White “Punks” Singing the N-Word: A Black Punk’s Incomplete Playlist

January 26, 2022   •   By Mariah Stovall

1. “ROCK N ROLL Nigger” by Patti Smith Group, 1978

The woman (b. 1993) listening, who is Black, has never heard this song. She’s barely heard this band. She tried to listen to their canonized-as-classic debut, Horses (1975), once, got bored, turned it off. Protopunk rings hollow — devoid, all these decades later, of the novelty it once possessed, eclipsed by the innovations it inspired. It’s like, she shudders, regular rock. It’s not earnest enough, not fun enough, not bedraggled enough. Regular rock didn’t sneak up on her at FYE, knock the vestiges of Britney and Ashanti out of her, put her in a tender chokehold. Punk, no longer a prototype, engulfed, invaded, became her — each beat of her heart a budding bassline, each synapse of her brain a bridge.

By the time she tried to let Horses prove her wrong, she was burned out after a decade of devotion. Nothing was enough, or everything — the labor of loving a sprawling genre, the stagnating social scene’s pettiness and repetitiveness, the near-radical ideology stifled by so many unremarkable white men — was too much.

It’s not that she’d rather read than listen to music now, but literature is not so needy. She’s not beholden by that singular devotion to a single genre. It’s easier to fall from fiction where nothing happens into sparse poetry where metaphors shock, into history that makes her feel deeply ignorant in the best way. She hears Patti Smith’s books are great. Something always stops her from buying them.

2. “White Noise” by Stiff Little Fingers, 1979

She hasn’t given much thought to what it was like to be an Irish punk in 1979, to whether this band thinks the Irish are the niggers of Britain. But she’d bet spouting multiple racial epithets to denounce hate speech felt, to them, transgressive to the point of transcendence — that alluring amalgamation of self-righteousness and sarcasm irresistible to disaffected youth the world over. She was like that once. But not quite, because she has hometraining.

Each time a white person justifies saying nigger in the name of solidarity, she hears their white heart skip a beat, feels their pale skin prick with sweat, spine tingle with surreptitious delight. She doesn’t need to put this song on to see the glint in his eye.

3. “Race Riot” by Necros, 1979

In a 1982 interview, Necros admits this song prompted racists to mistakenly write to them in solidarity. They wrote back. Set the record straight. Later in the interview, they reference a defunct all-Black Detroit band, The Niggers. The Niggers played loud and fast. This is high praise. She’s admittedly never heard of them.

4. “White Punks on Hope” by Crass, 1979

She has no idea when she accepted that sometimes white punks sing nigger. They didn’t do it that often, mean it like that. An anarchist avant-garde band like Crass was better versed in leftist ideology than she. She wasn’t legendary. Her logo (she didn’t have a logo) wasn’t immortalized in ink on (mostly white) skin, didn’t shine forth from hand-sewn back patches on crusty denim jackets all over the world.

5. “Los Angeles” by X, 1980

A white punk singing nigger cuts her deeper when it’s from a woman’s lips. When she was 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, she might have been the only Black person at a show, but there was always at least one other girl, or woman, which she thought, naïvely, mattered. Though really, she was more interested in the music itself than people around her. She is socially anxious, likes noise that demolishes her racing, repetitive, irrational worries.

She moved to Los Angeles when she was 18. Like the “she” in this song, she knew she had to leave too. Unlike the “she,” it was not because she started to hate niggers or Jews. She, a nigger and Jew, started to hate the monotony of dry sunshine and freeways that slumped and knotted and like old shoelaces as far as her dark eyes could see.

She tried to make the best of her time there. She tried to do her part for the scene — going to shows, booking local bands to play at her college, going to the Halloween party those guys in that hardcore band were having, where two of them dressed up as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the former in blackface that didn’t extend past his neck, so that the skittles he carried were in white hands. It made the local alt news. His apology invoked the fact that he is Jewish. He has Black friends.

She has white friends. She has gentile friends. She was half-connected to and half-estranged from other punks when she first encountered most of these songs. For years, she didn’t have punk friends (anxiety; not racism, sexism), but she had a few (white) friends who skimmed the surface of this sea of sound. Most didn’t delve deeper than her recommendations, which did not include this song (it’s a very good song) because, well, that would have been awkward.

