In Conversation: Kill, the Icon!, Big Joanie & Colossus – Where are all the PoC in guitar music?

Writer, director and musician John Clay (frontman of the band Colossus) sits down with Nishant Joshi (KILL, THE ICON!) and Chardine Taylor Stone (Big Joanie) to discuss the barriers faced by people of colour in the world of guitar music and how they might be overcome.

‘We played a show last year at Shacklewell Arms, put on by the good folk at Club The Mammoth who truly seem to get it. We played with Dogviolet and Teenage Sequence. Again, three South Asian-led rock bands. And the place was packed.’

Nishant Joshi (Musician, NHS Doctor, Artist)

‘What I think is interesting to explore is what people tend to think anti-racism is within the rock world and this has definitely been influenced by the “Black and white unite” type politics that was popular during the 70s and Rock against Racism.’

Chardine Taylor Stone (Writer, Activist, Educator, Musician)

‘It’s a step in the right direction if an event has actively sought out marginalised folk as crew, but that one person can’t be tokenised. It’s a mentality akin to Saturday morning cartoons of old, right? You’d have the one asian or black kid in the gang of characters, often led by a straight white male.’

John Clay (Writer, Director, Musician)

Of all the pieces I’ve written on race within the music world the article you’re about to read is simultaneously the most necessary and controversial. How do we talk about racism in an industry that is overly keen to present itself as having solved it for the most part? Well, the answer would be to conduct it frankly and with people who’ve been active in asking the uncomfortable questions publicly onstage and/or in publications. It is my pleasure to introduce the following transcript featuring KILL THE ICON’S Nishant Joshi (Musician, NHS Doctor, Activist) and Chardine Taylor Stone of BIG JOANIE (Writer, Activist, Educator, musician). 

Two more notes before we get stuck in

  1. Being a PoC musician in the COLOSSUS collective, we thought it best that the premise of this gathering would be best served if no one (normally myself) took on the role of interviewer. That being said old habits die hard
  2. The title ‘Where are all the PoC in guitar music?’ is a question Nishant sent via messenger to kick off this conversation. And so …

John Clay (Colossus): That’s a provocative question Nishant. Feel free to elaborate on your premise and then I’ll weigh in, heavily. 

Nishant (Kill The Icon!): You can’t be what you can’t see.

John Clay (Colossus): I figure we may as well discuss this from an intersectional standpoint. It’s the best way to make this not only clear but to encourage solidarity in the readership.

Although there is a lot of work to be done, we can discern that there is clear progress (and vocal demand) in having more lineups with more female fronted bands. We’re talking grassroots events here more than anything huge. This discernible progress contributes to the notion that having a good gender balance is the main factor in what counts as progressive. 

Now the real question is, are audiences of the events we go to demanding more PoC bands on the bill? I don’t think so, but neither are they bound to reject such inclusion  should it be as rounded as you and I would prefer. The main issue would be to tackle the reality of

a) the event organiser may have an unconscious bias towards what they imagine their subculture looks like, thus the bands booked to entertain them
b) the sources they refer to being themselves biassed towards a Caucasian demographic and thus (again) the bands booked reflecting that white supremacist model
c) an unawareness as to how many bands comprise of PoC members
d) the events we go to are not frequented by a huge amount of PoC. 

I’ve tons more to say but first, what do you think about all that? Don’t wanna speechify if possible.

Nishant: It’s a combination of all the above, plus a few other factors we can dive into. I feel that unconscious bias is everywhere in the music industry – it’s especially prevalent when those who are obviously well-meaning still manage to talk to me and say “Well, we had a black sound engineer, doesn’t that count?”

No, it REALLY DOES NOT. A lot of people want to fetishise the idea of equity in the music industry. I don’t feel many people are comfortable with the fact that it entails a degree of emotional and practical labour. It involves stripping yourself of a degree of the privilege you’ve been afforded.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. They say there are no PoC fans, but Dialled In sells hundreds and thousands of tickets to their festivals. People showed up to see South Asian-fronted guitar bands at the event in 2022. 

We played a show last year at Shacklewell Arms, put on by the good folk at Club The Mammoth who truly seem to get it. We played with Dogviolet and Teenage Sequence. Again, three South Asian-led rock bands. And the place was packed. 

