When you think of punk rock, what comes to mind? Rebellion? Non-conformity? Resistance to the status quo? Hell, yeah! Yet nearly all punk musicians are white and male. Why is that? Is it true that only white men listen to punk rock? Can it be possible that only white men are rebellious? Or do we only tolerate rebellion when white males engage in it?
I decided to investigate. Surely black, female punk rockers exist. All kinds of people in this diverse world, right? But my diligent online detective work uncovered very few female, black punk artists. So I can’t help but wonder this: Do black, women punk rockers exist but we just don’t hear about them? Perhaps they’re hiding in their rooms, secretly rocking out, in a self-imposed exile, aware they won’t be accepted and afraid of coming out of the musical closet? How many gifted black, female punk musicians gave up their dreams long ago, thinking they’d never succeed? If black punk rockers are few and far between, black female punks are even more rare–a minority within a minority.
Death performing “Politicians in my Eyes” at Afropunk in 2013.
In 2003, the documentary, “Afropunk,” revealed that a punk rock band, “Death,” a band comprised of all African-American musicians, pioneered the punk genre in the early 1970s. Yep, before the Ramones and even the Sex Pistols came to life, there was Death. (Okay, bad joke…) Even more notorious during the mid-70s was a band called X-Ray Spex, fronted by vocalist Poly Styrene, who happened to be multiracial. Poly was loud, and abrasive, writing anti-authoritarian lyrics from a woman’s point of view:
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ian Dickson / Rex Features
“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think, ‘Oh, Bondage! Up yours!’”
In 2017, vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Honeychild Coleman performed at the Afropunk Festival with her band, “The 1865,” named after the year when legalized slavery was abolished in the United States. “We stopped picking cotton! Pick your own damn cotton!” she proclaimed onstage. Coleman is one of only a few contemporary outspoken black women in punk, but that could change.
“The Very Black History of Punk Music”
As multi-instrumentalist Shawna Shawnté, co-organizer of a Black and Brown Punk Fest in San Francisco, says:
“[W]hat people do that creates punk culture, say going on tour, booking your own tour through… an underground network—that’s what black musicians had to do because we weren’t allowed to play in the clubs… It doesn’t get more punk than that.”
“The 1865” performing (not picking cotton) at Afropunk in 2017.
Nashville band Bleed the Pigs is sometimes described as metal, hardcore, grind, thrash and/or punk. Lead singer Kayla Phillips is probably the most radical of the black, female punk artists I uncovered in my search. Her manic energy and aggressive presence takes control of the audience. They don’t have time to question whether she’s a black woman in a white man’s punk venue. She’s angry. Punk angry. And she can scream and growl like the best of ‘em! Watch out!
In an article Phillips wrote for Noisy, she writes:
“Everyone is right along with you… except when you’re a Black woman who fronts one of these rage-fueled, aggressive bands… The eye-rolling irony that I’m still cast aside as the Angry Black Woman in a scene that is made up of nothing but angry, pissed off, cast aside white men who sometimes use my own struggles for their own benefit isn’t lost on me… You absolutely don’t have to like the music I make, or what I sing about, but if you find yourself upset by my level of anger, and not the white guy saying something similar, I’m not going to be complacent and sugarcoat my frustration for you.”
Well… alrighty then!
More notable contemporary black, female-fronted punk bands uncovered by my online investigation include: