Generation Wise: Jenelle Lewis AND Chris Murdoch
By Daniel G. Wilson | Art by: Michael Rancic ; Jenelle photo by: Stella Gigliotti ; Chris photo by Ian Hart
The history of Black people’s involvement in the culture of punk rock is complex. While much has been written and said about the subject, there are still several areas where that history is under-examined on a global scale. This is particularly true in the context of the Canadian punk scene. Black people in Canadian punk have, unfortunately, not received much in the way of scholarship or focus among fans and historians (though some exceptions include the book “What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal” by Laina Dawes which focuses on metal but also touches on punk). While the involvement of Black Canadians in the history of general rock music on a global scale like Jackie Shane has only recently been discussed and documented at length, their impact in the realms of punk and even metal has still been largely undocumented outside of oral history. Black Canadian punks have a history of trying to make up for this lack of awareness in various ways through interviews, zines, documentaries, show promotion, and DIY festivals. Overlooked figures such as Anthony Mark, of 80s Montreal hardcore band Scum, come to mind, as do the dance-punk stylings of 00s Toronto band The Carps.
Just as it is rare for these stories to be told, it must be acknowledged that it is even rarer for three Black punks from different musical generations, cities, and backgrounds to convene and discuss their experiences in Canadian punk and their insights on this subject in a public forum.
Halifax based musician, writer, and Radio DJ Chris Murdoch has taken on the role of Punk historian through his lecture series “Black Dots,” which was later turned into a pamphlet in the tradition of punk info zines. Murdoch has been active in the Canadian punk scene since the year 2000 and has performed in numerous bands such as Souvenir, Weekend Dads, and Word On the Street.
Toronto based graphic artist and musician Jenelle Lewis taught herself how to play guitar and self record over the course of the COVID-19 knockdowns and went on to start her band Camille Léon in 2022. While new to the scene, she has already made an impact through hosting a concert series called Stage Fright with the aim of highlighting young Black rock and punk musicians in the Toronto area who are just starting out.
Both of these musicians come from different generations, geographic locations, and backgrounds, but they are united in their experiences as Black Canadian punks and their drive to bring attention to both the history of Black people in punk and their continued involvement within the culture.
Connecting in conversation over Google Meet, Murdoch and Lewis share their experiences in the Halifax and Toronto punk scenes and their insights into being Black people in punk.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Daniel G. Wilson: I wanted to start by asking how you each individually got into punk?
Chris Murdoch: I was a nerdy kid who liked rock music and, as you progress through the years of listening to rock music, it becomes a little bit stale. And also I think part of it is being of a certain age, cause I really got into punk when I was like 12, 13. So, you’re kind of going through something in your life at that time, and you’re developing some feelings and some strong emotions. That was part of it. But also just like the energy and music,that kind of made me think a little bit more. I distinctly remember like, basically going into junior high, specifically going into eighth grade and being like, I’m into punk now. Like, this is, this is it right here.
Jenelle Lewis: My answer is very different. And when you say get into punk, do you mean just us listening or us like making music? I guess I came into punk music kind of later, like much later, like definitely when I was already in university. I’m from a predominantly Black neighborhood in Toronto called Jane and Finch. And so I was really surrounded by reggae, soca, chutney, R&B, rap, all that stuff. …. But I never really resonated with that music and everyone found it really weird, but I wasn’t latching onto all the songs and I just felt really ostracized. But [in] grade 11, I got into The Strokes and alternative music of that type, like Two Door Cinema club. And just discovering things really slow and on my own terms, because I didn’t really have much guidance and I started a little late. And then as Chris was saying, you get into rock music and it all becomes the same. And so you gotta find what’s new and exciting, like what builds on that feeling. And so I got into punk, like second year university-ish. And then the music making came way later after that. I was going to a bunch of concerts and stuff and I didn’t think I could even make music until the pandemic happened. But yeah, that’s much slower. I was like late high school, university. And then I started getting into punk music.
DGW: What elements of broader Black culture (specifically in Anglo America) do you think have parallels in the punk scene?
JL: Yeah, I don’t know. It just makes a lot of sense to me. Especially I guess you’re in situations where you’re being denied access or like, you can’t really do things at the same caliber as the white folks around you. You just start doing things by yourself and you get angry. And especially as a Black woman, you can’t really show your anger as much, cause then you get pinned as the “angry Black woman.” Like, there’s all these different layers. And so it’s really helpful to make punk music and just be angry on stage,and have that as an outlet. Cause there’s a lot of things to be angry about as a Black person. And I think it’s just, it just makes sense.
CM: Yeah, I think, I think what Jenelle just said makes a lot of sense. And I also think punk inherently is outsider music. And again, going back to my answer to your initial question, even before I kind of dove deep into the world of punk, I certainly felt like an outsider. Of course I was a Black person and proud to be a Black person, but you have so many questions at that age; “am I inherently different from other Black people? People are questioning me left and right about who I am and my choices, so are they right to question me?” You have a lot of self-doubt. And that again, I think combined with just sort of like that natural teen angst that comes up I know just personally speaking, I just felt extremely like an outsider, and I think that was part of the appeal of punk for sure.
