At its very surface, punk culture provokes images of rebellious suburban white kids sporting mohawks and studded leather jackets. When you hear the words hardcore or punk, perhaps you envision pissed off teens moshing to the barking and inverted screams of their idols. The music of the Sex Pistols and The Ramones have become quintessential to the punk experience and rightly so as they’re often credited as the founders of the genre. But it’s curious, and perhaps intentional that punk’s Black roots have been uprooted.
To fully understand punk’s Black roots, one has to go back to the era of garage rock, better known as the Sixties. Although not technically considered punk, it is undeniable that garage rock had the greatest direct impact on proto-punk and later, punk rock. Bands like The Sonics, The Kinks, the MC5, The Stooges, and The Velvet Underground set the precedent for what would be considered punk; but who preceded these bands? Where did these “original” and “groundbreaking” white artists get their inspiration from? Look no further than to early rhythm and blues — a Black genre. Individuals like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, known for their R&B and rock ‘n’ roll fusion inspired a generation of white kids who would later rework and repackage R&B into garage rock.
Nothing exemplifies this more than Wayne Kramer of the MC5’s recounting of the first time he heard Chuck Berry’s music; of Berry’s music Kramer states, “I was just flabbergasted at the velocity and energy of this guitar playing. I’d never heard anything like it. So I went on a hunt to find out who this person was, what was this song, and what was his deal. It literally changed my life.”
When considering R&B’s impact on punk, it is important to realize that music is cyclical and constantly evolving – this is not at all an attempt to discredit early garage bands who had a profound impact on punk, as they altered an outdated genre to appeal to a younger, and more mainstream (white) audience, an impressive feat. R&B also had its own influences from jazz to Afro-Cuban music — while these were still historically Black genres, it is important to understand that all music has its lineage.
With that being said, how did garage rock become punk? As garage rock ran its course and became increasingly played out, it seemed as though audiences were seeking louder, faster, and more visceral music. Their demands were met by the likes of the New York Dolls, Suicide, and later, The Ramones and the Sex Pistols. These bands had grown up on Berry’s R&B and matured during the height of garage rock — however, their music was more of a reflection and revamping of the latter.
During the 1950s to the 1960s, Britain experienced a wave of Jamaican immigration. Like any other immigrants, Jamaicans brought with them their culture, specifically, their music — reggae and dub. As the first generation of British-Jamaicans matured alongside their white British peers, a mingling of culture occurred; dub music met punk.
Don Letts, a British-born Jamaican was largely responsible for this intermingling of sounds. As a DJ at The Roxy, the first punk club in Britain, Letts spun mostly dub records, introducing the dub bassline to a predominately white punk crowd. These punks were highly receptive to dub music, and it showed. Compare The Slits’ 1979 hit “Spend, Spend, Spend” to any early dub record, and the similarities are uncanny. Not only did this dub-punk fusion change the British punk sound, it made its way across the Atlantic and manifested itself through a group of four punks from Washington, D.C. — the Bad Brains.
Long prior to the Bad Brains, there was Death — one of the first actual punk bands, which was exclusively Black. Formed in Detroit in 1971 by the Hackney brothers, Death played some of the loudest, fastest, and most politically motivated music of the time, paving the way for The Ramones who emerged 3 years later in 1974 and the Sex Pistols who formed nearly half a decade later in 1976. So why is it that Joey Ramone and Johnny Rotten are the posterboys for early punk and not Bobby Hackney?
A variety of factors are at play in regard to this question; however, perhaps the most significant is the fact that punk largely appealed to a white audience, at least in the United States. As a result, white youth most likely identified more with the Johnny Rottens and Joey Ramones of the scene who they perceived to embody their struggles more than a Black singer.
Back to the badass Bad Brains, in 1977, they became one of the most prolific and influential punk bands to date, pioneering what is considered hardcore punk. Through their blisteringly fast riffs, frontman, H.R.’s on-stage gymnastics, and their philosophy of keeping a positive mental attitude, or P.M.A., the Bad Brains completely changed the trajectory of punk.
