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Interview – White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race

In Interviews on 20 November 2011 at 11:32 am

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh interviews the editors of White Riot:Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay.

Stir: Your new book White Riot looks at a particular response to another period of enforced austerity: Punk Rock.  It seems a good time to look back at the failures of this resistance and to the resources that can be used for effective opposition today.  Why did you decide to put this critical collection of essays and interviews together now and how did you come to choose the contributors?

Stephen Duncombe: Almost 40 years after its inception, it seemed to us like good time to look back and see what impact Punk Rock may have had in rethinking (and reinforcing) our notions of race. It’s our basic premise that race is deeply embedded in Punk Rock, not just musically – the obvious cross-overs between reggae and punk — but integral to its very formations. Punk Rock, in the mid 70s, was one of the first cultural forms that, from a white perspective, acknowledged that we (in the UK and US) were now all living in a multicultural society. Because we were.  “whiteness” could no longer be assumed as the universal, instead it was problematized, contested and re-defined — sometimes in progressive ways and other times in viruletly racist and reactionary ways. Additionally, in White Riot we wanted to underscore the contributions of non-white punks who were part of the scene from the very beginning yet tend to be marginalized or white-washed entirely out of standard punk histories.

However, when I say “look back” on punk it carries with it the assumption that punk is dead, that it died on ‘79, ‘84, ‘92  (pick a date and it seems that punk has just died a year earlier). But punk continues on. And because of changing demographics and global spread, issues of race within punk are now more important than ever.

Maxwell Tremblay: My enthusiasm for and fascination with this project originated from a conundrum that became more and more apparent to me as I got into punk in the late ‘90s and early 2000s: i.) Punk is, one might say, constitutively anti-racist.  ii.) Punk is, both demographically and rhetorically, mostly white.  The impetus for the project, then, came less out of a desire to investigate punk as a response to forced austerity than a bewilderment at one subculture’s attempt to think through race in a way that would be different from the dominant culture.

Starting from this puzzle, Steve and I really cast as wide a net as we possibly could for readings on the topic of punk and race, trying to let the pieces speak for themselves until a kind of trajectory or argument began to take shape: to first give a genealogy of the historical reasons that punk saw itself as a primarily white phenomenon and the various paths that would take, but also to unearth the limitations and exclusions implied by that kind of rhetorical framing – a gesture very much inspired by Mimi Nguyen’s call for white punks to “do the white on white,” or destabilize whiteness as the punk neutral or norm. Then, the task became looking at the ways in which punks of color have either taken on punk rock’s own rhetoric for themselves, or submitted punk to rigorous, structural critique for its own assumptions of whiteness.

In making our actual selections, there were some pieces or phenomena we knew were essential, some that ingratiated themselves to us through great writing or uniqueness of voice, and a few that so surprised us with their strangeness that we couldn’t NOT include them – one of the true joys of archival research!

I would approach the book’s sudden timeliness with a bit of hesitation; while punk rock in its first iterations most certainly responded to a kind of ‘new normal’ of economic despair, it also managed to survive through almost four more decades of ups and downs, with its own attendant successes and failures both related and unrelated to issues of economics and class. What does strike me about our particular moment in relation to the conflicts played out in the text, however, is that, with renewed xenophobia and terror of immigration on the part of the white power structure, young radicals will inevitably try to respond with new cultures and subcultures of their own to counter that racist surge. The lesson of punk rock’s attempt to do this, however, is to be mindful of the ways in which subcultures can, in fact, replicate that white power structure within their own limits.

S: One recent response to this renewed racist surge was the emergence of Love Music Hate Racism in 2002 – following in the tradition of Rock Against Racism.  In David Widgery’s piece he says that “our experience had taught us a golden rule: how people find their pleasure, entertainment and celebration is also how they find their sexual identity, their political courage and their strength to change”.  How important a role do you think, in this case – punk rock, and music in general, play in affecting social change?

SD: It depends. By itself, punk music, any music, changes nothing. But it can. What popular music can do is change the way people think about things: our ideas about power and race, about what’s “natural” and inevitable and what’s possible and can be changed. These ways of thinking are the result of our socialization. Music is part of that socialization, and it can be a powerful component  — particularly a subcultural music like punk that young people can relate to as their own and in position to the norms and values of the mainstream of society. Therefore, if you have punks challenging racism (or in the case of White Power bands: encouraging racism) in their songs and in their scene, this has a huge impact on the hearts and minds of  people who listen to the music and join the scene…

AND…even this is not enough. It’s not enough to change people’s minds, you also have to change the social, political and economic structures in which they live. A song can’t do this. But what it can do is bring people together, lend them a vocabulary to talk about ideas like race and power, and give them a sense of possibility; all of which can then be mobilized into a larger political movement. But you need that movement. In social science cant: cultural change is a necessary but not sufficient condition for social change.

