How Black Musicians Were Pushed Out of the Punk Genre

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Abrasive, unapologetic, and dripping with satire: punk music has been political ever since its bold creation. Gaining traction after a wave of experimental sounds now known as “proto-punk” accumulated in the 60s, the genre’s notoriously fiery personality sought out to dismantle social injustice in iconic music scenes in Western culture.

Punk gave a voice to the voiceless and seemed to do so globally, from New York nightclubs to back alleys of London streets. Punk passionately spoke out against police brutality, sexism, homophobia, and racism within urban communities.

Yet while the history of punk unfolded, a crucial group of artists was thrown out of the limelight. Though Black punk musicians paved the way for the genre, they have come to be ostracized and erased from a space they fought to create.

As much as punk is a genre of music, it is an aesthetic, a style, and a way of life. Punk culture favors anarchistic and anti-establishment views with a sense of rage and thriving counter-culture that harbors a safe space for those who don’t fit into the mainstream. However, this inclusivity only reaches so far; in spite of its roots, punk culture has been watered down in order to cater towards white teens. This becomes highlighted with all-white line ups at shows and simplified lyrical subject matter that drowns out the heavy political aspect of the music.

“Growing up I was constantly being called white for liking punk,” Jordan Calhoun, the bassist of LA-based pop punk band Heart Like War said. “The majority of the time people would say this stuff to me, it would be said in a way that made it seem like they felt they were complimenting me — as if I would be happy to be considered part of their white club. But no. I am Black, and I am happy about that.”

When punk is catered toward white people, the idea of righteous anger is stolen away from Black punks. Punk is seen as a part of a white culture, which can invalidate the rage Black punks feel. If punk is white, there is an easier opportunity to feed the “angry Black person” stereotype, because the “whiteness” alienates Black people from benefiting from the safe space.

Black punks in many ways established the style and sound that is beloved today. Tracing back as far as the origins of Rock and Roll in the fifties, Black musicians have held solid ground in the rock scene. With artists like Little Richard, Death, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bad Brains, and countless others, Black artists have been in the scene just as long as anyone, spanning across numerous subgenres of rock.

“Once my mom found out how much I liked music she made sure to educate me on the Black history of it,” Calhoun said. “ I knew from an early age just how much of a role Black people played in creating rock music. I was fully aware the genre was stolen and packaged as a white thing. So it angered me on two levels that people were calling me white for liking punk because as far as I was concerned we paved the way for this music to be invented.”

Though, it is important to note, the racial turmoil in the punk scene is more subconscious than it is intentional. This is a crucial piece to unpacking the subtle racism in the punk scene because while punks truly believe their core values, they are often poorly implemented. When discussing racism, it is much harder for people who are against this oppression to understand that they contribute to the system despite an anti-racist culture.

As times are shifting in reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, the punk scene must take advantage of this opportunity and practice what they preach. To create a more inclusive scene, one that genuinely represents punk ideals, work has to be done. Venues and show organizers must put more Black bands on stage if they are truly committed to amplifying muted voices. Racist attitudes in the scene must be openly called out and conversations on how to avoid harboring racists within the culture should be discussed in genuine spaces. White saviorism should be replaced with allyship, and white punks must open their hearts and minds to bridging the gap between ideals and application.

The scene is still alive and thriving as young artists take the stage to voice their spin on the music and style. Yet through this scene, punk culture must harbor a space where Black teens involved in the genre can feel heard. They need to not only feel valid but valued.

Punk is a good hearted genre, one that is too good to be so complicit. The time is now to demolish complacency and challenge the subtle injustices that occur in the scene.

“If I had any advice to young black punks it would be to not let anyone tell you that you don’t belong,” Calhoun said, “We love this music too, we create this music too. We can’t allow people to take away our blackness. We need to be here in these spaces and be black and proud of it.”

Through Teen Lenses: How do you think diversity in the scene enhances the punk genre?

“I really think it does. At every new era of punk, there is always a wide array of characters changing the way we look at punk. We had the Bad Brains and Riot Grrl, and even at the top of the pop charts we had bands like Green Day who were dead set on making the punk experience inclusive for everyone. Even today in the underground scenes we have plenty of musicians with all kinds of backgrounds making music for their local scenes.” Drake Frederickson, 16, Rising Junior at Westview High School
“Diversity in the scene enhances the overall message and environment of the punk genre in a variety of ways. Most prominently, it allows multiple perspectives and experiences to be represented in music and the subculture in general. These perspectives allow more relatability between people and the understanding of different peoples to be heard and acknowledged.” Dylan Balducki-Hermoza, 18, Rising Freshman at UCSD

What can punk musicians do to harbor a more inclusive environment?

“Personally I think that it’s up to the community to make punk more inclusive. The more people support bands with POC and LGBT members, the more we will see those types of people spring up in bands. I think it’s important for people to support their LGBT and POC brothers in the music scene, as it’s pretty much a positive experience for all involved.” Drake Frederickson, 16, Rising Junior at Westview High School
“In my opinion, it is less of a responsibility for musicians themselves to harbor an inclusive environment than of show promoters who set up the environment in the first place. Coming from someone who is a show promoter, it is our responsibility to seek out bands/musicians from a variety of backgrounds (racial, sexuality/gender-wise) to create an environment that is cognizant of different experiences and world views. It is also important to foster a welcoming environment by having people of all backgrounds to be represented, so that people feel at home when in the scene. It is important to include everyone.” Dylan Balducki-Hermoza, 18, Rising Freshman at UCSD

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