Black, proud and punk
Amy Squirrell chats about race, punk and DIY culture with Big Joanie, the all-female, black punk band
Big Joanie are intelligent punks. They’re black feminist sistah punks. They fuse nuanced ideas with killer delivery, to-the-point lyrics and simple songs. It’s short and sweet, but meaningful. Taking inspiration from successful 1960s groups like The Ronettes, their influences range from Tina Turner to Nirvana, via Darlene Love and PJ Harvey. Their music is an eclectic mix of punk, grunge, lo-fi and Motown, with a political twist.
Big Joanie — or rather, Steph, Chardine and Kiera — know who they are, what they want and how to get it. I spoke with them last year, before their gig at The Grosvenor pub in Stockwell, London.
“There’s a lot of girl group influence in our music,” says vocalist and guitarist Steph, before Big Joanie take the stage. “Then there’s our politics and cultural backgrounds as black feminists,” she adds.
Big Joanie was born out of the anxiety and disillusionment that came from always being the only black girl at a show, from trying to shrug off casual racism and generally just feeling shut out of the punk scene as black women. The band’s ambition is to reaffirm that black punks do have a place in the subculture.
”Within black culture, punk is seen as a white person’s music, but if you look at the history, it’s not at all”
“It’s validation that you can express yourself through that medium as much as anyone else,” says Chardine. “Within black culture, punk is seen as a white person’s music, but if you look at the history, it’s not at all.”
“It’s just that we don’t see them, or we see them, but we forget,” says Chardine.
“If anything I’d argue we [black people] are its [punks’] roots, which sprang up from reggae, blues and rock’n’roll,” says Steph. “But in terms of who is paraded as its icons, who goes to gigs and who gets in magazines and blogs, [punk] is a white scene.”
By presenting a powerful vision of black womanhood and championing black punks, Big Joanie hope to draw attention to the contributions that black women have made, and continue to make to the scene, and also to encourage young black kids to express themselves through punk.
Drawn to punk from a young age, Kiera started hanging around in Camden with the ‘77 punks when she was just 11 years old. The members of Big Joanie have always shared a subtle, sinister feeling of unease, of not belonging, from which a justifiably aggrieved tone creeps when they speak about their experience on the scene. “I became really immersed in the scene, but when I step back from it and analyse it now I get so confused as to why it had such a strong appeal to me, ‘cause it was such an overt display of white male aggression,” says Kiera.
“You constantly feel as if you’re not meant to be there,” says Chardine. “People don’t understand why you like that kind of music.”
Both Kiera and Chardine admit that their entry into punk was a journey through white male-dominated spaces – emo, hardcore, rockabilly – and while they say they still struggle to explain its appeal to them, they stuck with it. Bypassing these subcultures altogether, however, Steph found some solace in Riot Grrrl, a majority women-only movement.
The problem with Riot Grrrl is that whilst it is a female-led movement, it has predominantly been a white and middle class movement
A feminist punk movement which started in 1990s Washington DC and that is still very much alive today, Riot Grrrl actively protested the male-dominated punk scene in which women had to fight much harder, not just for creative recognition, but for the basic right to not be sexually assaulted in clubs. But similarly to how patriarchy is argued to be a problematic part of punk, the problem with Riot Grrrl is that while it is a female-led movement, it has predominantly been a white and middle class movement. The movement tackles issues of feminism, but it largely neglects to acknowledge how these issues intersect with race. As a result, many black girls feel alienated from Riot Grrrl, and white punks, with the best intentions, find it hard to relate to them, perpetuating racial segregation within the subculture.
“I’ve been introduced to the only other black girl at a show and they’re like: Oh, you’ll get on really well!” Kiera laughs.
Growing up, Steph got used to being the only black person among a group of white people, or one of few, and this didn’t change when she started hanging around on the punk scene.
“Someone would say something quite racist, but I didn’t know how to confront it in that space,” she says. “It was only after I became more politicised and aware that I started to realise that there was no need for me to have to put up with this on a daily basis.”
Before Big Joanie, Chardine didn’t play drums, but that didn’t stop her replying to Steph’s Facebook call for girls to join her black feminist punk band
Running punk club nights and performing in feminist punk band My Therapist Says Hot Damn, Steph likened issues of race in punk to “a blurry flash of light in the corner of your eye.”
“You know something’s there but when you try and get a proper look, it vanishes,” she says. After a gig with My Therapist, she heard from a friend that an audience member had just congratulated the only other black girl in the venue on a great performance, thinking she was Steph.
“I took it as a conscious act of refusal to acknowledge my presence as a black woman in that space,” she says. It was this type of micro-aggression that caused Steph to put her foot down and decide to create her own bubble in which she didn’t have to constantly turn a blind eye to casual racism or feel like an outcast. That bubble was Big Joanie.