DGW: What has your experience been like as a Black person in the punk scene?
CM: It’s been, it’s been largely positive. I think certainly I’ve had negative experiences too. Halifax or Nova Scotia in general has an Indigenous Black population, but it is still a predominantly white area, if you will. And certainly the punk scene in Halifax is predominantly white and it always has been, which will shock neither of you. People are cool for the most part, but of course there’s comments here and there. I’d say by and large, I feel pretty fortunate that my very negative experiences have been very few and far between. Like there are some Black punks in different places in North America who have had to come up against extreme violence, like physical violence. I really haven’t had to deal with that. I went to a show once in Quebec City, that’s my only run in with Nazi skinheads ever. And nothing happened to me. It was just a threat of violence and nothing happened. So thank God, that’s great. But I know that that is not the case for so many other people who are like me. So very fortunate in that regard. But yes, for the most part it’s been fantastic.
JL: I’d also say that it’s been pretty positive for myself as well. I’m really new to the scene and maybe a year and a half into my experiences here. And there’ve been so many Black punk groups who’ve come up in the early two thousands who are now kind of like my mentors, and they wanna shield me from certain things. Like Jahmal Padmore and the OBGMs, they’ve been really helpful in my journey. I am noticing in a lot of bills, I tend to be the only Black band or the token. So I’ve been trying really hard to book and organize my own shows where there’s multiple of us or like only all Black bands playing alternative music. And those have been received really well as well.
DGW: Why do you think that there has been so much conscious and unconscious erasure of Black punks?
CM: I think there’s two ways I wanna look at it. One is like maybe with the erasure that we feel for members of our own community, people are afraid of what they don’t understand. And that’s not to say that I’m assuming that the majority of the Black community in Canada does not understand punk rock. I don’t want to say that, but again, punk rock is outsider music. So it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Black people, white people, whatever, inherent in punk, at least in my understanding, is that it is different. “I’m sick of mainstream culture,” and that’s what’s drawing me to punk rock. But of course, the majority of the population, regardless of what colour they are, are part of mainstream culture. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people. They’re lovely, fantastic people for the most part, but punk is inherently scary to them. Right? Or I suppose maybe a better way to say that is their understanding of what punk is, is scary.
So you can have somebody who you’re real tight friends with or members of your own family…my parents are–, have always been supportive of me playing music and they know that I am a punk and have been a punk now for whatever, 20 whatever years. And they’re cool with that. But I mean, again, I’m not gonna sit down and listen to a Youth of Today record with my parents because <laugh>, we’re just not gonna see eye to eye on that.
And then the other thing I think is that punk is “the other,” right? It’s an alternative solution to the milieu around it that is, at least in my opinion, kind of shitty, right? It’s like, “here’s a better option.” And I think as Black punks, we are “others of the other,” so we were like way out there on our island. An analogy I would use is that the world isn’t perfect, but now in 2023, I can go to the worst restaurant, like just the crappiest restaurant down the street, and they will have some kind of vegetarian option, right? That is maybe at least half decent. Whereas, in 1995, probably not the case, right? Or even like,I think of something like hockey. You see more and more Black hockey players now that are becoming household names. And it’s not as strange to them now that Black people play hockey, but Black people have always played hockey. But because of what people see in front of them and what they’re used to, the idea of a Black person playing that sport is insane to them. And again, I guess the point I’m making is I feel fortunate that now in 2023, it doesn’t seem so insane.
JL: It’s funny that you mentioned hockey, cause actually the first Canadian hockey team was all Black people, and yet again, we’re being erased. <Laugh> . That is a real fact, but what comes to mind is Tina Bell, she was doing grunge in the eighties before Nirvana, like members of Nirvana attended Bam Bam shows, and she was erased from Seattle grunge, but she started Seattle grunge. She was doing it so well, people were so impressed. They’re like, “What’s this new thing? This is so good. Oh my God.” And then they just sweep her under the rug and kind of push their own people as like the founders of a thing that they didn’t create. So in my mind it’s like a more delusional thinking process where it’s like, we’re so good at what we do, what we do, that they’re really jealous of us. And they just want to erase us and put their own people forward. Like Elvis, most of his [early] songs he never wrote. He just covered Black women’s songs. So, I mean, it is a lot like them being mad at us for being really great. And so that’s the attitude I have.
CM: I remember watching Afro-Punk for the first time and there’s that little section on the Bad Brains—I got to meet James Spooner, by the way, who did the movie. He’s a fantastic guy— And they interview Angelo [Moore] from Fishbone. I’m paraphrasing it, but essentially what he says is how insane it is for someone to critique somebody like me for being a Black person and being into punk, or being into hardcore or whatever. Look at the Bad Brains. <Laugh>. Like, any, anyone ever talking about hardcore is like, “who’s the best hardcore band?” “The Bad Brains.” “Who created hardcore?” “The Bad Brains; who are all Black” <laugh>. See what I mean? Like, so I don’t know, it kind of adds a sense of irony to it. That artist from Seattle that you mentioned, Jenelle, I have never heard of and I would very much like to.
