Hardcore punk is looking (and sounding) different now

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Hardcore punk is looking (and sounding) different now
The band Zulu, including Anaiah Lei, left, performs at the Adjacent Music Festival in Atlantic City, N.J., May 27, 2023. People of color, women and queer musicians are remaking hardcore’s longstanding image of white, male aggression — and producing some of its most interesting music. (Victor Llorente/The New York Times)

by Hank Shteamer

NEW YORK, NY.- One afternoon in April, in between sets at a daylong hardcore punk fest, three fans — Shani Nanje, 23; Dominique Wooten, 25; and Elizabeth Zaldivar, 31, all in town from Atlanta — stood in the backyard of the roomy, bare-bones Bushwick venue the Brooklyn Monarch in New York City, breaking down how they’ve seen their musical community change.

Wooten, like her friends, a woman of color, recalled meeting Nanje at a hometown show featuring Jesus Piece, a spectacularly intense Philadelphia band whose vocalist, Aaron Heard, is Black, and drummer, Luis Aponte, is Puerto Rican. “That was the first time I saw people of color onstage,” Wooten said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, wow ...’”

Zaldivar turned to Wooten. “You were one of the first brown, Black girls I’ve seen at a show,” she said, “so that was a moment for sure.” The three exchanged smiles.

“What I’ve seen is more people that are going to shows,” Nanje added, “they’re seeing the bands, and they’re like, ‘I want to do that.’ So more diversity is pushing them to start their own bands.” The scene as a whole has “expanded,” Wooten said. “It’s growing, it’s evolving.”

The day’s lineup, a showcase for the respected Baltimore and New York label Flatspot, illustrated how hardcore is rapidly diverging from its former status as an outlet for largely white, male aggression. The three friends from Atlanta arrived just in time to catch the end of a raucous set by Buggin, a Chicago quartet featuring the caustic shout of its nonbinary Black singer, Bryanna Bennett. The bill also included two female-fronted acts, Baltimore’s Jivebomb and Scowl, from Santa Cruz, California; Australia’s Speed, featuring members of Asian descent; Colombia’s Raw Brigade; and Regulate, whose Colombia-born frontman, Sebastian Paba, grappled with Eurocentric beauty standards on the 2022 track “Hair.”

Two weeks earlier, Scowl had hit town as part of a tour package that also included Jesus Piece and Los Angeles’ Zulu, an all-Black band whose March debut, “A New Tomorrow,” is a visionary fusion of cathartic heaviness, hip-hop flow and artfully interwoven samples from classic R&B and reggae. Other excellent recent albums exemplify a diversity that, set against the larger context of rock and metal, seems almost utopian. They feature band members who are Black (the brilliantly frenetic “Diaspora Problems” from Philadelphia’s Soul Glo and the Grammy-nominated “Glow On” by Turnstile); nonbinary (“Only Constant,” the dire debut from New Jersey’s Gel); or transgender (“Memory Theater,” an opus of extremity from Massachusetts’s Escuela Grind, which also includes nonbinary members, and “The Romance of Affliction,” the latest from San Diego’s SeeYouSpaceCowboy).

“Now, more than ever, it feels like what hardcore should have been,” said Anaiah Lei, 26, Zulu’s frontman and founder, reflecting on the current makeup of the scene during an April call.

Two upcoming festivals centered around artists of color — Break Free Fest, taking place in Philadelphia over Juneteenth weekend, and the Tribes of Da Moon, happening at New York’s Bowery Ballroom in August — will capture a scene in transition.

“I do feel like eventually I will look back on this time and refer to it in one way or another as the good old days,” said Soul Glo frontman Pierce Jordan, 30, via phone, “’cause I’ve been having a lot of fun lately, and I definitely feel way less lonely as a Black rocker than I ever have in my life.”

Hardcore, a faster, more feral American response to early British punk, didn’t start out homogeneous. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Bad Brains — the Black, Rastafarian band, originally from Washington, D.C., that famously juxtaposed a turbocharged intensity with the gentle throb of roots reggae — set an early benchmark for speed and virtuosity in the subgenre. And at various times, Black Flag, the pillar of West Coast hardcore, featured members born in Puerto Rico (vocalist Ron Reyes) and Colombia (the drummer known as Robo), as well as bassist Kira Roessler, one of the few women to feature prominently in the early hardcore scene.

But by the ’90s, as Bad Brains shuffled members and operated fitfully, hardcore crystallized around a white, male stereotype. Artists of color still made an impact, including the future Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha, then a member of California’s Inside Out, and Chaka Malik of Burn, who will appear at Tribes of Da Moon. Though as documented in James Spooner’s illuminating 2003 documentary “Afro-Punk,” which spawned a festival of the same name, fans and musicians who were minority group members often found themselves on the fringes of the scene.

