Arts & Culture Race

How Do Women of Colour Find a Place in the Punk Scene


Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe

This article has been adapted from a talk given at the event, Off the Shelf in Sheffield, October 2014

I am lucky and I know that. I am lucky that I found a semi-comfortable place to be. I play in feminist punk bands as part of the London punk scene that encompasses everything from riot grrrl to hardcore, post punk to noise pop. Growing up in Wolverhampton, there was a music scene of sorts it was nothing like the one I am currently involved in. As a shy teenager I never had the confidence to start a scene by myself and I’m not sure how other teenagers could either. It was too much and I thought it was easier to leave.

So that is just to say that I know that both the time we’re living in and the London and UK punk scene in general has improved. Nevertheless as inclusive as the London punk scene aims to be it is safe to say that it can fail in numerous ways. Not in an actively aggressive way but more in a passively ignorant way that is almost worse. We live in an age of UKIP, regressive politics, Islamaphobia and class snobbery so it would be a miracle if these attitudes did not seep their way into every aspect of our culture including the people within our music scene.

I have told people examples of things that have happened to me before but it’s so hard to express the insidious nature of, to quote bell hooks, the “Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” that sometimes my friends could not understand it or perhaps I could not understand fully. When the weapons of the enemy are all around us it’s hard to recognise them as anything but normal.

We all know the obvious ways women musicians are treated within the industry. We probably should be pretty but not too pretty, talented but with the knowledge that you’ll never be fully recognised for it and white men with half the talent, who sometimes stole your creative ideas (cough* Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones) will make the magazine covers, line bedroom walls and be crowned the kings of rock n roll. What’s missing from that list is to be crowned the perfect indie songstress, and that’s an indie songstress that appeals to male music journalists as well, you had to be white.

This was integral and it’s something that even as a teenager I noticed immediately but no one talks about the racial element in the music industry. The most popular women in music that I admired when I was younger were PJ Harvey, Brody Dalle, Kathleen Hanna and Karen O. They were all talented, brave and if they were men would have been made into Gods. If Alex Turner can get into NME every other week for accomplishing seemingly creative endeavours in-between tax evading than surely Peej deserves more than a quick look in every few years.

PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey

They also embodied a girl next door beauty that was welcoming, alluring and most importantly non threatening. This was because it was a beauty based on conventional beauty standards that value whiteness and Caucasian features. While I admire these women no one ever discussed the fact that whiteness, sexuality and gender were so heavily intertwined when I was younger.  I would look at these talented white women and look at the men and I could not see a place for myself in that world.

I did not grow up in a household that was openly creative. I was not popular, confident, I had no innate talent for anything. I needed validation or a visual cue to give me the go ahead and say “yes you could be in a band, here’s your spot, make your mark,” but that did not happen. I decided that since I could not look as beautiful as my idols, and I did not know whether I could play like them either, that I probably could not be a musician.

I changed my mind later, but it is important to note how these images and codes can affect our way of thinking. I eventually joined a band and began to play music in places other than in my room with the door closed and my headphones on but it was hard. Having the confidence to believe in myself, my music or even turn the volume up too high took a long time to come and in certain situations it still fails me completely. I have realised that still at the back of my mind those early images are holding me back and telling me I don’t have authority here.

So when we think about how hard it is for white women in the music industry when their role models are sidelined by white men, think how hard it must be for black women when our role models rarely get a mention. If black women do make it into the spotlight they are unfortunately white washed by history like Poly Styrene, vocalist in X-Ray Spex. What I saw as my first ray of hope, a slightly kooky mixed race girl, many white people saw as another white woman. Seeing a black and white image of a woman in a punk band the assumption is made that she must have been white so just like that an entire aspect of her life is erased.

It took me years to learn the true history of rock music and fill in the blanks that had been rubbed out and replaced with a conventional white man. The canon of music history that we are taught is flawed and incomplete. For example Led Zeppelin’s classic ‘When the Levee Breaks’ was actually written by the black female guitarist Memphis Minnie and her husband Kansas Joe in 1935. This story is well known, mainly because Led Zeppelin are well known for stealing songs, but nevertheless Memphis Minnie is rarely as celebrated as Led Zeppelin.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the most popular blues and gospel singers in the 30s and 40s. Her guitar style was incredibly unique and she was a huge influence on stars such as Chuck Berry and Elvis who would have seen Tharpe was a hero. Chuck Berry and Elvis went on to influence bands such as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. Nevertheless Tharpe’s name is rarely mentioned in everyday circles. When we discuss the mainstream history of rock it is important to remember the styles and influences have been garnered from a confrontational black femininity that has been put into a white male space to make it more conventional.

Nina Simone
Nina Simone

Sometimes I lie awake at night and think about all of the amazing black women who formed bands and wrote amazing music that we’ll never know about because they were written about of history before they could even get properly started. I refuse to believe that they did not exist. I know they did because I exist and I am not an anomaly.

I think we need to consider ways to make the music industry a better space for black women. To start we need to take more time to consider the black women who paved the way. Being able to fill in the canon of rock history with women such as Nina Simone, Betty Davis,  Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marlena Shaw, has given me more confidence to continue in music and knowing that other women have done it before me gives me hope for the road ahead.

In James Spooner’s now legendary 2003 documentary Afro Punk, which looks at race and identity within the punk movement, punk musician Tamar Kali stated: “Being caught in a system that you can’t identify with, that you can’t support and just being contrary, that’s the true energy of what punk is. I think one of the punk-ist people i can think of in history is Nina Simone.”

I have to agree with her that Nina Simone is probably more punk than everyone. If you don’t think so, know that at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 she asked the majority black crowd if they were ready to kill for the revolution.

If being punk mean being “caught in a system that you can’t identify with, that you can’t support” that I believe that the main group of people that experience this from birth are black women. Black women, by our very nature, by getting up every day, having confidence in ourselves, wearing what we want, smiling when we want or not, being loud, gregarious or shy and retiring; by being ourselves black women are the definition of punk.

We need to reclaim our space and title in a world that, as the great jazz musician Charles Mingus succinctly put, is constantly “singing your praises while stealing your phrases”.

I don’t always get paid for my work, so if you’ve liked my pieces and want me to write more you can donate a couple pennies to keep me going in between paid work.

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