On Aug. 12, as images of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia began to circulate -- and as it sunk in over the next hours, days, weeks that what we were dealing with were large groups of Nazis, actual Nazis, in 2017, in the United States of America -- a now-all-too-familiar social media rollout followed. In addition to news stories, photos and outraged status updates, many people in my feeds began to post music.
The 1981 Dead Kennedys song “Nazi Punks F-ck Off” was a common, obvious choice; I was far from alone in thinking its simplicity and direct anger was exactly the kind of counter-anthem such a simplistically terrifying and upsetting event deserved. Recorded in one take, the song originally addressed the growing number of skinheads showing up at Dead Kennedys shows; frontman Jello Biafra said at the time that it felt necessary to distance the band from the Nazi-sympathizing element that had crept into punk rock.
Was the track successful? That all depends on what you want from a political song. Nazis, you may have noticed, never really f-cked off.
Which brings us to Evaluate What You Tolerate, a forthcoming, two-volume compilation of songs by modern-day Bay Area punk bands taking a stand against racism and white supremacy. Created by a group of local activists and musicians, the comp is due Oct. 1 on two limited-edition cassette tapes as well as digitally via Bandcamp, and accompanied by a zine of the same name. All proceeds from sales are earmarked for the Anti Police-Terror Project, an Oakland nonprofit dedicated to ending “state-sanctioned murder and violence perpetuated against black, brown and poor people”; among other services, the group provides support and legal resources to families affected by police violence.
“It was a few days before the Bay Area counter-demonstrations against the white supremacist rallies, and I was laying in my bed just super depressed about how Trump has galvanized white supremacists, how 800,000 Dreamers were at risk of being deported, how my friends and family are being targeted and attacked,” recalls Vanessa T., an organizer who wished to go by her first name because of her immigration status. “And I was thinking, ‘Okay, what can I do outside of taking to the streets? How do I keep showing my friends who are targeted every day that I love and support them?’”
Bands who agreed to the compilation included Wax Idols, Mall Walk, Maya Songbird, Los Huaycos, Silent Era, SBSM, and more. Hether Fortune, Wax Idols’ singer, says her band decided to cover “Born Without a Mind” by the Reno hardcore band 7 Seconds because its lyrics include a nod to the everyday kind of racism that might not make the news.
Maybe you're not out and open with your f-cked up views,
and you don't use the 'n-word', that is something you refuse,
intolerance that's quiet, makes it just as bad it seems,
it's one way or another, you can't have it in between
“It’s really easy to be like ‘f-ck Nazis.’ There’s sensationalism there, and come on, nobody likes Nazis. But I think it’s important to not just talk about a form of genocide that arose in Europe 70 years ago -- there are more subtle forms of racism that are very harmful, and we also need to talk about what is born and bred of this country,” says Fortune, noting that while Wax Idols is “fairly white-passing” as a band, her bandmates are of Filipino and Peruvian descent; racism affects the band on a “personal, lived level.”
To Maya Songbird, whose "People Hold On" is a song of strength and defiance, "The power levels have gotten worse over the years," she tells me. "I fear for my son's first experience with the cops. When he was younger they were all his PAL and wanted him to join the program and gave him a sticker and some crayons also some candy. I threw it away because I know those same cops giving my son sugar, and trying to sugarcoat the police and what they do, will be the same police slamming my innocent son into the concrete based on the color of his skin."
Fortune herself was raised in a Lebanese family in the Midwest, where, she says, “I saw white supremacy firsthand. I grew up around people who were very racist. We’re in such a bubble here [in the Bay Area]... I think a lot of people in coastal areas have no idea what the rest of the country can be like.”
So, yeah, about that bubble: I’m a product of it. I was aware of skinheads in the punk scene -- or, more often, lame shock-punk dudes who thought it was cool to adopt skinhead aesthetics and Nazi imagery. But overt white supremacists? In the Bay? You might as well have told me Cruella DeVille was real, and drove the train at Tilden Park. In the recent documentary Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, a scene in which a group of Gilman volunteers and regulars wield baseball bats and fight off a truck full of skinheads is sweet and triumphant, to be sure. But even that feels a little too tidy in light of recent events. And they never came back again. Except…
Talking with Vanessa, I wonder what impact, if any, she thinks the compilation might have. The group’s message, after all, is most likely to reach people who already share their views. Are you trying to change anyone’s mind? I ask. Or is it enough to be a source of comfort, a kind of rally cry for like-minded people when they’re feeling angry and helpless and hopeless, as so many of us are?
“I can’t speak on behalf of the punk community, but I don’t want to 'change the hearts and minds' of white supremacists,” she tells me. “I don’t want to engage them, I don’t want to talk to them. They don’t believe my friends and family have a right to exist. They want people to die.”
Strengthening the alliance between the local punk scene and activist groups, particularly those led by black and brown people, is one obvious benefit, adds Vanessa. It’s a show of solidarity: anti-racist work doesn’t end, after all, when the headlines move on to something else.
And then there’s the rally-cry component -- which, yes, might seem tired for adults who have lived through multiple protest movements and their accompanying soundtracks. But I find myself remembering that the power of a song should not, perhaps, be underestimated. Who knows which 13-year-old may be listening? Who knows what note, what lyric, might spark a political awakening? Which might mean everything to someone, even decades later?
“I’ve been listening to a lot of Nina Simone,” offers Hether. “That’s been helpful with my rage blackouts.”
Sure, “It’s easy to get jaded [about music’s potential],” says Vanessa. “But do you remember your first political song? For me, the first time I heard Rage Against the Machine it was ‘Oh, I’m not alone.’ I grew up in a very conservative family, and literally, music led me on a path to activism.”
And then she echoes the sentiments of so many others: “If it weren’t for punk, I don’t know who I’d be.”
Emma Silvers lives in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter here.