“It’s not enough to change people’s minds, you also have to change the social, political and economic structures in which they live.”

MT: I’m going to muddle the exact quote, but I think Billy Bragg gives the best overarching answer to this kind of question when he says that music in and of it self won’t change the world, but it can provide a space for those who are concerned with its general fucked-upedness to at least reenergize themselves for future projects – a sentiment which echoes Widgery’s own. That, to me, is the importance of Widgery’s remark about ‘pleasure’ and ‘celebration’: that punk rock isn’t necessarily analogous to the nuts and bolts work of political organizing, but it can, to be a bit cheeky, help get the party started.

More specifically, though, I think punk rock’s most important political contribution – and it’s not necessarily unique in this – is in its ability to create a whole alternative cultural infrastructure. On their own, these bands, labels, show spaces and zines aren’t necessarily politically efficacious, but they at least create channels that can be marshaled for more explicitly political, punk-inspired work by organizations like, for example, Food Not Bombs and the Icarus Project.

S:  On this very point, Billy Bragg said in a recent interview with Amy Goodman: “I don’t think it was The Clash that actually changed my perspective of the world. It was actually being in that audience (at Rock Against Racism, Victoria Park, 1978). It was being with all those other kids and realizing I wasn’t alone, because when I felt—in the office, I was alone. You know, I was the only person who felt that way. But when I was with all those other people, I felt inspired, invigorated. And I think that’s what music can do. It can bring a community together for one night in a town. We talk about these issues. People, you know, make affirmative noises and applaud. But, you know, the next day you’re gone. Their still there to deal with what’s going on, to—you know, and that’s what, as a musician, you should be trying to inspire that—not you personally trying to change the world, but trying to inspire others to at least engage in the world”.

Billy Bragg performing at Tolpuddle Copenhagen 2009

In Daniel Traber’s piece “White Minority” he claims (speaking of the L.A punk scene) that “instead of tearing down the boundaries, they [punks] use them to sustain a false sense of autonomy”. This is to say that even though this version of Punk rejected the values of White America, it still depended on this ‘square’ bourgeois culture to establish its difference, its ‘alternative’ identity – this is a clear critique of counterculture that is not interested in widespread social change.  If the expression of Punk in L.A. proved to be static, did you find different expressions of this culture in other parts of the world that contained a potential for transformation beyond “personal anarchy”?

SD: Traber is writing about a particular time and place: LA in the 1980s. I knew that scene well, and LA punk at that time, like a lot of punk elsewhere in the US and the UK, was stuck in its “Sex Pistols” moment: angry at everything and anything; “I wanna destroy the passerby.” The problem, politically speaking, was that this sort of anger — an anger without analysis, or even a real target — was just the mirror image of the individualist ethos of the greater society. Punks just shortened the capitalist mantra of “fuck you jack, I got mine” to “fuck you!” I think this is Traber’s point. There was a certain politics in “performing the decline,” that is: showing the brutality behind the normalcy of society, but this politics really lead nowhere.

But at the same time this was happening another tendency is forming in punk. Staying in LA for a moment: X wrote plenty of songs where they took on the persona of an alienated and sometimes bigoted rebel; but they also started writing songs about the US military presence in Latin America and the bankruptcy of American politics. Up north in the Bay Area you had the Dead Kennedys articulating a decidedly Left critique of Liberalism. And of course across the ocean you had the Clash and Stiff Little Fingers who were singing overtly political songs (the Clash even going as far as to name their fourth album Sandanista). As I note above, one always needs to be skeptical about the political impact of even explicit political songs, yet in these tendencies – which have become the dominant tendencies of punk, at least in the US, in the years since – you can see an expansion of the ideal of politics from personal rebellion to social and political transformation.

MT: The “false sense of autonomy” trope continues, sadly, throughout much of punk’s history, to the point where Mimi Nguyen, in her piece in White Riot, can still assail punk in the early 2000s for a kind of ‘rugged individualism’ quite similar to the mainstream American conception – a kind of ‘punk Manifest Destiny’, if you will.

But that kind of nihilistic individualism in punk has always coincided with its flipside: sincere kids working against the dominant culture to ‘fix shit up’ as opposed to ‘fuck shit up’, as a popular anarcho t-shirt would have it. To be a bit reductive (and partisan, since I’m from there), I think one of the prototype cases of this opposite side of the dialectic would be punk in the San Francisco Bay Area. Something in the water there – perhaps the collision between punk culture and the hippie legacy? – produced the conditions for punks to begin to, for instance, see venues as possible ‘community spaces’, and not merely squats ready to be littered with empty beer cans. I say this is reductive because there is/was definitely a fair bit of that going on, but it is hard to underestimate the influence of Bay Area punk – particularly Tim Yohannan’s MaximumRocknRoll and 924 Gilman street – to give political content to punk’s oppositional form.

