By Eunice Marfo
Photos: Cady Siregar
THIS WAS THE third Decolonise Fest, a London DIY punk festival that is collectively organised by and for people of colour. It took place at the DIY Space in Peckham, and was a lively mix of music, workshops on race, and Caribbean and Ghanaian-style vegan food. On the bill were POC punx including Skinny Girl Diet, The Tuts and Sacred Paws, and the main talking point of the day was how to achieve the “full decolonisation” of punk.
The Decolonise Fest mission statement reads: “We will celebrate all the brilliant punx descended (through one or both parents) from the original inhabitants of Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, Australasia, North America, and the islands of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Ocean. We are reasserting our place in punk and want to showcase the amazing, creative and talented contributions punx of colour
have made to the punk scene since its inception. We are uncompromising and strong and will dismantle the white supremacy and patriarchy that infests the punk scene.
“We will talk about racism but not in a way that centres whiteness or prioritises the feelings of white people. No white tears. We are truly putting the threat back into punk again.”
Decolonise Fest is important because it hosts a conversation most people in the UK do not feel comfortable having. The music industry is male-dominated and controlled by white people who are happy to appropriate sounds from music made by people of colour, while otherwise excluding them. Punk was traditionally a very white male-centric music movement.
“Decolonisation” is about people becoming independent of colonial masters, and this weekend’s festival set out to “decolonise” punk by liberating it from white men. An “Activists of Colour” workshop saw grassroots activists from Black Lives Matter UK, Wretched of the Earth, and Sisters of Colour (a branch of Sisters Uncut) in conversation with Latinx activist Daniel Tuma. Before the discussion began, Tuma asked the participants: “First, before we begin, could the males in the room please acknowledge privilege as a male.
Secondly, can the white people in this room acknowledge privilege as a white person? Thank you.” Then came the first question: “What is it like to be a punk of colour?” The panellists agreed that black people are all expected to listen to R&B, hip-hop and rap music. This is why people of colour should use punk music “as a tool of resistance against preconceived perceptions, as well as racism itself ”. Activists of colour often get a hostile reception, even from so-called anti-racists. When the mayor of Paris vowed to ban a black feminist festival after Afro-feminists announced the festival would only be open to black women, the French anti-racism group, SOS Racisme called the event an “abomination”. In the US, Black Lives Matter activists have been called “terrorists” – in January this year a US petition was even set up which called on the government to “formally recognise Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organisation”. There was also an attempt to belittle the activists with the “All Lives Matter” campaign.
The panel condemned this “resurgence of pushing POC from creating their own spaces” calling it “an act of sabotage”. “When a white person is in a space,” continued Tuma, “they dominate it whether they are conscious of it nor not.” Look at punk music, and what do you see? White people. And white men in particular. Where were the black punks? Historically, they have been marginalised. Artists like Don Letts, Death and Pure Hell were pioneers of the genre in the ’70s but whose legacies have, for the most part, been forgotten.
Tuma said: “As [white people] dominate, there is an inability to see racism.” White people tend to put themselves on the “front line” of protests and campaigns – even when it is not their fight to be fought. As another panellist added: “Black people can and should lead their own struggles – they are much more qualified to lead.” Although the genre has been historically defined by the anger of the white working class, black people embody
the spirit of punk, and are now reclaiming the genre as a tool of resistance against the
system that racially excludes them.
With white privilege comes the “white saviour,” a concept that has operated as the blueprint for “civilising” people of colour. You don’t have to go back far in history to see this. The first wave of enslaved Africans taken were put on a slave ship called Jesus, followed by endless white missionaries who came with their white Jesus to save Africans from the “sin” of their blackness – the same lies they told on the plantations when the Scramble for Africa began.
“Decolonising is about unlearning the lies we have taught, especially in our history – it’s white washed, and we can’t deny that anymore,” stated a panellist. Another panellist said: “History is definitely the biggest area [that needs to be decolonised]. As for punk music, de-colonising is about admitting there is exclusion, and that exclusion involves people of colour.”
To unlearn the lies you have been taught means you have to rewire your thought process, rewire your mind set and start thinking for yourself, rather than according to the system. The same approach applies to music. We have to unlearn the idea that punk music is a “white-only” zone. An audience member from the band Sacred Paws revealed that her music was always being categorised in the world of experimental music rather
Spaces like Decolonise Fest open the conversation about race and identity politics for POC and are hugely important, but there are not enough of them. Because they are controlled by people of colour, such spaces raise awareness – your own voice can be lost when you ucomfortable in a white male-dominated space.
Decolonise Fest was a celebration of diversity in music, but more needs to be done to build a fair and inclusive representation that goes beyond the DIY punk scene. Decolonise Fest was also about reclaiming punk as a tool for resistance. For as long as we exist, we will resist because people of colour can, and will, own punk.