Google “who created punk rock?” What you find is what you may already know.
Punk is known for its short, fast riffs, no-rules-allowed attitude, and for being an emerging genre that was bucking what some felt was the overproduced music of the early 1970s. The groundwork was laid as early as the mid to late 1960s, with the formation of experimental and explosive rockers MC5, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The Dictators, and Alice Cooper. By the early ’70s, The New York Dolls, a glam band with high-energy riffs, hit the scene and further laid a foundation. The Strand, a precursor to the Sex Pistols, burst in, and shortly after The Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads all present themselves as punk. This list quickly paints the picture of punk as an all white, angst-ridden youth. What is missing from this story started in 1971.
That was the year a band of black musicians out of Detroit called Rock Fire Funk Express was searching for a sound that captured their own inner compulsions. This trio of brothers (David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney) heard the discordant rhythms of The Stooges and had to make a turn into a new unknown. In 1973, inspired by the hard-driving rock and roll of MC5 and Alice Cooper, a band called Death was formed. Death was harder, faster, and louder than anyone had heard before, ahead of its time to the point of discomfort. They became what is known as proto-punk, as their guitarist pushed them into a realm that predicted an entire genre. It was an insidious time for anyone to put out lyrics like “Always tryin’ to be slick when they tell us the lies. They’re responsible for sending young men to die,” much less as a group of young black men. It was not just among their music peers or the white population that there was a rift, as stepping out into their neighborhood was full of confrontation and challenge. “We were comfortable in our own quarters, but we had to answer questions when we had to go out,” stated Dannis Hackney. While Death was short-lived, the band found themselves rediscovered decades later when Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett directed the 2012 documentary A Band Called Death to positive critical review. The film has gone down on record as one of the most revealing and insightful documentaries about the plight of musicians of color.
Not until the punk timeline hits 1977 is a black influence mentioned in mainstream media timelines: Bad Brains. Their name is spoken in the same breath as The Misfits, Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys, Fear, Circle Jerks, The Germs, and The Clash as pioneers. Bad Brains are by no stretch of the imagination one of the most influential punk bands ever. Named after a Ramones song, Bad Brains came from Washington D.C., which quickly reigned as the hardcore mecca of the country.
What made Bad Brains especially significant was how they pushed sonic boundaries and redefined people’s perceptions of what a group of Rastafarians were supposed to sound like and behave. They brought reggae into the arena of punk music, and the sound and production style of reggae has continued to have an important impact on punk to this day. The relationship between reggae and punk was clear; they both embraced songs of protest and oppression. Subsequent generations of punk music revealed in the importance of this relationship, birthing the entirety of ska. To this day, Hellcat records feature a variety of punk in addition to more purely reggae bands. Punk of the ’90s was irrevocably defined by this relationship, namely with popular bands like Rancid and Sublime, which brought punk music largely into mainstream culture.
Even with some acknowledgment of the great influence of bands like Death and Bad Brains, it’s those who have omitted that pique the historians curiosity. Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, who was inspired by The Sex Pistols, were, for a time, at the forefront of the U.K. punk scene in the late ’70s with material that was anti-capitalist, feminist, and called out mainstream culture for its pressure on women to conform to its standards. Pure Hell, considered kindred spirits of The Dolls, burst onto the N.Y.C. punk scene in 1974, leather-clad, tatted up and way before their time in many ways. Don Letts was credited for injecting the bouncing sounds of Jamaican reggae into the London punk scene, spinning reggae tunes on punk night at the Roxy and acting as a videographer for The Clash.
The punk scene took hold for eternity, etching its way into the annals of rock history. While the punks boldly embraced women like Blondie, Patti Smith, Joan Jett, and Siouxsie Sioux, non-white musicians were still overlooked as the dynamic pioneers that they were. In large part, they have been altered into a palatable story of white U.K. working class youth out to make a statement about society (Ironically, punk didn’t hit the U.K. until 1976, and stories tell of a much more diverse and tolerant group of young people than portrayed). Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, noted feminist and cultural writer, remarked, “Punk music is not the sole property of whiteness… Like many facets of pop culture, its historical image has been whitewashed.” Perhaps the issue was that in the ’70s, people were associating black musicians with Motown and R&B to such an extent that they couldn’t imagine people of color being part of a genre that was seemingly working class white.
Perhaps, as the music industry at the time presented, Death, in particular, wasn’t marketable because if its name; or maybe without an existing genre, it was simply too hard to get traction, especially with a group of musicians that may have been considered a low earning potential group. What cannot be ignored are these and other theories that there were greater factors at play. Greg Tate, musician, author, and musical historian, in an AJ+ interview on the subject of black people in punk music, commented on the deeper issue that permeated the industry. “The American music business is made up of gatekeepers of the corporate side, on the radio side. They very much subscribe to the Jim Crow notions of separation, of segregation, which define American culture through the most of the 20th century.” It’s worth considering that the very institutions punks were writing and rebelling against were earning their keep as oppressors of a sound that changed the way an entire generation, and generations to come, thought about what music can say.
The influence of people of color in punk is no phenomenon of the past, rather an ever-evolving journey into what comes next. The documentary Afro-Punk premiered in 2003 and examined the challenges black youth who were deeply ensconced in a cultural scene that was always seen as white by outsiders. The documentary led to a cultural movement and, in 2005, inspired the Brooklyn-based Afro-Punk Festival, now a yearly international event.
Modern acts like B L A C K I E, Death Grips, Ho99o9, JPEGMAFIA continue to push the boundaries between genres, drawing a great deal of the history and spirit of punk music and fusing it with rap and noise music.