Black Punk, Feminism And LGBQT+ Values: Big Joanie Interviewed

From touring with Bikini Kill to conversing with the Raincoats, Big Joanie explore in depth their personal experiences between the nexus of black feminism and punk, says Laviea Thomas

All portraits by Ellie Smith

Big Joanie play Supersonic Festival in Birmingham on Saturday July 20

Being black, female and queer is inherently political. Feminist trio Big Joanie simultaneously tackle this in their music and personal politics. They are a stepping stone into what was once a white-male dominant field, Big Joanie are at this moment in time stringing together a foundation of security and diversity in punk. Sharing influences from alternative rock and post punk, such as Poly Styrene, The Raincoats, and Bikini Kill, the forever evolving three-piece are evangelical activists for representing people of colour both within and outside the LGBQT+ community.

Big Joanie formed in London in 2013 around the core of Stephanie Phillips, Chardine Taylor-Stone and original bassist Kiera Coward-Deyell (Estella Adeyeri joined in 2017), in order to play the self-explanatory First Timers gig event.

They have since dropped the SistahPunk EP (2014) and their 2018 debut studio album Sistahs on the Daydream Library series. Merging funk tendencies, with grunge power chords, Sistahs has a range of political, feminist messages. Being your third and fourth generation of black Brits, Big Joanie are reclaiming the ideologies surrounding the means of punk.

Individually putting a shift in their involvement with political poc activism, drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone has been keeping busy with herself established movement London Stop Racism Campaign. While vocalists Stephanie Phillips and Estella both devote free time to panel talks, articles and staying very much involved with today’s media coverage.

Is black feminism something that’s always been a part of your lives?

Stephanie Phillips: I don’t know, I think I’ve always thought about feminism but I wasn’t brought up knowing about what it was. I thought about those different aspects [of life] and didn’t really realise there was a word for it. It wasn’t till I was a teenager and learnt about riot grrrl that I learnt about feminism. Then later when I was in my late 20s, I joined a black feminist group, I learnt about the wider ideas about black feminism and what that meant, and how it was a proper practice and what it involved. But I think it takes a while to learn those histories because it was never really taught in the UK, or anywhere else.

Chardine Taylor-Stone: I think I’m sort of the same really. I mean I’ve been involved with activist stuff since I was very young. It’s an interesting question, because you’re aware of yourself and your status as a black woman anyway, so then, when you start reading black feminist work, it’s just articulating what you already know. So, I think in that sense, yes? Because we’ve always had that thing in black women’s empowerment in our culture.

Estella Adeyeri: it’s very much the same for me. When I came across black feminist texts, that was when I found there were a lot of women who had written extensively and put names to things that maybe were experiences, I’d recognised but hadn’t really known how to talk about. But I don’t think I came across the term or the concept until I was about 18 and went to uni. I was studying politics and philosophy and we did a module on women’s movements, we looked at a movement that was about women in Nigeria, that was the first thing that got me into looking at other texts in the library. At the same time, it was around the time black feminists were becoming prominent on Twitter. I started following people and learning that way, and reading these discussions of issues that I hadn’t heard before, it was kind of putting a name to something I [only] knew a bit about.

What movements other than punk do you think are giving people of colour a place of freedom of expression?

SP: I think there are a lot! I think there are a lot of different ways [for us] to express ourselves and express our politics. I think a lot of people are being more political, a lot more honest about what’s going on in our lives. Big Joanie isn’t one band in a scene, it’s a lot of different bands. Also, it only started because there was [an absence of that type of voice] in black feminism so we thought we have a right to do something about this. There was a lot happening in the black feminist scene so we thought, ‘Oh why can’t we have this in punk?’

CT-S: Well it happens in waves doesn’t it? What’s necessary at that time to express ourselves in that way. We’ve always done different genres of music, jungle, grime, etc. But I think what tends to happen is things get commercialised, then they get lost and next thing you know we’ve got some white version of Dizzee Rascal, or something.

