We are black, it is true, but tell us, gentlemen, you who are so judicious, what is the law that says that the black man must belong to and be the property of the white man? ... Yes, gentleman, we are free like you, and it is only by your avarice and our ignorance that anyone is still held in slavery up to this day, and we can neither see nor find the right that you pretend to have over us ... We are your equals then, by natural right, and if nature pleases itself to diversify colours within the human race, it is not a crime to be born black nor an advantage to be white.
This excerpt is from a letter written in July 1792 by the leaders of the revolution of Haitian slaves. The letter has been republished in the collection of writings of the black leader Toussaint L'Overture, The Haitian Revolution, which includes also the correspondence between him and Napoleon Bonaparte. In the late eighteenth century, Toussaint L'Overture and his supporters established the first black republic in the world.
In the United Kingdom, October is Black History Month. The celebration was originally introduced in 1926 on the initiative of Carter G. Woodson, the editor of the Journal of Negro History. In 2007, no fewer than 6,000 events were held in the UK as part of its programme. Here are some key Verso titles past and present that are relevant to the study and celebration of African and Caribbean history.
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).
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.
In the days since the UK riots, there's been a strand of commentary lamenting the lack of a musical backdrop equivalent to punk in the 1980s. Last week, Krissi Murison of the NME wrote in the Guardian:
"They [punks] talk of the boredom of living in the council high-rise blocks, of living at home with parents, of dole queues, of the mind-destroying jobs offered to unemployed school-leavers. They talk of how there is nothing to do."...
If that was punk's manifesto in 1976, then here's the closest thing music has to one in 2011: Kill People. Burn Shit. Fuck School. It's a song by Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, whose apathetic anarchy is perhaps a more fitting, if unwitting, soundtrack to the riots of last week than the Clash's...This, though, is apparently what rebellion sounds like in 2011: dead-eyed, mob-like and opportunistic. There's certainly no one else currently trying to articulate anything more meaningful in pop culture.
It's a strange choice of example. Odd Future's nihilistic art-rap is a million miles from the buzzing UK hip hop and grime scenes. While it is easy to underestimate the importance of music outside one's own scene or era (and while Murison has a point about the state of much mainstream music) you really don't have to look far to see that there is a wealth of political expression happening in UK music.
American producers Cecil Otter and Swiss Andy have created Wugazi: 13 Chambers, the result of "a year's worth of cutting up every imaginable Fugazi record and trying out every Wu-Tang acapella they could get their hands on."
Is hip hop Black America's answer to punk? The two genres of music and subcultures share plenty of traits such as oft-politicized lyrics, repetition, an incredible ability to annoy parents, as well as the central concern with identity that has been played out through the politics of race for decades.
Fugazi frontman and punk hero Ian MacKaye once held some views about race that now seem shocking. At the age of 19, MacKaye was interviewed about race and the Minor Threat song "Guilty of Being White" for Maximumrocknroll, which he later stated to be "an anti-racist song." White Riot editors Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay try to unpick his rants in their introduction to the interview: