Poly Styrene: The Black Punk Trailblazer The Scene Forgot

Image: Hilaria McCarthy (Getty Images)

In March 2017, Celeste Bell, the daughter of late punk trailblazer Poly Styrene, along with writer Zoë Howe and director Paul Sng, launched a crowdfunding campaign to create a documentary about Styrene and her time as the lead singer of the band X-Ray Spex. The project, titled Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché after one of the tracks from the band’s debut album Germfree Adolescents, was pitched as a deep dive into the making of Styrene as a musician—as well as the misogyny, racism, and mental health struggles that permeated her rise in the punk scene of the 1970s, so dominated by white men.

It was set to be a gripping biography of a woman whose musical legacy has only grown in the years since her death. But the fundraising was a slog, and they had to extend the deadline to finally raise £70,000. The filmmakers turned to Patreon in 2019 to help fund the final portions of the film, which by then boasted narration from Oscar-nominated actor Ruth Negga and interviews from the likes of Kathleen Hana of Bikini Kill and designer Vivienne Westwood. “The costs involved in making a feature-length documentary of this scale and quality are significant; raising the remaining funds through traditional routes has proved challenging,” read the Patreon message from Bell and Sng. The film finally debuted in the UK to glowing reviews, four years after their initial crowdfund and with additional investment from Sky. Their labor of love ultimately proved triumphant.

But as I patiently await a screener, I’m left wondering: Why was it so hard to finance a relatively low-budget documentary about someone who is now regarded as one of the most consequential figures of punk history? A woman who inspired the likes of FKA Twigs, Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth; a woman Hana herself admitted she’d “never be as good as.” Why was this such a herculean effort?

I have a hunch. It’s the same reason Styrene wasn’t part of my punk starter kit when I was a pre-teen. Pop-punk was my gateway, and I memorized every Blink 182 album and the words to Green Day’s “Basket Case” by age 11, quickly graduating to bands like NOFX and The Descendents before feeling pressured to familiarize myself with the genre’s originators. In the early 2000s, this meant The Sex Pistols and The Clash and whatever other (white, male) band met whatever gatekeeping criteria were in vogue at the time.

Aside from the occasional Blondie song, women musicians were largely absent from my old school punk lexicon. I didn’t even know there were Black punk bands like Bad Brains or Death—or even the fact that there was a Black guy in The Dead Kennedys—until my late teens. X-Ray Spex, a band fronted by a Black woman, didn’t stand a chance.

I don’t remember when I found out about X-Ray Spex, but I’m certain some YouTube hole in the late aughts or early 2010s led me to the music videos for “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” and “Identity.” From there I found out more about Styrene herself, born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, raised by a single mom in working-class Brixton. In 1976, 19-year-old Styrene watched the Sex Pistols perform and figured she could do what they did, perhaps not knowing she’d do it better in some estimations (mine). She put out ads calling for “young punx who want to stick it together” and soon formed the band that would eventually become X-Ray Spex, a vehicle for what Bell described as her mother’s alter ego: a “plastic punky princess living in a dystopian future” inspired by “postmodernism, science-fiction, and television advertisements.”

In 1978, they released Germfree Adolescents, an album that is now revered as a punk classic, but Styrene left the band the following year due to a combination of stress and depression, worsened by drug use while on tour. A drastic transition followed: She was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and sectioned before receiving a proper diagnosis of bipolar disorder more than a decade later. She also released a solo album, got really into Hari Krishna, and raised her daughter. X-Ray Spex reunited in 1991 and 2008 to sold-out crowds, but stateside, X-Ray Spex’s legacy remained somewhat under the radar, a punk gem discovered by happenstance rather than one lauded as a quintessential piece of the punk canon. All this despite the fact that Styrene was regarded as an inspiration to the riot grrrl scene of the ‘90s.

Fast-forward another decade and you’ll find me, still clueless about this woman’s existence even as I was counting the Black faces at the punk gigs. By the time I was put on to Poly Styrene, in fact, she was gone. On April 25, 2011, Styrene died after a battle with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 53.

Poly Styrene’s eclectic fashion choices stood out to me, yes, as did her high-octane stage presence and her singing, which ranged from lullaby lilts to piercing cathartic howls as she raged against vanity, environmental collapse, capitalist consumer culture, and the travails of womanhood. But it was the fact that this was coming from a Black woman with thick braids and braces that moved me above all else. A Black woman who sarcastically sneered that a full face of makeup is “the way a girl should be in a consumer society” in “Art-I-Ficial.” A Black woman who screeched, “identity is the crisis, can’t you see?” A Black woman who tauntingly sang, “I am a poseur and I don’t care/I like to make people stare/Exhibition is the name/voyeurism is the game,” a criticism that reads as prophetic in the age of the social media influencer.

Despite her frenetic showmanship, she came across as quiet and even bashful during interviews, mulling over her words before speaking, an uncomfortable recipient of praise who was modest even when calling herself a rebel. But she still had this frankness about her, a refusal to let someone else dictate her narrative. I’m especially taken by what she once told NME back in 1978: “I said that I wasn’t a sex symbol and that if anybody tried to make me one I’d shave my head tomorrow. And so they come round and they say, ‘Oh, I really fancy you,’ and they want to see how far you go, and I say, ‘all right, you can sleep under the table.’”

Representation has become such a trite objective of late, relied upon as a cheap replacement for liberation and weaponized by corporations, Hollywood, and the music industry to placate critics. But I’m also not so cynical toward the politics of representation to deny the power of seeing myself reflected in a woman—from the skin color, to the kinky textured hair—who played a role in the making of a genre to which I long laid claim.

Making sure Poly Styrene has the legacy she deserves isn’t the sole responsibility of her daughter, who runs her estate, or television companies who decide that her story is one worth throwing money toward. I’m determined to do my part in helping cement her legendary status, and it’s the job of Styrene’s peers, the musicians who look up to her, the music journalists and historians who know about her, and the punks who spin her tracks to do their part too. Because she needs to be in the punk starter kit for the next generation of baby punks, especially the Black punks hoping to feel more at home.

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.

DISCUSSION

(If I don’t link it correctly just an old episode of the BBC show Arena called ‘Who Is Poly Styrene’.)