Meditations on… the transformative power of representation in punk
If you were a punk kid in my corner of the Midwest during the early 2000s, you were living through what might have felt like a heyday of the scene. Some might say that any moment could feel like a heyday if what we’re talking about is the perception of freedom that comes with having a car, a little bit of money and being shaken free from the watchful eye of parents. And I would agree with those people, but will also add that in Columbus, Ohio, the early 00s punk and hardcore moment was particularly special.
My pals and I would drive to Chicago on Friday, to Detroit on Saturday, sometimes a shorter trip down to Dayton on Sunday if there was something good to be found. “Something good to be found” could mean anything, since we were so often running towards shows with long lineups, in an era where gig flyers had to shrink the print to include all of the bands on the bill.
Illustration: Adriana Lozano
I love the winter in Detroit for how it serves as an unforgiving reminder that I maybe do not understand the cold. It’s like this in a lot of the upper Midwest, but Detroit wears the cold well, despite being a city of warm, caring and welcoming people – it’s just built for a chill. The weather was like this the night I saw the band Cipher in the basement of a house. I don’t know who the house belonged to. I almost never did. Just a show flyer, with an address, in an era where directions had to be printed out before leaving the house.
Almost all of the punks I rolled with back then were Black kids. Just a small group of us, four most nights. This evening, we were summoned to see Cipher because they were fronted by Moe Mitchell, a Black dude from Long Beach, New York. Cipher was known for their high-energy performances, but also for how they made the space in a room feel communal, like anyone could find their place inside of it. This, I think, is what we were looking for. We didn’t mind mixing it up at the punk shows we went to with almost all white bands on stage. But – even as faulty as the simplified machinery of representation is – we were thirsty to see a frontman leading a band who looked like he could maybe be a part of our crew.
I still think about this now, when I meet or talk to young Black kids within punk scenes, surviving, but not entirely thriving. What it must be like for them to see someone on a stage, commanding and unafraid of anything and everything unfolding in front of them. That kind of witnessing can’t change the world, of course, but it sparks something – it leads people down a better, unexpected path.
Cipher played a short set that night, maybe six songs. What I remember most is that from the stage, Moe Mitchell broke up a brewing fight in the little makeshift pit of the basement. He jumped into the small crowd and bounced around with some kids until the potential for violence became something softer, an energy that propelled the room towards something more joyful – a tight space where people crashing into each other was a vessel for closeness and not something nefarious.
Cipher isn’t much of a band anymore. A founding member, Danny Bobis, tragically died while surfing in Indonesia in 2011. They’ve had some spot reunions, but haven’t recorded an album since 2010. I only ever got to see them that one time. In a sea of punk shows, it stands out as the first time I felt like my presence in a space was for more than just fighting my way through the end of a set. On its face, it might seem flimsy. But I was 19, often feeling lost, even amidst my supposed freedom. I needed something to crack through the wall, and then it arrived.
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance is out now via Penguin