‘It’s the beginning of a new era’: the POC punk bands reclaiming pop-punk

Punk has long been white and male-dominated, but a new wave of rising stars like Meet Me @ The Altar, The Tuts, and Proper. are putting paid to that. They speak to Zoya Raza-Sheikh about paving punk’s inclusive future

Tuesday 20 April 2021 06:31
Top left clockwise: Meet Me at the Altar, The Tuts, Proper and Magnolia Park
Top left clockwise: Meet Me at the Altar, The Tuts, Proper and Magnolia Park
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I grew up loving pop-punk – punk’s zanier, catchier kid sister – but something never felt quite right. I remember going to see the American band PVRIS in Birmingham in 2016 and leaving with the nagging thought that, while the show itself was potent, the crowd didn’t look anything like me. Nor did the acts that were written about in magazines. Or the ones on festival line-ups. For a brief moment around this time there were at least more women breaking through – not just PVRIS but Paramore, Tonight Alive and Marmozets – and surface-level conversations around industry-wide sexism and misogyny began to bubble. But the glaring absence of POC and queer POC artists in pop-punk was unmistakable.

That’s something that Nadia Javedthe 32-year-old vocalist of British DIY pop-punk band The Tuts noticed too when she started out in music. “Most gigs you’d walk out and be the only non-white person on stage but also the audiences lack diversity too,” she agrees. “It makes you think, ‘S***, if I don’t look like these people, will they even relate to me?’. If I’m writing songs about being a Muslim working-class girl from Hayes, who the f*** is gonna relate to that? It’s a vicious cycle of brown and Black people not seeing themselves represented on stage.”

Fast-forward to 2021, however, and pop-punk is being reinvented for the better from the inside out. The genre has come a long way since its late-Nineties heyday, when cis, white, boyish bands like Green Day, The Offspring, NOFX, Sum 41 and Blink 182 would be all over MTV2 or headlining Reading and Leeds, and things are beginning to change. Thrilling new acts in both the US and the UK acts, from Magnolia Park and Proper., are pushing the boundaries of scope and sound to extend the community of pop-punk to POC artists and fans, wearing their differences on their inked sleeves and driving home messages of diversity and inclusivity.

Another act spearheading the movement is Meet Me @ The Altar, an all-female Black and Latinx pop-punk band from America’s East Coast, whose career has been gathering pace and plaudits since 2019. The Gen Z trio befriended each other online while living in different states and came together to champion LGBTQ+ and gender representation with their music. Last year they signed to the biggest pop-punk label going, Fueled By Ramen – which launched the careers of Jimmy Eat World, Paramore and Panic! At The Disco – recently released the single “Hit Like A Girl” and have been called one of 2021’s “most exciting new rock acts” by Rolling Stone.

“It’s so incredibly important to have representation as POC women in this scene because when we constantly see only all straight white cis male bands on lineups and magazine covers, it inherently teaches us that we don’t belong,” says Téa Campbell, Meet Me @ The Altar’s 20-year-old guitarist. The scene belongs to everyone and it’s time that the stages reflect that.” 

Not only that but band, who have two queer members, want to see greater support for LGBTQ+ representation across the genre. In the 1980s and 1990s, movements like queercore and riot grrrl put feminist and LGBTQ+ agendas front and centre in alternative music and attempted to challenge the mainstream, but ultimately were usurped by other more mainstream styles of punk“Queer visibility and punk music were definitely meant to intersect,” says drummer Ada Juarez, 22. “The punk scene is supposed to be about inclusion and accepting those who don’t feel they have a voice in other spaces.”

Erik Garlington from the Brooklyn band Proper. remembers being adrift as a queer Black punk fan in the early Nineties. “There was this whole feeling of ‘I feel lost and I don’t feel like I’m heard’,” he says, noting how the punk scene welcomed outsiders, “but then still no queers allowed. It was very homophobic and calling each other the F-word. I didn’t feel like I quite had a place.” 

His trio – who draw on pop and the punk-adjacent genre emo – are another crucial act in the shape-shifting punk landscape and they’ve so far released two acclaimed albums, 2017’s The Suburbs Have Ruined My Life and 2019’s I Spent The Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better. The band recognises and explores how their intersectional identities have had to move within predominantly white, at times extremely conservative, spaces for the sake of exposure or drive to bring representation as a POC artist. With an extreme self-awareness, Garlington smugly describes their music as everything from “working-class indie Afro-punk” to “if Fall Out Boy could say the N-word”. 

The 30-year-old has seen the punk sphere evolve to become more inclusive, adding that “within these last four years, it’s much easier to book a bill with queer and non-white artists”. Garlington credits the wider conversation of diversity and social movements such as Black Lives Matter for enabling an overdue push of inclusivity in the emo and pop-punk scene. Events like Afropunk Festival, Black and Brown Punk Show Collective, and The Universe is Lit: Bay Area Black and Brown Punk Fest in the US and Decolonise Fest in the UK have made huge progress in spotlighting diverse acts. But Garlington agrees that now it’s time for a top-down shake-up and that major festivals like Warped Tour should be taking notes for its return. Proper. themselves have a billing initiative, which is one crucial way of helping to make a change. “We made a point that everyone we played with was a person of colour, and it was a helpful guide that we needed to find other artists like us,” Garlington says.

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Newcomers are already coming through. Grunge-inspired, Baltimore-based newcomers Pinkshift, whose debut EP came out at the start of this month, have been inspired by acts like Meet Me @ The Altar to speak out about normalising POC punk. Lead singer Ashrita Kumar says that it’s important to get to a place where art comes first. “The more and more we see bands with diversity, the more we’ll be able to normalise their presence with their music and art at the forefront before their identities,” she says – and it looks like that change might come fast. “I’d say now, all the best bands coming up in alternative music have women, LGBTQ, and people of colour. I’d dare to say it’s the beginning of a new era. I think this is the first time I’ve seen women of colour uplifted in this genre.” 

Back in the UK, DIY pop-rock band The Tuts – a self-described “three-tone” act – credit artists such as Big Joanie and Nova Twins for their contribution towards moving the image of the British alternative scene forward. But Javed is mindful of the lack of South Asian representation across the mainstream music industry: “Apart from MIA and Zayn Malik, who is there?” she questions. Their forthcoming new single, however, may well bring them to a wider audience: “This Is Sisterhood” comes from a new supergroup they’ve formed, Solidarity Not Silence, which features the original riot grrrl and one of the biggest names in Nineties punk, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, as well as a handful of feminist musicians from within the DIY community. 

The gears of pop-punk, as an entity and industry, are shifting, however slowly. As conversations surrounding diversity and inclusivity begin to resonate, there’s hope that the alternative music scene will become more accessible to artists that are women, POC and queer creatives. Hopefully, the next generation of punk fans will start going to shows and see more people who look like themselves and punk will finally get back to the ethos it was once so championed for: an anti-establishment community that is accepting and representative of all.

Meet Me @ The Altar’s single ‘Hit Like a Girl’ is out now via Fueled by Ramen; Solidarity Not Silence’s ‘This Is Sisterhood’ is out 4 May via Alcopop; Pinksift’s debut EP Saccharine is out now; Proper’s single ‘Zuko Alone’ is forthcoming on Big Scary Monsters

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