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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

Subculture As Self Care

21 March 2021
Whilst festivals and live music still seem a long way off, Arts and Culture editor Katrina Nzegwu interweaves the history of Afro-punk with her own childhood and teenage years, charting an adolescence of rebellion, creativity and self expression

Afropunk 2018 (Gretchen Robinette)

I am nine years old, and student at a predominantly Caucasian school. Heavier set and kinkier haired than my peers, I am dark and moody to their waifish lightness. Awareness of my physiological difference is heightened by the age-appropriate trends de jour: Jack Wills’ leggings and Boden towelled dresses; t-shirts adorned with flowers and flounced hems. My very actuality deters my fitting in. So, I start dressing like Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.

I buy strings of chunky plastic beads, belts with ornate buckles and fishnet gloves. I hack the sleeves off of my t-shirts, layer cropped tops over coloured tanks, and wear combat boots with bright socks pulled up to my shins. I wear a champagne puffball strapless dress, black fascinator and Doc Martens to my Year Six Leavers’ party, accessorized with a black spiked cuff and fishnet gloves. This was my version of punk, before I truly understood its aesthetic significance. Comprehension would only come retrospectively, watching James Spooner’s Afro-punk. If punk is a state of mind, the act of living contrarily, then this was my rebellion – to lean into my conspicuousness, unapologetically.

(Simon Chetrit in Repeller)

Premiering in 2003, Afro-punk gives voice to a minority sub-section of African Americans. Existing in the gap between cultural stereotypes, these participants reclaim their ostracism in the rejection of societal norms and expectations. Race does not matter; joblessness does not matter – rebellion characterises the uncertain livelihoods of the hardcore youth. In a country where race and class have become synonymous, the colour of one’s skin has a direct impact on your treatment. A study conducted by Fernanda Torres, Mauricio Salgado, Bernardo Mackenna and Javier Núñez in 2019 explores this fact, expanding on E. Telles and T. Paschel’s investigation of status cues in Latin America (2014). The study focuses on skin colour as a fundamental variable within social stratification, identifying the heuristic significance of such status attributions – the cognitive biases that promote the perception of racial inferiority, and the maltreatment of bodies of colour. In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Franz Fanon outlines a crisis of the self, provoked by interpellation – the internalization of dominant cultural values. Black bodies are subject to the two-fold imposition of oppressive assumptions and embodied stereotypes, creating a false, harmful sense of subjectivity. The punk movement offers respite, to the extent that it constitutes counter-interpellation. It provides a space for alternative sources of identity, complicating and pluralising postcolonial subjectivity, and allowing for the transcendence of the discriminatory mundane.

Afro-punk’s success led to the “Liberation Sessions,” a series of live events co-curated by Spooner and music manager Matthew Morgan; these sessions evolved into the now annual Afropunk Festival, which debuted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2005. A celebration of Black creativity, Afropunk’s fusion of art, music, fashion and film allowed for Black placemaking within punk’s predominantly White landscape. Following on from Hood futurism and GHE20 GOTH1K as auditory/visual responses to Hip-Hop’s mainstream aesthetics, Afropunk afforded alternative Black performers a haven exterior to orthodoxy. Patti Smith chants: “Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.” In the context of a culture a that laments your very being, to choose to be outside – to reclaim one’s ostracism – is an act of self-preservation. This act of self-care becomes radical in its insistence: the demand of a safe space for bodies of colour.

