The writer talks SoCal, the punk scene, and the challenge of problematic lyrics.
“Punk is love, caring, and community, starting first and foremost with love of one’s self,” says Camille A. Collins, a proud contributor to Chris L. Terry and James Spooner’s new volume of fiction, essays, and comics, Black Punk Now, named a “Most Anticipated Book of 2023” by Nylon and Lit Hub. Collins, a senior publicity manager at HarperCollins and author of the 2018 novel The Exene Chronicles, is enthusiastic about the new project, her role in it, and its laudable goal of inclusion. We spoke earlier this month.
Talk about Black Punk Now. What’s its ethos? Is there a lot about feeling ostracized and trying to find community?
The general punk ethos is nonconformity and dissatisfaction with the status quo. By definition, Black people are de-facto punks because even when we try to conform or are mindful of identity politics (e.g., dressing conservatively or altering our natural hair), we’re often still rejected or ostracized. More specifically, for many of the contributors to this anthology, punk was a community, an ideology discovered in our youth, allowing the roots of the punk ethos to take firm hold, flourishing in the way that only a first love can. It’s a freeing, empowering movement, and the anthesis of racism. “At last, I can be myself and create an individual identity and try to gain protection from racist stereotypes that trap me in a box.” Of course, racism never disappears, but the notion of creating your own singular identity — wearing what you want, listening to what you want — is a way to insist on being seen as an individual and not a walking statistic.
How did you get involved in punk?
My best friend and I discovered punk in junior high in Southern California, and soon, going to shows became the focal point of our lives. As for Black Punk Now, I’d sent James Spooner [the anthology’s co-editor, director of the film “Afro Punk,” and co-founder of the eponymous music festival] a copy of my novel, The Exene Chronicles. He put out a call for submissions to the anthology on Instagram, and I asked if I could submit a piece for consideration.
Tell us what emotional territory you cover in your contribution, “Glow.”
It’s the story of a Black teen grappling with her family’s downgrade from an affluent neighborhood in SoCal to one of lesser stature, and the betrayal of her two closest friends from her old school. Overarchingly, it’s about reckoning with what it means to be a Black American. The protagonist is questioning her identity and wondering if the punk scene is still a safe place for her after the duplicity of her so-called friends.
How has the Black punk scene changed over the decades? Is it different than the (for want of a better term) white punk scene featuring people like Henry Rollins and the band X?
Whether it’s the revelers in the audience or the performers, punk has been integrated from the early days. I saw Rollins speak recently, and he talks about seeing Bad Brains perform in DC (although I understand the band doesn’t like to be pigeonholed by the term “punk,” they were definitely on the scene and hugely influential). Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex crossed the pond to perform in New York in the late 70s. And the ska and two-tone explosion that coincided with punk featured punk elements and had diverse bands, such as the English Beat.
Now, many more Black folks are experimenting with punk [and] forming bands and their own festivals. There is a much larger presence and more ownership these days for sure. The hardcore band Burn played such a memorable set at the Afro Punk Festival, somewhere around 2017 or so, and I became a fan of Howling Star at a Punk Black fest some years back, along with many other bands. It’s a reminder of what art is all about. Bands that don’t necessarily have major-label backing delivering something raw and heartfelt that leaves a lasting impression. Like, something magical or really dope happened in this room tonight, before this relatively intimate audience, and it stays with you.
You enjoy the music of X but found something disturbing in their lyrics. Can you talk about that?
Yeah, as a kid, X was the first punk band I really got into and was passionate about. I’m not sure at what point I realized one of their songs, “Los Angeles,” has the N-word in it. In the song, they’re telling the story of a woman who’s not down with the diversity of L.A. on any level, but it’s still very jarring. I never thought I’d grow up and have an opportunity to write a rebuttal of sorts, as I did with my novel. I’ve seen them a couple of times as an adult, and they’re actually touring now. A friend asked if I wanted to see them this time around, but it’s not easy to take a crowd of mostly white folks hollering that word in unison. It happens at hip-hop shows, too, unfortunately, but the genesis isn’t quite the same. It would be great if they cut it when singing it live, but I can’t tell them to alter their art.
Michael Causey hosts the “A Good Hour” radio program on WOWD 94.3 FM and takomaradio.org.