JL: Tina Bell. I went into a spiral about her a while back. She [was] from Seattle. There’s a podcast, where they just interview her other band members. Her son is still alive. She passed away sadly, I think in , before people started discovering who she was. But her band was called Bam Bam. And the only reason people know about her now is that there were music videos that were put out in the eighties and people discovered this footage and they’re like, oh shit, this existed before Nirvana. And so a lot of the grants that I write too, when I’m trying to get my music videos made, I’m like, I need video evidence. I need documentation because one day I will be erased and I know I will be erased cause I’m a Black queer woman making punk music.
JL: So, I’m just like, any documentation, I’m trying to use that to make sure that I don’t get lost to time because it’s just like time and time again that it just keeps happening. Just at every point in history, everyone wants to erase Black people from their achievements.
DGW: Has punk influenced you in your “normal” life at all?
CM: Well, I guess the best example I can give, and not that it’s for everybody, but I’ve been straight edge since 2006. And, it is what it is, to each their own. I’m not saying that everybody has to be straight edge, they don’t, but that’s something that has been very meaningful for me. Not just lifestyle wise, but like my friends and connections that I’ve made and musical journey and all that wonderful stuff. And that certainly would never have happened if I hadn’t gotten involved in punk, right? It’s very specifically a punk phenomenon. But also just in life in general.
JL: Nice. I’d say for me, I’ve been a visual artist for almost a decade now, and I’m a queer-identifying person, so the music is really late in my life, or late in all the years that I’ve lived. So I would say that like, even just being a queer visual artist has already had a lot of punk ideology in it. And so just adding punk on top of that, like I was already a vegetarian, and already advocating for community stuff and like doing art fairs and stuff. And so it’s just, it feels really natural to me to also be punk now, which is new for me. But I’ve already had all these mentalities and stuff and just is it, is my, I am punk, right? I guess. Yeah.
DGW: Do you think there have been improvements in representation in your individual scenes?
JL: Well, I have a very short answer cause I just started, so I’m at the start <laugh> for me. But I guess maybe a year ago when I just, just, just started, I wasn’t aware ‘cause I wasn’t familiar with the music team. So I would say today, unless I’m the one organizing the bill, I’m still the only Black band on the bill. But there’s not a single white person in my band, which is very intentional. Three of us are Black and one of us is of Mexican descent. And we’re still the only band of colour on, on the bills. And I guess that could be progress, but unless I’m the one piecing together the whole thing, it’s usually just me.
CM: Halifax now there is more of– I think probably for a lot of punk scenes now, there is more of a drive for inclusivity and maybe that’s performative on the parts of some people, I don’t know. But I think it’s by and large a very good thing. Because of that culture, that’s what we see now in punk rock, now more in the last decade I think than ever before, we are seeing more people kind of come out of the woodwork, as it were. And the makeup of the audience at shows is a lot different than it would’ve been again in the year 2000 when I first started going to shows.
So I’m not seeing tons of Black people come out to shows, but I’ve been to a couple shows here in Halifax, which is not a big place, in the past couple of years where I’ll see another Black face at the show, and I don’t know that person? That blows my mind, right? It’s very, very positive and I’m happy for it. I guess my point is, things aren’t perfect, but yeah, it’s the fact that I am seeing not just Black people, right? You’re seeing more folks from underrepresented groups coming out to shows than I’ve ever seen in Halifax before in the last couple of years. That of course is huge and incredibly important. But also I’m very appreciative of the fact that a lot of people who are involved in putting on fun shows, and especially all later shows here in Halifax, seem to me to be very committed to creating that.
DGW: Are there any closing thoughts you wanna share?
CM: I’ll say punk is the free space, right? And that’s why I love punk rock. Punk rock is for everybody. And I think, the more that we can help spread that message to people, then we’re doing a great thing, right? And that’s what’s so beautiful about punk rock. You can do what you want. You can be who you want, you can say what you want. And I just think that’s incredibly important. That’s, that’s all I got.
JL: A lot of Black people who make rock music feel like they’re the only ones. And so it’s hard to…, for us to get together and be like, “Hey, all of us exist. Let’s do this thing together. Cuz we all think that we’re the only ones that have to struggle on our own.” And so that’s why [with Stage Fright] I’m trying to get everyone together really early on and do that as they’re emerging. Just bring everyone up, so that when we’re established, we can start a festival eventually. It would be cool to kind of like, at the end of the article, if you do an open call, like, hey, if you’re in a Black punk band, email this, and then maybe we can do like a warped tour type vibe, but across Canada and it’s all Black bands. Like, we were wondering if it existed, but we could just make it.
Hey, if you’re in a Black punk band, email us! firstname.lastname@example.org – Subject: Warped Tour Type Vibe