Punk rock has died a thousand deaths in the West. Almost as soon as the mass media picked it up, punk split into several hundred subspecies and spawned other monoliths—post-punk, new wave, “alternative.” Given that history, it’s generally assumed—a couple generations of suburban mallrats aside—that the original movement flashed and failed, overtaken by keyboards and drum machines, corporate greed and narcissism. But that history is incomplete. As a recent Guardian headline proclaims, punk rock is “alive and kicking in a repressive state near you.” The cause célèbre of international punk is, of course, Russia’s Pussy Riot, three of whose members were convicted of “hooliganism” and sent to labor camps. But dissident punk scenes thrive under the radar in many other places hostile to dissent, such as Burma, Indonesia, and China.
And while the contemporary phenomenon of global punk makes for fascinating news stories, a new documentary, Punk in Africa, demonstrates that international punk rock is as old as the Western variety. It just never got the same press. In South Africa, shortly after the 1976 Soweto Uprising, multi-racial punk bands began to form, with names like Gay Marines, National Wake, and Screaming Foetus. Meeting and performing under the pall of Apartheid, these bands defied laws against racial mixing and braved constant harassment by police. As one member of National Wake says in the trailer above, “the vice squad would visit us, sometimes three times in one day.” He calls the racial territory the band had to navigate a “minefield.”
A lot of the Afropunk featured in the film is reminiscent of the meeting of black and white sounds and musicians in England, especially in bands like The Clash, The Beat and The Specials. Later African ska bands like Hog Hoggity Hog and The Rudimentals certainly carry on that tradition. But many of the bands profiled—from South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique—melded raw punk energy with African polyrhythms and distinctive local sounds and instrumentation. National Wake provides a good example of such hybridization. The live performance above even includes a drum solo—anathema to most Western punk rock.
Punk in Africa promises to add some necessary balance to the slew of punk histories that focus only on Britain and the U.S.. In the interview above, one of the documentary’s directors, Deon Maas, points out that the “punk thing in Africa” started virtually weeks after its U.K. cousin, first in imitation, then as a true movement in its own right. Like the international punk scenes burgeoning around the world today, it’s a movement that deserves to be heard.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness