Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Jack James
Decolonise Fest, a collective of London based “activists, militant community organisers, musicians and artists”, debuted outside of their home city at Supersonic Festival this year. Curating a variety of talks and artists, the organisation, who have been showcasing POC punk since 2017, were brought on board to give a voice to communities of colour who make big sounds.
Although the majority of the audience for their talk with Jasmine Ketibuah-Foley on Saturday 9 July are black and Asian, it’s nice to see several white people tune into how a genre flooded with whiteness can make space for the voices of POC punks and alternative artists.
I’m a bit late, but I find a steel chair just about in earshot of the small stage in The Market Place in the The Mill. There’s a white man playing with pedals in the back and I can’t help but roll my eyes at the irony.
Jasmine starts off by asking the panel which consists of Stephanie Phillips (Big Joanie), Marcus Macdonald (Decolonise Fest Founder) and Alex Ekong, about their current experiences with the space that is available to POC punks in alternative, creative scenes and what needs to be done to improve it.
Stephanie answers, first noting: “In the media there’s a lot more focus put on people who book gigs.” Alex Ekong adds, “Do your research, put in the elbow grease. I feel like people are looking in the wrong places, in all the generic spots.”
Jasmine gets more specific: “Do you see definitive positive changes and what does that look like?” she asks.
Stephanie comments that there “have been positive changes” but goes on to say “it’s about the long-term. Most of the festivals I’ve been to have been pretty white, middle class. Glastonbury was shockingly diverse.”
Marcus Macdonald answers “yes and no” and that companies need to “employ people long term. Don’t just invite them as guests.” Alex pauses before replying, “I’m more optimistic than I have been in a long time” but he warns against the objectification and appropriation of POC music, art, and culture:
“We’re not a fetish for woke teens.”
Marcus adds: “a lot of the issues are with the labels, generally people at the top of those labels are old white men. They’re ivory towers that are hard to crack”.
The last question I get a chance to catch is perhaps the most important one. “What can we do to support bands that aren’t being heard?”
The panel is quick to respond.
Stephanie lists several practical ways to support POC artists, regardless of their genre: “Go to their shows. Buy their Records. Keep doing this – booking bands of colour, queer bands, we want to see more of that.”
Marcus jumps in, sincerely explaining “records save our life on the road.”
After the talk, I feel better prepared to take in the artists Decolonise has brought with them to Birmingham.
First up at The Mill is Rachel Aggs. They’ve just started to develop a solo set and it’s got more melody than anything I’ve had a chance to listen to over the weekend. I feel like the description of post-punk doesn’t quite capture the sound. The delicate skill with which Aggs switches between guitar, keys, and violin, layered on top of a drum machine, emotively moving through phases of sound, singing all the while.
Right at the end they leave the mic and come to the front of the stage, Aggs’ stripped back vocals projecting into the far corners of the venue.
It’s beautiful and sincere.
Whiteland’s replaces Nekra in Delcolonise’s line-up. They’ve got a much heavier sound than Aggs with clear rock influence and an angsty emo edge. It’s a bit nostalgic for me initially. But once the band settles in, it feels like the sound diversifies and the instrumentals become more drawn out and textured. Staring at the relentless pedal changes employed by the guitarist and bassist, I realise the set has developed into a shoegaze set.
The final moments of Whiteland’s last minute are punctuated by cascading symbols, big drums, and hearty applause.
Afterwards, still at The Mill, is Zimbabwe-born and Ireland-raised PRNCSS, a synth-punk artist currently based in London. The first thing I notice about PRNCSS is her look: blue snakeskin-esc, flares and f*ck off black boots, a multi-coloured top and a pale blue beanie with her blonde dreads.
There are a few technical issues at the beginning of the PRNCSS’ set, but she returns to screaming applause. The audience are evidently hungry for more of her voodoo twisted beats. PRNCSS raps over the mic, mixing trap and grime elements into a really distinct vibe. She’s got full control of the space, marching around it her loud vocal, now with heavier reverb, penetrate the crowd.
