“What about Elvis? He give you anything for ‘Hound Dog’?”
“I never got a dime.”
“Did he tip his hat, or something?”
“Well, he refused to play with me when he first come out and got famous. They wanted a big thing for Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley. He refused. And I’m so glad I can tell the world about it.” [laughs]
Interview with Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton, 1971
Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and, before them, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, were at the creative vanguard of one of the biggest music genres of all time – rock n roll. Even now, I don’t think the significance of what they did is fully recognised. Firstly, conventions: they broke all sorts of them in America between the 1920’s and 1950’s, starting the deconstruction and liberation of black femininity from the gender roles that had become so ingrained in society. They rejected the prevailing expectations of what constituted black femininity. They rejected societal expectations of sexuality and performance art. They spoke in their own voice. Secondly, the music. They were black women and they created rock n roll music and they created it with a heart and soul that was emphatically punk.
Rock n roll is, and always will be, synonymous with revolution. Often a revolution in your own bedroom playing air guitar to les enfants terribles du jour. When the genesis of the movement is pieced together, the rock n roll revolution was started by these black women who were then pretty much excluded from its commercialisation. The revolution will not be televised. As Maureen Mahon wrote in Listening for Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton’s Voice: The Sound of Race and Gender Transgressions in Rock and Roll, “This form of musicality was then taken from the black women who created it and commercialized into a genre that excludes them.” Thornton did not receive the sort of money or wide acclaim that her work deserved.
Thornton died alone and in poverty on July 25, 1984 in a Los Angeles boarding house. She was 57 years old.
And there is the bitter irony of Hound Dog starting life as an anthem of black female power…
Black musicians like Miles Davis and the highly innovative and avant-garde Sun Ra motivated The Stooges to follow their experimental path that ferociously dismantled rock n roll into a nihilism that would, over the next five years, incubate and give birth to punk rock. The freeform, experimental style of Stooges saxophonist, Steve Mackay, nodded towards Davis – Side Two of Funhouse (LA Blues, Funhouse, 1970) had a Miles In The Sky / Bitches Brew -esque vibe to it. Legend has it that Davis attended a Stooges gig in New York City in August 1970 and Iggy has recently highlighted the influence on him of his 1960 seminal album, Sketches of Spain.
The influence of black artists continued to be felt by the rock industry as it realised the commercial potential that their music offered. And herein lies the source of contention: that vastly successful, white male rock bands have often stood accused of appropriating black music. When the Levee Breaks, originally written and performed by Memphis Minnie in 1929, was “reworked” by Zeppelin in 1972. And, of course, Bonham created THAT massive drum intro… While I was preparing for this article, I read on the jar of a male face product ‘…it will be to your face what Led Zeppelin was to Rock N Roll’. I thought “why doesn’t that say ‘…it will be to your face what Big Mama Thornton was to Rock N Roll?’”… but I digress…
James Baldwin contended that the principal force of history is not so much in telling the past, but in shaping who we are right now and, by extension, our future. This is why it is important to understand the historical importance of black musicians.
Baldwin and artists like Sun Ra and George Clinton were cultural exponents of Afrofuturism, an intersectional lens that seeks to unearth buried black history and use that lens to reimagine and claim the future of black identity – one where it does not sit in the shadow of a white dominated society. Those pioneering black women are our buried punk rock history.
We’re delighted that Steph Phillips, the guitarist and lead vocalist of Big Joanie, is with us to talk about the influence of black musicians on punk rock music and the state of play for today’s black musicians in the DIY punk scene. Steph is unequivocal about the real visionaries that shaped music history.
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe, for example, still hasn’t got the recognition she deserves as a black woman who picked up a guitar and shaped rock n roll”, says Steph. “She is a big inspiration for me, especially the confidence to keep going in the face of adversity. Music history is filled with black women, but their impact has been diminished in the rock mainstream. Knowing about and acknowledging black women such as Sister Rosetta gives us a better understanding of the mainstream history of rock n roll and helps us understand how to create a more equal and representative scene.”
Afrofuturism is now expanding its reach. It asks questions about any construct that influences the future – culture, technology, science, philosophy etc. The film Black Panther gave us a delicious, progressive vision of black success. In his book A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism, Paul Youngquist illustrates how Sun Ra’s creative expression was shaped by his yearning for a better world, one where equality is attainable. Sun Ra was resistant to any forms of industry or societal convention – from DIY publishing his poetry and music to sexuality to philosophy. Punk has long been present in black culture.