“Kids working against the dominant culture to ‘fix shit up’ as opposed to ‘fuck shit up’.”

To take another, kind of counterintuitive example which gets brought up in the book, one can look at the origins of Anti-Racist Action out of the Midwestern skinhead scene. Here, some very promising anti-racist organizing arose somewhat organically out of a concern seemingly internal to that particular punk scene: how to eliminate that scene’s Nazi element?

And further, Los Crudos out of Chicago and bands like them were able to hook up networks of Latino/Chicano punks in the United States with punk kids throughout Central and South America with the emphasis on resisting, at the international level, US imperialism and free-trade organizations, and, at the local level, issues of gentrification, immigration, and racism.

I could talk about this quite a bit, it seems, so I suppose I’ll leave it at that, saying only that: whether or not the political outcomes are necessarily visible, the potential remains (particularly in reference to those alternative infrastructures referenced in my previous answer).

S: In your introduction to Paul Gilroy’s “Two Sides of Anti-Racism” you say that his critique poses this crucial question: “To what extent does the focus on bogeymen like “fascism”, “the state”, and “cops” get in the way of understanding and transforming the far more complex racial (and class and sex) dynamics of punk rock itself?”  This reductive political shorthand is still popular in oppositional politics and can certainly obscure any meaningful understanding of the problems faced.  How does Gilroy answer this and how much of a problem do you think this is for contemporary punk and oppositional politics in general?

SD: I think Gilroy brings up an important point: it’s far easier for white, straight, middle-class male punks (who make up the majority of the punk scene) to attack an enemy who’s wearing a swastika rather than a power wrapped in the same race, gender, sex and class position as they have. To do the first means attacking The Other; to do the second means acknowledging that the enemy is within yourself.  This, of course, is far more difficult and much more uncomfortable.

I think this offers an important lesson for the larger oppositional movement. The lesson is NOT that we need to feel guilty about who we are, or spend endless hours in self-criticism sessions (this is merely another form of narcissistic individualism, not to mention a colossal waste of political effort and valuable time), but instead become adept at fighting an enemy who is not always clear, concise and identifiable; an enemy that is not explicitly The Other. Wouldn’t it be nice to spot the “bad guys” over there, on the hill in the distance? A quick surgical strike is all that would be necessary. But this, of course, is a fantasy (one which the powerless share with the powerful). Racism isn’t just about racists, sexism isn’t about sexists, capitalism about capitalists. These are systems and structures with which we are intertwined; we need to learn how to fight these things while acknowledging we are a product of them. We need to destroy these systems of oppression without destroying ourselves.

MT: I’ve actually been thinking about this exact question quite a bit lately.  In the first place, we should be clear that reductive political shorthand is one of the primary reasons punk rock is so appealing – and, on occasion, politically effective: it provides, in its more-or-less ambiguous “Fuck You!”, a formal representation of rage that is easily tapped into, and one that can be further filled out with more explicit political content. If it doesn’t get filled out, it tends to get a little tiresome and perhaps irresponsible, but the potential is at least there. I think the problem with “the cops” and “the state” is not necessarily their vagueness as concepts, but the distance it places between punk/punks and the societal ills it claims to oppose, leaving less room to talk about forms of oppression that do arise within the scene. Gilroy, I think, is making the point that the shift of priorities from Rock Against Racism to the Anti-Nazi League was both politically ineffective insofar as it unduly limited the goals of anti-racist organizing, but was also perhaps symptomatic of RAR’s overarching concern with ‘anti-racism’, rather than black liberation.

S: One theme in White Riot traces¬ Punk’s transition from subversion (identified with Johnny Rotten) to “pure nihilism” (identified with Sid Vicious).  How do the contributors explain this change and what reasons can you give for it?

SD: I think punk history is too complicated to trace a clear line from subversion to nihilsm (though our contributors might disagree), or from politicization to de-politicization. These tendencies seem to co-exist simultaneously at any time in punk’s history as, indeed, they existed at one and the same time in the Sex Pistols. But if I was forced to plot some sort of line of political progression over punk I’d have to argue that it is gotten more political over time; it’s de rigour for any punk band today, be it in New Jersey or New Delhi, to sing about issues like capitalism and imperialism, and that certainly was not the case in the late 70s when you were more likely to hear pure negation like that expressed in the Ramones’ song “I’m Against It.”  Whether singing about overthrowing capitalism and doing anything about it are connected is another matter entirely, and a topic I take up in one of my other responses.

