clash 35).
Australian police also arrested the Dead Kennedys’ black drummer D.H. Peligro when the band stopped in Brisbane. Jello Biafra told Maximumrocknroll that Peligro was arrested on the street for unlawful assembly after being “picked out of a crowd of about 15 white people, and arrested for drinking in public, even though his can of beer was unopened” after the gig (“Dead Kennedys Tour”). In a recent interview with me, bass player Klaus Flouride attests guitarist East Bay Ray tried to intervene in order to help Peligro; consequently, he was removed in a different police car and charged with obstructing justice after a heated verbal exchange in which the police initially resisted implicating Ray along with Peligro. Both were held at the local Watch House. Such targeted police action happened during the era when Queensland was under the political leadership and sway of corrupt, Born-Again Christian, anti-aboriginal, anti-union Country Party leader Sir Johannes “Joh” Bjelke-Peterson, who believed aboriginals were lower than whites on the evolutionary scale (“Dead Kennedys Tour”), and attempted to get the Racial Discrimination Act invalidated, but lost. Luckily for Peligro and Ray, print and television coverage of the tour helped reveal their status to the police, who apologized and released them after speaking with tour manager Bill Gilliam. They even gave Peligro studded belts they had taken off other punks (Flouride). The police considered them “cool” at that point, according to Ray (Pepperell).
During the same era, Reggie Rector, guitarist for the mixed race punk band Secret Hate, was killed in downtown Long Beach. In Flipside #38, Al Flipside asked the band, “Why don’t you think more blacks are into punk?” Rector answered: “They’re more into Michael Jackson,” while his bandmate Kevin intoned, “There’s pressure not to be, if you hang out with a bunch of Crypt Town guys, they don’t want you getting a Mohawk, or wearing a kilt.”
However, the all-black hardcore punk pioneers Bad Brains stipulate that pressure was applied from another source: white hegemony, which they actively equated with tropes of Babylon, prominently featured in songs like “Leaving Babylon” (1982) and “Destroy Babylon” (1983). In Flipside #31, when asked, “Why don’t you think there are more black people into hardcore?” singer H.R. responds, “Because of exposure … Babylon.… Black people ain’t gonna find out about it until white people find out about it,” to which his bandmate Gary responds, “Because of the Babylon system.” Whereas Secret Hate blames the lack of involvement on pressure from within the black community, the Bad Brains suggests that hegemony—the white supremacist system—prevents black communities from an exposure to hardcore; hence, as Stuart Hall suggests, media representations likely fix meaning, limit new potentials, and normalize identities.
The Bad Brains distressed and frayed such norms. As Howard Wuelfing recalls:

My first contact with the Bad Brains was through Kim Kane of the Slickee Boys who submitted a review of a house party they played at, that ran in my DesCenes fanzine. He was utterly in awe of them. As I recall everyone in town was floored by the Bad Brains and singing their praises as well they should have as they were an incredible band, especially live. I remember them totally blowing The Damned off the stage at the Bayou one night. HR was like a black Iggy Pop and the rest of the band was impossibly tight and fast and the songs notably intricate and challenging.


The Bad Brains was the band that challenged assumptions about punk musicianship, shook up and transformed black identities in punk rock history, and frequently, as in the case of The Clash and The Damned, used opening slots in punk gigs to interrogate the status quo of the genre in which they excelled.

