Stephen Duncombe, editor of White Riot: Punk Rock And The Politics Of Race
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White Riot: Punk Rock And The Politics Of Race, a new anthology edited by NYU professor Stephen Duncombe and New School Ph.D. student and Maximumrocknroll writer Maxwell Tremblay, intersperses essays with primary documents like zines, interviews, song lyrics, and letters to tell the complicated story of punk rock and its relationship with race over the decades. Through the words of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Patti Smith, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, The Clash, Black Flag, and Tasha Fierce, the story moves from punk’s early articulation of whiteness in the U.S. and U.K. to Afro-Punk and faraway shores where punk has morphed into new, culture-specific forms.
This Friday, Duncombe and Tremblay are cruising into Philadelphia to talk about the anthology at Wooden Shoe Books. To learn more, The A.V. Club hooked up with Duncombe on the telephone to chat about White Riot, the racial politics of punk, and what the Occupy Wall Street movement can learn from punk rock.
The A.V. Club: White Riot is a collection of essays, zines, first-hand accounts, and interviews mostly written at the time and in the field, so to speak. Why did you choose this format?
Stephen Duncombe: We didn’t want to do a strictly scholarly anthology about punk and race, because we didn’t think that would capture the true voice of punk rock. We really wanted readers to have a sense of immediacy, and, as a historian, I like people to read primary documents. We wanted people to read what punks had actually written. There’s a handful of academic essays included, but 90 percent is zines, essays written at the time, liner notes, and interviews. They’re the words of white, black, and Latino punks. It was very important for us to let people speak with their own voices.
AVC: It tells a story about the history of punk music that hasn’t really been told before. What’s that story?
SD: We start with the premise that you can’t understand punk unless you understand its relationships with race. We took the title from The Clash’s song “White Riot,” in which they are witnessing a riot in 1976 in Notting Hill where a bunch of black youth are fighting back against the police. They ask themselves, “What the hell is going on with white youth?” and “Why aren’t we doing the same thing?”
AVC: Why are punk and race so deeply intertwined?
SD: Part of understanding whiteness in punk rock is that it comes out of a time and place, in the mid-1970s, when whiteness was no longer the assumed universal. So, for whites like myself, we never had the dubious luxury that other whites had, which was to think that whiteness was the norm, and that not being white was the exception. We grew up in a multicultural society, which meant that we had to define what being white was.
People of other races have always had to define what being black or Latino or Asian means. Otherwise, it gets thrust upon them. Whites had never had to do this, and so here was a generation of white youth trying to figure out what it means to be white, and that took many different forms.
AVC: Such as?
SD: Well, there’s inchoate whiteness, which is like, “We’re not really sure what it is; we’re just sort of stumbling through it, but we’re still going to call ourselves white.” Another part of it is what Jeff Chang calls “radical whiteness,” people like Joe Strummer and The Clash. Here, whiteness is an identity position that allows white people to engage in solidarity with people of other races against systems of oppression. Then the third tendency is white power and white supremacy. So, there was this moment when whiteness was undefined, but it does shape up and start moving in different directions.
A little biographical detour: The name of my first band, back in 1980, when I was 15 years old, was White Noise. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world, you know, my bandmates were white, and the music we made sounded like noise, so voila: White Noise. While I went in the direction of radical whiteness and became involved in anti-apartheid politics, my best friend, the lead singer, dabbled in white supremacy and became a cop.
AVC: But this theory of punk emerging from a generation of white kids suddenly needing to define some sort of racial identity seems to exclude black punk bands, like Bad Brains, and other non-white punks.
SD: Exactly. The second part of the book shows that the problem with defining punk as a “white riot” is that you define out of it all those punks of color who have been a part of punk since its inception. Without Bad Brains, for instance, hardcore is inconceivable. Henry Rollins, before he joined Black Flag, learns about hardcore by going to Bad Brains shows in D.C. Black Flag had a song called “White Minority,” which is very much an articulation of whiteness, but what most people don’t know about that song is that the lead singer [Ron Reyes, at the time —ed.] was Puerto Rican, the producer was black, and the drummer was Latino. So, here they are singing about whiteness, but a majority of the people involved are not white.
That’s been a part of punk from the very beginning. Yes, the demographic has been primarily white, but punk has also been shot through by contributions from punks of color.
The other thing we chart out is the hidden history of non-white punk and also what happens when, in the 1990s and 2000s, you have all these punks of color, who entered the scene and thought they would have this escape from the white racism of society, find out that the punk scene, in both implicit and explicit ways, is also thoroughly racist. So they start this articulation of disgust with the punk scene. The punk scene, by calling itself anti-racist, means it does not have to investigate itself.
Then, in the final section, we look at what happens when punk leaves U.S. and U.K. shores. If punk has been primarily thought through on this nexus of white-black, white-Latino, and white-Asian, what happens when it goes to Mexico City, Brazil, and Jakarta—which is where the most vibrant punk scenes in the world are right now—where things like “White Riot” and “White Minority” simply don’t have the same resonance? These sort of anthems of punk rock no longer make sense.
AVC: What makes punk so culturally and geographically fluid?
SD: First, its musicianship is purposefully amateur, which means it can travel and be picked up by folks quite easily. Same thing goes for hip-hop. Kids can pick up a guitar, learn a couple of chords, and start a band in any place. Second, its oppositional stance allows it to be taken and adopted by people who want to talk about all sorts of things, whether about fighting racism or supporting racism, or fighting imperialism or fighting against diversity and multiculturalism.
