Black Punk Now

Guitar amplifier

Black Punk Now
by Camille A. Collins 

Punk at its heart is a search, a demand, for truth. Beyond the cliché emblems of studded chokers and spiked mohawks lies a creed that has served the angst of young working-class white men in Britian in the 70s; cool east coast girls of the same era, like Patti Smith and Joan Jett; and Black youth. Black tastemakers have been active in punk from the very start. 

The second wave of the skinhead movement in the UK saw anti-establishment kids developing their own quick, energetic, oft rudimentary sound, influenced by the music and posture of second-generation Caribbean Brits: “rude gals” and “rude boys” of Jamaican descent. Inflections of Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae (an artform equal to punk in its outrage at the system), can be heard in British punk songs of the era, such as “Bank Robber” by The Clash and The Slits’ cover of the Marvin Gaye classic, “Grapevine.” But it wouldn’t be long before Black rockers were unsurprisingly left “on read.”  

Proto-punk band Death, blasted out of Detroit in 1971 when the three Hackney brothers changed up their R&B sound and adopted a villainous name after the angel of death claimed their dad. Catching the attention of Clive Davis, they were funded for the recording of a 7 song EP, but the alliance with Davis broke down when then band refused to change its name. Davis liked their sound but didn’t think the name would fly with a Black audience. Codified and racially categorized before their record even got play, by ’77 the Death enterprise met its demise. 

Glam band Pure Hell emerged from Philly in ’74 with a hardcore sound and prettily beat faces. (Their manager, Curtis Knight, formerly helmed R&B group The Squires, alongside a young Jimmy Hendrix on guitar). Comparable to the MC5, the band captured the spotlight at CBGB, where they befriended the New York Dolls. Pure Hell enjoyed a successful tour of Europe in ‘78, where the multi-ethnic scene was a welcome relief from American audiences who viewed the band as an oddity, (though they would eventually gain respect in New York as well). Yet, they disagreed with Knight’s promo tactic of billing them “The Only Black Punk Band In The World.” While garnering attention, it put their ethnicity, not their driving sound and hype acrobatic performances at the center, making them feel like a carnival attraction. Their New York heyday ended with a haunting night with Sid Vicious at CBGB—his final, fated performance there. The band never released a full album, expressing frustration at being passed over for white bands of lesser aptitude. They took the blows and paved the way, only to be immortalized as an influence on Bad Brains, who many mistake as America’s maiden Black punk outfit. 



To uniformed outsiders, observing say the Afro Punk festival that has garnered widespread media attention and gone international over the past eighteen years, it may seem the Black community has arrived late to the punk festivities. Yet, disregarding our contributions is nothing new. That both Death and Pure Hell were given side eye for exploring metal sounds may be the wildest fact of all, considering the roots of rock n roll, pioneered by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and other Black American performers. (Racially disingenuous categorizations in music notwithstanding, there’s arguably no performer more punk than George Clinton, but that’s a conversation for another day). 



“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. ” ― James Baldwin

While we’ve been at the “Punky Reggae Party” since the very beginning, the movement’s persistence in our community makes perfect sense. The CROWN Act (“Creating a Respectful Open World for Natural Hair”) for example, only passed in New York and California in 2019. With Baldwin’s quip in mind, requiring a state law to protect your job or academic career from the crime of whimsically showing up with your hair growing naturally out of your head, is indeed good reason to be pissed. In this year of our Lord, eighteen-year-old Texan Darryl George has been suspended multiple times and placed in alternative disciplinary education for refusing to cut his locks, despite pinning them up in a neat style so they don’t graze his shoulders during class. Considering how the ruthless control of Black bodies and Black lives persists, picking up a guitar, listening to non-urban music, or donning a de rigueur “punk,” blue dyed hairstyle, takes on an entirely different meaning and level of protest. In this atmosphere, Black punk remains a nifty, though imperfect, conduit for greater freedom of identity and expression for Black performers, zine creators, novelists, music reviewers, designers, music obsessives, and documentary makers.  

James Spooner, director of the Afro Punk documentary; co-founder of the original festival of the same name; and co-editor (with Chris L. Terry) of the new anthology, BLACK PUNK NOW, observed the following in a 2022 interview with Harper’s Bazaar: “If there’s one song in particular that could really just set the course for my entire life, it’s Patti Smith’s “Rock N Roll Nigger.” If you look at the beginning of my film Afro-Punk, it’s dedicated basically to her, without saying her name. When I started the project, I was so angry at punk in general, at the audacious whiteness of my friends, and the song “Rock N Roll Nigger” encapsulated that audaciousness for me. So I had a pointed anger. But what’s interesting is, by the time that I get to the end of the film, I’m realizing that I’m not even thinking about Patti Smith because it’s such a celebration of all of these Black voices…”


Camille A. Collins (she/her) has an MFA in creative writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She’s a proud contributor to the new anthology, BLACK PUNK NOW, out from Soft Skull Press on 10/31/23. She has been the recipient of the Short Fiction Prize from the South Carolina Arts Commission, and her writing has appeared in The Twisted Vine, a literary journal of Western New Mexico University. Her debut novel, The Exene Chronicles, was published by Brain Mill Press in 2018. She likes writing about music and has contributed features and reviews to Afropunk, BUST, and other publications. Instagram: @camillecollinsauthor | Twitter: @camilleacollins

Image: Kai Oberhäuser/Unsplash

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