Decolonising Punk

An interview on race, punk and hating Winston Churchill, with the self-described 'Black Fleetwood Mac', Big Joanie.

“Alright, this song is about hating people,” singer Stephanie Phillips announces as the band launch into a lolling motorik of scrunched up guitar chug, a distant thunder of floor toms and picked bass. Big Joanie are the self-described “black feminist Fleetwood Mac”, bell hooks-quoting London-based activist punks whose debut album was released last year on Thurston Moore and Eva Prinz’s Ecstatic Peace Library. So who do you hate? I ask after the show. “Winston Churchill?” offers drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone. 

We’re sitting upstairs in what was once the East London clubhouse of a colonial soldiers’ association, now a hip indie rock venue. On the wall across us, a vestige from the bar’s former life, a portrait of the wartime prime minister glowers at us. “If only he knew,” Taylor-Stone continues, “that this room would be unleashing black feminist punk bands!” 

Back in 2006, Mark Fisher wrote a blogpost arguing that “what Pop lacks now is the capacity for nihilation, for producing new potentials through the negation of what already exists.” Big Joanie have nihilation in spades. The band were first announced with a post on the music website Collapse Board six years ago entitled ‘We Need to Talk about Racism in Punk’. In it, Phillips spoke honestly and openly about the “racial micro-aggressions” she had experienced as a black woman in the punk scene.

She criticised the unspoken white privilege underlying the Riot Grrrl movement, and spoke of her determination to start an “an all-black punk band” in order to “recover, to feel free, to feel safe.” Phillips and Taylor-Stone, both originally from the Midlands, met in London at a series of consciousness raising meetings.

“We’d meet every month and just be black women in a room saying this happened to me and this happened to me,” she says. “It feels like you’re just chatting, but you’re actually working through things, problem-solving in real time.” It’s a practice, they tell me, that still influences the way they operate as a band to this day. “Having gone to those meetings,” Taylor-Stone says, “I think we understand what the value of the band is – not just for ourselves but for other people.”

They’ve remained loyal to the institutions that nurtured them, as well as setting up a few of their own. Since 2017, Phillips and Big Joanie bassist Estella Adeyeri have been on the organising team for Decolonise Fest, “a DIY punk festival collectively organised by and for people of colour” featuring panels on Black Lives Matter and “Desi identities in the punk scene” alongside music from the likes of Sacred Paws and recent Hyperdub signing Loraine James.

That grew out of a post by Phillips on social media, pointing out, as Adeyeri recalls, “how conversations about racism weren’t really happening in DIY spaces. There are a lot of well-intentioned efforts, but people can still assume that they don’t have any racist intentions so they couldn’t possibly be enacting any patterns that you would experience anywhere else in society.” 

Taylor-Stone, on the other hand, has been involved in numerous campaigns – from Stop Rainbow Racism, speaking out against blackface drag acts at LGBTQ venues, to more recent work around class in the arts sector and with UK Black Pride. A longtime activist, she recalls the Stop the War campaigns of the early 00s as a key moment in her politicisation. “I grew up around people that I was seeing getting signed up by the government to go off to this thing,” she tells me, “and I just thought, this doesn’t sound right.”

Though still a teenager at the time, she remembers handing out flyers in the street, organising coaches to go down to the big demos in London – she and some friends even “handcuffed ourselves to the McDonalds in Kettering.” Though she may smile at stunts like that now, it was definitely, she says, a moment that was “fundamental to my ideas about being a socialist.”

 “The only other black person I used to see at gigs was Rachel Aggs [of Trashkit, Sacred Paws],” Phillips tells me. But as Taylor-Stone says, “people are looking for diverse images of blackness”. That much is proved by the response Big Joanie have already received. But for real change to take place in the music industry, as the band point out, that diversity needs to go beyond headline acts. “It’s the backstage which is where the power is,” Taylor-Stone says. “Who’s the A&R person, who are those people over there? I think that’s when you’ll start to see some actual change being made. And I think people want that.” Phillips agrees. “People are crying out for it.”