A Brief History of Punk Rock’s Contribution to Civil Rights & Its Whitewashed Past

Like almost all genres of music, punk has whitewashed its history.

Though the genre was mostly born from angry working-class white people originally in the United Kingdom, it quickly grew and formed a bond with fellow oppressed groups. One of the main social issues that made this genre grow so large with such fiery passionate fans was disgust with police brutality.

But when you think of punk, bands like The Clash, The Ramones, and The Sex Pistols are the ones splattered across pop culture. If you can think of one punk band fronted by a Black musician, it’s usually Bad Brains. That’s a shame because, even though Bad Brains is a beautifully infused reggae/punk band, there’s been an entire scene of Black punks since the beginning of the genre and, more recently, some that have started calling their sound Afro-punk. You might’ve even heard of the annual Afropunk Festival that takes place around the world each year (at least pre-COVID).

Bad Brains 1979 Live at CBGBs

Sure, many of the all-white punk bands that serve as punk’s poster children have fought against racism. Joe Strummer made waves with anti-fascist songs like The Clash’s “White-Riot” and “Police & Thieves.” Several bands participated in Rock Against Racism (RAR), which started in the late 1970s after Eric Clapton went on a drunken racist rant on stage. And of course, countless smaller, lesser-known bands from the earlier ages of punk have been fighting the good fight. Like Carsickness,* a pioneering post-punk band from Pittsburgh that became local legends with “Bill Wilkenson,” a song with a chorus that gets the crowd chanting “what do you say to the KKK? FUCK YOU!”

The Clash talking about “White Riot” & Police Brutality

But Black punks are still omitted from much of punk rock’s history. Incredible musicians who were also formative pioneers to the blossoming angry genre should not be forgotten. In fact, they should probably take the place of your outdated Ramones poster—we’re talking about bands like X-Ray Spex, fronted by the wild persona of punk Poly Styrene, whose shouting vocals could shatter your soul. Death, a band bursting with anger towards society’s injustices, was probably one of the first bands to create a real moshpit. Pure Hell perfected the original punk song setup of fast, angry, one-minute long songs. And Fishbone brought the juicy sounds of ska that eventually became popular with punk bands into the ‘80s.

And those are just a few pioneering Black punk bands that should be considered among some of the founding fathers and mothers of the genre. However, with some of punk’s history in white nationalism and racism, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that these Black punk bands have been censored out of the music history books.

X-Ray Spex live 1977

Pure Hell clip from an unknown documentary

Nazi punks aren’t just something the Dead Kennedys invented to make a quick punk song. Unfortunately, racist skinheads have infiltrated huge parts of the punk rock scene since the beginning of the genre. “Oi!” one of the subgenres to branch out from punk rock in the U.K. when it first started in the ‘70s, is a perfect example. It was initially meant for people who felt alienated in society, but quickly became overrun by white nationalists and co-opted by racist organizations like the fascist National Front and the neo-Nazi run British Movement.

Even today there are still racist dirtbags playing music in the punk scene (and even more so in the metal scene). Unfortunately, there isn’t a list online of all the racist bands to avoid ( at least that we could find, but wouldn’t that be great?), but it’s also nice to know they’re not getting the publicity.

Instead, right now, we should be focusing on uplifting contemporary Black punk bands to bring the genre we love to a more diverse and just place. Bands like hardcore Brazillian punks Black Pantera, soul punk vocalist Brittany Howard, U.K. garage punks Big Joanie, angsty mellow punks Hello Yello, and countless others—the list can go on forever. Checking out the mixtapes the Afropunk Festival provides of all their featured artists is a good start.

Big Joanie, “New Year”

You can also help Black punks in many more ways than just becoming a fan. You can buy their music every first Friday of the month on Bandcamp when the site waives their fees for the artists (or if they have a direct page to purchase their merch/music, use that). Also, here is a helpful list of links to organizations that support emerging Black artists. And, of course, stand up and help raise the voices of Black artists through contributing in any way you can to the Black Lives Matter movement.

*full disclosure: the drummer for Carsickness is this writer’s father.