Big Joanie

As this year’s Decolonise Festival moves on-line, we thought that it was a good moment to post part of the interview we did with Big Joanie singer Stephanie Phillips for Blogzine 2. As a major force in both Decolonise Festival and DIY Diaspora Punx, Steph’s own band Big Joanie are probably the best known of the UK’s black feminist punk bands, but how did they get together…?

“We got together in 2013, I’d never even sung before, so it was quite a bold move. I’d met Chardine once before at a Black feminist meeting, and I think I was carrying a Raincoats bag and so she noticed that, and then we discovered that we were both from the Midlands, we became friends on Facebook first. I put a message out to see if anyone was interested in forming a Black feminist punk band, and Chardine and original bass player Kiera were the ones who responded”.

Initially, and without much equipment they relied on their DIY punk ethics; even using an upside down plastic tub as a drum-kit, and recording straight onto their phones. 

“This was only on our lounge sessions demos because we were practicing in Chardine’s place and didn’t have a drum. We didn’t intend for anyone else to hear it at first but we thought it sounded cool so we put it out”.

The cover of Big Joanie’s first LP “Sistahs” features a photograph of Steph’s mum Joan, after who the band is named, Steph told us,

“She loves being a cover star. She used the album cover image as the profile picture of her WhatsApp group with her friends”.

Opting for a photo of your mum on the cover of your band’s debut LP might not be everyone’s first thought (although maybe we should make that the new rule) – Steph explains, 

“If you’re growing up in Caribbean culture the phrase “big” is used to describe any child who seems to be acting too grown up or confident. To me, it’s a phrase for a strong Black confident woman. I actually came up with the name Big Joanie, probably a year before we even had the band”. We couldn’t resist asking, if Joan was likely to return the compliment and start a band called Big Stephanie? “Umm no. She wouldn’t do that.”

We asked Steph why she thinks that there are so few visible Black women in music, particularly outside of the rnb scene, and why a Black feminist punk band is a rare thing… (spoiler: it shouldn’t be). Before answering Steph points out that there are in fact lots of black punk bands and they only seem rare because they just don’t get the coverage that other bands do.

“From my generation onwards it seems a bit silly to racialize music categories, because we have that history in our hands now, we have the knowledge, there’s no genre that was exclusively created by or for any one people”.

Growing up in Wolverhampton, Steph tells us that she spent her formative years listening to everything from the White Stripes, to Destiny’s Child, and from My Chemical Romance to a lot of indie, rnb and hip hop.

“I think the reality of growing up, as a Black person in the UK is that we have our own idea of ourselves, which is maybe not how the mainstream society sees us, and we’re aware of having an identity beyond those confines. I think it’s normal for black people to listen to and to be influenced by anything, because why not? It’s all there”.

“I never saw myself as unusual, I always thought that there must be more people like me, and that’s why I started the band, because I knew that I wasn’t the only one. As we’ve been playing we’ve realised that there are lots of black people who are into punk, but I think that scene has felt almost closed off to black and brown people, you may not want to be at an all white punk gig and deal with the realities of being in an all white scene in terms of racism. So while there were plenty of people listening to things at home, they may not have always been going to those gigs, or forming any communities there”.

So, how have Big Joanie managed to do that?

“I think for me, Punk is just rock and roll, and rock and roll was started by both black and white people. When punk started all those years ago, early punks were listening to reggae, Don Letts was there, Poly Styrene was there, there were Asian punks… but then maybe it was the journalists who only ever really picked out what they wanted to see, so of course they would write more about The Clash than they would The Slits, and The Slits were basically playing reggae anyway…so it’s also about how we document our history”.

“People have always been influenced by black culture, but whether that was ever appropriately credited…is another thing. As much as people were probably really enjoying the records that people like Don Letts were playing, did they really put that same appreciation of the culture into practice in the rest of their lives? I don’t think they did, and that’s why were still here really, why it’s still an issue and why we’re still talking about it”.

There’s more from our exclusive interview with Stephanie Phillips in Blogzine 2.

You can check out the online events at this years Decolonise Festival which is running all week from the 1st to the 6th of September at https://decolonise.org.uk/festival

And you can buy “Sistah’s” via Big Joanie’s bandcamp page HERE

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