Revisiting Hebdige’s theory, postcolonial theorist Paul Gilroy asserts, “Punk provided the circuitry which enabled … connections” between “black and white styles,” while fostering punks to produce their own “critical and satirical commentary on the meaning and significance of white ethnicity” (There Ain’t No Black 122-123). Granted, he has little regard for the Bad Brains, whom he tags in The Black Atlantic as advancing “the white noise of Washington, D.C.’s Rasta thrash punk,” which effectively divorces the band from its black musical antecedents (100). If we adopt his view wholesale, the Bad Brains was merely a skilled, nomadic group of musicians poaching “white” musical forms rather than reclaiming the music of their birthright, from John Coltrane to Chuck Berry. For instance, the tropes of “suffering” the band employs in lyrics might be linked back to the Sorrow Songs discussed by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). I contend that the Bad Brains update such American music, which is indebted to the spirit, story, and sweat of African Americans, though the update is mediated and propelled by the “terrible” explosivity of punk.
Originally a progressive jazz unit known as Mind Power, the Bad Brains members were influenced by mixed-race jazz fusion icons Spyro Gyra, reggae pioneer Bob Marley, and Stevie Wonder’s spiritualism. When integrated into punk idioms, such musical tastes and abilities were well-regarded by peers during their heyday. “I thought the band was ferociously good,” singer U-Ron Bondage of Really Red informed me, describing their 1982 gig together in Houston, Texas; “technically amazing too. It was obvious to me that they could have been playing other types of more complicated music prior to being Bad Brains.” This reinforces Wuelfing’s impressions. On the liner notes to their Greatest Riffs CD (2003), the band thanks Miles Davis, Ohio Players, and Earth, Wind and Fire, alongside punk stalwarts the Dead Boys, Cro-mags, and Eater: their musical influences ranged wide and did not merely reflect a crucible of “white noise.”
Gilroy (like many academics) somehow imagines them as an overly simplified amalgam of white speed, urban angst, and “thrash” fury. He borrows Leroi Jones’s (he chooses to use this name variation instead of Amiri Baraka) assertion that black music in the Diaspora is essentially always in a state of flux and change, a cultural transmission full of disruption and breaks, and an unfixed musical landscape. Yet the Bad Brains does not merit a position within this culturescape. Russell Potter draws even weaker conclusions, categorizing the band as “metalesque ‘ska,'” nametags much more appropriate for describing the music of Fishbone (145). Supporters who envision the band as an example of cultural hybridity, he intones, are on the side of “recuperation” and “fuzzy plurality” (145). Neither writer fully grasps the band’s historical significance—its rather rare, genre-defining style. Neither is willing to concede that the Bad Brain’s translation of punk style, which itself is a translation (or appropriation) of subversive rock ‘n’ roll, is an unstable convergence that may reveal shared, integrated, or multicultural milieus.
The Bad Brains marks the zero hour of hardcore music—the moment when the sounds of “white noise” became jet-fueled. As H.R. describes it to the fanzine Ripper, “When I first heard their [the Dickies’] music I said, Gee it’s so fast, this is really bad”—a vernacular form of verbal approval for the band’s catchy, humming, and terse pop-punk. The Bad Brains did not just translate the Dickies’ format: they were generative. Before them, no single band played such a nimble, fertile, crossover speed jazz style. Whereas the Police also derived from jazz-fusion origins, it chose pop-reggae templates. Furthermore, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys credits the British band Discharge as the first hardcore punk band, though the Black Dot sessions by the Bad Brains, which were not released to the public for twenty years, reveal a uniquely hardcore format already existing in robust form by 1979 and that outpaces early Discharge.
As soon as the Bad Brains’s first full length cassette-only release appeared on Roir records (1982), followed by the Ric Ocasek (The Cars)-produced Rock For Light (PVC, 1983), “white noise” writers including Gary Bushel (a British proponent of street punk, including the emerging Oi sound) waxed enthusiastically about them, evoking mouthfuls of metaphors that posited the Bad Brains as the avant-garde: “[They] make Motörhead sound like they’re standing still. They make Discharge sound like gentle balladeers.… Imagine the musical equivalent of the 90 second London-Brighton train run film on fast forward” (qtd. in Gimarc 581). Hence, historic credit for stimulating the hardcore genre might shift to the Bad Brains even as music historians acknowledge that tracks by the Damned (“Love Song”), 999 (“No Pity”), Wire (“Mr. Suit”), the Ruts (“Criminal Mind”), and UK Subs (“Telephone Number” and “You Give Me Disease”) did provide intermittent, frenetic-paced examples of proto-hardcore. The Bad Brains, banned and nearly broken, quickly symbolized the blazing potentials of the new genre.
One vexing issue about the Bad Brains is its embrace, and projection, of Rastafarian culture, which the members tend to simplify as “taking up the Nazarite vow” in the same Ripper interview. They also suggested to Suburban Voice fanzine that Rasta culture is not bound to the black Diaspora:

Rasta is not no black nothing. Rasta is a function of the heart, it’s the first law. Now, we have the first nation, which is Africa and we give credit to the dynasty of the Solomon lineage so this is the only reigning diplomatic credited Christian Orthodox function today but we do not function for blackness. I and I live for humanity. A man can be any color and be a Rasta.