What’s interesting is what happens when punk does start to travel. Not only do the ethnicities of the people playing it change, but so do the concerns. For example, with punk being taken up by Latinos in the U.S., most famously the band Los Crudos, immigration became a big issue. When it traveled down to Latin America, imperialism becomes the major issue. Because it’s so amateurish, and because it’s so oppositional, and because it’s so in-your-face, punk can be molded quite easily, unlike other musical forms.
AVC: You have argued that punk grew out of the failures of the New Left in the 1960s.
SD: I’m 45 years old and got into punk in the late 1970s, and my co-editor is a 25-year-old who got into punk in the 2000s. So we both experienced two very different punk rocks. When I got into it, punk was positioning itself against what had immediately preceded it, which was the excesses and failures of hippies and the counterculture, claiming both had hopelessly sold out and become so mellow as to lose their critical edge and become ineffectual. But I’m not sure it set itself completely against the New Left. In America, most punk was decidedly apolitical. In Europe, though, Joe Strummer was wearing Red Faction T-shirts, so he was still defining with the 1970s version of the New Left. Though he was decidedly anti-’60s, anti-hippie, and anti-mellow, which were seen as the watering down of rage and opposition.
By the time [co-editor] Max [Tremblay] gets into punk, though, it was thoroughly leftist. To be a punk meant aligning yourself with a series of politics, primarily anarchist, and anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic. So, here, there’s more of a continuity with the New Left than a rupture with it.
AVC: What happens when the politics of punk get translated by and absorbed into the mainstream?
SD: For every absorption, there’s a whole bunch of people who never get absorbed. Punk’s not as big as it was, but there are still very vibrant punk scenes in New York, Los Angeles, and London. What happens—and this is what’s so interesting about punk going transnational—is that punk spreads. So, when people in Indonesia learn about punk, it’s not from Black Flag, Sex Pistols, or The Clash, but from Green Day and Rancid, and big-name punk bands who are touring with major labels. But, still, when Green Day plays, they have an anarchy sign. People do their own archeology of punk through those signs and signifiers, and it comes out in interesting ways.
There’s a great piece in the anthology on the scene in Jakarta, Indonesia. They find out about the swastika in Indonesia as sort of a punk signifier, and then they find out about anti-fascist punk like the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” moment. But, what does a swastika actually mean in Indonesia? It means something very different in that context. When punk enters the mainstream, it’s able to spread, and as it does, it brings it signs with it. Some of them make sense and some don’t. Some get appropriated and adopted, and some get left by the wayside.
Then [the Jakarta punk scene] uses punk to specifically address Indonesian themes. In one case, it’s about rebelling against the expectations of parents. In some ways, that’s exactly as it was back in the U.S. and U.K. in 1970s, but here the expectations are different. The classic tropes of rebellion are still there, even though the issues are uniquely Indonesian.
AVC: Can you talk about the emergence of the Afro-Punk scene?
SD: It’s one of the few stories where you can actually point to one specific person—in this case James Spooner, who also wrote the preface to White Riot. He was a biracial kid who identified with being black and grew up listening to punk rock. He felt both alienated from other black kids who didn’t understand why he was listening to that music, and also from white punks, so he went around the country to find other black punks and document their experiences. In so far as he tried to record their experiences, he also created a community of black punks. He made the film Afro-Punk, and he’s also a great community organizer. Now there’s a great Afro-Punk music festival that happens every year in New York City. It’s gotten much larger than a film about a scene that didn’t really exist at the time, but now the scene has created itself.
AVC: A bit of a detour, but since you’re in New York City and we’re talking politics, would you care to comment on Occupy Wall Street?
SD: I’ve been down there a few times. I can’t offer anything new or incredibly insightful, but I’m interested in two things. First, that The New York Times can run articles on demonstrations around the world, but not the one that’s happening two miles from its headquarters. That’s bizarre.
Another thing people have commented on is its lack of leadership, demands, and structure. I think these commenters are fundamentally missing the point, and it’s a point Naomi Klein made back with the anti-globalization movement. This is a different type of movement, and it’s very frustrating for those people who want the five demands, which, of course, will not be met. This is the type of movement that doesn’t have demands. As Subcomandante Marcos said, “There is one No and a thousand Yeses.” It looks different. It feels different. It’s fundamentally structured by the Internet and not the print book. If you think about how democracy and democratic revolutions have come [in the print era], it’s all about a text on the page; you move from left to right, and the sentences all make sense. The Internet doesn’t work that way. There are a thousand truths out there, and they work on a horizontal model, not within the hierarchy of a page. What we’re seeing is an Internet revolution. We’re seeing the Internet on the streets.
So it’s frustrating for people who want demands. But these kids aren’t stupid. They know their demands won’t be met. They know that any leader who steps up is gonna have their words twisted and be bought out, so they don’t want to play that game. They’re not interested. While it looks like confusion and chaos, and like they don’t really know what they’re doing, I think it’s just the beginning of a new style of demonstrating which has yet to find its own voice and vocabulary. It may not find its voice right now, but it will in 15 or 20 years. We’re seeing the birth of something new.
AVC: Do you think this movement can learn something from punk rock?
SD: Definitely. You can’t understand any sort of street protest of the last 15 years without understanding the influence of punk rock. The whole idea of do-it-yourself, its oppositional stance—sometimes oppositional for opposition’s sake—and its ideas of infrastructure and networking as opposed to hierarchy. Distrust of stars, leaders, and the authorities ... all of that has to do with punk rock. Whether the people down there identify with punk rock or not, punk is the musical form that articulates all these ideas. I know from my own generation of activists that, if you scratch a lot of them, you’ll find a punk at the core.