THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
No one really can say exactly when the first wave of youths, so beautifully alienated, endlessly bored, and creatively inclined found the rules of society too much to bear. Yet over and over again, a new generation of kids enters that awkward stage of their lives when they’re just barely old enough to know better and taking stock of their plight. They see a world where they just don’t fit, a future not of their dreams, and a road that leads to nowhere. But in fact, it's in these kinds of expressions that counterculture movements are born again.
So when we talk about punk rock and its coat of many colors, there is a kind of continuum, from the '70’s American skate punks to the U.K.'s Camden Market mohawked scenesters, to the '80’s post punk and explosive hardcore waves, to ’90’s metal grunge, to the afro punk of the early aughts, all the way up to today’s anti- influencer next wave hardcore rockers. And special thanks to the gods of rock, because we just can’t think of a time when we all could use a little punk rock more than right now.
It’s as if those voices of alienation haunt us like ghosts of the counterculture’s past, providing our youth with all the angst they need to rip up their tee shirts, get a couple of piercings and tattoos, pick up a guitar and start shredding. So with all this in mind we say never mind the mainstream and let's celebrate punk rock and its various expressions as it finds new voices in the 21st century.
By the time James Spooner coined the term AfroPunk in 2003, the scene that came before him just wasn’t punk enough, wasn’t true to the complicated identity he was grappling with. He sought to carve out a subgenre by examining the plight of African Americans in the hardcore scene; a culture that in many ways celebrates whiteness. "I started to get angry at the punk scene that raised me. I felt there were important things that were being left out. I think it's important to state as a backbone disclaimer that all of my politics and self-identity started in punk roots at 15. However, being a vegan and a political progressive of color, and like, being a 16-year-old feminist that was down with gay rights, the punk scene just wasn't addressing my needs. And it wasn't really addressing my needs as a black dude."
Through his documentary film AfroPunk, he gave a voice to those who couldn’t find a place in a world culturally dominated by hip hop, yet suffered nonetheless from their minority status even within the punk scene itself. Watching AfroPunk in 2019, it's astonishing how far removed today’s festivals are from the movement’s original intentions, yet Spooner, now in his early 40's, speaks to how important the continuation really is, especially because as he says, “The kids still need this.” Read our complete interview with James Spooner here.
And taking a deeper look into black identity in the punk scene, we head down to South Africa where Karabo Mooki has been photographing skate punks in the township of Soweto. “Off of their boards, all they wanted was to express themselves through an alternative medium. They are D.I.Y to the core, from filming and documenting their street skate missions in the gnarliest parts of the hood to getting the crew together to build their own concrete ramp to skate. They even recorded their first album with a cellphone when studio time was unaffordable and uploaded it to SoundCloud. Music was the gateway. Punk is the drug. Their love and knowledge of punk rock stems deep, listening to some of the greatest black musicians to ever start and influence punk rock culture.” See Dogg Pound Days and the whole portfolio of words and images here.
But when it comes to rule breaking blitzkrieg bop, we also have to give the ladies their due, because unsurprisingly, as with most art and industries, punk was extremely male dominated. Eventually women became visible in the punk movement, because Suzi Quatro, Joan Jett, Alice Bag, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Wendy O. Williams, and Siouxsie Sioux demanded not only to be heard, but also to be seen. They dressed how they wanted, thrashed on stage, and raged against the machine, making them the punk pioneers of their time. Fast forward to 2019 and a couple of Catholic school girls on Staten Island who grew up listening to Fugazi, Distillers, Hole, and Bikini Kill, making anonymous Tumblr blogs dedicated to the ethos of punk and hardcore. Meet Jigsaw Youth.
“We wanted a way to express ourselves, so we did something out of the box,” Nastacha, the lead singer said. “There really weren’t a lot of all girl punk bands that were 16 or 17-year olds on Staten Island and if there were, it was a pretty taboo idea. Especially because I was going to a Catholic high school and nobody was playing punk in their school girl uniforms all cut up.” So how do we know if we are practicing the art of punk rock sufficiently for our angsty modern times? “Punk is a life style as well as a state of mind. Being punk means you don’t have to conform to anything. You can do what you want and feel what you want. Punk is having a voice for those who have trouble finding the words they want to say.” A perfect approach in a world that often leaves us speechless.
We can’t talk about women in punk rock without talking more about Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman for the 90's punk band Bikini Kill and a founder of the Riot Grrrl movement. She made it her mission to change taught gender norms in a way that you couldn’t escape—through her extremely amped up microphone. And of course, though the road was paved by all of the pioneering punk women that came before them, we can credit Bikini Kill for bringing the Riot Grrrl movement to the forefront of the music scene.
By being vocal about their political views, Bikini Kill claimed the stage in the punk rock scene, sparking a revolution in yet another male dominated industry. They were loud and unapologetic. Hanna was infamous for writing words like SLUT and PROFIT and RAPE all over her body in red lipstick while wearing babydoll dresses; she confused people. She’d often take her shirt off as she performed and call all the girls to the front of the stage. Unsurprisingly, these were actions that the mainstream music media, not to mention the general public, were not fans of. A famous article once even warned the public that Hanna and her Riot Grrrls were “here and coming for your daughters.”
Essentially, Hanna and Bikini Kill did everything the guys did…and then some. Bikini Kill allowed women to be sexual and serious. They could dress any way they wanted and protest against issues like sexual assault at the same time. Their music encouraged women to invade the world once only assigned to men. They demanded to be in the mosh pit; they’d get on stage and rage against the machine.
They’d thrash on their guitars in plaid skirts and ripped jeans, howling lyrics like, “White boy, don't laugh, don't cry, just die!/ I'm so sorry if I'm alienating some of you/Your whole fucking culture alienates me.” They didn’t care about offending people, they had something to say, and the world was going to hear it. Kathleen Hanna became the face of the movement, this change in how women were to be perceived in music. And the influence still weighs heavy today in the hearts of punk rock girls around the world.