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The Afro-Punk pioneers who defy stereotypes

“IT’S THE kind of attitudes that are critical of what is offered here in the mainstream, and I think for me definitely politically, I’d say I’m an anti-capitalist, I’m a socialist, and that has come through education, through punk.”

Chardine Taylor-Stone is just one third of the all-female black punk band, Big Joanie, first formed in London’s underground music scene in 2013.

Alongside guitarists and singers Stephanie Phillips, and Estella Adeyeri, the 37-year-old mainly plays drums in a group that first came together in response to the call for “a black feminist” band to finally join the punk scene. 

Big Joanie have gone on to play sell-out crowds across the UK, US and Europe, for Chardine it was only a continuum of her love for alternative music that began when she was thirteen.

“I got into Nirvana then, and then I went to indie, hardcore punk and rockabilly – that’s just the sort of music that I’ve liked since I was young really,” she tells The Voice. 

“The last five years, I’d say it’s actually been a thing [spaces for black people who identify as punk] and really before then I was just on the punk and different alternative scenes for a while. People on those scenes started to find each other through social media and it’s maybe developed from there. 

“Punk is about music, isn’t it? That’s its core thing, it’s a subculture, so it is really cool to be part of something where you don’t have to code-switch between different things.”

Chardine recalls how she’d often “be one of the few black people at gigs”, but has seen a once predominately white space evolve into something that is reminiscent of the early days of punk’s emergence in Britain. Something that she calls “a really important moment in British culture”.

Punk History

Sound systems aligning the streets in places like Brixton and Notting Hill throughout the 60s and 70s once boomed reggae beats, drawing in crowds of white youths keen to embrace Jamaican music’s arrival in Britain. They were mainly from a slowly rising, underground punk movement with ska, another genre from the Caribbean island, being at the helm of their enthusiasm.

REBEL YELL: James Spooner got into the punk scene living in a small desert town in Southern California. He went on to be the co-founder of the AfroPunk festival which grew out of a 2003 documentary which studied black punks across America (photos: Lisa Nola and Janet Ashbaugh)

The culmination of two underground subcultures finding a home, “white working class kids and black kids” coming together in an era that fought for the mainstream, led to the earliest music collaborations of ska and punk music. Dennis Bovell, a music producer and reggae artist from Barbados, was asked to produce an album for an all-female punk band called The Slits. 

The collaboration sparked a new genre dubbed ska-punk, and was deemed a defining moment in black Britain’s musical history, and of its race relations as white skinheads, mods and punks turned to the Jamaican anthems of reggae to rocksteady.

Across oceans, in a small town in Detroit, Michigan a band made up of three brothers is credited for being the first punk band to emerge in the movement before it found its way to the UK. 

Death was formed in 1971 as one of the first proto-punk bands during an era when Motown and disco dominated the norm for black musicians. The trio – David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney – started out playing funk, but quickly turned to the emblems of rock music after being inspired by artists like Alice Cooper and The Who. They disbanded just six years later, but their unique sound is still noted as the bedrock of the punk movement’s rise. 

Black Punks

James Spooner, a tattooist and graphic novelist, tells The Voice that Death’s music was just one of the first punk bands he listened to when he newly entered the scene, but despite the music’s origins he encountered first-hand what it meant to be black in a space that had distanced from its roots. 

PROXIMITY: James Spooner as he is today.

“I got into the punk scene living in this small desert town in Southern California, and the first punk that I met was also a black kid. So, it made me feel possibly that I belonged or that this was an open environment,” he recalls.

“But I quickly learned that most of the other kids in the scene were not like casual racists, but like actual Nazis. So, that was my intro to the scene, but what I learnt through the course of that first year was it wasn’t just about nihilism and breaking bottles and hatred or whatever, but there was a positive side to it.”

James’s father was from St. Lucia, and his mother from what he calls “Middle America”. Eventually, he grew to embrace the “do-it-yourself” attitude and sense of “empowerment” that the movement brought him but dealt with complicated feelings after a decade of existing in spaces where he was always deemed “ethnically ambiguous”.

“I’ve never been in denial of my blackness. I’ve never hid it, but when you hang out with white people, they don’t talk about race. So, if you’re not talking about race, they’re certainly not going to bring it up. And if they do, it’s going to go as far as f**k Nazis and that’s about it, you know?” he says.

“So, it wasn’t until I started having my own set of questions and posing them to my white friends and seeing my white friends start to drop away that I realised that I had to start asking those questions like, were the black kids, right? Was I trying to be white? Was I enjoying my proximity to whiteness and privilege?”