So if Black people pioneered and heavily influenced punk, why is it sometimes associated with racism and white supremacy? This is a classic example of the few ruining something for the many. Like many movements before it, punk was misinterpreted and misconstrued to fit a radical narrative which it was never intended to. In the case of punk, this was exceptionally easy as the punk genre and subculture preach individual-thought and are based on essentially no guidelines. For this reason, punk is hard to define and characterize, making even to this day, anything remotely DIY or fast-sounding branded as punk.
Racists ran with this and used it as a new, effective way to spread their hateful agenda. The beginning of racists’ appropriation of punk can be traced to the Oi! subgenre which emerged in the United Kingdom during the late 1970s and aimed to unite punks, skinheads, and predominately white working class youth. Oi! was not explicitly racist, however, its appeal to the skinhead subculture, which was experiencing its own racist appropriation led to the emergence of genres like Nazi-punk, which went against everything punk originally stood for.
With this, British punk’s multicultural foundation faded, and racist punk began to gain traction, even spreading to the United States’ hardcore punk scene in the 1980s. Nazi-punks were not punks at all, as punk stood for equality and acceptance for all, and most notably, free-thought, which Nazism clearly rejects. Punks with a good grasp of the true punk ideology, including Henry Rollins of the California hardcore punk band, Black Flag realized this and acted against it.
Rollins regularly singled out racist skinheads and Nazi-punks in the audience at Black Flag shows; as stated by Rollins, “When I was able to get the audience to turn on [Nazi-punks], it was interesting to often see how upset that made them, like they had no idea how much people hated them. I found this approach to be effective. It’s not for me to instruct someone to go hit someone else, but if I can say something that makes everyone laugh at these guys, it empowers the right people and diminishes the right people.”
Black Flag’s contemporaries, Dead Kennedys expressed similar sentiments, but in a more forthright manner – by releasing a song simply called “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!” in 1981 — a very revealing title which reflected the Dead Kennedys’ and the majority of the scene’s attitude towards white supremacy threatening their subculture.
Above all — more important than Chuck Berry’s influence on The Ramones or Don Letts’ introduction of the dub bassline to The Slits is the fact that Blacks embody punk in its purest form. In a general ideological sense, punk is about rebelling against the mainstream and creating an underground community which embraces rejects and those who live outside of societal standards. Blacks have been forced to do this since their first encounter with the white man, who exploited them and appropriated their culture.
Ever since the concept of race was constructed, Blacks have been considered other and cast away from society. White punks can restyle their spiked hair into a combover and swap their studded leather jacket for a suit and tie and go on to live perfectly conventional lives, Black individuals do not have this luxury — the element of themselves which casts them apart from society is not a haircut or their wardrobe, but rather, the stigma and stereotypes which surround having Black skin. Black people are and have always been punk.
Throughout punk rock’s history, punk musicians have had to form underground touring networks to be able to play shows, as their music was deemed controversial and unsuitable for mainstream audiences. Black musicians also had to do this, but for far different reasons. Black musicians had to work outside of the music industry’s conventions not because they cut themselves on stage or spit on crowds (like many white punk bands of the time, i.e. Sex Pistols, G.G. Allin, etc), but because they were Black.
White punks could have easily changed their acts to be more tame, Black musicians could not change the color of their skin. Blacks have always been involuntarily cast outside of society and had to make do. Whites have cast themselves out of society through methods such as the punk movement. This is an important distinction.
In her 1978 song, Rock N Roll Nigger, Patti Smith sings “Outside of society, that’s where I want to be” in an attempt to equate her struggles as a White punk to those of a black individual, whom she refers to as a “nigger” — but her experience is very different from any Black individual. Outside of society is where she wants to be. Outside of society is where Black people are forced to be.