“WTF is punk?”: AFROPUNK bands fight for the genre’s soul, and for our communities
By Nathan Leigh
August 27, 2017
Though the 3 ‘S’s—Solange, SZA and Sampha—may grab the headlines at AFROPUNK Fest 2017, the beating heart of the festival—anchored by a string of young bands hellbent on changing the world—remains the punk stage (sorry, the pink stage). It’s a juxtaposition of veteran artists (The 1865, Burn), and newcomers like The Txlips, Ho99o9, and Pay To Cum who shake the scene to its core.
We spoke to some of the hardest bands paying the festival this year, and though everyone had their own definition of punk, one thing became clear: the future is being forged right here.
“I honestly think there’s about to be a revolution in punk.” – Travis from Pay to Cum
“I always play on the floor. It’s rare if I actually stay on stage. Being close to people; I want them to be able to touch me. I want to be able to touch them. Just being that close to the people and not separating myself from the people. They can’t kick you off the stage if you’re not standing on the stage.” – B L A C K I E
“Anybody can make music right now. If you have $100 you can get an interface and a mic. If you got a computer you can just put it out there. So punk is going to continue to be the most raw form. Anyone can make it. You’re going to continue to see so many faces. It’s not going to be just one thing.” – Guitar Gabby from The Txlips
Since our primordial punk ancestors first crawled out of their garages to rage against injustice, the question of what punk actually is has never really been answered. And it shouldn’t be. Punk has been declared dead annually since 1978; each subsequent generation crawls full-formed from the shed skin of the bands they admired before promptly killing. Nearly every punk has had a moment when they look around a scene they used to rule and thought “man, this shit has changed.” And here’s the thing: that’s sort of the point.
“Kids are always going to be down to say ‘fuck the rules,’ so it’s always going to be a thing. Just like hip-hop is always going to be a thing. As soon as it gets too old or gets too dogmatic or too many rules get in place, then the next younger people are going to say fuck all those rules. There’s always going to be a need, especially for younger people, to break rules.” – B L A C K I E
“If you love it and hate it, that means you’re genuinely invested in it for better or worse. It’s always going to be a part of you no matter what.” – Ace Mendoza, guitarist for Pure Disgust
The aging straight white necrophiliacs desperate to disinter the body of GG Allin for one last thrill missed the point: punk isn’t about being offensive. It’s about liberation. The confusion comes from the fact that the liberation of marginalized people will always be offensive to those who oppress them. There’s nothing liberating about a straight white dude spouting the same shit as the goddamn president for the lulz.
If that’s not reinforcing the already extant societal power dynamic, I don’t know what is. True liberation is seizing your voice and being heard. The first punk song wasn’t by The Ramones or The Sex Pistols or Patty Smith or even Death. It was the song Haitian revolutionaries sang in 1804. It was the hymn Nat Turner sang to himself under his breath on his last night in Jerusalem. The Ramones were 150 years late to the game.
“It feels like freedom. It feels like liberation. It feels like being unadulterated. It sounds like people who have something to say who weren’t getting to say it. And now they found a way to channel it. It’s the misfits, the outcasts, and everyone who weren’t a part of the ‘cool’ making their cool.” – Creature, singer from Rebelmatic
“Always keep pushing boundaries, to me it’s about pushing boundaries, not being the norm. Not doing what other motherfuckers are doing. Constantly pushing boundaries. Punk has always been for the youth. As long as we got the youth alive and stay level headed–or not level headed–yo that shit will be alive forever.” – TheOGM from Ho99o9
I’ve seen a 19-year-old trans woman whisper over her acoustic guitar with more punch than a thousand Marshall half stacks. And I’ve seen more quartets of bearded dudes blasting through anonymous Black Flag knockoffs that have less in common with punk rock than Kenny G than I could ever hope to count. So what the fuck is punk?
“It’s an extreme sense of self-expression. It can be tiresome if it’s all you’re investing your energy into, but it can also be therapeutic because it allows you to really be your true self without a personal filter—whether it be good or bad.” – Ace Mendoza, guitarist from Pure Disgust
“It’s loud. It’s fast. It’s vile. It’s disruptive. It’s something your parents want you to turn off if they hear you playing it too loud.” – Yeti Bones from Ho99o9
“It’s freedom of expression. Anything. DIY. Do it yourself. Just be you. Don’t follow anyone else. Just do your thing.” – Gary The Tall, DJ for the Pink Stage
The one thing each band kept coming back to was representation. There’s something unmistakably powerful about seeing yourself reflected on stage and realizing you have a voice. For punk to survive, and to realize its potential, it has to be a platform through which kids can find their voices and enact change in the word outside the scene. Everything else is aesthetics.
It’s no surprise that almost every band had a story about the first time they heard Bad Brains. It’s no surprise that Saturday’s set on the Pink Stage opened with a band called Pay To Cum and ended with Ho99o9 doing a blistering take on “Attitude.” This shit matters. This shit is revolutionary. Change may start slowly, but once it catches, it becomes an avalanche. Welcome to the avalanche.
“It’s white. Very white. But that’s changing, clearly. Just with the bands today, it was cool seeing that many people of color fronting bands. I get that it’s hard to do something that you’re not comfortable with, but I wish people would take that step… [Scared of] not seeing your own representation there, so you aren’t compelled to do something that you don’t see yourself in. But that one person’s step can be someone else’s step.” – Rob Watson, singer for Pure Disgust
“My first show was CB’s in ’89. I saw Murphy’s Law. The next week I saw Sick of It All. But the band… You all know where I’m going with this: ’89 Quickness tour. Bad Brains.” – Creature, singer for Rebelmatic
“Out here today, it’s just dope to see this many black people in general. I’ve never seen this many black people at a festival. It’s just fucking sick.” – B L A C K I E
*Photos by Mel D Cole