After spending his teenage years and most of his twenties in predominantly white spaces, James says it led him down a path of “reaction and anger” as he grappled with his racial identity, but also to “self-exploration”.

“I wanted to find people to talk about what it meant to be a black person in the punk scene, you know? And I guess I came up with the bright idea of doing a documentary about it,” he said. “I approached it with punk energy and audacity. I didn’t go to film school or anything. I just thought, well I’ve seen a movie, I think I can make a movie.”

ALTERNATIVE SCENE: Chardine Taylor Stone, right, is part of the all-female black punk band, Big Joanie (Photo: Ajamu X)

Afro-Punk premiered in 2003, directed by Spooner himself, that explored how “different black punks of various hues and backgrounds” co-existed in a movement that left them alienated from their white peers as well as the black community.

The seminal movie led to what many would call a movement in itself. Almost two decades later, James still pushes back against the idea of Afro-Punk being anything more than just a corporate brand with music festivals now held around the world, but saw for himself how it did in fact change the punk landscape forever.  

“I never had an intention of creating a community or a scene or a brand out of it. I just wanted to have the conversation. So, it wasn’t until after I started screening it that I realised that I had something bigger than I intended and that people really identified with the film to the degree that they were like using Afro-Punk as an adjective to describe themselves. I’ve always maintained that there is basically no such a thing. If there was, I wouldn’t need to make the film in the first place.”

While living in Crown Heights, a Caribbean neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, James says he quickly realised that they weren’t his people either despite his heritage. The city’s underground scene in clubs and house parties, where it was all about “sweating and dancing,” far away from the black and white mainstreams, was where he felt most accepted among his new-found black friends. 

Making Music

Reflecting on her years in the punk scene, Chardine says it was always meant to be “an anti-racist space,” but admits that a place that was meant for “black alternative kids” was almost deemed as not “black enough” when R’n’B and alt-R’n’B artists began playing at festivals like Afro-Punk. 

“I remember things where people would be like, ‘Oh, you’re into white music and I would literally be listening to Bad Brains at that very moment – an all black band,” she recalls. “Why is it that as a community that we have been taught in a way we actually believe that some music is black and some music is white? How we’ve actually bought into these ideas of what the white press has told us is our own music. What kind of ends up happening is that there’s a kind of an embarrassment about liking different types of music.”

Chardine believes that the spaces that that black people have come to frequent has contributed to the disconnect, adding: “I think for us [black people] when we are living in a place which is majority white our identities are formed in a way that is ‘we do that and you do that,’ because obviously these [white] people are oppressing us. So then, what happens is we end up becoming quite conservative about what we define as black.”

She continues: “I think anything outside of that people feel is, not an attack on our identity, but it’s almost like ‘you can’t do that because, you’re sort of stepping out of this identity that we’ve created.’”

GREEN ROOTS: Death was formed in 1971 as one of the first proto-punk bands in an era when Motown dominated the norm for black musicians

Nearly a decade on in touring and playing music, Chardine says that white music journalists know all to well that “punk comes from rock and roll, rock and roll comes from the blues, people know the black roots of that music,” but that “ignorance of the history of music,” of black people existing in an alternative, punk space continues to come from within the community itself. 

James, who has been in the scene for over 20 years, echoes the same sentiment and says that justifying black people’s pioneering work in punk simply doesn’t need justifying. “All of this is black music. There’s not even a question, and anyone who questions it hasn’t spent one second doing any history,” he says before adding: “People who worship the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, well who the f**k were they worshipping?”

For Chardine, confronting the misconceptions begins in what makes up popular black music in the UK. She says she wants to see more punk music by black musicians played not just on the main radio stations, but black radio stations. And for music awards to introduce categories that cater to other underground artists that are making alternative sounds. 

Black punks across international scenes, still continue to be an anomaly with annual festivals like Afro-Punk and Decolonise Fest still for some offering a glimmer of community for a scene that remains underground. 

At 46, James says he’s no longer “tripping” like he was when he was a teenager when he first joined the punk scene and more than a decade after Afro-Punk’s inception. He has a new memoir out and spends his time crafting tattoos especially for darker skin. He was in Ohio at a comics festival just a few weeks ago, and he says it only reminded him of where he belongs.

It wasn’t an accident that I ended up partying afterwards with all the black comics creators, regardless of where I’m at, that’s who I’m going to be with,” he says. “If I have the option to be around underground back folks, I’m going to do that. The black community is important to me, and still everything I do is in service to them: to black weirdos.”


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