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Decolonise Fest: the only place you'll find Kenyan punk rock and US post-punk on the same bill

A shot of Decolonise Fest 2019
(Image credit: Sophie Cooper)

As many festivals have been forced to cancel their events in light of... everything, others have innovated and brought their lineups online. 

Decolonise Fest (opens in new tab), an annual, non-profit DIY punk festival organised by and for punx of colour, will be holding a week-long event from September 1-6 featuring workshops, shows, and panels. Now in their fourth year after launching in 2017, Decolonise secured funding from Arts Council England to ensure that they could bring their inclusive, community-led festival to POC who love punk across the world – and it’s all free.

While all are welcome to attend Decolonise Fest, its goal is to advocate for emerging artists of colour and to centre the experience of music fans of colour, creating a community for them to meet and enjoy punk together. As well as panels and workshops, the festival will include artists from all over the world who would have performed at the live festival, including Kenyan punk band Crystal Axis, New Orleans punks Special Interest, and PRNCSS, an electronic synth punk artist from London.

The week-long series of events comes at a pivotal time for people of colour. Amid worldwide anti-racism protests and activism in support of Black Lives Matter, activists and allies are looking at ways other areas – like the arts and alternative music – can be more inclusive. The lineup will include a panel event (opens in new tab) with punx of colour around the world who will discuss their local scenes, how punk relates to their identity, how BLM has affected their activism and scene and how to create a global punx of colour community.

Decolonise is run and organised by a collective of POC punx, but it was created by Stephanie Phillips, a journalist and musician who plays guitar in Black feminist punk band Big Joanie. Growing up in the Midlands, Stephanie got into riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill as a teenager, and they eventually served as her gateway to punk: “It was something that was created for girls like me and it was political and really cathartic. I was a really shy teenager who was unsure of herself, so it was amazing to live through music,” she tells me. 

Stephanie started to create Decolonise Fest in 2016, as a way to create something that “other people can live through, too”. Finding that many of the loudest voices in punk were white, she wanted to create a space where Black and Brown punx could enjoy themselves fully. “The most punk way of being is having a POC identity or being a woman in punk, because you’re constantly battling with the world on a daily basis and pushing to have your identity recognised and pushing to have a space just for yourself. The natural punks are in the POC community and women of colour, particularly,” she says.

When she started to think about Decolonise, Stephanie was surprised to find that there wasn’t already something like it, and as soon as she got the word out, people were interested: “It caught people’s attention because it should already have existed, especially when you consider the UK punk scene in general and how many bands have come out of the country. We should be recognising our musicians of colour, but we don’t, and why is that?”

Amongst the panels and gigs, Decolonise will also be putting on wellness-related events, like a self-care, martial arts and breathwork workshop with Shadxw Sisters Fight Club (opens in new tab). At the physical festivals, Decolonise have always made an effort to provide everything someone might need or want – whether it’s offering vegan, POC-owned food or craft sessions. It was important to Stephanie that they continue this holistic approach online: “It is about recognising that we deserve good things. We deserve to feel good, listen to good music, and we deserve to treat our bodies well too. We try and have that well-rounded approach to the festival.”

Like many, Decolonise have experienced challenges taking their festival online: “We weren’t sure how we could get this done. We applied for funding from Arts Council England and luckily we got it, but we all had to figure out how to put on something like this. It’s been a good challenge for us, learning how to work remotely and showcase bands on the right platforms and put on workshops. It’s been a lot of learning and growing.” 

Despite that, she’s hoping to keep the festival as an IRL/online hybrid in future, making it even more accessible to disabled people and those outside of London. “It’s made me realise we can continue this in the years to come,” she says, adding that she’s hoping to visit other parts of the country with the physical festival, too.

Stephanie is passionate about the work that Decolonise do, both around the festival and outside of it. They’ve been working with Black punk icon Poly Styrene’s daughter to help put out a film (opens in new tab) about her mum and preserve her legacy. “Why is her legacy not being maintained in the same way as it would be if she was Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer?” Stephanie asks. “For women and specifically women of colour, it is harder to keep those legacies going, so Decolonise Fest can hopefully be somewhere where we continue that conversation in our small way and recognise the people that have come before. 

"We need to remind people that it’s nothing new, we’ve done this before. Pick up a guitar and make something special for someone else to be inspired by.”

Decolonise Fest will be taking place online on 1-6 September. Head to their official site (opens in new tab) for more info