Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay's White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race is continuing to spark wildly overdue conversations on the role of race in music culture. One of these much needed and often awkward conversations was broadcast on the Michael Eric Dyson Show. Another, a conversation between the editors and Souciant magazine, is transcribed online.
Among the various claims Steve Duncombe and I make in our recent book White Riot: Punk Rock & the Politics of Race , one in particular seems to me to have been enlivened—or at least encouraged—by the "Occupy" actions of these past few weeks: the notion that the very abstractness or vagueness of punk's oppositional stance is one of the keys to its endurance and, occasionally, political efficacy. In other words, there is something about the immediate accessibility of punk's "Fuck Off! [and We'll Fill in the Details Later]" that makes the genre/subculture, despite its myriad shortcomings on issues of race and gender inequality, so attractive to all kinds of people.
Now, there are many more subtle and elaborate political critiques to be found within punk itself, but what makes them unique is that they come across with the kind of confrontational flair—whether Kathleen Hanna's "Suck my left one!" or Martín Sorrondeguy's "That's right motherfucker, we're that spic band!"—on whose wavelength one can get even if a more robust engagement with the specific content of the message may only come later (hopefully).
White Riot editors Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay were recently interviewed on WNYC Souncheck, where they discussed the complicated and problematic racial politics of punk rock.
Using Black Flag’s “White Minority” as an example—a song proclaiming “white pride” but sung by Puerto Rican Ron Reyes, accompanied on drums by Colombian American Roberto “Robo” Valverde, and produced by African American Glen Lockett (a.k.a. Spot)—Duncombe and Tremblay demonstrate that
The “white riot” was never white from it’s conception, yet it’s been remembered and thought of and articulated as white. And this creates an immense amount of frustration, of course, for punks of color.
Ducncombe and Tremblay took questions and comments from listeners with varying perceptions on punk and racial politics.
Listen to the interview in full below.
White Riot editors Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay discussed punk, race and politics with Alexis Petridis for the Guardian Music Weekly podcast.
Going through the 'album' accompanying the book, the editors describe The Clash's 'White Riot' as
the quintessential articulation of radical whiteness ... It has all the complicated notions of the racial identity of punk rock - which is at one and the same time, a radical articulation of racial solidarity and anti-racist sentiment.
We purposely started the book with a non-punk piece, Norman Mailer's 'White Negro', because what we're trying to point out is that punk slips into a long line of bohemian cultural expressions of being able to and desiring to identify with the Other as a way of freeing oneself from white bourgeois restrictions; Patti Smith's 'Rock n Roll Nigger' is exactly within that tradition - and that haunts punk rock for 40 years.
Here's something for your ears from while you're perusing White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race: an 'album' of songs treated in the text, with commentary by yours truly. Bop along, enjoy - though not the Skrewdriver track, which is offered only in the interest of scholarly completeness - and hear how different punks have lived and negotiated racial identity.
1. The Clash: 'White Riot'
Composed after witnessing black youth fight back against police presence - at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival - "White Riot" calls for white youth to do the same, to have a "riot of [their] own." Its message of anti-racist solidarity with people of color is still, to this day, characteristic of most white punks, but it still problematically frames punk, at its inception, as an exclusively white phenomenon.