Steph had been on the UK DIY punk scene with her previous band, My Therapist Says Hot Damn, but was finding that there was a distinct lack of intersectionalism in that scene, so after putting out an online ad asking for musicians to form a band, Big Joanie came to be in 2013 with Steph being joined by Chardine Taylor-Stone (drums, vocals) and now Estella Adeyeri (bass, vocals).
After releasing their superbly lo-fi Sistah Punks EP in 2014, Big Joanie’ released their Crooked Room single which is about black women trying to find their “vertical” in a world that is skewed by misogyny, racism and heteronormativity. Is the punk scene embracing (or ready to embrace) intersectional feminism? Which areas are problematic?
“I don’t think the punk community is much different to society at large”, says Steph. “Tolerance is improving, though. People of colour are demanding change, a better way and saying “we deserve better”. The Black Lives Matter movement is obviously important for giving confidence to demand that change. It’s cool that a lot of scenesters from back in the day are helping to change attitudes and open up opportunities.“
Talking of back in the day, punk and LGBTQ+ culture seemed to become intertwined in the years surrounding the Pistols’ arrival through fashion, clubs, fanzines and the music itself. Lucy Toothpaste, for example, wrote fanzine articles for Jolt and Spare Rib as early as 1976 that gave a platform to feminism and LGBTQ+. The late 1970’s saw the coming together (albeit male dominated) of Rastafari and punk – essentially two groups of alienated, outcast youth – and bands like X-Ray Spex, The Clash and Steel Pulse playing at the legendary Rock Against Racism festivals and then The Ruts emerging to combine punk with reggae and dub and releasing their first single, In a Rut, on Misty In Roots’ label People Unite in January 1979.
Fast forward and an emerging, yet important festival created for and by punks of colour – DeColonise – is one of Steph’s numerous projects. DeColonise has had an excellent mix of established and emerging artists playing, talking about and sharing their lived experiences. It feels like it is creating the strong, united community, similar to historic unions that formed RAR, that could challenge and rewrite the rules and societal norms that the punk of 1976 once did.
“DeColonise felt like something that should have existed before we created it”, Steph says. “Something where the black punk community could come together and be in charge – and that’s important – of creating a welcoming environment for all punks of colour. In lots of ways, DeColonise is similar to Black and Brown Punk Show Collective (a Chicago-based group that follows a DIY punk ethos, supporting like-minded communities of colour through DIY shows, fund-raising and challenging the societal norms of how to live). Our vision is to be creative and to allow punks of colour to shape their own future. Our goal is to recognise, celebrate and play. We have also worked with Celeste (Bell) to celebrate the legacy and influence of her mum, Poly Styrene.”
Much like those pioneering black women who played the blues and rock n roll, the legacy of Poly cannot be overstated. Poly is testimony that punk has been a part of black culture for a long, long time. But which women of colour have held the mantle of visionary? In the early 2000’s in NYC, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the big bands were predominantly white male – Strokes, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, Vampire Weekend – and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Karen O was one of the few – if not the only – high profile women of colour on that scene. In Lizzy Goodman’s excellent Meet Me In The Bathroom, Karen said that she basically had a double personality – one was a terribly shy woman off stage, the other was this totally amazing whirlwind of a performer – she called it “explosions of performance behaviour”.
“Yeah, yeah, that book’s on my reading list. That time of the early noughties in New York City is so interesting for me. Karen was totally unrestricted in everything she did”, says Steph. “Her costumes were incredible, cartoon-like in a way and she did not allow herself to be sexualised. She is another musician who gave me confidence to be myself when I perform. And Poly (Styrene), of course.”
Musically, Big Joanie don’t fit into the uniform four on the floor punk rock of 1977. You’re going to find them powered by the combative, jagged elements of The Slits, The Raincoats and Sleater-Kinney and the melodies and tenderness of the Mary Chain and Ronettes. Lyrically, they address subjects that are happening in, and affecting, their lives. You get the feeling that they have created a space where they feel safe in their own creativity and can use that experience to advocate for the empowerment of women of colour inside and outside of the LGBTQ+ community. The band’s latest single (their first release on Third Man Records), Cranes In The Sky, is a simmering, claustrophobic and searingly powerful cover of the Solange song.
“We collectively agreed that it was an important song and album and we all connected with it”, says Steph. “It’s a song that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than honest. We felt that it represents the experiences of black women. It’s honest. We’ve just released a video of us playing the song live at Reel Rebel Studios, London. It took us a while to get the song out on 7” vinyl but we got there eventually.”
