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Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay present: White Riot: The Album

Stephen Duncombe, Maxwell Tremblay 2 September 2011

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.


2. Patti Smith: 'Rock n Roll Nigger'

Here, in a gesture that was somewhat common in white bohemian culture at the time, Smith tries to redefine the term "nigger" as a badge of honor that could be shared by society's outcasts, in particular, other white bohemians. The gesture is problematic in countless ways - it is clearly a mark of white privilege to think that such a poisonous racial slur could simply be taken up and appropriated by anyone - and places Smith in a tradition of fetishizing racial others for what is thought to be some quasi-mystical transgressive power.

3. Bob Marley: 'Punky Reggae Party'
On this track, Marley offers a vision of the kind of interracial aesthetic solidarity the Clash called for: punk bands and reggae artists, playing together, finding common ground in being "rejected by society." This is both a realistic picture of the influence of reggae on early punk rock, but also a kind of idealized vision, which reinforces white punks' understanding of their own anti-racism.

4. X: 'White Girl'

X have written songs that manifest punk's (white) inchoate rage against otherness, like "Los Angeles" which attempts to perform society's decline by using a litany of racial epithets, and have come under rigorous criticism for it. Here, however, they show us a characteristic gesture of punk's approach to whiteness: the category, rather than remaining the de facto and dubious ‘neutral' as it does in society at large, becomes marked and identified, a category that must be thought through, critiqued and justified.

5. Black Flag: 'White Minority'

Written as a satire of anti-immigrant zealots and sung by Ron Reyes, who is Latino, "White Minority" is still often interpreted as expressing a sincere fear of whites becoming a minority in Los Angeles. This indicates both the tricky nature of irony in songs written from the first person perspective, as well as the accessibility of oppositional rage at the other to legions of young white punks.

6 The Plugz: 'La Bamba'

One of the first instances of a punk band singing in Spanish, The Plugz were both ironically protesting the stereotypes associated with Mexican-American identity and also sincerely trying to navigate what that identity meant. Not only does this provide another example among countless others that punk, despite its own narrative framing, was never exclusively white, but it also shows a perhaps uniquely ‘punk' way of negotiating issues of identity: with a sense of both investment and distance, of sincerity and satire.

7. Minor Threat: 'Guilty of Being White'

Ian MacKaye gives voice on this tune to the sort of oppositional white rage and fear that "White Minority" is often thought to endorse, lashing out at the black residents of his native Washington, D.C. for associating him with the historical abuses of whites. But MacKaye's misstep, of course, is that he is associated with that history, and benefits from white privilege. However, there's a kind of truth to what MacKaye is struggling with, which is what whiteness means as a punk.

8. Bad Brains: 'Attitude'

"We got that PMA!" shouts Bad Brains vocalist H.R. on one of their most famous songs, appropriating an old motivational slogan about "positive mental attitude" for his own ends. The all-black band not only showed that they were more than capable of doing the same with punk by speeding it the hell up and wedding it to reggae, but their interest in Rasta proved a kind of structural model for punk political commitment - to anarchism, straight edge, etc.

9. Skrewdriver: White Power

As abhorrent as white power skinheads are, no examination of race in punk would be complete without thinking through what they represent. Additionally, current events have resulted in the partial mainstreaming of ideas not too far off from those expressed in this track - I'm looking at you, David Starkey - making it all the more imperative that we understand their attraction in order to confront them. Nazi racists are often quite candid about why punk appeals to them as a vehicle for their hate, and this track by white power punks Skrewdriver, with a chorus both horrifying and objectively catchy, shows it: they want to get in kids' heads, and will use whatever means they can to do so. And punk rock music - with its sheen of outsider rebellion and shout-along choruses - has proven quite effective in this regard.

10. Alien Kulture: Asian Youth

Race in punk for most of its history was understood along the overly simple white/black binary. As punks of color, how do you disrupt this binary and fight back? If you're the three second-generation Pakistani immigrants of British band Alien Kulture, you write ripping Clash-inspired songs chronicling your own experience of the in-between. In this tune, they illustrate how punk provided a way of living a different version of their own race and ethnicity, at the same time contesting the dominant racist culture, their own cultural inheritance, and the intransigence of youth culture itself.

11. Anti-Product: The Power of Medusa

Raging out of Albany, New York, Anti-Product's Puerto Rican front-woman Taina Del Valle indicts the oppressive strictures of white standards of beauty over driving crust. Del Valle also chafed against the aesthetic boundaries of punk rock, incorporating poetry and conga drumming into her live performance - a tactic which inspired a fair amount of reactionary dismissal from white punk audiences, illustrating the possible ties between punk's relatively monochromatic demographics and sound.

12. Los Crudos: We're that Spic Band

Los Crudos were one of the most universally adored hardcore bands of the 1990s, and challenged the white punk status quo by both singing in Spanish and filling in the effaced history of Latinos in punk rock - giving the lie to punk's usual characterization of itself as white. This track, their only one in English, directly counters the racism of fans who both dismissed and tokenized them as "that Spic Band."


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