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White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race.

White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race

Edited by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay Verso (2011)

PUNK, IT'S "THE INK THAT'S IN MY SKIN," sings Frank Turner, vocalist for the post-hardcore band Million Dead. But for those of us who sympathize with Frank's lyrics, and who also believe (or believed) that "punk rock saved my life," it is important to understand the political complexities and privileges of skin beneath ink.

When punk burst onto the scene in the late 1970s it was expected to quickly fade into obscurity. That a whole subgenre of cultural studies has evolved to document the scene is only further proof that punk rock is here to stay. The editors of White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race are no strangers to punk or cultural theory. Both dyed-in-the-hair punkers since their teens, Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay, are also New York-based academics.

By pulling from all corners of the dingy basement club that is "punk rock literature," this edited collection does an excellent job of bridging academic writing and zine rants, album liner notes with mainstream media reports, all of which touch on issues of race and racism in what has been a largely white-dominated music scene.

Context is provided through selections from "pre-punk" texts tike Norman Mailer's "The White Negro" and liner notes from john Sinclair (MC5) and Patti Smith. The bulk of the book documents punk's early "personality crisis," when artists like Joe Strummer and Gregg Ginn were looking for a voice to represent their angst and frustration at being poor white males in a system they despised. Problems of cultural appropriation, (self-)victimization and racism are examined through interviews and lyrics. Of particular interest are Lester Bangs's "The White Noise Supremacists" and Steven Lee Beeber's attack on New York punks for their use of Nazi imagery.

The book also takes aim at those who used the anger of punk to express racist and fascist politics. In a dissection of interviews with white-power groups like the UK's Skrewdriver and Canada's own RaHoWa (short for Racial Holy War), readers confront the ways in which racist groups distorted the multiracial history of rock music and used youthful anger and rebellion to preach division and hatred.

After exploring the history and (admittedly mixed) successes of anti-racist organizing in punk rock, White Riot takes a look at multicultural and multiracial punk rock, and the ways in which a predominantly Anglo-centric cultural phenomenon has spread around the world. This is by far the most interesting part of the collection, and likely the most underrepresented in the literature. An entire reader dedicated to the global subgenres of punk, from Pakistan to Botswana, would be the logical next step for any serious punk rock scholar.

White Riot serves as a great primer to the subject of race and racism within punk rock. While its strength lies in the multitude of voices represented within, at times that is also its weakness. Some of the writing from zines (even "reputable" ones) is amateurish, at best. However, for anyone interested in punk rock as a cultural phenomenon, or a lifestyle, this reader is highly recommended.

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Author:Birnie, Sheldon
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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