Features editor Jessie Florence-Jones looks at the whitewashing of punk and its still thriving existence in Asia and Africa.
When someone says punk, the first thing to come to mind for most people is a safety pin through a body part, a load of studs and a mohawk. Growing up as a scouse kid in a (very) white suburban Crosby village, the movement offered a way of listening to music akin to screaming into a pillow. As I became more politicised, the movement in my eyes swiftly moved into the area of anti-totalitarianism. From Stiff Little Fingers, Anti-Flag and Dead Kennedy’s ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’, the rich intertwining of anarchism and anti-government sentiments strengthened my own discontent. Many would say ‘punk is dead’, rolling their eyes, and point to ‘77 as the hay day and subsequent decline of the genre. This is far from the case however. Punk has, for a long time in mainstream media, been relatively white washed. The movement hardly fitted on Top of the Pops anyway, but the small nugget allowed into the public eye didn’t stray very far from a young Johnny Rotten condemning the Queen. Throughout history however, and still now, all over the world, punk is alive and kicking. Following on from Polystyrene, the black, braced, fierce-ass lead singer of X-Ray Spex, the contemporary in Asia and South Africa shows that punk never died; just stayed where it was needed most.
Soweto – Africa
There are examples of punk in Africa stemming back to the ‘70s but the movement was dominated back then by white Africaans musicians. Now however, with bands such as TCIYF, Death at the Party and Brainwreck, the subculture is being taken back and spearheaded as a politically charged voice of the disenfranchised.
The movement started with members of TCIYF starting a skate group (Skate Society Soweto) in 2011, subsequently releasing videos on YouTube and getting coverage by photographers. This DIY effort from the groups in Soweto is at the heart of what the movement is about, releasing music for themselves and spreading publicity through any art avenue they can find. The Facebook page, which has hosted gigs that Death at the Party amongst others have played, says simply in their bio: ‘It’s all about spread the word, getting the music out there and building up something new. No politics, no hatred and no bullshit. Just good loud music and some awesome skating’.
This brand of the a-political opens an avenue in South Africa to challenge the dominant white voice without addressing it directly. This mode of rebellion comes through sheer joy it seems and, with little information on the internet, the movement is still relatively self-contained in Soweto – this is punk by black Africa for black Africa.
Myanmar (formerly Burma)
My Buddha is Punk is the go-to information point on this particular subcultural shift. Originally released in 2015 it follows Kyaw Kyaw, a punk musician looking to combine the positives of buddhism with the political force of punk. The creator of the film, Andreas Hartmann, attributes his original interest to his view of Burma following 2011. Though changes were being made, he states that ‘the civil war was going on and ethnic minorities were still persecuted’ (i-D magazine).
Enter Kyaw Kyaw: the face of this political shift. Following the ‘Saffron Revolution’ in 2007 (a protest movement lead by monks originally sparked by change in fuel prices) the musician formed his band Rebel Riot. Being a closed country for almost fifty years, punk arrived late to Myanmar. That explains then why the same unrest, expressed with the same raw power, cropped up here twenty years later than the West.
Much like punk in Germany and other Eastern European countries, the movement’s underlying philosophy is inextricably linked to the undoing of fascism. In Eastern Europe punk prevails as an anti-neo-nazi movement. In Myanmar, Kyaw Kyaw’s scene is protesting the aftermath of a half-decade dictatorship that perpetually violated human rights. The uniqueness of this movement is combining the angry fervor of the scene with the peaceful zen of Buddhism.
In My Buddha is Punk we see Kyaw Kyaw and his friends questioning monks about their religion and how its harnessed. This reinvention in Myanmar is one of the most important political punk movements to date. Much like Soweto the movement started underground. With this film however, the voice of the oppressed is slowly becoming louder.
This movement is huge. Following the 1989 Tiananmen democracy revolts, Cui Jian started the ripple which would soon becomes a wave of change in China’s cultural history. Starting in Beijing, the punk movement eventually spread in the ‘90s to the Middle Kingdom, taking with it rising rebellion and discontent. The prominence of consumerism in China has left a massive portion of its youth turning to punk for an alternative set of values and model of escapism. The movement in the People’s Republic today is so colossal that Vice now has a branch in Beijing dedicated solely to covering its developments.
Fanzui Xianfa, whose name means ‘criminal thought’, have used their music to critique multiple governmental flaws, from environmental problems in China to corruption in Japan. Zuoxiao Zuzhou, friends with the artist Ai Weiwei, introduced the avant-garde to punk, singing about everything from a hopeless population to a critique of the 2008 milk scandal. Other bands include Demerit (dedicated to an undoing of false promises and consumerist culture), Gum Bleed, Flyx, Omnipotent Youth Society and a hell of a lot more.
These are the movements to turn to when people say punk is dead. It’s not dead. It never died. Starting off as a movement that naturally belonged to the oppressed, down-trodden and seemingly voiceless, it never was white in the first place. So when despairing that the verve of anti-government screams of the 70s and 80s have been silenced, turn away from the West: it just got taken back from white boys in tartan.
Jessie Florence Jones