At the end of August, “The Ongoing History of Protest Music” website had a blog post titled “A Month of Protest.” The first song they featured was “Black AF,” by Crystal Axis, an Afropunk band from Kenya. (Before you crank up the sound be aware that, like a lot of punk rock, “Black AF” is Not Safe For Work.)
I didn’t even know that leftist punk rock still existed. But Crystal Axis are keeping the tradition alive with some really hard-hitting songs. As I started listening to their music, I was particularly struck by their 2017 song “Leopold,” an anti-colonialist song about King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold led Belgium in the brutal exploitation of the Congo, and Crystal Axis’s lyrics provide a concise summary of the king’s self-justification:
“I’m the king and it’s all mine
Under Force Publique and Christ
Your hands are mine tonight
Fingers up one time!”
Leopold was especially notorious for ordering the amputation of the hands of workers if work quotas were not met. Theologically he, like other Western colonial rulers, used the Christian religion both as a cover and as a justification for his crimes against humanity.
“Take the Throne,” a song they released last year, also has some leftist theological comment. First, the lyrics call out the injustice caused by gross economic inequality, where the rich are literally starving the rest of the world:
“You eat, we watch; a revolution’s born
We’ll tear down the walls and then we’ll take the throne”
Now comes their theological commentary:
“The voice of the people is the voice of God
Too many lies, deities we can’t applaud”
This is a theology in direct opposition to King Leopold’s theology. Leopold claimed his God gave him the power to do what he liked to those who had less power, less wealth, those who were not white. By contrast, Crystal Axis are saying that God is in the voice of ordinary people — which is pretty much what Jesus said when he pointed out how difficult it would be for rich people to get into heaven. This is also a theology that’s consistent with an African ethics that privileges the social over the individualistic.
As someone who loves punk rock, I really enjoyed hearing leftist theology in the context of topnotch music. For more, visit their website or their Facebook page.
Public radio station KALW ran a short piece recently on Sacred Harp music recently, calling it “the punk rock of choral music.” I was one of the people interviewed for the piece, and you can hear it or read it on KALW’s Web site here.
Various media sources are reporting that singer Marianne Elliot-Said has died of complications of breast cancer at age 53. Elliot-Said was better known under the stage name Poly Styrene, a name she used while singing with X-Ray Spex.
X-Ray Spex had a short career. In 1976, Elliot-Said was taking voice lessons, learning how to sing opera, and recording derivative reggae songs on the side, when she saw the Sex Pistols perform. This exposure to punk rock galvanized her, and she decided to form her own punk band, X-Ray Spex. The band performed together for about three years, recorded a handful of singles and one album, then disbanded in 1979.
Following the demise of X-Ray Spex, Elliot-Said joined the Hare Krishnas — more properly, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a branch of Hinduism that worships Vishnu, and is devoted to bhakti yoga, or expressions of devotion to God. I had not known that Elliot-Said had joined the Hare Kishnas, but I was not entirely surprised. When she was singing with X-Ray Spex, her voice had a transcendent, joyful quality to it — even when she was singing about the horrors of genetic engineering, or screaming (in late 1970s punk vocal style) “Oh bondage! up yours!” Although the punk rock idiom of the late 1970s was fairly limited, as practiced by someone like Poly Styrene the vocal style could approach a raucous and ecstatic transcendence. There was often a hint of rapture in her voice, even a hint of a connection to something larger than herself.
Elliot-Said has been interpreted as an early exponent of what came to be called third-wave feminism; she had a clear influence on later feminist bands like The Slits, and it’s hard to imagine the riot-grrrl movement without her example. She allied herself with the anti-racist forces within punk rock and was bi-racial — a Somali father and an English mother — and perhaps she will be claimed as an early adopter of multiracial identity. She also had a preference for day-glo colors and wore braces on her teeth, though it’s harder to know what to make of those attributes.
But I prefer to remember her simply for her full-throated, no-holds-barred singing, a kind of punk bhakti devotion that invited us all to transform and transcend. The hell with the anemic pablum of praise bands — if you’re gonna make me have amplified music in a worship service, I won’t settle for anything less the raw full-throated raucous singing of someone like Poly Styrene.