A Q&A with G’Ra Asim
When millennial writer and punk rocker G’Ra Asim noticed his teenaged brother, Gyasi, going through the same paces and challenges he went through at that age, he decided to write him a survival guide for tackling the sometimes treacherous cultural terrain particular to being young, Black, brainy, and weird in the form of a mixtape. That mixtape is his epistolary memoir Boyz n the Void, in which he reflects on navigating Blackness, masculinity, and young adulthood and discovering punk music and straight edge culture as outlets to express himself freely. Asim also shreds on social commentary and pop culture critique in the mix while grounding each chapter in a totemic punk track. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with him to chat about it.
Christian Coleman: Toni Morrison’s oft-quoted aphorism on writing goes: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Was this the case for you when writing Boyz n the Void? And given the similarities between you and your brother, Gyasi, did you wish someone had written a mixtape like this for you?
G’Ra Asim: Morrison’s aphorism is definitely germane to the genesis of this book. As I write about in the chapter “Evidence of Things Unscene,” I started working on Boyz in a grad school MFA workshop. At first, I was trying to write essays on punk and straight edge in a less overtly personal way. The feedback I got from my instructors and classmates was that the “I-character” in my essays was difficult to fully imagine or believe. That led me to a larger idea: for the most part, we all walk around with our own IRL dramatis personae of what kind of people we think exist in the world. We generate this dramatis personae based on mass culture, lived experience, and stereotypes. If you’re someone whose personality and social location—the combination of factors like gender, race, class, etc.—are perceived not to correspond, you’re probably absent from most people’s dramatis personae. You aren’t a plausible figure for them until you instantiate yourself as thoroughly and persuasively as possible. The book became a way of writing myself, my brother, and many others like us out of the void, and an exploration of how punk rock has served as a coping mechanism for otherwise dwelling in the margins.
CC: I really connected with the passages where you write about neighborhood kids in Maryland chiding you for “talking like a white boy” or other people calling you out for not living up to their expectations of authentic Blackness because of your upbringing and love for punk. (I was an anime and classical music fiend growing up, so my Black card was often revoked and given the stamp of disapproval.) And punk is all about defying expectations. Would you say that punk and straight edge culture played a significant part in you claiming Blackness on your own terms?
GA: I felt comfortable embracing punk rock and straight edge because I’d already accepted that the most visible and propagandized representations of Blackness weren’t the only valid ones. My parents are artists and eccentrics, and lots of their characteristics—and even their relationship, as a happily married couple in which each party is an attentive and committed parent—were at odds with so many of the stereotypes about Black people. Merely daring to internalize and abide by the values impressed upon me in that household would and did amount to cultural treason in some people’s eyes. The world withholds full humanity from Black people as it is. I didn’t want to narrow the scope of possibilities for myself even further by feeling beholden to some dreadfully rigid script.
It’s worth noting, too, that when Black people make interventions in cultural traditions where they aren’t the norm, those interventions bear the traces of our Blackness. At a certain point, insisting that a Black person making rock music is making “white music” is like saying Washington Wizards point guard Russel Westbrook’s game is white because he incorporated the Eurostep. Whatever the origin of the tools we absorb into our process, Black folks inevitably imbue what we create with the markers of our particular history, styles, and affects.
CC: You’ve written about the punk scene for AfroPunk, especially the POC punk scene. Did these pieces prepare you in any way for writing Boyz?
GA: Maintaining an engagement with all the incredible and inspiring POC punk bands that are continually reimagining the punk tradition for the twenty-first century was crucial to the development of Boyz n the Void. I’m super grateful to AfroPunk for providing a space where I could geek out about groups like the Muslims, Rebelmatic, the 1865, Choked Up, and Bachslider, and to fine tune some of my ideas about what Black punk cultural production means. AfroPunk is also a platform that is perhaps more known for elevating Black music that may, in the broadest sense, reflect a punk sensibility but doesn’t necessarily resemble, for example, the Clash or the Ramones at all in terms of its sound. So with my contributions to the site, I relished reminding people that Black rockers are out here making provocative and timely music that specifically foregrounds loud electric guitars, too.
CC: I came across AJ+’s video on the Black history of punk music, which features Bad Brains. You have a chapter centered on them and their song “Attitude.” I was wondering what you thought of the band, Death, as a proto-punk band that introduced a Black footing into the genre. Are they foundational to your punk ethos?
GA: I hadn’t heard of Death until I watched the excellent documentary on them that came out in 2012, A Band Called Death. While I had already been an enthusiastic punk fan for a long time by then, watching the film did encourage me to start thinking about exploring punk as a literary subject at book length. It was moving to see punk music as a bridge between Black family members, so there’s some intriguing overlap there as well.
CC: Are any of the bands from your mixtape influences for your own band, babygotbacktalk, and if so, which ones?
GA: With all sincerity, every single band on the mixtape has made an impact on babygotbacktalk. They’re all taproots, and we’re a subsidiary.
Propagandhi and Bad Religion are especially huge influences. They’re the OGs at marrying a catchy, melodic, and accessible sound with socially conscious lyrics. That’s a recipe we study closely and aspire to add our own spin on. Fefe Dobson is a godmother to our band. It might seem odd to position her that way, since she and I are close in age, but she’s a model of punk precocity; she’s been making bops since I was in middle school. I discovered her music at a formative time when even the faintest indication of a Black person within two feet of an electric guitar beckoned to me like iron filings to a magnet. I try to bring Fefe’s attitude to my day-to-day life, so naturally, it also comes out in the studio and on stage.
CC: Do any of the songs on your album, Genre Reveal Party, touch on the themes you write about in your book? Is your book in dialogue with your album?
GA: Genre Reveal Party and Boyz n the Void have a lot to say to one another. When I was hammering away at Boyz and needed a break, I’d pick up a guitar and work on riffs and melodies that would end up on the album.
There’s resonance between lead single “Space Jam” and the second chapter of Boyz. Both metaphorize outer space as a bastion of the freedom, peace, and safety that continue to elude Black people on Earth. “Historically White College” engages some of the book’s primary themes by poking fun at all colleges as raced spaces—rather than just HBCUs. “When They Go Low, We Go Six Feet Under” addresses the use of respectability politics to dehumanize Black people lost to racist state violence. The song is an example of how punk and protest have been mutually reinforcing projects in my life, as detailed in the Boyz chapter “Marching Through the Mosh Pit.” Album closer “NYhilism” details the perils of Dating While Straight Edge, which makes it a companion piece to the book, and especially the chapter titled “To the Edge and Back.”
CC: And now for the million-dollar question: Has Gyasi read the book? Have you all hashed out his impressions of it yet?
GA: He has! He read it pretty recently, so our conversation about it is still ongoing. One of his main takeaways is that even though a lot of what I wrote is aimed at his specific personality and unique suite of concerns, Gyasi thinks Boyz n the Void is a useful survival guide for a broad range of readers. I mopped my brow when he said so. The kid’s a tough and trenchant critic, so his approval means a lot.
About G’Ra Asim
G’Ra Asim, a writer and musician, is an assistant professor of nonfiction writing at Ithaca College. He has served as writing director at the African American Policy Forum and as graduate teaching fellow in Columbia’s Undergraduate Writing Program. His work has appeared in Slate, Salon, Guernica, The Baffler, and The New Republic. When not writing prose or teaching, he sings, plays bass and writes lyrics for NYC DIY pop punk band babygotbacktalk, who were named one of Afropunk’s “Top 8 Punkest Bands on the Planet Right Now.”