“I was in high school in New York City in the ’90s, and that audience was very brown, you know?” said Spooner, 46, who also coedited the upcoming anthology “Black Punk Now.” But, he added, “what those people all had in common is that we’re not going to talk about how alone we feel in this room.”

That isolation carried through to later generations. “Every single day, the phrase ‘You are the whitest Black person I’ve ever met’ was spoken to me,” said Soul Glo’s Jordan, looking back on his Maryland youth. “And that definitely damaged me mentally, my psyche, and made me kind of insane.”

Others struggled to find suitable role models. Zulu drummer and vocalist Christine Cadette, 23, cited Paramore’s Hayley Williams as a key inspiration. “But also,” she said, “I couldn’t really relate because, at the end of the day, she’s a white cis female, so there’s not really any females that look like me doing exactly that.”

Scout Cartagena, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, reflected on the lack of diversity within the underground that inspired them to start Break Free Fest in 2017. “For a long time, it’s just been a struggle to see people on the stage who looked like me, or were talking about things I cared about,” they said. A typical sight was “some suburban punk white kid, talking about a breakup.” As Cartagena, 30, put it, “I just wanted more.”

That “more” has arrived in waves during the past decade. The short-lived but hugely impactful G.L.O.S.S., from Olympia, Washington, brought a vociferous trans-feminist perspective to hardcore. Zulu situates the genre on the spectrum of progressive Black thought. The band’s 2019 debut EP, “Our Day Will Come,” opened with a sample of Nina Simone discussing the importance of Black pride, and juxtaposed searing blast beats and walloping breakdowns with a snippet of a 1962 Malcolm X speech in which he posed the question “Who taught you to hate yourself?”

On “A New Tomorrow,” both the songs as well as “Créme de Cassis,” a lovely mid-album spoken interlude by poet Alesia Miller, drive home the importance of celebrating Black joy even when considering Black pain. In “From Tha Gods to Earth,” Lei and Cadette trade off bellowed lines that first look back to slavery (“400 years and still/Here I am/I won’t forget”) but then ahead to a time when “Clouds part and hope seeps through.”

“People think that because we’re in a heavy band, we’re talking about Black struggles, they expect us to be angry about it, but really there’s things that we can enjoy and things that we do celebrate,” Cadette said. “Zulu is not about aggression and all that; it’s about love.”

For Cartagena, Lei’s buoyant performance style is a welcoming beacon. “I say they have the best moves of any frontperson onstage — just, like, sliding and moon walking and just moving their shoulders,” they said. “It just reminds me of my people.”

Scowl’s Kat Moss is providing another alternative picture of how hardcore can present. Sporting dyed green hair, and taking the stage in dresses, skirts and shiny white boots, she advances a staunchly feminine image in a genre that has often orbited around chest-thumping masculinity — an apt counterpart to the way Scowl’s songs, formerly old-school rants, have given way to hooky, unabashedly fun hybrids.

“I’ve had countless girls come up to me and be like, ‘You inspired me to start wearing dresses and skirts to shows,’” Moss, 25, said. “It does break my heart a little that there might have been a time where those girls didn’t feel confident, and that I didn’t feel confident,” she added. In the days before female-fronted bands such as Jawstruck and Dying for It inspired her to participate in the scene, she recalled experiencing an uneasiness that she likened to “the same feeling I’d get at a skate park, when I was learning to skate and wishing I was a guy.”

Videographer Sunny Singh, 37, who has documented hardcore’s changing demographics in real time through his popular hate5six YouTube channel, hopes that for future generations, the community’s diverse makeup will simply seem like a given. “I want this to be the new normal,” he said.

Likewise, for the artists leading hardcore’s new wave, diversity is worth championing — on its recent tour, Jesus Piece’s Heard often dedicated “Oppressor,” a blistering anti-racist tirade, to brown and Black attendees — but it shouldn’t be an endpoint in and of itself. “I think that the scene honestly loves to tokenize anybody that they possibly can, whether it be a female-fronted hardcore band or a Black-fronted hardcore band,” Heard, 31, said.

Zulu’s Lei longs for a time when diversity in hardcore won’t even need to be noted. “I want to be included in the conversation that every other band has been included in,” he said. “It’s time,” he added, for bands like Zulu to no longer be “separated as being, ‘Oh, we’re a Black band…’ No, we’re a band.”

Back at the Flatspot showcase, Elizabeth Zaldivar praised the way that Buggin’s timeless anthems like “Poser Bulldozer” transcended concerns of race and gender. “You don’t always have to have some kind of message,” she said. “Because none of these white boys have a message, per se. They’re just having fun, so why can’t we?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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