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10th November 2021

From Poly Styrene to Big Joanie: A celebration of black women in punk

Lucy Abbott explores the history of black female punk musicians and their underrepresentation in the mainstream
From Poly Styrene to Big Joanie: A celebration of black women in punk
Photo: Skin of Skunk Anansie performing in 2011 @ Wikimedia Commons

Written by Lucy Abbott.

When X-Ray Spex burst onto the music scene with their 1978 single ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’, they represented the very essence of rebellion that punk symbolised. An energy that could only be maintained through their front woman Poly Styrene. A chaotic mixture of honking saxophone combined with a power-driven guitar and drum beat, all led by Styrene’s rallying screams against the oppression of women. 

Photo: Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex by Unknown Photographer in 1979 via Creative Commons

Certainly, with her signature braces and ‘goofy’ style Styrene stepped away from the mainstream view of women in pop. As a biracial woman, Styrene was equally combating the constraints of her race. She delves deep into what it means to be a mixed-race girl growing up in the UK and ideas of belonging on the track ‘Identity’. So far ahead of her time, Styrene brought attention to the intersectionality surrounding feminism, challenging the black and white views that placed women’s struggles into one box through her electrifying music. 

“Our faces weren’t what the establishment wanted to define Britain”

Skin of Skunk Anansie

Skin of the band Skunk Anansie is no stranger to combatting the racial discrimination faced by black musicians in Britain. Describing Skunk Anansie’s music as ‘clit-rock’, Skin focused on mixing together heavy metal and black feminist rage in her art. Their 1995 hit ‘Intellectualise My Blackness’ hit back against the fetishization of black women by white men who attempted to white-wash their partners. The group were clearly influenced by the growth of 90s hip-hop. With the mix of electronic guitar riffs and Skin’s distinct, forceful voice, her music conveyed her as an unafraid and dominant figure in her genre. 

The punk trendsetter was the first black headliner of Glastonbury but she’s still not as widely acknowledged for her creative impact as other rock musicians of the 1990s, a fact that rightfully annoys Skin. “We don’t get anywhere near the recognition we deserve,” she says, “because our faces weren’t what the establishment wanted to define Britain.” While the 90s punk scene may be known for its primarily white focused Riot-Grrrl movement, Skin positioned herself as a role model for young black British girls.

Photo: Skin of Skunk Anansie performing in 2011 via Wikimedia Commons

Big Joanie formed in London as an all black female group with the purpose of creating an intersectional space away from the white nature of the UK punk scene. Frontwoman Steph Phillips reflects on this lack of diversity arguing that “there are so many different people of colour that started rock and roll and punk.” Their distorted almost grungy guitar lines and haunting repetitive vocals on 2014’s ‘Dream No 9’ are steeped in ideas of isolation and being okay with being on your own as a woman. In forming their own label, Sistah Punk Records, they embodied this idea of complete independence. Within the heavily white-washed environment of modern punk, Big Joanie are firm in not making their music palatable to white audiences, centring their music on black politics and inspiring the next generation.

“There are so many different people of colour that started rock and roll and punk”

Steph Phillips of Big Joanie

Despite influencing some of the most famous punk bands of the post-1970s scene – Bikini Kill and Sonic Youth to name just two – and performing on Top Of The Pops, X-Ray Spex are criminally underrated. Their limited number of interviews are overshadowed by the dominating white male bands of the genre, such as the Sex Pistols

This legacy continues today with major rock festivals (*cough* Reading and Leeds *cough*) being overwhelmingly headlined by white men. Black women in punk are continually ignored and have to fight harder for their voices to be heard despite their historical impact on the genre. It’s ironic that in a scene known for its counter-cultural rebellion, those that have the most to protest are side-lined for the more privileged. 

Photo: Big Joanie performing at SXSW 2019 by Paul Hudson via Creative Commons

It can only be hoped that with the access social media gives, new black female led punk bands will find it easier to continue to form new spaces in the music world without reliance on large record labels. A true reflection of the DIY aesthetics of punk. There’s only so many artists I could focus on, but from Tamar Kali to Skinny Girl Diet there’s a whole world of amazing musicians to check out. So why not give some more love to the real brilliance that black women in punk have to offer!

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