SP: I won’t name names, but there’s a very popular white rapper that’s basically Dizzee Rascal.

CT-S: Exactly! You know I think it’s just the time for black punk at the moment and there’s plenty of reasons for that. You know we’re like third or fourth generation black Brits, so in terms of what we’ve grown up around and what we can claim as ours is quite significant.

Has punk always been something apart of your lives?

EA: I got turned onto alternative music when I was around 12 or 13, I got my first guitar at 13 because I had been introduced to that music by my older sister. I had always been into music because there was music being played by my family. But since then it’s just been ten years, getting interested into different alternative scenes, identifying with something angsty or rebellious as you’re growing up.

SP: Yeah, I had a similar upbringing from going from Destiny’s Child to riot grrrl and feminist punk… but obviously not in one week.

Yeah from a time period you explored these different angles?

SP: Yeah, I didn’t understand why no one else was listening to punk, at that time I felt like I really needed it, I really needed that mode of expression. Now looking back, growing up as a black girl going to a very white school and having to use punk to express myself so I could let things out in that way. Since then It’s kind of continuedly stayed in my life for those reasons.

CT-S: Yeah, I feel very much the same really, I think I went to a French exchange or something and someone was playing Nirvana, I remember being like, “Oh what is this?” It was literally a week, we went away and came back and was like, I don’t want this anymore, this thing of being dressed in black all the time.

At point did you realise you could mix the principles of punk with feminism?

SP: It was just a shining moment. It wasn’t an immediate idea, it was a slow progress of thinking, maybe this is something that should happen, maybe it’s something I should do. I guess you’re always thinking someone will do it before you. But yeah, it was suddenly realising, if we wanted that space to happen, I’d have to do what I want to do. But when we saw the advert for First Timers (the event we played our first gig in) It was Rachel Aggs from Sacred Paws, and Trash Kit that shared it, then I thought, why not? Give it a go, you can only fail.

Yeah definitely. Can you tell me an example you’ve had bad experiences in the industry with the ugly side of white stereotypical punk?

SP: I feel like we got a bit of a soft launch into the industry. We started at First Timers and the way we described ourselves, (black feminist sistah punk) it was very literal. So, I think people were either very nice to our faces, or they just didn’t come to our gigs if they didn’t want to deal with black feminists and I think that’s how we worked for a while.

CT-S: There’s different punk scenes isn’t there, I think the scene we operate in is more DIY, post punk, experimental. It’s the scene that kind of evolves around Bikini Kill, obviously they’re white, and other icons from around that time. But I think there’s always been a political development in that scene. In terms of bad experiences, it might be with venues or sound systems but we’ve not really had any audience nonsense.

SP: we’ve not had to deal with ridiculous white men because they haven’t come to the gigs really.

CT-S: Yeah, or if they have seen us on the Parquet Courts tour, usually they’re like, ‘What the hell?’

SP: I think people either tokenise us or just don’t pay attention. I think literally because we are three black women people are just a bit scared.

Noted the bad experience, can you emphasise times where you’ve felt really welcomed and happy to be a part of this scene?

SP: After First Timers we got our second gig as a result of that. I noticed early on that we were getting a lot of love and appreciation in the punk scene in a different way to other bands. Which was quite interesting seeing that difference, but it’s always been pretty lovely playing in this UK DIY punk scene. It’s not perfect but it does try and be thoughtful around feminism and LGBQT+ issues. It does at least try its best, but we do still have random issues.

Yeah, ultimately this is something anyone is going to face in the industry.

SP: Yes, definitely especially with the country that we’re in, and the times.

EA: I think we’ve been embraced quite well, by punks in the US as well, we’ve been invited on tour with Downtown boys, who are pretty politically aware artists, we like to listen to. It’s kind of cool to build those cross-country connections and talk about the similarities that are happening in our communities. Decolonise Fest as well, it does feel like our community is out there, black and brown.