Before Big Joanie, Chardine didn’t play drums, but that didn’t stop her replying to Steph’s Facebook call for girls to join her black feminist punk band. Chardine saw the message and decided that not only did she want to get involved, but she specifically wanted to be the drummer. Kiera didn’t play bass either, but nevertheless they all set about learning their crafts. Together the girls played First Timers in 2013, a festival for new bands to play their first gig and to encourage women and members of the LGBTQIA community to get involved with music making.
When Chardine started learning the drums, she eschewed the traditional set-up in favour of standing at an upturned bass drum, á la Velvet Underground. “I like that stripped-down set up,” she says. “It’s cheaper and you don’t have to do three things at once — you don’t need to!”
Big Joanie recorded their demo album in Chardine’s living room with no microphones, using a plastic box and a coffee table for a drum kit. It’s DIY — a rejection of the idea that you have to be inherently special to play music, or that you have to play or sing in a certain way to be considered cool or authentic. It’s an ‘anyone can’ approach; whoever you are, whatever your skill set, you can have a go.
This is especially poignant for the members of Big Joanie, who are troubled by the way black women are unfairly categorised across the whole of the music industry. Audiences make assumptions about their abilities, and box them into genres typically associated with black musicians before you can say, “I don’t like reggae!” The girls all sing and play in the band to prove that black women aren’t one trick ponies. “For me, it’s breaking that stereotype of the black female singer,” says Chardine. “When the black woman comes on stage, you’re always expecting this —” “Big voice,” Kiera cuts in “Gospel voice,” adds Steph. Clearly it’s an issue they all feel strongly about.
“None of us sing in any kind of booming, gospel choir trained voice,” Steph continues. “We have our own way of singing. I don’t think you can listen to us and say we’re definitely black, or definitely anything.”
“And women in general suffer a much higher level of criticism in the music industry; whether it’s what they’re wearing or even just that we have higher expectations of their creative abilities. It’s as though female musicians have to prove their worth to a much higher degree than male musicians. I think any woman, of any race – when you’re performing, people do expect you to be at a higher standard than if you were a guy,” says Chardine.
“We’re trying to break down barriers where it feels like that standard has to be a bit higher, or you feel like you have to have an image or an aesthetic to go with your music. If you’re in an all-girl band, you have to have an ‘all-girl band’ image,” says Kiera. But Big Joanie don’t bother with that. They just focus on making noise, playing loads of gigs and shaking punk to its core.
Listen to any Riot Grrrl band — Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Bratmobile — and you’ll be met with a tirade of screaming. But don’t be put off. Women were using wailing as a political tool long before Riot Grrrl. Yoko Ono, Siouxsie Sioux, Björk — it’s not meaningless and it’s not accidental. It’s a statement, challenging what it means to be feminine. It’s an intentional break from the traditional ideas of femininity, in which women keep a close eye on their range of movement, control the volume of their voices and keep their opinions to themselves. Riot Grrrl stands in direct opposition to the idea that women should be seen and not heard, or at least that what we do hear should be pleasant and non-disruptive.
”As much as you can say about Beyoncé, she’s still the only person that I’ve yet to hear quote an African feminist in a pop song, so I’ll let her off”
But it’s not just Riot Grrrl. Recently, feminism has become the buzzword of the pop world, with stars like Beyoncé tackling issues that affect women through their music. It can often seem that any mention of the f-word in pop will result in a backlash of divided opinion that leaves me wondering if there’s anyone who can get the mix of pop and feminism right. The girls of Big Joanie maintain that any well-meaning nod towards women’s rights is a good thing, however. “In the wider sense, it’s introducing young women to the words and making it okay, everyone starts from somewhere,” says Chardine. “It’s a gateway entrance. You Google it, stuff comes up, and the next thing you know that young person is reading Simone de Beauvoir.”
“As much as you can say about Beyoncé, she’s still the only person that I’ve yet to hear quote an African feminist in a pop song, so I’ll let her off,” adds Steph dryly, referring to the speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie entitled ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, which was sampled in Beyoncé’s 2013 hit, ‘Flawless’.
Before Big Joanie head onstage, I ask them about their plans for the future of the band. Aside from recording an EP, the girls are eager to make their mark on the continent and in the US, specifically Afro Punk festival in New York: a vibrant and diverse collection of urban and alternative music. So with that, I leave the band to discuss their set times and whether or not more dancing could be encouraged amongst the crowd, and head to get my space in the front row.
You can find out more about Big Joanie here and follow their Twitter @big_joanie
Image one, at the top of the page, is a high-angle group shot of Big Joanie, featuring (left to right) Chardine, Kiera and Steph, all of whom are looking towards the camera. Image two, in the middle of the page, is a group shot of Big Joanie performing, featuring (left to right) Kiera on bass guitar, Chardine on drums and Steph on vocals and guitar. Image one was taken by Iona Dee and image two was taken by David Garcia.