Their desire to evoke a transcultural frame for Rastafarianism, or their translation of Rasta tenets, may sour some Rasta supporters, while their religious orthodoxy troubled punks.

Dave Dictor, who underwent some tense moments while playing on the same stages with the Bad Brains on a tumultuous 1982 Rock Against Reagan tour, penned lyrics like “We don’t need your Jah’s fascist doctrine” in the song “Pay to Cum Along” (1983). Though many punks might have imagined Rasta beliefs as exotic or just plain “weird” (as U-ron Bondage described it to me), bands like MDC attacked them with the same fiery aplomb with which they denounced institutional Christianity, especially after singer H.R. openly denounced the homosexuality of Randy “Biscuit” Turner, the singer of the Big Boys and a friend of MDC. The connections between Rasta and punk in general don’t necessarily resonate in terms of shared community mores. Al Long, onetime singer from the band Nausea, a fiercely political band from New York City circa 1990, admitted in an interview that “The rastas I work with have little in common with me.”
Questions imbedded in the work of Canadian cultural critic Richard Fung, as discussed by Coco Fusco in English is Broken Here, can be used to examine the sensitive postcolonial issues at stake. Fung maps out strategies to deal with cultural productions that converge with, or are the result of, cultural appropriation. Using his framework, I ask: Does the Bad Brains’s punk status place the band within a subaltern group of the African Diaspora? Does the band misrepresent Rasta culture? To what degree does the band, or later offshoots such as HR and Zion Train, commercialize Rasta culture? Is Afro-punk, or black punk rock, a distinct mode of cultural production, defined by agency and volition—by self-control and self-representation? Is Afro-punk a convenient tag or genre created by hegemonic forces, or does it counter racist forces, revise our notions of history, and treat white and black historical actors with equity and fairness? Lastly, did the Bad Brains offer alternative visions of masculinity or reify old sexist, homophobic modes of power? These questions remain to be explored.
In Black Culture, White Youth: the Reggae Tradition from JA to UK, Simon Jones examines race relations and youth culture in Birmingham, England. He rightly points out that some of the Clash’s most compelling diatribes, like “White Riot,” were easily co-opted and manipulated by people espousing fascist doctrine. Likewise, songs by the hardcore generation—like Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White,” which features the highly personal and, some may argue, immature and simplistic insight of singer Ian MacKaye (an early admirer and cohort of the Bad Brains who attended an urban Washington, D.C. school district)—were often “hijacked” by racist groups who re-routed the meaning. For such groups, the song was a tough examination of white working class agitprop in the age of post-1970s black self-determination. As so-called victims of reverse discrimination, they denounced having guilt “for something I didn’t do … a hundred years before my time” (“Rap Session”). Black punk Mark Philip, a local youth at the time, looks back and attests:

I’m sure as an 18-year old guy in a punk band, Ian was just writing from the heart, but … it felt a little shallow given how complex the subject of race is. Ian is a hero of mine, but that song threw me. I felt it completely glossed over the complex nuances of race relations and took an attitude of moral equivalency. Slavery wasn’t THAT long ago, there are still people alive today who were directly affected by it, such as my uncle Sherman Jones whose father (not grandfather) was a slave. He was just here in my living room three weeks ago. He is forever unable to trace his lineage back another generation, which is a luxury that most whites take for granted. I think the consequence of a song like “Guilty of Being White” is that idiots hear it and don’t know their history, have no empathy or understanding and they use it as a justification for their own racist views, which, of course, was not at all the intention of the song to begin with. The fact that Slayer covered the song validates my point here because that is a band (that I love) which is known to have overt racists in its fan-base who no doubt contort its meaning to conform to their twisted phony populist white victim viewpoint.