MT: On some level, I think it is constitutive of punk as an oppositional subculture that its subversive elements sometimes tend towards nihilism. It’s loud, confrontational music whose explicit politics aren’t always legible; as such, it is actually quite easy for less-than-attentive fans to mishear, say, “Fuck you capitalism for these rigorous reasons!” as merely “Fuck you!” Further, that’s part of punk’s appeal in the first place: young folks, whom punk rock primarily attracts, often feel like there’s something wrong with the world but don’t necessarily have the focused political rage of seasoned veterans, and abstract expressions of misunderstood anger are exactly what they need to initially develop a sense of place and belonging.

Now, if one’s thinking STOPS there, then that’s obviously a problem and one has somehow missed the point of the last 20-odd years of committed anarchist punk politics. Some scenes calcify around the nihilistic tendency more readily than others, but that thread was perhaps most attractive at a moment in time in the early 1980s (say, Black Flag era Los Angeles), prior to punk’s political coming-of-age. I’m not sure there’s any exhaustive way of accounting for why this is the case, but it may have something to do with interpreting what was a primarily urban musical phenomenon in a suburban environment, in which punk’s more explicit political concerns (such as police violence against communities of color) were less immediately present.

S: White Riot is, as you say, a genealogy of Punk’s understanding of itself as a “white phenomenon”.  Could you retell, briefly, how Punk’s relationship to race is rethought and redefined in the years since its inception?

SD: White Riot really traces two family trees, or maybe it’s three. The first is punk’s understanding of itself as a “white phenomenon.” There’s a demographic truth to this: the punk scene was, and still is, primarily peopled by whites. What we found interesting, however, was the self-consciousness of this whiteness. Born at a time (mid 70s) when white supremacy is being challenged, and in locations that are overwhelmingly multi-racial (New York, London, Washington DC, Los Angeles), the white kids who take up punks do not understand their ethnicity as whites often do in the West: as “universal,” the default setting which needs no explanation. Instead whiteness, within punk, becomes something to define and articulate. For punks on the Left, including bands like the Clash or Stiff Little Fingers, or those who played at and attended the Rock Against Racism concerts, whiteness could be re-defined in solidarity with those of other races; what rock critic Jeff Chang, writing about Joe Strummer, calls a “radical whiteness.” But such a moment of definition could easily move the other way too: into the virulent racism of White Power bands like Skrewdriver.

“We need to destroy these systems of oppression without destroying ourselves.”

But this is only half the story, because half of White Riot is questioning the idea that punk is really just a White Riot. Punk’s family was multi-racial from the very start. Not only in the fact that white punks borrowed styles and riffs from black reggae, but that non-white punk bands and fans were are an integral part of punk history. The predominant image of hardcore punk, for instance, is of some beefy white guy like Black Flag’s Henry Rollins grimacing as he screams into a microphone. But Henry Rollins learned about hardcore as a DC teenager from the pioneering all-black hardcore band Bad Brains. And long before Rollins joined Black Flag, the band was fronted by Puerto Rico-born Ron Reyes (with another Latino band member on drums, and a black producer for their classic song “White Minority.) Punk might like to think of itself as white, but in reality it never has been…and is becoming increasingly less so.

The most vibrant punk scenes today are no longer in London or New York but in cities like Mexico City or Jakarta, Indonesia. This globalization of punk decenters the assumed whiteness of punk; it also problematizes the racial dichotomies at the heart of punk. Black/white, Asian/white, Latino/white — the racial axes around which punk has revolved for decades have little meaning in a place like Jakarta, so punks there do there what they’ve always done: adapt and adopt the culture so that it speaks to the concerns that are relevant to them. And in the process the riot that is punk becomes, racially and ideologically, a lot more multi-hued.

MT: I think it takes us – and all of our fabulous contributors – the length of our book to really answer this question adequately, but one thing I can say is that, for all punk’s own exclusions and presumptions, it does at least provide the cultural infrastructure to address these questions in a frank and quasi-democratic manner. Punk’s relationship to race – whether it is an assumption of necessary radical whiteness, white power, a Latino appropriation of punk rock in Spanish or a structural critique of punk’s racism – is more or less rigorously argued and negotiated over numerous different cultural platforms where, and this is the crucial part, response and contribution is not just welcomed but actively encouraged. Yes, there are limits to DIY culture (who has access to it, how far the conversation can carry with limited distribution and tiny runs of records and zines), but at its best it can cut through the bullshit veneer of modern discourse on race and allow for truly strange and exciting developments to take place.

_____

White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race is published by Verso for £14.99

Stephen Duncombe is Associate Professor at the Gallatin School and the Department of Media, Culture and Communications of New York University where he teaches the history and politics of media.  He is author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy and the editor of the Cultural Resistance Reader.

Maxwell Tremblay writes for Maximumrocknroll, plays drums in the band SLEEPiES, and is a doctoral student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.


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