The fans are there. The bands are there. We just need you to see us.

John: I’m sure I read a good tweet by Chardine of Big Joanie (she writes so many good ones) stating that society’s issues are mirrored in the music industry. What can we expect of a promoter’s gigs if their personal friendship circles are mainly Caucasian?

It’s a step in the right direction if an event has actively sought out marginalised folk as crew, but that one person can’t be tokenised. It’s a mentality akin to Saturday morning cartoons of old, right? You’d have the one asian or black kid in the gang of characters, often led by a straight white male. 

‘I don’t feel many people are comfortable with the fact that it entails a degree of emotional and practical labour.’

I’m thinking of Bruce Lee as depicted in the 90’s biopic ‘Dragon’. No, stay with me here! See, in that film (not the most accurate of accounts, I know), Bruce Lee is told by a Hong Kong producer friend (Raymond Chow) that he ‘wants their love so bad’. The affection he speaks of is the American and international cinema audience that Bruce Lee sought in order to validate his art.

If we know that promoters live and breathe cultural bias and are reluctant to commit to more inclusive bills, ought we not recognise that we are putting their nights on some sacred pedestal? Why not start off nights of our own?

After a Colossus show at Amp Studios I met a white female journalist who remarked on how good it was that someone who looks and sings like me was on the lineup. After another gig at The George Tavern a new fan asked me about why there’s less brown faces onstage at guitar shows. I referred her to the existence of DecoloniseFest and Nine8 Collective. So yeah, that may only be two examples but there is an openness from audiences to see more diversity.

Those who say there are no PoC fans are often culturally adrift in a 90’s simulacra comfort zone. I’ve been one of those people. It’s surely a generation thing. The events we’ve cited and the events you’ve been proud to be a part of do exist. I feel more inclined to start or join collectives which know the benefit of our inclusion. The ones that don’t are satisfied in ways which would take more labour than we ought to spend here, especially if the promoters may arguably have a vision of rock and indie nights which reflects their social network. 

How do you incite change at events without triggering the fragility of promoter friends? The answer is of course to point out examples or share conversations such as this one. Triggering someone shouldn’t be the main concern, although we often are wary of that given you and I are normally one or two of the only PoC in the room. It’s counterintuitive to separate yourself from the group you simultaneously seek out as respite from a job or mainstream circuit which doesn’t speak to your indie or punk ethics. 

People like you and I are arguably doing a bit of a Bruce Lee here. It’s one thing to challenge promoters on the gender split, but the race issue may be something they’re not ready for. It takes a successful band made up of Caucasians in a privileged position to ‘pass the mic’. Happy to be convinced otherwise on any of these points.

Nishant: I don’t think that any movement towards equity should be overly worried about the feelings of those who have benefited from the status quo. In fact, current beneficiaries hardly seem to be empathetic towards the plight of marginalised artists.

I do agree with you that it might take a white band with a captive audience to really shine a light on the PoC scene. It’s a shame that it’s a matter of social proof. And honestly I feel that some bands are so ignorant about it – whilst also posting Instagram squares for BLM – that they need to be held to account. Some of them are my friends, and I’m gently pointing them in the right direction. First we have to raise awareness around the problem, then we need to educate around the problem, then we need to work towards solving it.

John: Would you consider starting your own events, perhaps in conjunction with your friends?

Nishant: The good folk at Weirdo have formed a group of South Asian artists, which is a brilliant initiative. They have regular events and I’ve made a lot of friends through it. Just as importantly, we’ve realised that we all have the same lived experiences. We’ve all been told the same excuses and fobbed off in the same ways.

John: When’s the next event? Also, keen to know how much visible progress – if any – have you had in influencing promoters to question their racial inclusivity. Obviously it’ll take time before your nights are in the same league as Club the Mammoth.

Nishant: Dialled In is a South Asian-led festival and they have spin-off events throughout the year. My good friend Sarith Ratnayake is from a South Asian background and hosting a couple of future events, TBC. Club The Mammoth are great and have been really supportive with their practical advice – they really do want the best for us. And that’s what all promoters really should be aiming for – to identify, develop and nurture new talent. I did speak to one promoter recently about why there was only one PoC musician in an all-day event that featured twenty bands. “You’re thinking too much into it,” he said. Show us the data, then. Tell us how many PoC bands applied.