A lot of black artists condone a punk attitude even if their music isn’t necessarily punk, for example Kendrick Lamar is a very politically charged icon and SZA uses a lot of body positivity and female liberation, empowerment. What do you guys think to this kind of advertisement?

CT-S: it depends on what you call a punk attitude, because hip hop has always had a punk element in it. Which is really political, I think for me, it’s the question of what is a punk attitude?

EA: Yeah, I mean rebellion comes in so many different forms and states, and we need to use whatever tools we have. As Chardine says, hip hop artists have always used whatever tools they have to express their music, I think it’s just natural, you can’t really be black in America and not be political. I mean people are, but It would be ridiculous for Kendrick to be a rapper and be like, ‘Oh everything is fine.’

I read somewhere you said you were sort of displeased with the intersectionality in punk, how would you combat that?

SP: I think being who we are, that’s my idea when we were starting Big Joanie, I’d go to my black feminist meetings here and go to punk gigs and they’d never seem to meet. The punk scene ten years ago was so, so white in London, it was actually shocking how white it was. I remember also, how political it was and not really realising there was this big elephant in the room of being able to deal with race or talking about how they’ve cultivated a scene that’s majority white. I think we’ve made a lot of progress since then and that’s been made by talking about it, showing what we’ve done, showing our history. There’s been an exhibition on Poly Styrene recently at the 198 gallery and that’s kind of proof that we’ve been doing this for a long, long, time; even pre-Poly Styrene. It’s about talking about history, promoting bands that are doing well, and kind of showcasing that so there’ll be more people wanting to start bands, because it’s hard to imagine performing on that stage until you’re on it. Which is part of the reason we play, hopefully we can give people the confidence to say, we can do this too.

EA: Yeah, right now we have a few structures in place to help new bands come through, like First Timers is now an annual thing. We’re taking poc bands with us on tour because we’re in the position to do that, to take the band Secret Power with us on tour. But yeah there are ways to participate in the community, it’s always going to be give and take, so it’s important we help it to continue and it’s about more than ourselves.

With being an activist and so politically charged do you feel like it is quite constant? Almost non-stop?

SP: It’s like all day.

CT-S: it’s a job with no pay.

Do you feel it’s rewarding?

SP: I feel like I’ve just realised I’m a bit burnt out. One of the main things is you think everything you do is useless, and so it’s not always rewarding, that’s how I feel now.

The thing is you have journalists and fans listening and appreciating what you’re doing. People do care.

CT-S: I think that’s the thing, when you’re in it, it’s hard to see yourself from how other people might see you. Because you’re at a different level, you’re going through those glass ceilings and you forget about other people, you forget you have fans that are like, “Oh fuck, there was a black band supporting Bikini Kill.” I remember saying [on stage], “We are black feminists for punk bands,” and they all cheered, and I just thought about when I was 13 or 14 – because I probably would’ve gone to that show at that age as an audience member – that would’ve been incredible. But you forget because you’re in the moment, it’s just small things like that.

You started Stop Rainbow Racism, it’s a few years in but can you expand on your reason for creating this campaign and what keeps you going?

CT-S: Well I’m not going with it so much these days, but it started because there was a drag queen performing in black face at the Vauxhall tavern. I mean it’s quite a predominately white space anyway, but it’s the principle, I don’t care if it’s a predominately white or black space or whatever, this shouldn’t be happening. It’s such a well-known spot and it’s the first place you google when you put in gay London on google. So, it was just about encouraging venues and prides to make space for queer people of colour and not book racist acts. Thankfully I’ve been able to take a bit more of a break, normally I’m like, ‘Oh it’s pride month here we go’, but actually since that time TFL have got black and brown stripes on the LGBQT+ flag. There has been a move into cooperating more and obviously UK black pride has been going on for a long time. It’s all these little things that have hopefully made it better for us to exist in those spaces but there’s still a long way to go.

