an oxymoron’s dream: the black skin head

November 3, 2010
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I have had the wonderful opportunity to interview Shaun McDaniel, a Black skinhead. Now, usually when people hear the term skinhead, the idea of an uber-racist Aryan Nazi-lover springs to mind and to hear of a Black skinhead appears very oxymoronic. Getting to hear McDaniel to tell his story definitely tell otherwise.

An Oxymoron’s Dream: The Black Skin Head

Ousted and called a traitor by his “hood,” McDaniel still Rocks

Words Black Witch

Raised in Jamaica, Queens of NYC, McDaniel felt the same way many Blacks in alt-culture had about their neighborhoods, out of place. His community saturated with mainstream hip hop, gangs, drugs and ghetto mentality, McDaniel did not want to follow what surrounded him and ensnaring the other youths in his neighborhood. He did indeed listen to some hip hop of the time such as Biggie Smalls and Nas but not much. He expressed, “In my community, people tried to be thugs at 10, 14, 15.” McDaniel saw the dead-end aspect that affected his hood and where it stemmed from. Consistently in music video after music video, rappers threw around jewels and objectified women but while McDaniel knew it wasn’t true, everyone else bit on the glamourized and incredibly false lifestyle of fast money, fast women and fast living. Besides hip hop, McDaniel was exposed to genres for his mother listed to smooth jazz and classics. However, he found his heart in the aggressiveness of punk.

It was a London friend that over in Howard Beach, Queens that introduced him to punk. McDaniel hung out in the Italian dominated neighborhood learning how to skateboard in his early teens. The friend said that enable to skate properly, one needs the right soundtrack. He gave McDaniel a mixtape with songs only a minute long. The songs sounded like rambling at first but McDaniel really got into the anger and passion belted out in the music, even if it sounded like inaudible yelling. Those mixtapes were filled with well noted bands such as The Clash and The Ramones but McDaniel did not know it at the time, he just called it “angry people music” and appreciated it for what it was.

Around thirteen or fourteen years old, McDaniel grew deeper into punk and so did his look. Black Flag “My War” was his anthem but he was a Black kid in a private Catholic school. Embracing the DIY nature of punk, McDaniel would modify his school uniform and wear a trench coat with combat boots, mimicking his punk friend but the worlds they lived in were very different for he was Black and the friend was White. As expected in any Black alt-circles, McDaniel caught plenty of criticism from the Black community and became an outcast outside the monolith.

Instead of bending to harsh words and actions, McDaniel simply built a home base in Howard Beach enable to retain access to his hardcore punk music since he couldn’t buy it in the record stores of Queens or even in mainstream stores. Where McDaniel caught disdain from Blacks in his own neighborhood, the White punks of Howard Beach were no better. Because McDaniel is Black, they thought he was an automatic poseur because they believed “Black people aren’t into Punk.” McDaniel found that his London friend, now his best friend, had ordered his music from punk magazines. While McDaniel dove deeper into the music, the friend had already moved on from punk to strictly skating.

During high school, McDaniel stopped skating but he found more freedom and also more anger towards the world around him. He developed his own punk style by splashing bleach on his jeans when his mother was at work, write on his t-shirts, wear bike chains around his waist, cut his hair super short with one side shaved off and write words like “damaged” on the side of his head. Occasionally to piss people off, he would write 666 on the side of his head as well.

The first show that McDaniel ever went to was in Long Island and hosted in a dive bar. When he first showed up, he was stunned by all the nicer, more reputable clothes the other punks wore such as leather biker jackets with studs which were notably expensive and far too pricey for him. Since McDaniel did not have the “proper” punk wear, he was thought of as a poseur and all eyes were on him. McDaniel said he felt humbled by that experience but also rejected. Ultimately, McDaniel felt that he was better than the punks he saw at the show for he did not care about the clothes, he cared about the music and studied it like a scholar.

McDaniel had soon developed a crew called the Anarchy Boys. It were all boys except for one goth girl and McDaniel described the group ideals to “fight for what we believe in, let no one brand us.” Instead of letting others brand him, he branded himself and with fire. At the age of fifteen, McDaniel had given himself his first branding on his wrist, the anarchy logo. He gotten the idea from African tribes and believes it to show his dedication to the punk lifestyle because punk equaled life to him. Hardcore punk carried a political, street mentality that McDaniel could relate to and he felt that the genre was a lot more than mousse hair and a studded jacket.

McDaniel was about eighteen or nineteen and attending a show he had seen a group of English guys who covered in tattoos but very clean cut and well respected in the club. No one ran into them or disrespected them; they looked like nerds who could rough up anyone. They held McDaniel’s eye but he never went up to speak to any of them…until he saw one walking down the street one day.

Enchanted by the straight edge and clean cut look, McDaniel had approached the man and asked him about his look. The clean-cut looking man replied, “I’m a skinhead” and McDaniel was taken aback. He thought the same thing everyone else did about skinheads: that they were racist and Nazis. Perplexed, McDaniel did some research and listened to a song the clean-cut skinhead had given him titled “Skinhead Moonstomp,” which was a mixture of ska and reggae. McDaniel described being astounded by the beats of the music and decided to dig deeper again.

