Herstory 32: Poly Styrene, A Punk Ahead Of Her Time
Just What Is Afro-Punk..?
The official start of the summer season begins in a few days, but festival season is well underway. Things like Lollapalooza, NXNE, Bonnaroo, Osheaga, and the Roots Picnic have either already passed or are fast approaching. One summer festival, in particular, Afropunk, has a long and complicated history not only with punk music as a genre but as a cultural moment in history for black folks.
In the early 2000s, James Spooner was someone in his 20s with an identity crisis. While that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for that age, James found himself in a unique situation. Having strong ties to punk music and the rest of the subculture growing up, James sensed a divide between his interests and being a person of colour. In pursuit of exploring racial identity in the punk scene, Spooner filmed a documentary, Afro-Punk, and followed the lives of four main subjects living in punk culture along with punk rock musicians from across the United States.
In a certain way I had a hypothesis I was trying to prove, that mine was also a very valid black experience
— James Spooner
So this gap begs the question “What is Afro-Punk?”
A Note On Germfree Adolescence
The main thing to know about punk music is that it wasn’t made to be palatable for mainstream audiences. It was born out of a need for freedom and expression.
Characterized as producing “short, fast-paced songs with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics”. The idea of a DIY concentration allowed bands to be almost entirely independent (both in the production and distribution of their music).
I think it's just young people getting up and doing what they want to do and expressing themselves in their own way.
When we get to the history books, you might recognize some of the most notable names in the genre from The Clash to Dead Kennedys. Where there is a missing piece is where artists of colour (especially womxn of colour) are largely absent from the fold. Historically, the difference in how white and black musicians in the same genre were marketed skewed their ability to sustain an extended career and gain credit for their efforts.
All The Things A Starry-Eyed Young Girl Could Wish For
Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, better known as Poly Styrene, was born to in April of 1957. Of Somalian and Scottish-Irish descent, Poly grew up in both the Bromley and Brixton areas of England. The papers tried to push the stereotypical narrative of a rough upbringing that she had to challenge at multiple junctions. But she wanted more than the upbringing she was used to:
I wanted adventure, fame, financial independence, all the things a starry-eyed young girl could wish for.
— Poly Sytrene
After seeing the Sex Pistols perform on her 19th birthday in 1976 she decided to form a band called X-Ray Spex. Putting together a five-piece band with little to no formal training dressed to the nines in chaotically colourful clothing was a fresh and vibrant injection to the scene.
Poly’s songwriting covered topics well in line with the counterculture of punk music at the time including gender fluidity, identity, social mores, and capitalism. The assumption was that her content and message were serving some broader agenda to an end, but like many artists Poly merely wanted to express what she was feeling in response to what was going on around her. In that medium of self-expression found something of great value to her audience.
Unfortunately, that piece was short-lived and where the extent of erasure begins to draw its line. In 1978, while touring in South Yorkshire for their debut album, Germfree Adolescents, Poly had visions of coloured lights and began to experience other hallucinations. She was taken to a hospital and misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and later involuntarily committed (it wasn’t until 1991 that Sytrene was properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder). Styrene left the group shortly after, some said because of her mental health struggles, others due to conflicts with the band’s manager over unpaid royalties.
The band didn’t survive without Poly for went on to release a few solo albums over the ensuing 30 years. The band did reunite through a few efforts (including a second album, Conscious Consumer, in 1995) but never quite picked up the momentum they once held.
Oh Bondage..Up Yours!
Poly made a huge impression in the 1970s and like many of our musical figures, pushed the boundaries in what we thought was possible in the realm of the music business. The question remains “what is punk?” and musicians like Poly have been right here showing us the answer: do it yourself. She contributed to a space to guide folks like James Spooner to mind the gap of being a POC and punk music fan. To truly rely on the supportive nature of a community and express your identity in ways that work for you.
We’d come across an article posted a few weeks ago on gal-dem (an excellent online/print magazine written by womxn and non-binary folks of colour) written by Poly’s own daughter, Celeste Bell, on her efforts to commemorate her mother within a documentary, book, and an art exhibition.
An excerpt from Celeste’s article details that “it lays bear her status as a hugely significant yet under appreciated multidisciplinary artist”. As you curate Poly’s legacy across mediums, you continue to build your own legacy in the process. We appreciate you. You’ve given us another chance to look at punk music and see ourselves in it. But the responsibility lies on both sides. You can only provide the medium. The onus is on us to enroll and remember.
Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for the global, music community.
For our Herstory Lessons blog series — we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
If information looks incorrect, please let us know! When we're retelling stories that are left out of our history books, finding info can get tricky. We want to make sure we're portraying these stories as accurately as possible!