John: I’d be up for attending Dialled In. Perhaps we should have them join our conversation next time? It’s a shame the promoter you spoke to essentially shut down the conversation before it started. What was the gender split like at the gig? I wonder when the penny will drop for some people who realise just how colonised the music industry is and how they could work towards equity. What do you think about Skin of Skunk Anansie accepting their OBE? It seems ages ago now but I have a feeling you might have something unique to say.

Nishant: The gender split at the South Asian-led show at the Shacklewell Arms seemed to be closer to 50/50 than any punk show I’ve ever been to! And it wasn’t just South Asians who attended the show, which was brilliant. We had a full and diverse crowd. It was a fair reflection of London, which felt nice.

Honours. Well, I guess this is the sort of situation you’d only ever understand if you’re put in that fortunate position to make that choice. It confers a lot of privilege, at least in my mind. And I’m not entirely sure what it represents these days. Obviously having “of the British Empire” attached to the name of a punk musician is inherently jarring, but I don’t think it’s black and white. Personally, in the unlikely event I’d ever be offered an honour, I think my parents would have a heart attack if I turned it down. To them, it would be like tearing up a winning lottery ticket! So maybe Skin just did it for the family? 

In any case, I think OBE, MBE and other honours are a lot more diverse than they were twenty years ago. To me, it feels easy to criticise someone for picking up an honour. We can’t have everything perfect all the time – we can’t criticise a white population for failing to recognise PoC artists, then stick our noses up when we do get recognised. 

So I would suggest that if we look at the overall arc of British honours, it’s becoming more equitable. I admire anyone who turns down an honour – but you need to have a huge amount of pre-existing privilege to turn one down. It would be really easy for me to pontificate and say that nobody should accept an honour. But this is one thing I’d give people a pass on.

Would you accept an honour? John Clay OBE For Services To London Rock?

Video by Lou Smith

John Clay: The gender split and multicultural crowd sounds great. Perhaps there is a case to be made that the subliminal promise being made by events which are incredibly white is one of relief. 

There are those who claim to be progressive but prefer to curate and experience gatherings without having to deal with multiculturalism. Without going too far into afro pessimism, the prevalent socialisation that we’ve had centuries of is that PoC are issues rather than people. It stands to reason that promoters who are keen to say ‘You’re thinking too much about this’ buck against ethnic inclusivity and/or gender splits are unaware of how much their bias plays out as justifiable. 

I don’t believe I occupy a space in society that affords me the right to judge Skin. We operate within an industry that repackaged what was essentially the cultural expression of Rosetta Tharpe. If, as you say, someone has traversed multiple challenges of race, gender and in Skin’s case, sexuality, who am I to police what they do? I must admit that I was surprised she accepted it given the philosophy of the work they’ve offered thus far. 

I would not want to see myself as someone who accepts an award as a mark of service. There are many who have yet to receive public commendations which far outweigh anything you attribute to me. To be more transparent – and I’ve never said this in print – there is no award I’d be keen to accept. I regard trophies and their ceremonial rites as pollutants to my personal muse. Can I ask you a personal question about assimilation? Were you, like myself, raised to fit in at the expense of certain degrees of ethnicity? I still remember being told to take plaits out of my hair before my first day of Richmond upon Thames College. I’m still actively working against a socialisation which seeks to obscure aspects of my heritage in order to fit in.

Nishant: PoC are issues rather than people. Brilliantly said. 

I was definitely raised in a similar London culture where I didn’t fit in. I was too brown for the white boys and too white for the brown boys. I had no idea where I stood – even now, I’m just about coming to terms with how society views me. That’s why my transition from being a quiet doctor to a dissident, and also from a bassist to a front person, has been really important to my journey of understanding.

To fit in with the popular kids who were all white, I would have had to sacrifice much of my brownness. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I didn’t want to cosy up to white boys just to fit in. 

