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Black Sky Thinking

How Emo & Pop Punk Are Becoming More Diverse, By Aliya Chaudhry
Aliya Chaudhry , October 12th, 2021 08:02

Aliya Chaudhry grew up being told that rock music wasn't for her. Yet in recent years, the emo and pop punk scenes she loves have started to become far more diverse, as she explores here with contributions from artists such as Pinkshift (pictured)

Like a lot of people who are drawn to rock music, I never really felt like I fitted in. I was raised in four different countries – the United Kingdom, Pakistan, the United States and Kenya – and to this day I struggle to put my cultural identity into words. For me, pop punk became my culture and community, my home. I’ve never felt a greater sense of belonging than I have bouncing up and down in time with a group of strangers at a show. Maybe naively, or maybe because rock music didn’t catch on in the same way in other parts of the world, I never felt like it wasn’t for me. I was so removed from the rock scene growing up that most of my sense of community was found online through Tumblr, where I interacted with fans like me – young women my age who liked pop punk – from around the world. I thought the amazing thing about music was that it connected people from vastly different backgrounds. I connected with pop punk’s themes of friendships, betrayal and even wanting to leave your hometown, even though I didn’t really have a hometown in the typical sense.

In the past few years, I’ve seen more bands with women and queer members, and in the past year, I’ve seen more POC at the forefront of rock music, especially as pop punk has blown up and re-entered the mainstream.

I struggle with how to talk about these changes every time I write about the current pop punk scene. Even though I am proud of the progress that has taken place, and feel as if it should be recognised, often when talking about that progress, those artists are immediately categorized by their identities. It feels like calling attention to and othering people for who they are instead of being inclusive and normalising seeing people from all backgrounds. It feels like tokenism, but it also feels wrong not talking about it. And unfortunately I don’t have any answers.

After the murder of George Floyd, support swelled for the Black Lives Matter movement and conversations surrounding race and diversity came to the forefront. A big focus for some of the conversations was how to better support Black art and art made by people of colour. As a result, many Black artists started gaining more traction. But while they were getting the kinds of attention they had been working hard towards, and that many artists dream of, they were put in a difficult position. “It was a blessing and a really bad thing at the same time because, after George Floyd and everything that happened last summer, there was a surge to support Black music over the internet. It really helped us because it kind of gave us a platform despite us being there all along, but it was behind something that was really bad. We don’t really know how to feel about it,” Téa Campbell from Meet Me @ The Altar told Upset Magazine.

Often being categorized by their race or identity, many artists’ work was discussed in a way that centered their identity instead of their music. They’re constantly asked to speak on their identity, the discrimination they’ve experienced – which is sometimes quite traumatic to speak about – and diversity in general, in a way that their peers from more privileged backgrounds are not. Even press coverage can sometimes focus on the difficult experiences these artists have had because of their background instead of their music. Artists from marginalised backgrounds are also put under a lot of pressure.

“Especially because we're a POC band that a lot of people start looking up to, I really hope that they're not expecting this extravagant group that has just emerged out of nowhere to be one of the torch bearers,” Paul Vallejo of punk band Pinkshift said.

The question shouldn’t be why now, but why not before? And instead of looking at the artists who have “broken through”, we should be examining the systems -- in the industry and media -- that have kept and are continuing to keep so many artists out.

Rock music was always by and for people of colour. In fact, most people trace rock’s invention back to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer Black woman, whose guitar playing set the blueprint for modern rock. Punk in particular was supposed to speak against oppression and elevate marginalised voices. Those values didn’t always come through when it entered the mainstream as pop punk. Even when it came to riot grrrl, a radical feminist punk movement, it failed to be inclusive of non-white women.

Fanbases have always been diverse, but that diversity was rarely reflected in the artists on stage until recently. Many people from marginalised identities relate to that feeling of being an outsider that is so intrinsic to pop punk – of not being enough, of not fitting in – not just as teenagers, but possibly even their whole lives, in a world that is set up to serve a very specific group of people.

While this current moment shows that huge strides have been made when it comes to representation, it’s hard to separate where it turns into tokenism. The narrative surrounding these changes also discounts the progress that still needs to be made.

“There have also been times I’ve felt like we were the token ‘girl band’ at a show and I personally have faced a spectrum of sexism,” Lily Cormack, vocalist for punk band Better Now, says. “I will say that although there has been effort made to make our music scenes more safe,” she adds. “There is still a lot of work to be done to make them more inclusive to women, POC, and LGBTQIA+ people.”

Many people are made to feel unwelcome in alternative spaces because of their race, gender, gender identity, sexuality or other aspects of their identity, mainly because of the men and white people who seek to keep those different from them out. Many fans have experienced racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination by other fans in scenes whose fashion was built off of white beauty standards (straightened hair, for example) and Western culture in general. On the other hand, many people, like me, were told by people within our communities (in my case, my peers who were women of colour) to not listen to rock music because it wasn’t for us.

I too am a woman of colour in pop punk at a time where women of colour are thriving in the genre. I too have benefited from the genre’s boom by getting opportunities to write about it that I never thought I would. But I hope we come up with better ways to discuss the ongoing changes in diversity. We’re already having important discussions about race, gender and sexuality in rock, but we’re not talking nearly enough about ableism or classism.

Part of the problem of this narrative that we’ve suddenly entered a more diverse era of rock music is that it flattens the progress that has taken place and that still needs to occur, and erases the people of colour and people of other marginalised backgrounds who have long since been a part of and even integral to the genre who often had their identities whitewashed, like Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz or My Chemical Romance’s Ray Toro. FeFe Dobson endured a lot of racism during her career, and her work and impact is seldom mentioned or talked about. Travie McCoy was not only a popular alternative artist of colour at a time where the genre was overwhelmingly white, and therefore was a figure that many fans and artists looked up to, but he also set the blueprint for combining rock and hip hop in a way that’s influenced today’s music. Seeing Jess Bowen, drummer for The Summer Set, was really important to me as a teenager. When I found out about bands like Meet Me @ the Altar and CHERYM last year, I felt so much less alone. In fact, it was finding out about other women journalists of colour who wrote about rock music that made me feel like I could do this too.

“I never thought that I could do something like that because that's usually what white boys do,” Myron Houngbedji from Pinkshift said. “With more people of colour, and more women, in these bands and on stages it makes people want to maybe try to do stuff like that.

This increase in diversity needs to be met with greater normalisation, especially in a scene that was always meant to be representative.

“I also just want to be a band,” Lauren Denitzio of the rock band Worriers said. “There doesn't need to be an adjective before us. We're just a band. And we've lucked out with the tours that we've been able to book, the tours that we've been able to be support on. I've never felt tokenized by the bands that have taken us out on tour at all. But I think that happens in how we're written about and how we're contextualised elsewhere.”

Artists want the music to speak for itself. And most artists are grateful for any attention that comes their way – even if it's linked to their identity - and some artists are more willing to speak about subjects like their identity and representation, but it should never be expected for them to shoulder the burden of representation. Hopefully, this is an in-between stage that’s only temporary and as the scene expands, artists won’t feel othered or have to speak on their identities unless they want to.

“We're doing this because we want to and it's fun,” Pinkshift’s Ashrita Kumar said. “We didn't come in here with the intention to represent every minority.”