Jozi (Cornell Tukiri)

I am fourteen, and uncomfortable in my body. Gifted Alexa Chung’s It for Christmas, I spend the remainder of my holiday studiously googling her cultural references. I locate Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains on an illegal website, and find singular solace in a fresh-faced Diane Lane. Taffeta, leather, eyeliner, red face paint. I scour YouTube for make-up tutorials, spend my pocket money on Maybelline and Rimmel. I fuse cultural elements, pairing jagged upper lids with painted bottom lashes a-la-twiggy. Power, passion, anger, love, fire, violence, the devil, baby eros. I claim red as my colour of power, a talisman against social anxiety. Three years later, the Journal of Social Psychology would corroborate my belief in red’s power to inspire confidence, reporting that those dressed in red rated themselves more attractive than those dressed in an identical blue t-shirt. Persimmon connotes vibrancy and energy, carmine elegance and wealth; the Chinese revere scarlet as symbolic of happiness, prosperity and good luck. A penchant for expressive clothing mutates into something more concrete. I have discovered a mode of self-soothing, of personal healing. In our current age, self-care has become a purely economic enterprise, an industry of skin care products and self-help books peddled by companies who have reduced our worth to monetary status. It is my secret, this knowledge I have. The spiritual solace to be found in the aesthetic embodiment of renegades.

I am infatuated with fashion, but sceptical of trends. I subdivide my life into sartorial stages: emo, bohemian, 60s, 70s, 90s hip-hop, my contemporary vestiary preference that I have self-titled ‘Scandi Ratchet.’ Clothes are an amorphous armour, either reflecting my mood, or the mood I wish to be in. I am contemporaneously in awe of Studio 54 when a charity shop rummage yields a pair of suede, square-toed, trapezoid-heeled go-go boots. They are knee high, and the colour of a chocolate Labrador. One of the soles needs replacing, but they are £2.00, and I am in love. My mother takes them to the cobbler at Balham station; I wear them to Sixth Form the next day, with a red mini-dress and opaque tights. I imagine I am Debbie Harry, captured by Allen Tannenbaum in 1978.

The prototype of Punk lies in the tribal adornments of Africans and indigenous Americans, layered beads, facial piercings, and body markings transferred from ‘the bush’ to black-walled dive bars. The flailing arms of mosh pit members mirrors the exaggerated limbs of Yoruba Bata dancers, the leaps and stamps of pogo dancing the Indlamu dance of the Nguni. The role of movement in non-Western rituals is wide-ranging and ingrained; the post-punk dance floor constitutes a Euro-centralisation of these observances, becoming a pseudo-site of pilgrimage. The spiritualism inherent in the release of the dance floor is reflected in the reappropriation of religious vernacular by rock bands, such as Nirvana, The Damned, and Taking Back Sunday. In my Riot Grrrl phase, I am at once outside society and embedded in the visual and physical vagaries of my West African heritage. Reclaiming one’s ostracism by adopting the garb of the underground takes on double meaning – in the manifestation of cultural fusion, I am returning to myself, in all guises.

Afropunk 2013 (Rebecca Smeyne)

In 1995, Dorothea Orem published her theory of Self Care Deficit, a conceptual model that promotes the deliberate initiation of actions performed for oneself, as fundamental to healthy self-esteem. Of the conjecture’s four primary constructs, it is the emphasis on situational value that springs out. Other preferences shift, but the elements of punk remain. Participation within/affording importance to the vagaries of the genre gives one purpose, a space to exorcise the destructive forces of stress. In a capitalist society that prioritises physical over mental health – one’s fitness to work rather than one’s mental wellbeing – active self-care becomes an ethical imperative. The monochromatic eye with winged liner; necklaces layered upon layered tops; outsized silhouettes skimming thick-soled shoes – all our symbols of my anarchic autonomy, my route to self-actualization. I am woman, hear me roar.

If subcultural participation is self-care, then Punk is my charcoal sheet mask of choice. For all those who felt outside, apart – here is your home. As a person of colour, your very existence is a contextual aberration, but in the land of the displaced no-one is left out. Scream, sweat, tear your clothes, shave your head, paint a triangle on your cheek. In the skim of leather against thighs, silver against knuckles and mesh across biceps is the comforting whisper of your belonging. If you fall in a mosh pit, a luminous hand will always descend to lift you back up. You are supported, and you are safe, and that is healing.

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