I got a lot of racial bullying as well. It was daily, to the extent that I viewed it as normal. I’m sad that it was institutionalised, especially as I went to a “good” school not far from where you were. In fact, two boys who called me the N-word (I know, I know) and P-word ended up becoming musicians. They sold out huge venues and tours. One was then kicked out of his band for supporting a fascist. So there’s that. 

My face doesn’t fit. So I guess I’ll be proud of it.

One time, I was set upon by this guy – later a best-selling musician – who was twice my size. He used racial slurs. I managed to land a punch. We were both punished equally. That was my earliest sense of pure injustice.

John: As you said earlier, we have a shared experience, one that is often uncomfortable for people outside of said experience to process. I’ll always bang on about how the education system prepares us for the workplace rather than the reality curated by the elite to serve a chronic imbalance. Perhaps next time we can share perspectives of current trends in alt music circles and how they’re thoroughly middle class posturing as working class? For now let’s see what Chardine of Big Joanie has to say about some as yet unexplored avenues of this huge topic. 

Chardine, how often do people hear what you’re saying as an attack on them or their favourite band when you’re attempting to reform a systemic issue?

Chardine Taylor Stone (Big Joanie): Quite often, people often see questioning of a norm as an attack or alternatively they know the problems but pretend they aren’t there because deep down they don’t care that much. Once you point it out sometimes the angry response is actually informed by embarrassment particularly by those who believe themselves to be anti-racist/anti-sexist so it’s easier to say something isn’t the case in order to save face.

John: What do you think of the earlier supposition that audiences of indie rock shows are not protesting for race equity but wouldn’t resist it upon implementation? 

Chardine: I think it’s hard to say who does what at rock shows, people are attending a gig not a protest so I can’t say for certain what people do outside those spaces. They might be organisers, they might not be. What I think is interesting to explore is what people tend to think anti-racism is within the rock world and this has definitely been influenced by the “Black and white unite” type politics that was popular during the 70s and Rock against Racism. Whereas the rest of the world has generally moved beyond what was then an essential but relatively simple way of looking at race relations, the music industry hasn’t. There is still an air of global majority people being invited as guests in spaces rather than being part of the fabric that creates this sort of music. The music industry, like other entertainment industries, needs to perpetuate certain myths about itself to survive and ensure it remains profitable. The myth that people rise to the top through pure talent, the myth that the music is the “only” thing that matters etc. None of these things are true, everyone knows this but if we start to tell the truth it’s not that glittery anymore. Lastly, it’s telling that there hasn’t been a MeToo type movement within the music industry like there has been in other sectors. The myths about rock n roll protect a lot of people.

John: What can artists do to rewire the audience’s perception of race within rock circles, or should industry folk and educational material in schooling bear the responsibility more?

Chardine: I honestly don’t expect artists themselves to do much because what they do is dictated by what they perceive the industry wants. So therefore the buck stops with those in positions of power as it always does. You can be the biggest name on the planet but if you piss off the wrong people then you can quite quickly fall off the map. So again, back to those myths and fears the industry has built itself upon. It’s hard to find an artist these days who isn’t being driven by the anxiety of wanting to be accepted by the industry. There is great work being done about racism within the industry but there’s a long way to go with global majority artists still not seeing the investment that white artists are. If you put money into something, particularly in this digital era, it’s likely to be successful. The notion of ‘risk’ is a shield many hide behind.

John: Thank you so much for your thoughts and if only circumstances and scheduling would allow it, I’d ask for more, particularly about the lack of a me too movement and the myths and fears which are foundational to the industries continuance. I suspect that there will be lots more said on social media beneath these shares (more than likely on ‘X’/Twitter rather than Instagram or Facebook). I’ll see you both there, and I hope the readership is keen to join me. 

Find out more about Nishant Joshi’s band KILL, THE ICON! Their new single “You’re Just An Average White Band” is released on 13th October.

Find out more about Chardine Taylor Stone’s band Big Joanie. Catch them on tour in the USA, UK, Germany, Belgium and France in September and October – full dates here

Find out more about John Clay’s band Colossus. Their EP The Gods Hate Colossus’ will be out on Thursday 28th September.

Interview by John Clay
Photograph of John Clay by Andras Paul, all other images provided by the musicians

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