Big Joanie are taking up space
“For me, it’s always about not being normative, in whatever sense that is,” says drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone when I ask what punk means to her. “I’m not really interested in a mixed-race royal baby or whatever. That’s assimilation into something that we should not be assimilating into. I think having a kind of punk rock mentality just makes you question these things.”
Like anyone worth their salt in the history of punk, being anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian is at the heart of what Big Joanie are all about. Their name comes from the Caribbean phrasing of ‘acting big,’ combined with lead singer and guitarist Steph Phillips’ mum’s name. It’s a reference to both a strong and confident black woman, and to black culture in general, in a way not often seen in the punk scene.
The band was born in 2013 after Steph saw an advert for First Timers, a DIY event that helps jumpstart new bands where at least one member is from a marginalised background. She posted a callout on Facebook announcing that she was looking to start a black punk band, and found Chardine and original bassist Kiera Coward-Deyell, who would eventually move to Glasgow and be replaced by Estella Adeyeri.
Despite only having released their debut album Sistahs last year, the trio are experiencing a career trajectory many bands would happily sacrifice a member for. The album was released on Thurston Moore and Eva Prinz’s The Daydream Library Series label after he saw them supporting Dutch punk band The Ex and asked where he could buy the songs. Over its 11 tracks, the trio explore themes of sisterhood, friendship, community and resilience – things that they prioritise in their music and everyday lives. This June, they will be supporting seminal feminist punk band Bikini Kill at their two European shows at Brixton Academy.
Musically, they describe themselves as “like The Ronettes filtered through 80s DIY and riot grrrl with a sprinkling of dashikis.” Their sound is a unique blend of their own creativity and the influences each member brings to the table: anything from My Chemical Romance to PJ Harvey and The Distillers to Fugazi and The Jesus and Mary Chain. “You wanna sound like your own thing, like Big Joanie, but I’m also glad that people are like, ‘there’s a bit of Throwing Muses in there, there’s a bit of Jesus and Mary Chain’, because that’s the stuff we listen to,” says Chardine, whilst we huddle together around a small round table in a cafe near Estella’s home in north London. “I don’t want people to – because we’re an all black woman band – put us in a different part of history when we’re part of a trajectory of rock music.”
Although Big Joanie are described, and indeed identify, as a black feminist punk band, the politics of their music is often implied rather than explicit. “I think people sometimes take our stance as black feminist punks a little too seriously,” Steph laughs, refilling her cup of tea. “The idea wasn’t necessarily to write every song to be a black feminist anthem. It was to be proud of our identity and allow that to flow naturally through the songs. Things that are part of our lives – because we are black women all day, every day – will seep in and come through.”
Sometimes, there will be a literal interpretation of their politics. Steph cites Crooked Room from their 2016 EP of the same name as an example. The track is inspired by Melissa Harris Perry’s lecture about how being a black woman in white society is like trying to find your vertical in a room where everything is crooked. Then there’s Token, a tongue-in-cheek track about white people who have one black friend and think that excuses them from engaging in racist behaviour.
Nonetheless, their music and existence are political in the sense that everything is. “The personal is political, and always will be,” continues Steph. “All of our songs are about black women, and in that way that is activism, because it’s putting across a point of view that’s rarely heard, and rarely listened to, by the majority in this country. To put forward an album that is honest to the realities of what’s going on for black British women today, I think is activism in itself.”
The three women are all involved in activism outside of their music too. Estella spends her free time working with Girls Rock London, initiative that helps young girls to instruments and start bands. “Music has always been such a constant theme in my life and so it feels natural to be helping other people experience the same thing,” Estella tells me. “I have so many friends who talk about how when they’re growing up their male friends were given a guitar or a drum kit for Christmas, and we’re just not getting those things. We’re not given that starting point.”
© Ekua King
Chardine, for her part, is currently focused on work around racism in the LGBTQ+ community, and has recently also started getting involved with projects around diversity and representation in the arts. And both Steph and Estella are involved in running Decolonise Fest, a yearly DIY event celebrating punks of colour that was birthed from another of Steph’s seemingly magical Facebook statuses. This June will see the third iteration of the festival, which aims to “celebrate punk bands around at the moment but also to celebrate the past,” explains Steph. “To remember that there have been so many different people that have already done this, and we’re not necessarily doing anything new or original just by being here.”
Big Joanie are vocal about the erroneousness of the discourse that has seen punk and alternative music coded as historically white, despite the existence of people of colour in its history from the beginning. “If you look at the 70s punk movement, everyone there was listening to reggae, the DJs were black… there were black people in the crowds and in the bands,” Steph continues. “But when it comes the time we want to archive it, the people that are doing the archiving are all white, middle-class men. So then it becomes the fact that The Sex Pistols or The Clash are remembered more than The Slits and X-Ray Spex.”
The history of rock music is full of people of colour, but stereotypes around certain genres of music being tied to particular races remain. “It’s almost a sort of false self-identity of what you should like as a black person,” muses Chardine, picking at a sticky cinnamon bun. “Most Caribbean people will tell you that on a Sunday it’s mostly country music that people are listening to when they’re doing their cleaning and cooking. And then you start to realise that Beenie Man used to do country covers! Back in the Caribbean people are comfortable with liking all those different types of things, but when we are in a white majority country suddenly it’s like this is what you are supposed to listen to, and that’s what white people do.
“Punk has always been about rebellion but also being able to be involved in culture and having a place within it,” adds Steph. “I always felt before I just had to consume it, but once I found punk it was so freeing to know that you could be involved in it and create your own place in the world.”
Photography: Ekua King
Decolonise Fest takes place 29-30 June at DIY Space for London