What McDaniel found was that skinheads were actually anti-racist (the skinhead he had met donned a Unity tattoo) and sought to remove Nazis and neo-Nazis. He quipped, “People that say that they’re nazis or hate another race or type of people don’t have a place in this scene.” Around the age of twenty-one and twenty-two, the social times had changed. What was considered outcast of the Black monolith such as wearing skinny jeans and mohawks were now accepted but still McDaniel felt like an outcast in the Black and Punk community. When speaking with the punks that he did meet, often he would be told that real punks don’t work or hold down jobs, they runaway and live on the street if not squat somewhere. McDaniel thought of those notions as foolish for he worked a job to help his mother with the bills. Once he had met a punk who was living on the street but had a Blackberry that his parents supplied him but still affirmed that he held true to the ideals of a “real” punk. Already McDaniel grew more and more disillusioned about what true punk was but he could tell it definitely not what was sitting in front of him chatting away on an expensive smartphone.

The first Black skinhead McDaniel met was walking down the street with yellow laces in his boots, in his 40’s and an NYC old guard punk from the ‘80’s. His name was Joe. McDaniel stuck to him strongly and Joe became his mentor. He had straightened up Mc Daniel’s look, which was sorely needed at the time, and gave McDaniel a special piece of advice: “When you see a Black in the alt scene, talk to them. If they’re a freak, make them your friend. Don’t shun them.” It is also from Joe had McDaniel learn about S.H.A.R.P. – Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice – and the NYC chapter although plenty of the original members had dispersed. Joe taught McDaniel the dress code of a Sharp: White laces were for nazi, red laces meant communist, the American flag was always on the right arm, the pins were always precise and the Sharp should always look sharp, never show a sloppy appearance, to name a few.

While McDaniel had found his calling, the Black community were calling him names among other things. He have been called a “Black Nazi”, “traitor”, “American History X guy”. Even when McDaniel explained himself and what he believed he was still called a racist. He’s been jumped by gangs and Nazis alike while walking the street, feeling only safest when alone. While McDaniel wasn’t a racist, this is not to say other skinheads were not. Just like in the punk scene or any other musical scene, there was a racial hierarchy. McDaniel described the racial hierarchy as: White skinheads were on top, then Latinos skinheads, then Black or Jewish skinheads and the rest were referred to as “mixed breed.”

The skinhead culture McDaniel expresses is a “snobbish scene” because everyone tries to outdo each other in presentation, image is very important. Considered the elite of the punk rock scene, skinheads were deemed the most mature. Seen as the paramilitary of punk, skinheads were often in fights and very well respected. Often traveling in packs, skinheads can be judgmental but by the same token they are very brotherly. Since becoming a skinhead, McDaniel said his life changed for the better. Job offers, girls started talking to him, his life improved because of how he carried and presented himself. He said he had needed an upgrade and that was ascension from the average punk to a skinhead.

Being considered a skinhead meant having relations that stretched worldwide, which also meant running into Nazis consistently and fighting them. Despite the heavy political tones that being a skinhead carry, McDaniel decided to be apolitical because those differences caused fracturing in the group. He felt there was already enough disapproval from the outside world, there does not need to be any division within the group. When at the bar or socializing other skinheads, the rule is no talking about politics, just drink, be merry and have a good fight when together.

McDaniel, now 25, is still in the scene but not flying the flag, so to speak, since skinhead culture had became trendy and lost a bit of its touch. He says that from the outside, the culture looks angry but “it’s people letting out their frustrations the only way they knew how. It isn’t rambling, they were saying something.” Still fairly apolitical, McDaniel is part of one of the largest apolitical skinhead groups of New York City. He has seven brandings now including his first branding, one of the brandings saying “Tooth N Nail Skinhead.” He still wears his garb and has now been accepted by the Black and Punk communities but he had to fight for that respect. McDaniel joked, “I carry peace in my fist. I’ve been defending myself for my lifestyle or defending myself from my lifestyle.” He also expresses, “I’m drawn to this skinhead scene because of the working class roots.” He worked to help his mother pay the bills growing up so he grew attached to the music that sung for him and his life. A skinhead band called The Oppressed described McDaniel’s feelings best, “If you don’t live by the roots, hang up the boots.”

Although McDaniel has nothing but passion for the skinhead culture, he is not blind to the prejudice that still steeps deep in the culture as he described “there’s no median” for being Black and skinhead. What got him the respect he has now was the acknowledgement that he wanted to help – not harm – the scene…and it helped to be a nice person as well. To be Black and a skinhead, McDaniel said that “you gotta be crazier than the rest.” Enable to get accepted into his crew, he had to take a burning from a cigarette lighter. Usually it is taken on the hands or the lip but he preferred to be burned on his eyelid to prove his worth. And through and through he had shown that worth in his life, his ideal and in himself to be a Sharp and not taken undertow by the same influences that captivated his neighborhood. Much like any Afro-Punk, he has been misunderstood and consistently challenged but remain true to himself with a much fuller life and with a sense of humor.