afropunk interview: hxlt, on race and perception
By Nathan Leigh
June 21, 2019
Nigel Holt is a born non-conformist. The Chicago singer-songwriter/producer who records and performs as HXLT started his music career rapping in the aughts — you may remember him as Hollywood Holt — and has since evolved into an artist who blends punk and hip-hop with an uncompromising edge. On the rap scene, he was a misfit because he was an early adopter of the tight jeans and band tee look that would become de rigeur when rap stars reimagined themselves as rock stars. On the punk scene, his unapologetic Blackness made him a rarity.
Now, with a new project on the way that speaks to these experiences, AFROPUNK sat down with him to chat about his new single, and got a full-on punk rock history lesson in the process.
Talk to me about the new single, “AllMyFriends.” Is it part of a new album?
To me, it was the perfect first song because it just kind of gave you an idea of what the album is going to sound like. Because my sound is usually all over the place. It’s got a lot of the hip-hop shit, a lot of the punk shit.
When does the record come out?
Either [at] the end of July or [in] August. We haven’t set a specific date yet, but like definitely by August.
The song has some serious resonance to it. It’s explicitly about gun violence in America and it seems like there’s a lot about the sort of false allure or sexiness of gun violence. I grew up in the ’90s where every music video was glorifying guns, and you make guns look, for lack of a better word, boring.
Yes! My goal for this video was to show to that it’s over-fucking-done. I wanted to play on people’s assumptions. I wanted people to see all the guys behind my head and they can be like, “oh he thinks he’s being cool with all these fucking guns and shit.” And then at the end of the video, it reveals that the people with the guns, are actually the fucking cops right behind me. I’m glad you picked that up.
In all those scenes, you’ve got this pleading look on your face.
In this video, the specific idea is that as Black people, we don’t get to have those normal feelings and do normal stuff. You can’t even fathom that a kid is driving around looking for locations to shoot a video in the first place. The story is about that kid driving around in a nice car, looking at specific spaces and we have a tripod. We’re looking for a spot where we can shoot something and like project video on the wall somewhere.
But all White people see is the tripod, and think it’s a gun. So in their mind, what this scene is is me pulling the shotgun out, swinging it and all of that. And it’s really to say we can barely just be ourselves doing normal shit, let alone doing something like being Black and looking for a spot for a video shoot. A White kid who, you know, goes through college and they’re in an art program has the ability to go stand in front of a city building and take photos and not be bothered, right? Whereas they looking at us like “what the fuck y’all doing?”
Visually I wanted to play with how White people perceive guns. Like the fact that I’m Black and I got this music video and you see guns, you instantly assume that those [people with] guns are hood n****s. And that’s bullshit because if the fucking Red Hot Chili Peppers did that, you wouldn’t. So if we ran into some censorship issues with it I would be able to find these loopholes, it’s like, “y’all don’t even know that they’re cops’ guns.”
Every TV show and movie shows armed cops. That always passes censors just fine.
It was just funny, man, because I was talking about this with my wife. She likes to watch these fucking horrible reality TV shows and shit and I have a two-year-old son who’s started to pick up every single word we say. So we gotta watch what we say. So I’ll be listening to some music and you know, somebody might throw a “bitch” in there and he’s saying it to my wife and I go, “oh, sorry, sorry” and then she’ll turn on these TV shows. And it’s just so funny to me the amount of hard censorship on music, especially Black music, but then you’ll turn on “Vanderpump Rules” and they’re just like calling each other all kinds of shit. Like every single second word is bleeped out. It’s hypocrisy.
Well, it’s not just hypocrisy. Do you remember like the early ’90s censorship trials? That was all about the suburban White audiences consuming Black music and protecting them from like the language it contained. It had nothing to do with protecting your kids, you know what I’m saying?
Exactly. Remember they made me on my first album, they made me censor a fucking word like “kill” or some shit. And I’m like I can find that shit on the radio all day long with any white band. I got signed to Kanye. I made a whole album. They wanted me to hip-hop it up a little bit more. I wasn’t fucking with it. So my mentality now is completely different. I don’t give a motherfuck about nobody being offended, being scared. Now, I’m not saying I’m purposely offending. I’m just like, Yo, this is what the fuck it is and I love this shit.
Yeah. That’s the key difference. Not to completely change the subject, but when I hear older cats go on about GG Allin — who I fucking hate — and go “that’s real punk. These new kids aren’t punk anymore cause they’re afraid of offending people.” There’s a difference between being the GG Allins of the world or the Glenn Danzigs of the world where your goal is to push buttons and offend, versus the Dead Kennedys of the world, where your goal is to say the truth and if the truth happens to offend people, fuck them. Those are two very different things that I think in the punk scene especially, we really struggle to differentiate them. People are like, “how come the Dead Kennedys can say offensive shit, but it’s not cool when GG Allin does it?” Well, because the intention is different. The Dead Kennedys are just speaking the truth, and they don’t care if it offends you.
I came into the punk scene way different than anybody else. I just liked the music and I was like, “I don’t give a fuck, man.” I saw those [Black] kids who had conformed by the way they talked or by the way they dressed to feel like they’re part of the [punk] community. But my intention when I first got in [it] was to be like, look, you can be unapologetically Black and they will still fuck with you.
We came in whooping ass. Like I started this crew called Murder Club back in the day that’s nationwide now, but it was all people from different walks of life that got into this kind of shit, right? And we would go to shows and deal with some racist skinhead motherfuckers or other crews that were into racist shit a sarcastic way. Some fucking White kid from the suburbs just trying to do shock value and shit.