“Supersonic (!?) I wanna see you go ballistic,” she screams as the lights strobe. We all oblige, breaking our backs and jumping about.
The last act from Decolonise’s curation is DJ Awkward Black Girl, and I must admit that I’m struggling to move after sitting down on The Roof Terrace when PRNCSS’ set finishes. Then, I hear Mahalia, a Brum-based legend.
I scream, jump up, and run down the stairs to the front of the stage. There are some nice beats underneath Mahalia’s ‘I Wish I Missed My Ex’s’, an RnB gem from a few summers ago. Next up, its ‘Zim Zimmer’ from Joyner Lucas, another great dance track and I try not to embarrass myself as I wind.
My limbs are starting to feel like lead and when I hear Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ with a donk on it, I take it as my que to leave the dance floor.
Speaking with Stephanie Phillips, 33, a Decolonise founding member and panel guest, I’m interested to find out about her take on Birmingham’s alternative music scene. Stephanie tells me she has been into punk, rock, and alternative music since she was in her teens and is currently in a “Black, Feminist Punk trio” called Big Joanie, who performed at Glastonbury 2022.
She is keen to express that Decolonise Fest has always wanted to “branch out because as much as it’s great to have a festival like Decolonise Fest in London, there’s so many other smaller cities where it’s harder for different communities of colour to find spaces in their local punk scenes.”
So why The Midlands and Birmingham specifically?
Stephanie says: “We started a relationship with Supersonic a few years ago and this year the festival asked us to curate part of the festival. It’s a great way into things and a great way for us to slowly get into Birmingham and spread the Decolonise name beyond London.
“Usually at Decolonise we’re focused on punk and alternative sounds, the good thing about working with Supersonic is that their definition of what makes a supersonic band and who can play at the festival is quite broad. Which means we’ve been able to be more eclectic in the acts.”
She adds that working with Supersonic has “been really fun, they’ve been doing this for over 20 years now.”
Now for some reflection on how Birmingham matches up when it comes to showcase POC punk and heavier alternative music from communities of colour. Which makes up over 40% of our fair city’s total population.
“Birmingham’s interesting. Living here for the last 6 months it seems like quite a segregated city in terms of music and alternative gigs, it’s very 90’s and pretty white and quite different to London. Birmingham’s falling behind in that sense I’d say.
“There are definitely things that could be improved in terms of promoters bringing in different bands, trying to reach news audiences and new communities to make it feel like more of a space to everyone.”
Stephanie pauses and then adds: “It is kind of unusual how behind it [Birmingham] is for people of colour who want to go into these spaces. In terms of music, it feels like Birmingham’s stuck in the past.”
Whilst the city’s creative community, for our purposes it’s alternative music scene but realistically most creative scenes in Brum, could do more to welcome artists and cultures that aren’t white (and masc). I still want to know what POC artists can do to raise their profile.
Stephanie replies quickly with a list of advice and then a generous offer.
“Contact a local promoter that’s welcoming to what you’re doing and see if you can be on a supporting bill. Play venues outside Birmingham. Your online profile is really important.”
“Also reaching out to organisations like Decolonise Fest, even if we can’t post you at our festival we can boost a crowdfund that you’re doing, or retweet about a new album and share our audience with new bands and build their profile.”
For more from Decolonise Fest go to their website: www.decolonisefest.co.uk
For more from Stephanie Phillips and Big Joanie go to: www.bigjoanie.com
For more from Rachel Aggs go to: www.r4ggs.bandcamp.com/album/tape-1
For more from Whitelands head to: www.whitelands.bandcamp.com
For more from PRNCSS see: www.soundcloud.com/theprncssexp
To check out DJ Awkward Black Girl go to: www.mixcloud.com/AwkwardBlackGirl/stream
For more gigs from The Mill go to: www.themilldigbeth.com
For more from Supersonic Festival go to: www.supersonicfestival.com