Big Joanie

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Ellie Smith

They are a world away from UK grime – musically speaking – but self-proclaimed ‘black feminist sistah punk’ band Big Joanie are standing with Stormzy.

That’s after the grime star cancelled a festival headline appearance in Austria late on last week, claiming members of his team had been racially profiled.

In an Instagram story, the rapper claimed his friends were targeted by security at the Snowbombing event, who were acting on reports of a weapon. Organisers responded by saying staff had acted in accordance to protocol.

Speaking after their own Record Store Day gig at Rough Trade east, the London-based punk three-piece have nothing but respect for the Glastonbury headliner’s decision to walk away.

“I think Stormzy made the right decision – a brave decision,” stand-up drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone tells the BBC.

“He could easily have sat quietly and done nothing but he’s in a position of power in the industry now to actually make a positive change.”

She adds: “As people in bands there is an element of privilege being backstage and people don’t tend to search you; no-one is searching Led Zeppelin!

“They [the festival] seem to think because they’re black men playing a certain kind of music that they must be involved, which is absurd.

“You hear backstage stories of drugs and throwing televisions out the windows and Motley Crue’s mad lifestyle… Would they have been searched? Unlikely.

“His people were just minding their own business and working.”

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Stormzy: Doing his job

Big Joanie, #72 in our list of Newbie Tuesday artists, consists of Chardine, bass player Estella Adeyeri and singer/guitarist Stephanie Phillips and they released their debut album, Sistahs, in November on Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore’s new imprint.

The band met on Facebook and made their live debut soon after at First Timers Festival; a workshop encouraging people from marginalised communities to come together and form bands.

Phillips suggests that, as an all-black female rock band they’ve suffered similar treatment to Stormzy’s team, while touring their new record in support of Parquet Courts.

“We always get searched at airports,” says the singer, with a dismissive laugh.

“There’s that thing when we are touring Europe, people staring at us loads and being taken aback by our presence, that was uncomfortable for me.

“Because we have a black tour driver as well, we just stood out and I don’t think they could figure out what we were doing round there.”

“We’ve also had a weird experience at a Bristol Festival,” she adds, “where everyone was doing weird cultural appropriation but didn’t seem to notice – white dreads everywhere!

“Just as I was about to go on stage there was a white girl with a T-shirt that said ‘I will never be a slave,’ and I was like ‘you can’t wear that in front of me while I’m playing… take it off – that’s not your history.’

“She was so scared, she was shaking. But that was just general ignorance and disrespect; just not connecting with who we are as a band or realising there might be some backlash if you’re gonna be that stupid.

“We let people know that you can’t really get away with that kind of thing.”

‘If anyone needs punk right now it’s black people’

The frontwoman credits bands like The Breeders and Throwing Muses; as well as 60s girl groups such as The Ronettes, The Crystals and The Supremes as big musical influences however admits that, deep down, she “always wanted to have a black punk band.”

Their mission is to set about re-writing certain chapters of rock ‘n’ roll history which, they believe, have been retrospectively whitewashed.

“We know our history and play music outside of what is traditionally known as black,” Phillips explains.

“If you look back there’s always been black people who have been making things happen and have been at the centre of the scene, playing what we now know as rock ‘n’ roll, back in the 40s.

“Poly Styrene [X-Ray Spex] was making all this radical music in the 70s, so there’s always been people who have been integral to moving forward but history is always written by the same person; the same white, middle-class straight men basically who only see their own people and assume that everyone else is just there for fun.

“Talking about rebellion and fighting against what’s wrong. If anyone needs punk right now it’s black people.”

Phillips’ band will perform at this year’s Great Escape festival in Brighton, following a successful appearance, alongside the likes of Sam Fender, at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, for BBC Music Introducing.

With their brilliantly-bolshy band manifesto, Big Joanie are not attempting to create an uber niche new subgenre of political rock. It simply serves, they say, as an “honest” and “literal” description of all three members.

In other words; what you see is what you get.

“The idea with Big Joanie is we’re not necessarily performing our black political identity, it’s just always there,” Phillips states, matter-of-factly.

“I think when people hear that we’re a ‘black feminist sistah punk’ band they want us to be saying some sort of ‘we hate the white man’ type rhetoric.

“It’s just not necessary as we don’t really think about it on an everyday basis, we think about what we’re going through, our emotions and ourselves.”

Sistahs is out now and Big Joanie have upcoming gigs in Manchester, London and Brighton

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