I mean that’s like the Black Dragons, who were sort of the French equivalent of the Panthers. In the late ’70s, early ’80s, that was their deal. They were part of the punk scene and they would go to shows and be like, “OK, so you’ve got an SS patch on. Cool. Meet me outside in the alley.” Right? Their whole deal was just cleaning up the punk scene.
Yeah, and the whole thing in the UK, you know, the term “skinhead,” it comes from people from The Bahamas and Jamaica and shit because they—
Really, bro, I’m about to put you on.
No, I had no idea. I’m 35. I’ve been into punk since I was 12 years old. Teach me, teach me.
See this is the thing. I’m not just into punk, I’m into every subculture within it. So back in the day there was a bunch of jobs that opened up in the UK and a lot of people from Pakistan and a lot of people from The Bahamas and Jamaica and would go to the UK to get these factory jobs. Right, right. So the term “skinhead” came from the people working at the mill who had to shave their heads.
‘Cause you know in Rasta culture, your hair is part of your religion. Your hair represents each year of your life. Right? But to get the factory jobs, you have to shave your head. You have to wear steel toe boots because they’re working with heavy machinery. You had to wear suspenders because belts get caught in machines. It’s for safety, right? And they had to shave their heads because your hair could get caught in the machines, and you get your fucking head sliced open. So the Black people would shave their heads and then come back to the neighborhood, and folks would be like, “oh, you’re a skinhead.”
No fucking way. I had no idea.
So this gets even doper. So the reason why the skinhead culture became a culture, it was during this time, there were the mods and the rockers, right? This is during the time of like Grease and all of that type of shit.
Right, right, right, of course.
So you either had your hair slicked back and you wear leather jackets and rode motorcycles or you were a mod with the brand new Vespa scooters wearing Italian suits, like English-cut Ben Sherman suits and whatnot. And they were all like super expensive. So you either fucked with that side, or you fuck with this side. The skinheads were lower middle class. These were factory job workers. So they would want to come out and party, but the only thing they could afford that was expensive would be a nice shirt. So they would buy a nice Ben Sherman shirt and everything else they wore was from work. So they wore their work pants, the suspenders, and their bomber jackets from work. And that’s where the look came from because the only thing they could afford was a nice Ben Sherman shirt.
And the reason why it became a whole culture is because of the bars in the mill towns where they worked. Think about it: there are Jamaican people, Pakistani people, English people, all of these different cultures. And so you go to the bar and what kind of music do you think you you hear? All kinds of shit! So you go to a skinhead bar and they’re playing fucking reggae and ska music and English rock. That’s where that shit came from. So people would start going to the skinhead bars because they were sick. But also skinheads are people who work in factories, and who are lower middle class usually. They’re tough as fuck too. So that’s where that whole idea came from. Right?
Now, what gave it the racist connotation? Because at first, any color was a skinhead. What gave it this whole racist connotation was the Falkland Islands War. Just like right now in the States, there’s all these fucking right-wing super racist, but smart politicians and they’re like, “OK, we can build an army of tough guys out of the skinheads because they’re not smart enough.” They played on the idea that they were just dumb workers and they would gas them up with nationalism. And so there was a big split between nationalist skinheads and normal skinheads.
No, I mean that’s literally what’s happening right now. Like that exact same dynamic is playing out here right now.
Right. So then they took the nationalist skinhead situation that was happening in the UK and amplified it by making it Nazi skinheads in America. And that’s why the term skewed. It instantly becomes Nazis in America, because America fucked it up.
That’s fucking amazing. I had no idea about that. I thought I knew my punk history, man. You just schooled me. That’s just tragic as all fuck though, the fact that a Black working class solidarity movement gets perverted into Nazi punks.
Yeah. Fucking crazy bro. Even though my head is shaved, I’ve never claimed that be a skinhead, but I’ll make sure I know all my shit. I remember when I first heard about AFROPUNK and I was like, you gotta be fucking kidding me, this is the best! This is when I had [my crew] Murder Club, and I felt like I was the only person in the punk scene that was trying to empower the Blackness in it instead of becoming part of that culture.
And I saw the documentary, the original documentary, and I was kinda mad like, what the fuck? Where are these people? Like, like, you know, succumbing to the pressures of all of the scene. And then they came to Chicago and I interviewed all of these punk kids from Chicago and try to change the narrative. And now it’s a whole fucking world. I’m like the most proud of that shit.
Yeah. It’s been wild watching this thing grow. Man, I thought I was asking you a couple of questions. You gave me a fucking dissertation.
I got a lot to say.
Yeah, no, I love it. That was amazing. So is there anything else you want folks to know about the shit you got going on?
Yeah, man. I want them to know this album that I’m about to drop was made in the hardest time of my life. I’m not saying like, “oh, you know, feel bad for me like that.” But I didn’t realize how wack life can get. Like I had people telling me to give up in a sense. I felt I went to the bottom of where I could be. I was at the rock bottom and I said, what’s in that box? Open the box. And it was me being this fucking musician that I am. And so I just put that armor on and now I’m really going to go fucking crazy. Now I’m really gonna put out a million fucking songs and shit. So this is the beginning of the goddamn firestorm. Like, dude, I don’t give a fuck how old I am. I don’t give a fuck where I’m from. None of that shit. I don’t give a fuck, bro. Like I’m coming through with lightning bolts and anybody that puts it down, I’m killing they ass.
So yeah, dude, prepare yourself for the fucking bomb, right?
I can’t wait to hear the rest of it.
Hell yes. Wait till you hear the song “Youth Attack,” bro. You’re going to go fucking crazy.
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