6. “Racism Sucks” by 7 Seconds, 1980

She doesn’t like drugs or alcohol (anxiety; not straight-edge morals) but that doesn’t mean she’s into posi vibes like this band is. No matter how pure the intentions, the antiracism still sucks when a white guy pretends to be a racist white guy to let other white guys know that being a racist white guy is bad. It’s a failure of imagination. A revolution that wasn’t. A negative vibe.

7. “The Badge Means You Suck” by AK-47, 1980

She’s almost tempted to say that the true story behind these lyrics, of the Houston Police getting away with the murders of a Chicano man and a Black man, is more important than whether the band, in all their outrage, quotes a slur slung by those killers.

8. “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys, 1980

This was her introduction to the Khmer Rouge, a hypnotic history lesson warbled over distorted surf rock waves. The closing chant of “Pol Pot,” the incantation, accusation, condemnation haunted her marginally more than the hard r in nigger, because the former was something she’d never heard before.

9. “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” by Dead Kennedys, 1981

When she was a teenager, she would have killed for a chance to breathe the same air as the Dead “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” Kennedys during their prime. A few years ago, she saw Jello Biafra — singer, songwriter, iconoclast icon — in a movie theater. He was up on the silver screen. Age had stripped the color from his hair but she was finally in his audience. Age had led her to cut the color from the bits of her hair she once dyed blue, purple, green. He was no longer the frontman. He had a bit part in a movie about gentrification, as a tour guide pandering to newcomers, condescending to neighborhood natives. Jello has always been in on the joke. Just like the white man who directed, co-produced, and co-wrote the movie, which is loosely based on the life of his Black childhood best friend, who co-wrote the script and starred as the titular character. The white man won two Sundance awards. And isn’t she just like the film festival’s jury? She is so focused on Jello, she almost forgets about D. H. Peligro, his Black drummer, one of many bandmates from whom Jello withheld royalties for years.

10. “Youth Kamp” by Necros, 1981

She wishes Necros still had a PO box for her to scrawl something off to. Was the misguided fan mail still pouring in two years after that interview? How many racists congratulating you on sharing their views does it take for you to reconsider your antiracist tactics? Am I the only one who hasn’t moved on?

11. “Dead Cops/America’s So Straight” by MDC, 1982

MDC (Millions of Dead Cops) is nothing if not on brand as they remind their listener that the cops hunt “niggers and you.” If you’re listening to this, you aren’t a nigger. If you’re a nigger, you aren’t a punk. Right? She’s a nigger, so she was never a punk, she’s not a punk anymore, so she’s no more a nigger, she’s a nigger, so she was always punk, she’s overthinking things again.

12. “Jock Itch” by SSD, 1982

In warning racist jocks that messing with “our people” will not fly, SSD almost makes her feel safe. This playlist may cause you to lower your standards. Her standards bounced back recently, when SSD’s frontman performed in a homemade “BLACK FLAG MATTERS” T-shirt.

13. “White Nigger” by Avengers, 1983

For when “Rock N Roll Nigger” just isn’t enough.

14. “Pigs Run Wild” by The Dicks, 1983

The police are bad!?

15. “Pigs In Blue” by Disrupters, 1983

This is all kind of dumb. But she loves it. She can’t let go. Of course she knows that most of these artists have denounced and/or rewritten their nigger lyrics, or ceased performing them altogether. Most of these lyrics are attempts to embody and critique characters whose racism (homophobia, misogyny, classism, capitalism, et al) is in direct opposition to the artists’ purported allyship. She gets it. She’s not a poser.

None of this makes up for all that awkwardness, and maybe it was straight-up violence, or something in between, but what bothers her most is the assumption that all of this was neither here nor there, because statistically speaking, those niggers they wanted to help probably weren’t listening anyway, and who can blame them when the music is kind of unpleasant to begin with?

16. “The Dicks Hate the Police” by The Dicks, 1983

1983 appears to have been a banner year for punks hating cops. In that same year, Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition asserted that Black radicalism can only be rooted in traditions of the African continent and new experiences of the diaspora. She understands now: for Black punks, punk at large cannot be truly punk. Fine. But it can still be something. It has to be.