It’s the most punk rock thing I’ve heard in a long time. There’s still the taught, ‘80’s and ‘90’s DIY feel that has been their trademark but it sounds like they are continuing to evolve their playing and sound.
“Yeah, we toured a lot before and after the Sistahs record that came out in November 2018 and we really developed into a tight, live unit”, Steph continues. “It feels very natural. We’ve just finished a writing retreat where we’ve been writing new material, but we did things a little differently this time. We went straight into the studio and did the writing for our new material there. It was a bit of an experiment but it was really fun and I think it gave us some spontaneity to our writing and playing. We tend to like the same kind of things and have similar ideas so it’s usually quite easy to get consensus for what we write.”
In 2018, Thurston Moore and Eva Prinz’s Daydream Library Series released Big Joanie’s first album, Sistahs. This was a breakthrough for the band, says Steph: “It was amazing working with Thurston and a producer, but all kind of surreal! We had supported The Ex at Electrowerkz in Islington and Thurston and Eva (Prinz) came over to our merch stand and said they really loved our set and wanted to buy some music. We told them that we had a bunch of songs written, but we’d been trying, but hadn’t been able, to get a record deal so we didn’t have any music for them to buy! They kinda looked at each other and then said that they would put some music out for us. We were like ‘ermmm……yeah okaaaaay!’”
Steph also has a solo side act – Stef Fi – and is an author, journalist and content editor, specialising in music, race, pop culture and feminism.
“Stef Fi has been an on/off project for a few years now”, Steph says. “It’s taken second place to Big Joanie but it’s something that I want to do more of. I put out an EP called Girlhood in April. That was basically material that I wrote many years ago and recorded around two years ago, but hadn’t had the chance to release it yet. I’m really happy with the response to it. It’s definitely got an emotional, melancholic sound.”
Steph tells us that the other members of the band are also involved in other projects:
“Yeah, Estella’s other project is Charmpit – they’ve recently released a record called Cause A Stir – and Estella also won the Barbican x Moog competition (where people are invited to create a track inspired by their favourite artists, using the Minimoog Model D Synth app) for the track Remedy. Chardine is busy studying (for a law degree), writing and speaking. Her book (Sold Out: How Black Feminism Lost its Soul) will be released next year.”
Through journalism, Steph has often explored the relationship of the written history and the real lived history of black people in music.
“I’ve tried to adopt an interpretative journalistic style”, Steph continues. “I did a recent article (for She Shreds) on Joan Armatrading which was a really interesting experience. Joan didn’t let herself be put into any pigeonholes. She’s a bit of an anomaly – commercially successful and influential yet I don’t feel she has had the level of recognition that she deserves. Perhaps because she didn’t play by the rules! As a writer, I really respect Nathalie Olah. Her book Steal as Much as You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity is very relevant.”
Olah’s book is about how the ruling class continues to dominate the education, culture and media narratives and how we can beat the system. The punk ideal was born out of class struggle, and whilst it still exists, punk has a place. I can’t help but think, from my privileged white male vantage point, how full-on it must be to be a black woman, rowing against the tide, coming up against full on resistance, oppression and glass ceilings as well as the more ‘subtle’ but exhausting micro-aggressions. Mental and physical resilience are like muscles, needing constant exercise, rest and replenishment.
“Yeah, it’s full on”, laughs Steph. There’s not one tried and tested way for me – and I don’t always succeed in making sure I replenish, but I try to do yoga, take regular breaks and……avoid Twitter! But I keep focussing on Big Joanie and my writing. The important thing for me is having the freedom to do what I want and when I want.”
Black DIY punk artists such as Big Joanie, Bob Vylan, Blxpltn, Pleasure Venom, Ho99o9, FUPU, Danny Denial, Txlips and many others are writing songs about their lived experiences as people of colour on the punk scene – racism, sexism, sexuality, intersectionality, policing and creating more visibility for punks of colour. Punk was always meant to be interpreted widely, to be idealistic, individualistic and contrary, to allow everything to be questioned and to be open to anyone without judgement.
Punk’s not dead, it’s very much alive.
Big news for Big Joanie – following their opening slots on the Bikini Kill UK 2019 dates, they have been announced as one of several all-female support bands for IDLES’ UK and Ireland tour in May 2021
Words by Giles Sibbald
Photography by Maryann Morris www.maryannmorrisphotography.co.uk