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Black Sky Thinking

Why A Punk Fest Celebrating People Of Colour Is Needed In 2017
Stephanie Phillips , May 30th, 2017 09:33

The history of punk is filled with genre-defying people of colour who have created new ways of approaching music, but they rarely get their fair due. This must change, argues Stephanie Phillips. Photo by Elise Rose

As I write this the first ever UK punk festival created by and for people of colour looms on the horizon; Decolonise Fest is nearly here. Organised solely on the lofty dreams of forward-thinking punks and a whole lot of determination, the Decolonise Fest collective have created a festival that showcases the people of colour at the forefront of the UK DIY punk scene.

The idea for the festival came about when, enamoured with the creativity I saw sprouting in fellow punks of colour and frustrated with the DIY scene’s non-approach to tackling racism (punks can wax lyrical about veganism or anarchy but mention race and you can hear a pin drop), I posted on social media about potentially organising a festival by us and for us. My post soon came to fruition and on 2nd to the 4th June at DIY Space for London, Decolonise Fest will showcase bands such as Divide and Dissolve, Sacred Paws and The Tuts alongside art exhibitions and workshops all weekend. After a year’s planning and a lifetime wondering why this event wasn’t already here for us to enjoy, the Decolonise Fest team is ecstatic to see our baby coming to life, but we know others may not feel the same way.

For those who have no experience of being a person of colour the fact that this event is even happening may come as a surprise. Why would anyone need a punk festival for people of colour in 2017? What does race have to do with the music you listen to? Why are you complaining, isn’t racism over? You might be reading this thinking the very same. Well despite your misgivings I can explain why WE ALL need a festival dedicated to the music of people of colour, today more than ever.

Looking back at the snotty, gob-throwing days of the late 70s punk scene in the UK you might at first think the stories of punks of colour ended with Poly Styrene, lead singer of the effervescent X-Ray Spex. Of course, delve a little deeper and we find other bands such as Alien Kulture, a majority Pakistani Muslim punk band who formed in the late 70s in defiance of Thatcher’s 'fears' of being swamped by new cultures. Even going back to the roots of punk you’ll find Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer black female guitarist who combined the fire of gospel preaching with the soul of early blues to devise the earliest form of rock & roll.

No matter where you look in history you can find stories of people of colour going against the norm to either add to genres previously considered white or create whole new spaces for themselves. We are there but our stories are fragmented across history. There is no linear narrative to this narrative because as with all history it is written by the dominant culture who, whether with malice or ignorance, repeatedly seek to prop up their own achievements forgetting to acknowledge the black and brown people who inspired or helped them along the way. It’s why the Sex Pistols had two documentaries made about them but a Poly Styrene documentary is only just in the making and had to be crowdfunded by her family.

Without a continuous archive or reference point for a new generation, influential artists such as Poly Styrene, ESG, Betty Davis and Death can be lost to history. Simultaneously, without a reference point, tomorrow’s potential artists might never pick up an instrument, unaware punk was made by them too. Decolonise Fest can be the linear structure that links the two generations and repositions pivotal musicians of colour back in the upper echelons of history where they belong.

The most obvious reason why we need this festival in 2017 is because ... well look at the world around us. We’re living through a truly dangerous and destructive time. Racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia continue to rear their ugly heads, even in our beloved music spaces. In 2012, The Tuts were assaulted in a South London venue, Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo saluted and shouted “white power” at a gig in 2016. Even during the early years of punk many white punks, like Siouxsie Sioux, wore swastikas in a clumsy attempt to be controversial.

I’ve been playing in bands for six years now and while we receive support from many white punks there have also been many uncomfortable moments. When I started playing in bands I was always one of a handful of people of colour in the scene. A member of the crowd thanked another black girl at my gig assuming she was me (she didn’t look anything like me if you’re wondering); I had to ask a white girl standing in the crowd to change her shirt which read “I will never be a slave”. Many other punks of colour can list of the number of quasi racist microaggressions they’ve had to deal with over the year. First is the look of shock on people’s faces when you tell them actually your main love is hardcore punk rather than grime. That one will always raise a few eyebrows and perhaps even a challenging interrogation from those who consider themselves to be the bastions of punk to determine whether he or she may be lying.

There is no magical barrier that stops racism from entering DIY venues. Wherever there is a group of majority white people living in a racist society you’re guaranteed to find racism. Not only does it affect the way you live your life it also takes a toll on your self-worth. This is where punk can come in and why it's vital for more people of colour to get their chance to engage with it. Punk and specifically being DIY gives you the chance to look at the world around you and realise that you don’t have to consume the given culture but you can create your own. In this feeling there is freedom from pre-subscribed rules; a freedom that people of colour have always needed the most.

Decolonise Fest takes place between 2nd and 4th June at DIY Space for London. For more information visit the Facebook event page and buy tickets here