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"Helping get the party started" - An interview on Punk Rock

Leo Goretti13 December 2011

Stir features a long interview with the editors of White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay. The "basic premise" on which the book is grounded, Duncombe and Tremblay explain, is that "race is deeply embedded in Punk Rock, not just musically ... but integral to its very formations." Punk was one of the first subcultures that "acknowledged that we (in the UK and US) were now all living in a multicultural society." At the same time, the book also aims to debunk a white-only representation of the punk scene, stressing

those contributions of non-white punks who were part of the scene from the very beginning yet tend to be marginalized or white-washed entirely out of standard punk histories.

There is much to learn from the history of punk. In an age in which racism seems to be again on the rise, today's young radicals should bear in mind how white punks who claimed to have an anti-racist approach ended up hegemonising the movement, Maxwell Tremblay emphasises:

The lesson of punk rock's attempt to do this is to be mindful of the ways in which subcultures can, in fact, replicate that white power structure within their own limits.

The two editors also touch on the fundamental question of how music can contribute to radical politics. In their view, music can help challenge "our ideas about power and race, about what's 'natural' and inevitable and what's possible and can be changed." This, however, is not enough: "you also have to change the social, political and economic structures in which they live." To say it with Maxwell Tremblay,

punk rock isn't necessarily analogous to the nuts and bolts work of political organizing, but it can, to be a bit cheeky, help get the party started.

Duncombe and Tremblay emphasises one of the basic tensions that is inherent in punk. The punk message tend often to offer quite a simplistic reading of reality, in which the source of oppression is identified with generic words such as "state" or "fascism". On the one hand this makes the movement appealing:

in punk's more-or-less ambiguous "Fuck You!", [one can find] a formal representation of rage that is easily tapped into, and one that can be further filled out with more explicit political content.

At the same time, however, to an extent this take on reality does not allow an in-depth analysis of the real reasons for social problems, and also leaves "less room to talk about forms of oppression that do arise within the scene."

Finally, the debate moves to the topic of punk and race. Punk was one of the first subcultures in which white people thought of themselves as "white" in a self-conscious way: "whiteness, within punk, becomes something to define and articulate." This awareness could either bring about anti-racist feelings or turn into racism, as in the case of the White Power sub-genre. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the existence, from the very beginning of punk, of non-white bands:

Punk might like to think of itself as white, but in reality it never has been...and is becoming increasingly less so.The most vibrant punk scenes today are no longer in London or New York but in cities like Mexico City or Jakarta, Indonesia. This globalization of punk decenters the assumed whiteness of punk; it also problematizes the racial dichotomies at the heart of punk. Black/white, Asian/white, Latino/white - the racial axes around which punk has revolved for decades have little meaning in a place like Jakarta, so punks there do there what they've always done: adapt and adopt the culture so that it speaks to the concerns that are relevant to them. And in the process the riot that is punk becomes, racially and ideologically, a lot more multi-hued.

Visit Stir to read the interview in full.

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