Jones recognizes the “powerlessness, desire to shock, and sense of anger at official smugness expressed by punk’s more working-class constituency,” which are the same traits and feelings often documented in fascist youth groups as well (100). In summary, he suggests many contingent factors mediate the interplay and interaction of white and black youth. The notion that punk bands and scenes evoke or embody multicultural “hybridity” becomes very complex. White youth’s attraction to (along with the desire to appropriate) black cultural forms should be understood within a context of actual race relations. At a minimum, these interactions become mediated by youth groups vying for territory, identity-building in the age of black self-determination and punk culture shock, and competing for employment during times of national financial fissures, none of which can be understood by an analysis of style or musical content alone. As some critics posit, what journalists and musicians say, and what they do, can be very different. Slogans and blurbs matter little compared with acts, as witnessed by Fred Smith, now known as Freak, guitarist for Beefeater:

It was very strange to be these “token” negroes, playing in front of predominantly all white audiences, but we did it. As Shawn Brown [Swiz] and myself will attest, there were fucking issues man. A lot of fucking issues that we had to address when we did shows. When I first heard someone refer to me as the “negro Lemmy,” [of Motörhead] I was floored. I immediately lowered my mic stand down from the height that I set it. When I heard Shawn Brown being referred to as “the negro version of Ian MacKaye,” I was floored again. When I told him, he was taken aback but still plugged on. In retrospect, even in this new scene, I was always wondering, would racism ever end?!

In terms of establishing the connection between cultural contexts, meaning the merging of horizons between black and white resistance cultures, contemporary hardcore punk singer Thomas Barnett from Strike Anywhere provides a larger matrix to ponder. I quote him at length, since what he revealed to me in a 2005 interview is both detailed and nuanced:

I think about this often, and have had an ongoing conversation on this subject with many older punks, hardcore kids, conscious rastas in Richmond and DC, and other members of the African Diaspora, about the roots of punk and the parallels and differences between hardcore/punk and revolutionary black music in the Western world … There isn’t a punk rocker alive now who couldn’t find an eerie affinity between the shrill anti-authoritarian rhyming rage in their favorite punk song and the frustrated, simmering patience of countless reggae numbers. It’s just there.
Some people have sworn by the “East London” theory … [according to which] early British punk rock bands–and their embryonic, furiously self-reinventing tribes of friends and followers (back then even more fractured, heterogeneous, and, for that matter, androgynous, certainly hungrier and homeless—orphaned from rock ‘n’ roll already) are looking for pubs to play in, and the only sympathetic ears who’ll take them in are the West Indian owned reggae clubs in the East End. Perhaps, if this is accurate to some degree, this is where the cross-pollination of ideas, and in a smaller way, sounds, first went down.
You could look at it as a window getting opened for the disaffected, self-destructing white punks and artists, and the elements of postcolonial black politics, human rights issues, and the awareness of a binary world system came crashing down through the music into their minds. The often paradoxical and personal politics of punk can be traced back to this artistic intersection, but perhaps this was just one highly public space in history where this same collision of white restlessness and countercultural reaction opened up to the waiting truths, methods, and life affirming ideas of revolutionary black culture.

The September 1983 issue of Maximumrocknroll features a long discussion between Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat and Dave and Vic Bondi from Articles of Faith, in which racism becomes a prevalent, and heated issue, as does Sab Grey’s (Iron Cross) interview in Guillotine #8 (1984), which covers the use of the triggering term nigger and racial violence in desperate neighborhoods; similarly, an interview in Touch and Go #16 (1981), Grey reveals sentiments regarding the reverse racism of blacks (“Blacks are the biggest racists”) and the notion that “everyone” is a Nazi. Later, when speaking with D.C. punk community chronicler Mark Anderson in Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital (2001), he exhibited remorse for such comments and sentiments, but such discourse does signify D.C. as a site of sometimes very tense, raw race relations. Moreover, one should note that Iron Cross’s first bass player was black, and Grey’s perspective is shaped by family heritage: his mother survived the London blitz and his father was “a German refugee from the Nazis.” The only actual fascist element is more likely to have been their name.
Punk rock didn’t make convergence necessarily easy, or provide equal treatment to all participants, but it did make convergence possible and fruitful, despite contradiction and ambivalence within the community.

