G’Ra Asim’s ‘Boyz N The Void’ Explores Being Black And Punk
When G’Ra Asim was 13, he stumbled on a book that would change his life.
The Maryland teen was at a book signing for “Real World” star Kevin Powell, whose anthology of poetry and essays featured a contribution from Asim’s father, Jabari. (Jabari Asim was book editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before spending a decade-plus at the Washington Post, and Powell was an old family friend.)
But it wasn’t Powell’s book that caught Asim’s eye. It was a paperback called “The Philosophy of Punk.”
And that book would open a world to Asim, a Black, brainy kid alienated from his suburban milieu.
“There was no solicitation from like-minded peers, no clique of neighborhood kids urgently recruiting me to join the mohawked rank and file,” he writes in his new book, “Boyz n the Void: A Mixtape to My Brother.” Beyond that, he’d never met a punk who wasn’t white. No matter. “It didn’t bother me that no one had beckoned me forward with a crooked finger and whispered the password in my ear; I knew that hopping the fence and sneaking in through the back door was more in keeping with punk’s aesthetic anyway.”
On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Asim explained that he’d summarize punk’s philosophy as “principled skepticism.”
“You could argue that punk is even more an aesthetic than a philosophy,” he said. “Some people are just interested in leather, big boots and spikes and spiky hair. But I think a lot of the people who stick with it the longest are people who have a humanitarian view of the world, and sort of proudly nonconformist ethic and recognize that living with that nonconformist ethic is usually in the service of that humanitarian view of the world. Protecting the world and caring about people usually involves cutting against the grain.”
Despite that, punk has historically been perceived as a largely white scene. That is changing, Asim said, a fact that is in part due to bands like his own: babygotbacktalk, a DIY pop-punk band based in New York.
“It was always a more diverse movement than people were aware of,” he said of punk. “But it’s experiencing a particular boom right now. A lot of the gates that made people feel like they had to hew to this cultural orthodoxy have swung wide open. There’s so many places like Afropunk and Punk Black that now promote this idea that we’re not interlopers, that nonwhite punks are people who have always contributed to the tradition and in some ways are some of the most vocal and visible contributors in the current iteration of the movement.”
Asim is today an assistant professor of nonfiction writing at Ithaca College. He explained that punk helped him find his way, even if his path was initially winding.
“Sometimes that, I like to call it ‘rampunktiousness,’ that sense of skepticism about perceived wisdom, an unwillingness to be cowed by authority, sometimes that rampunktiousness just needs to be channeled in a productive way,” he said. “Casting a wary eye at the status quo, and being skeptical about cooperating in the service of the status quo, is a sensibility of punk, but it’s also the sensibility of an academic. Eventually I found ways to channel that sensibility in a fashion that was more productive and less destructive.”
Asim will be returning to his native St. Louis next year to take a job as an assistant professor in creative writing at Washington University. He lived here until he was 10; both his parents are natives.
St. Louis, he said, feels in some ways like his ancestral homeland. “It’s not something that I would have anticipated and it came together in a providential way,” he said. “But I am someone who has appreciated that homelands have a natural and mysterious gravity, and I’m actually excited to be swept up in that and to land in a familiar and welcoming place.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.