Yeah, we’ve got this far.

CT-S: There’s always going to be someone who wants to be the next Beyoncé, do you know what I mean? But I think it’s about setting the standard, you get to the point people need to be thinking, ‘Oh shit there’s no black artists on this bill.’ It’s getting to that point we are seeing more queer artists, and so it’s now a thing people are getting repercussions if they don’t have black or queer artists on bills, which is good.

Talk to me about your recent tour with Bikini Kill.

SP: Yeah so, we played those two shows in Brixton, we were going to go anyway, we had booked tickets, but we did send some emails to their promoters just to see if we could get on the bill. I think we were at SXSW, we had taken a holiday and that’s when we found out we were on the bill. It was really exciting and quite overwhelming to be a part of that experience and a part of that night. It was mental it was like a childhood dream coming true, very monumental.

CT-S: Yeah you were more into it… I wasn’t that into riot grrl.

EA: Yeah, my uni had those compilations like the riot grrrl anthology in the library, that was the first time I’d heard about it, and started listening to it. Being a part of those shows there was this energy in the room, there were so many people there, it meant a massive deal to those who were there the first time around. You got to see people their age being able to take to stage in that way and reassured that women don’t have to be aged out of punk and I thought that was great. And there were people who were more from our generation who have this whole mythology built up around riot grrrl, it definitely encouraged me to play things I hadn’t played before. When I started to learn drums, this was the kind of music that inspired me. I didn’t think I’d ever get to see Bikini Kill in my lifetime, so being able to share that joy with a room full of so many people doing the same thing felt really special.

SP: Definitely, it was really special, I was a bit emotional on the first day.

CT-S: I remember looking at Steph’s face on stage and she’d be like pulls stunned facial expression

EA: Yeah, they seemed really switched onto the UK punk scene but also, we saw the support on the US dates and they made a point to include current political poc punks. It was really cool that they could merge those two eras and show the trajectory. The Raincoats were there as well, they were a big influence on Bikini Kill so it felt like a complete family.

Your cover of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’… what was your first impression of this track when you heard it and what made you decide to cover it?

SP: The connected skirts and pants, what were they called? I remember making my mum get me some.

CT-S: Skorts. They were so unflattering. It’s funny because it was on my French exchange trip and it was the only tape I had, so we were just listing to that bloody song. Jesus, but it’s funny, I don’t know how we decided to cover it?

SP: I think we were going to cover it anyway; I remember talking to My Therapist Says Hot Damn [a band that Phillps was in when Big Joanie formed] and saying Big Joanie are covering it.

CT-S: It’s like a whole thing of reclaiming back to those girl groups of the 90s and some of those songs that are definitely empowering. The message is still a punk feminist message.

You mentioned about the punk scene being very white about a decade ago, since then there’s obviously been a bit of a shift, what do you think POC can do to make more of a difference in the punk scene?

CT-S: Be truthful to what you want and who you are. Because you’re a minority within a minority – being a person of colour in that scene – there’s always going to be that conflict. Sometimes your own community is saying you’re into white music and then when you’re in this white space people are asking you about Destiny’s Child and you’re like, ‘l dunno what’s going on.’ But hopefully with Decolonise Fest, Big Joanie, there’s now a sense of diversity within the black experience. And I hope going forward people aren’t going to think they’re a weirdo.

I understand, I think a lot of other people of colour go through this at one point of not quite fitting into either category. But what’s good is that punk is a great place to express yourself.

SP: Yeah and the early roots of it, if you want to take it all the way back, dates to the 30s and 40s like Sister Rosetta Tharpe as a black guitarist, defined what we think about electric lead guitar work now. The history has always been there it’s just about who documents it now.

Sistahs is out now on the Daydream Library series. Big Joanie play Supersonic Festival in Birmingham on Saturday July 20

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