When you think of punk music, what bands come to mind? You may think of the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, or even Green Day. All of those bands are white, and the stereotypical image of a punk is white, too. Those are some of the main bands folks can associate with punk, but they aren’t the pioneers or even the ones who invented the genre. In fact, like a lot of today’s musical genres, punk has its roots in Black music.
Punk emerged in the 1970s in NYC as the opposite of the colorful and psychedelic mainstream rock at the time (Pitchfork). Punk cut meandering guitar solos for short, aggressive, and often political songs and fostered an ethos that anyone could start a band and play music if they had something to say. Although bands and audiences were largely white at the time, influential Black artists helped build the punk scene from the beginning and used the genre to challenge the status quo.
TAKE ACTION • Support the Black Rock Coalition, which champions the free musical expression of Black people.
• Read about the Sista Grrrl Riots and how Black women carved out their own space after being left out of the Riot Grrrl punk movement.
Black punks were unapologetic and in your face, and they had EVERY RIGHT to be. For example, Death, out of Detroit, was punk before punk had a name. They turned down signing with Clive Davis because they didn’t want to change their name. In their hometown, they were doing something different. While everyone was listening to Earth, Wind & Fire, Death took a more “aggressive” approach to rock and roll (The New York Times).
Punk and rock belonged to Black people just as much as they belonged to anyone else. Yet, somewhere down the line, things got diluted. Even in the Riot Grrrl era of the early 90s, when feminist bands led by women took hold and used the punk scene as a place to expose and fight patriarchy, Black women were often excluded. And maybe it was an “oversight,” but these things kept happening. It was as if the contributions of Black women were forgotten. This isn’t just a problem in punk music. Many music genres and cultural spaces from disco to rock are predominantly associated with white people despite the crucial role of Black musicians.
We can take rock music back to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry, and most definitely Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, who wrote the original “Hound Dog.” However, the song didn’t receive the recognition it deserved until Elvis Presley came along, and re-recorded it for white audiences (Diversity, Inc). Each of what Tharpe, Berry, and Thornton did lay the foundation for rock and roll as we know it today, and honestly laid the perfect foundation of what punk today is…this unapologetic attitude of being yourself and existing the way you are.
Luckily, Black women like Tamar-kali Brown, Simi Stone, Honeychild Coleman, and Maya Glick changed the narrative and started the Sista Grrrl Riots in NYC in the 90s. This was the place for Black women and other Black punks to be themselves, be free, and see the representation they were missing (Vice).
Black people have always existed in this genre. It’s just that everyone else has to catch up. And even a few decades later, this conversation is still alive and well. I have gone to many shows here in NYC over the past 10-12 years, including many punk shows. And maybe this isn’t shocking, but I am often the only Black girl in the crowd or one of the few people of color in general. While I feel welcome in the scene, there needs to be more done to fully embrace Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, to let them know there is a space for them, and to fully include them in this genre they created. Diversity in music scenes shouldn’t just be a box that’s “checked off,” it’s a necessity.
Now I am thankful for the work of organizations like Black Rock Coalition, who “represent a united front of musically and politically progressive Black artists and supporters” (BRC), and the Mad Collective, which is a POC punk collective focused on uplifting unheard voices in punk (Instagram). And, of course, the Sista Grrrl Riots, who put Black women at the forefront instead of in the shadows.
This is part of decolonizing the scene and making it more inclusive and safer for all artists and listeners. And that’s something we should all be working towards in all the spaces we’re in, whether it’s a house show or a neighborhood. The issues with the lack of inclusion in music aren’t just in the punk scene — they’re part of a broader issue. The question remains: will folks listen to the solutions and actually implement them?
• Black people laid the foundation for not just rock but all popular music.
• Punk is a sub-genre that is about being against the status quo, being unapologetic, and being yourself.
• If we are to decolonize music, we have to include Black people in punk and not forget their accomplishments.