17. “She Wolf” by Adolescents, 1987

The She Wolf is a woman out for blood. Blonde; presumably white. She’s empowered because she’s violent. Like a man. She becomes a serial killer and voilà, she’s no longer “the nigger of the world.” This is vibrant camp. John Lennon’s ghost and Yoko Ono cheer. Sojourner Truth and bell hooks roll over in their graves.

18. “Die When You Die” by GG Allin, 1988

She plans on dying, happily, without ever hearing a GG Allin song. She skips this one.

19. “Preacher’s Confession” by Flower Leperds, 1990

This is not the only band on this list that shares members with another band on this list. Old habits die hard.

20. “As Afterwards the Words Still Ring” by Moss Icon, 1991

Her jaw clenches when she listens to the white man fronting this phenomenal band tell her — at points, he’s not even singing — the story of an enslaved Black man on the run from his captors. The white man stops at a certain point, leaves the Black man’s fate open-ended. When we tell other people’s stories, they start to become ours too. Almost like we own them.

21. “I’ll Slice Yer Fucking Throat” by GG Allin, 1993

Skip.

22. “No Room for Nigger” by GG Allin, 1993

See above.

23. “Five Dollars an Hour” by Born Against, 1995

It’s not just white women. Italians (presumably of all genders) can be niggers too.

24. “Nigger Rich” by Oblivians, 1995

From the album Soul Food!

25. “Fuck the KKK” by The Unseen, 1996

Doesn’t that go without saying?

26. “Rock N Roll Nigger” by Anti-Heros, 1996

1996 marked the 18th birthday of a song that should have died in infancy.

27. “I Wanna Kill You” by GG Allin, 1988

The headline “Sesame Street Police Shoot New Black Muppet After Mistaking the Number 7 for Firearm” recently popped up on her Instagram feed, via a satirical punk news site she generally laughs at. This post wasn’t exactly funny or un-funny. She ignored the link to the full story. She knew in her Black bones that a white person wrote that joke. She checks the comments. Too soon. Too dark. Inappropriate. Racist. Still time to delete. The replies. Bootlickers, the other side says, as if the punk project of being critical cannot be applied to punk itself. She sighs, puts on an episode of Up the Blunx — a podcast hosted by actual Black people, and presented by the same satirical site. She doesn’t agree with everything they say but one of them speaks in the same cadence as one of her old friends. He’s Black. He wasn’t into punk.

28. “An Option” by Conflict, 2003

There’s a crack in the foundation now. This time, they mean it. This is white punk singing nigger for the sake of white punk singing nigger, another beat on the bruise she has from all this. A few more before she’s numb.

29. “Oliver’s Army” by [spunge], 2004

She’s never heard of this band. Neither have you. She found them many pages into Google. She was there because she knew she was forgetting a song by a New York hardcore band or two. She could not stop clicking, refining her search terms, combing through long-defunct message boards and YouTube comments. She knew it wouldn’t make her feel any better or worse, closer to or further from the music that once gave her the will to live, and who cares if it’s this band instead of the one she used to listen to. She does this for the sake of posterity. Not to worry her wounds but to bear careful witness to white weapons, though these weapons are weak, more weird than anything. White people are kind of fucking weird.

30. “Eliminate” by Krum Bums, 2004

She lets the song play, turns the volume all the way down. She is exhausted.

31. “Shitty Life” by Krum Bums, 2005

This band again? It’s not so bad. She has a perhaps abnormal capacity for repetition. She has always listened to albums, mixes, playlists on loops. She likes to swaddle herself in hours and hours of the same, chaos put in order.

32. “Kill Baby Kill Yourself” by Tower Blocks, 2010

It’s still spinning (streaming?) silently. She forgets it’s there. When she remembers, she’s almost back to the beginning, can’t bring herself to make it stop.

33. “What Rights?” by Leadsucker, 2013

If she can start something new, maybe things will be different. She finds something with ink, scratches: Black punks singing whatever the fuck they want: a Black punk’s incomplete playlist

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Mariah Stovall is a literary agent, writer, and graduate of Pitzer College.

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Featured image: “Mike at CBGBs” by Eden, Janine and Jim is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been blurred, cropped, and desaturated.