Bodies of Confidence, Desire, and Frenzy: Hip Hop Suaveness and Hardcore Havoc

I use the Bad Brains, and the seminal hip hop outfit Run DMC, as a case sample to examine how black music culture unfolded in different forms during the early 1980s. As mentioned earlier, the Bad Brains members hailed from the Maryland / Washington, D.C. area and were attracted to the raw power of punk after hearing the Sex Pistols. Even their name reflects their fondness for contemporary punk, since “Bad Brain” is the name of a Ramones song from 1978. At the time, D.C. had a small wellspring of punk and new wave bands, ranging from the college-crown Urban Verbs to the garagey pop punk Slickee Boys and a small number of emerging teenage “hardcore” punk bands, like the Teen Idles. The Bad Brains were able to harness their skill sets associated with jazz—a certain nimble and adept musicianship, usually not considered an essential part of punk, perhaps considered even antithetical to punk performance—and added volatile, blitzkrieg speed and energy that pushed new boundaries.
In Queens, Run DMC began a different approach, utilizing “two turntables and a microphone,” the pared down approach to rap, which democratized music in urban areas by switching out live band members (and expensive instruments) for 12″ record tracks that could be “mixed” live to create a backdrop to raps. This emergent style likely has antecedents in West African griots and Caribbean “toasting.” In the new form, certain funk beats would be isolated, and / or produced by drum machines, and the rappers would be free to “emcee” on top of this. What I am interested in examining is the visual representation of these forms in videos, including “Sucker MCs” by Run DMC and “Banned in D.C.” by the Bad Brains at the infamous New York City club CBGB’s.
As represented in a band photo on Wikipedia, Run DMC’s trademark gear includes very clean and neat Adidas, tight leather pants or jeans, uniform black fedora hats, and large gold chains. Their posture is rather uninviting: Jam Master Jay and DMC cross their arms, lean back or to the side somewhat stiffly, and stare at the camera directly. DJ Run appears more relaxed: with hands sunk a bit into both pockets, his body is slightly tilted, and he stares less “hard.” Live in 1983 on an unattributed program available on YouTube, they outfit themselves in leather jackets, keep the fedoras, and sing on a stage for an urban dance show with graffiti backdrops. In the song “Sucker MCs,” they mention certain status symbols, including St. John’s University, drinking champagne, Cadillacs, and credit cards.
In the clip of the Bad Brains video on YouTube shot at CBGB’s in 1982, one year before the Run DMC clip, the band plays “Banned in DC,” one of their hallmark songs that explains, in part, why they were banned from Washington, D.C. clubs: they were deemed too uncontrollable. In the video, three of the members wear clothes that symbolize colors associated with Rastafarian style (green, yellow, red) and two of the members wear woven caps in the Rasta tradition. At this time, the Bad Brains clearly identified with Rastafarians and integrated reggae into their live sets, thus in some ways they reflect Hebdige’s hypothesis about the frozen dialect between white and black culture within one framework: one single hardcore punk band. Singer HR has dreadlocks, and his button-up shirt seems to contrast the T-shirts worn by the rest of the band and the gig’s mostly white attendees. His manner might appear bombastic to some viewers, a dance of unbound atavism and molten fury. The crowd acts in kind, forming at times a dizzying free-for-all energy and abandon that contrast with Run DMC’s audience, who dance adroitly, smoothly, and fluidly, or gaze and cheer at the performers on stage. In the CBGB’s video, HR and the crowd meld at points. HR bends down and intensely interacts with the first row, dances volatile on stage, and takes up a gyrating position in front of the amplifier as the guitar player plays a solo.
If one were to read this depiction taken from bell hooks—

