AFROPUNK Anthology vol 2: Post-Punk is Black Music

March 27, 2024

“It’s time for the bright young things to rise”



The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people that anarchy is a synonym for chaos. 5 minutes into any organizing meeting, it’s clear that actual anarchism is an intensely structured process of making decisions without a hierarchy. And that only represents chaos to people deeply invested in being at or near the top of hierarchies. The early radical political energy that gave birth to the punk movement in the 70’s was quickly co-opted by the people who mistook the cries for anarchy as cries for chaos, and let loose. That chaos definitely gave birth to some great music, but it meant that by late 1977, there was already a brewing resentment within the scene at the way the promise of “punk” had become subsumed by the same white machismo as the rest of the rock landscape and lost its radical edge. It barely took a year for punk rock to spawn its first schism.



Post-punk as a genre has never been terribly well defined, and that’s kind of the point. The early punk rock movement quickly adopted a set of stylistic orthodoxies that have more or less persisted, but which have always been at odds with the spirit of rebellion. By the summer of ’77, bands were asking the question that’s plagued the scene ever since: if we’re all rebelling in exactly the same way, are we actually rebelling? If post-punk has a uniting quality it’s: “not that.”


Pushed to the margins by the wave after wave of wanna-be Johnny Rottens that had exploded in the wake of ’77, Black, femme, and queer voices in the scene began to organize around a different set of sounds and values. The freedom that punk promised had been squandered, and instead artists like X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, ESG’s Scroggins sisters, and Pauline Black of The Selecter started rejecting the increasing joylessness of punk orthodoxy. The result was a set of sounds that saw the liberation at the hearts of funk, reggae, jazz, and electronica as all part of the same radical front as punk.


“It ain’t nothin’, but some music
It ain’t nothin’, but some fun
And if I make you uptight
That’s ’cause you don’t know where I’m coming from”

– Betty Davis


From its inception, post-punk has been led by Black femme artists more than any of punk rocks many offshoots. Unlike punk rock which defined itself against the excesses of mainstream rock but still joined forces with the mainstream in condemning disco, post-punk understood that the dance hall was its own kind of rebellion. Where punk rock’s dire nihilistic streak became a central aesthetic choice for many in the scene, post-punk became the umbrella for artists who understood that in the face of oppression, dancing is an act of rebellion. Artists like Grace Jones and Betty Davis were held up as luminaries as radical as anything coming out of CBGB’s. The queer culture that had given early punk rock its look began to ask for its change back. The four-to-the-floor beat that straight white punk dudes held up as a sign of unforgivable poppiness instead became a cornerstone of the genre.


Like all punk subgeneres, post-punk has itself divided and subdivided into infinite strains, from dance punk to electroclash to industrial to goth. All of these scenes owe their existence to the first wave of Black femme artists who understood punk not as a sound but as a mindset. The energy of that initial wave of radical reinvention continued as Skunk Anansi, Tamar Kali, and Neneh Cherry found new ways to ask the same questions. By the early 2010’s, the post-punk revival kicked into full gear and never looked back. With artists like Nova Twins, Debby Friday, and Hey, Baby leading the charge in the 2020’s, the rebellion against punk orthodoxy has never been fiercer, more fun, or more radical.