Blog post

Ian MacKaye now and then: Wugazi and "Guilty of Being White"

Sarah Shin29 July 2011

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:

Along with Black Flag and Bad Brains, Washington, D.C.'s Minor Threat was one of the templates for contemporary hardcore. Like Black Flag, they also managed to release one of the most infamous songs in the history of punk rock, "Guilty of Being White." Where "White Minority" was ambiguous and satirical, "Guilty" is shockingly sincere and tenfold more problematic. The singer Ian MacKaye has gone on to be a hero of independent music, doing pioneering work with the bands Embrace and Fugazi, as well as spearheading Dischord Records. At nineteen, however, MacKaye, responding viscerally to being a "white minority" attending D.C. public schools, was pleading to not be "blame[d] for slavery ... [a] hundred years before I was born," and to instead be treated as an individual, outside of the politics of race-a position he has since characterized as "antiracist." In this roundtable discussion, MacKaye, the MDC vocalist Dave Dictor, and Articles of Faith's Vic Bondi go over the complexities of the song, its intentions and interpretations, in the context of an overarching treatment of the role of politics in punk. MacKaye clearly taps into some of the oppositional White rage we have previously identified (see his comments about hating everybody), but interestingly, he advocates not a specificity of oppression, and opposition, that would be "White," but rather the dissolution of race as a category of social interaction and political salience altogether. As he asserts, he sees not races, but individuals. The problems with such a position are clear-one cannot merely wish away the historical and economic realities of racism's lineage-but it will prove to be a persistent one as punk moves forward.

Duncombe and Tremblay quote Dick Hebdige, another contributor to White Riot, as suggesting that "punk, in its first incarnations, was an attempt by young Whites, dissatisfied with the world they were born into, to grab and forge a new ethnicity for themselves." These impulses and tensions have been expressed in complex and confused ways such as "Guilty of Being White," but ultimately, for Duncombe and Tremblay,

Punk didn't deliver, it couldn't deliver ... Punk was and is a subculture, at best a haven in a heartless world, at worst the old world dressed up in a ripped T-shirt and sporting band badges. The problems of race and racism run deeper and wider than any subcultural scene; race as a concept stretches back for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and racism as an ideology and practice spans the entire globe ...It seems the more punks try to resolve issues of race within the scene, the more those solutions seem to elide them. Race isn't just a punk issue, and its resolution cannot take place in only a subcultural scene. 

Listen to Wugazi:

Visit Rolling Stone for a track-by-track breakdown. 

Filed under: articles, excerpts, interviews