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Punk and Racedness

by Rowan Bagley

Death Grips

I have never experienced the pressure of being expected to represent the views and feelings of my entire race. My gender, yes, but not my race. I have never felt as though my race were underrepresented in any area of media and the punk music scene is no exception to that. Punk music, for all its revolutionary ideals, was and is dominated by white men in every single era. From the formative years of garage rock to the emo rock days in the late 90s and early 2000s, the majority of punk bands are comprised almost exclusively of white men. That isn’t accidental.

Rock music* is one of only two things that are indisputably American, the other being comic books**, and neither of these things were created by or for white men, so why do they get to dominate these spheres? For rock, the answer is simple: white men get to be rebellious and no amount of rebellion is capable of fully alienating them from American or English society. The Sex Pistols can call for anarchy in the U.K. without anyone extrapolating those ideals and applying them to the entire white race. The Oi! movement was overrun by white nationalists bent on erasing Black culture and history from the punk scene in order to convert more white youth and we still don’t attribute those values to the entirety of the white race or even the entirety of the punk movement.

None of this is to say that punk doesn’t exist in Black culture or the culture of any other minoritized group, but it is to say that the punk scene has always prioritized the disenfranchisement of the white middle class over any other kind of disenfranchisement. The problem with punk being represented as a white-dominated social and artistic scene is that it perpetuates the idea that whiteness is the racial norm and limits participation from anyone who isn’t white. Chuck Berry didn’t invent rock music in 1955 so that punk could be whitewashed, but it speaks to an American, white-centric culture when the first bands most people think of when punk is mentioned are The Clash or the Ramones and not Bad Brains.

*rock music has its roots in the jazz and blues music scenes of the late 1800s and was developed and popularized by Black musicians like Little Richard, Ike Turner, Bo Diddley, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe

**comic books have some relation to 18th Century Japanese pictorial storytelling, but comic books were first popularized by Jewish artists during the 1930s in America


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