decolonise fest | punk is ours

June 18, 2017

words by: Ifeanyi Awachie

My introduction to indie music was in the library of my Catholic middle school, where my Latina friend and I pulled up Le Tigre's pink website, the song “TKO” piercing the intended quiet. That genre ruled my headphones for the next ten years: I scoured blogs for new releases, illegally downloaded track after track. It felt good to be part of the scene, digging into this music I loved so much. But I wondered - as a black girl - if I was supposed to like this music. Other than my homegirl, it was mostly white boys at my school who liked indie, punk, alternative, who filled out the online forums, who rounded out the concerts. Feeling an increasing disconnect, I eventually discovered rap and fell head over heels for hip hop, R&B, soca, and - my number one love - afrobeats. My taste became completely black, and those indie sounds vanished from my daily soundtracks.

Years past my punk-infused days, I recently hopped a bus from my North London flat to Decolonise Fest, hosted at DIY Space in Peckham in early June. I didn’t go for the punk music. The event called itself a “DIY festival organised by and for people of colour,” and I was drawn to that. I was over what I’d come to see as the mostly-white “punk scene,” but wanted to support other black people making space in the community.

I stepped into DIY Space, and was sucked right back in.  

I was seduced by the earnestness, warmth, and brilliance of the festival punx - their creativity mixed with action. At a workshop called “Building Community and Intersectional Resistance in Times of Struggle,” Cassie Agbehenu (a Higher Education Policy Adviser and bassist for the punk band Fight Rosa Fight), led the room through the big question of how to fight racism in the British punk scene. The crowd shared discussion points that Agbehenu scribbled onto a poster. Among them: a blatantly racist email a group of white punks had recently sent to Texas-based hardcore band Amygdala. It was a tough discussion; a draining one. To lighten the mood, Agbehenu asked about the positive things folks had taken from, and learned from, punk. The resounding answer: DIY.  

Decolonise Fest embodied that do-it-yourself spirit: Estella, bassist for black feminist punk trio Big Joanie, sold me the official festival zine, then patched my disintegrating phone cord with green and yellow tape. DIY Space could not have been a more fitting venue: formerly a warehouse, the building is now a volunteer-run events space with a bar, patio, print collective, and radio station. Its walls are living collages, transmitting messages of gender and sexual equality, mental health, and creativity. Fill this space with good music and a bunch of punx, and you get a progressive London refuge. 

Speaking on a panel of “Activists of Colour,” Gbemi from Sisters Uncut, an organization fighting domestic violence against women of color, said, “I'm not an activist - I’m just trying to draw out my inner humanity.” Beside Gbemi sat fellow Sister Monica Ogaga, Wail Qasim from Black Lives Matter UK, and Angela and Daniel Diaz from the POC-led environmental organization Wretched of the Earth. These doers explored the concept that grounded the festival: decolonization. “You can decolonize everything,” Angela said. “Food, education, politics… [decolonization is] learning the truth every day.” An audience member asked about the relationship between music and activism, unleashing the kind of music exchange we culture nerds live for. Many of the orgs actively incorporated music into their work: Ogaga from Sisters Uncut described how the group chants before actions. To celebrate, they dance to rhymes by women rappers of color like Nadia Rose (a GT fave) and Latinx powerhouse Princess Nokia. Angela, originally from Bolivia, said that indigenous music is embedded in Latin American organizing strategy: “It’s the way we start, the way we finish. People call out different energies.” Diaz applauded the late J Capri, singer of the dancefloor destroyer Whine & Kotch for owning her sexuality through her art. “All the music white people love is music that came from resistance,” Diaz also said, citing punk, hip hop, and blues as black-rooted genres. I’d add dance/house music, country, and countless other genres to that list.  



Post-panels, a film trailer on a black British punk frontwoman debuted, second rounds of beer and vegan food were enjoyed, and it was time for the highly anticipated music. I was delighted by the Oakland-based duo Ragana, whose soft demeanor belied their ability to scream and shred on the mic, guitar, and drums. Melbourne-based Texan outfit Divide and Dissolve started with an unapologetic disclaimer: “I’m ashamed of your ancestors,” said guitarist Takiaya, addressing the white people in the crowd. Everyone cheered, and Divide and Dissolve transitioned to a moody melange of drums, atonal guitar, and an unexpected, sonorous sax. Tony協Yap wove traditional dance into their set. Abandoning the stage, synth player 梁子文 Gman Leong descended into the crowd wielding a lion head (referencing the lion dances at Chinese New Year). Raising and lowering the mask, Gman executed a fluid series of steps and lunges before returning to his keyboard to bump industrial beats.

Here’s what I thought about on my bus ride home: we need an overabundance of spaces like Decolonise Fest - concerts, communities, and celebrations where black and brown people of all stripes feel visible, and heard. Decolonise is a solid first step in that direction, a testament to the power of the DIY organizing of which people of color are capable. The event’s communal atmosphere evidenced the impact the fest had on its participants; it certainly moved me. As I watched the bands - Big Joanie with their riot grrrl sound, Skinny Girl Diet with braids flying - somewhere inside, a younger Ifeanyi felt seen, affirmed, and thrilled to discover some new, and damn good, music.

Header photo: Big Joanie c/o Carl Farrugia
Flyer: c/o Decolonise Fest
Body photo: Ragana c/o Ragana