It is the young black male body that is seen as epitomizing this promise of wildness, of unlimited physical prowess … It was this black body that was most “desired” for its labor in slavery, and it is this body that is most represented in contemporary culture as the body to be watched, imitated, desired, possessed.…
When young black men acquire a powerful public voice and presence via cultural production, as has happened with the explosion of rap music, it does not mean that they have a vehicle that will enable them to articulate that pain.… True, it was conditions of suffering and survival, of poverty, deprivation, and lack that characterized the marginal locations from which breakdancing and rap emerged.



one might mistakenly believe that she is referring to the Bad Brains video, with its viable sense of explosion, public voice (even howl), wildness, unlimited physicality and musical prowess, and its intensely imitated form demonstrated by the white audience, as if HR is using the stage to act with and against the audience to interrogate all the pain and deprivation (“banned”) associated with exile (with its Hebrew Bible connotations, which appeals to Rastas). I suggest that he is interacting with them in mock violence that actually becomes a kind of dance and choreographed ritual—a molten path towards catharsis, perhaps.

bell hooks, however, is describing rap music. I agree that many rap bodies are desired by audiences, but I am also concerned that their bodies are envisioned as easily re-enslaved, commodified through dress that is corporate rather than nationalistic or African inspired (Bad Brains’s taste for Rasta dress). Their emphasis on wealth and the trappings of a bourgeois life (college careers, caddies, and champagne) contrasts the Bad Brains’s emphasis on survival and reclamation (“you can’t hurt me…we got ourselves, going to sing it, gonna love it, gonna work it out at any length”). The trope of suffering endures within the Bad Brains song library (note their song “House of Suffering” on I Against I), whereas Run DMC later turned to clean rap and Christian lives.
In the texts of bell hooks, Paul Gilroy, and many other theorists, black punk rock (or Afro-punk) cultural productions tend to be undervalued or absent. Black resistance to hegemony reverberates in varied and vibrant musical forms: black punks were, and are, still at the forefront. While punk and hardcore may indeed be a genre and community ripe with convergence and, arguably, some contentious forms of hybridity, academics still lack the history, insight, and willingness to engage not only the discourse of independent and mainstream media and culture but to challenge their own academic leanings as well. As Thomas Barnett from Strike Anywhere stressed to me, there is a “closeness and affinity between black and white revolutionary arts,” but the goal is to “make these connections clearer and nourishing again,” so that punk rock does not simply become “another obedient, palatable form.”

David Ensminger

David Ensminger is an Instructor of English, Humanities, and Folklore at Lee College in Baytown, Texas. He completed his M.S. in the Folklore Program at the University of Oregon and his M.A. in Creative Writing at City College of New York City. His study of punk street art and Do-It-Yourself culture, Visual Vitriol: The Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generations, is slated for July 2011 release by the University of Mississippi. His work has recently appeared in the Journal of Popular Music Studies and M/C Journal (Australia), and he contributes regularly to the Houston Press, Maximum Rock’n’Roll, Popmatters, and Trust (Germany). As a longtime fanzine editor, flyer artist, and drummer as well, he has archived punk history, including in his blog documenting African American punk rock productions:


1. Berry’s “Maybelline” was covered by the Midwest garage punk band the Replacements covered in 1981. Guitarist Billy Zoom “neatly wrenched” guitar lines from “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” for the X tune “Year 1,” according to writer Debra Rae Cohen. In a 1984 Trouser Press, John Leland describes X’s overall music on the first album Los Angeles as a knotty, awkward, “Chunk Berried punk barrage.” Johnny Thunder’s band Gang War covered “Around and Around,” and even street punkers Sham 69 began as an R & B cover band covering the likes of “Roll Over Beethoven.”

2. The 1979 track “Armagideon Time,” the B-side to the single “London Calling.” was written by dancehall progenitors Clement Dodd and Willie Williams.

3. The reggae band Steel Pulse penned the song “Rock Against Racism.”

4. Peter Silverton from Trouser Press reported in 1978 that the band had almost chosen the name Weak Heart Drops, a Big Youth song.

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