Stand Up or Die: An Interview with Golnar Nikpour
Golnar Nikpour is one of the individuals I credit with helping Maximum RockNRoll evolve from a white male dominated hardcore zine to the more inclusive, feminist leaning punk/hc zine it's become today. We met for the first time around 2007 when she interviewed my old band New Bloods and fought to get us on the cover, making it one of the first times a black woman was on the cover of MRR, or any punk fanzine, for that matter. Now, Golnar lives in Queens, NY, plays drums in her band In School, co-edits the magazine B|ta'arof and is in graduate school. Let her wow you with her brilliance.
(This interview was published in Fix My Head zine #4, a zine for punx of color by Anna Vo.)
FMH: You have so many new projects! Let’s start with your band, In School. Your demo tape is phenomenal. Any plans to put out a record or tour?
GN: Thanks Osa! In School is the product of close friendships and mutually-shared love of punk music between the four members of the band. That said, all of us work full-time and/or are (literally) in school, and we all have other projects we’re involved with on top of that. This means that while we do want to put out a record and tour sometime in the near future, we don’t have anything specific lined up just yet. We recorded the demo about three months ago, and have been playing out quite a bit in New York and surrounding cities. Our plan now is to write some new songs, possibly record for a 7” this winter, and hopefully put together a tour in the spring.
FMH: In School is an all-female hardcore band with queer and people of color members. Where do you find yourself located in New York? Within the predominantly white hardcore scene? With other people of color, queer or female-fronted bands? Or all of the above? Is that an issue at all?
GN: Well, I think each of us would answer this question differently because we all have different relationships to and within the punk scene, both in NYC and in general. Since I can’t speak for the rest of my bandmates, I’ll stick to answering for myself on this one.
In School came together as a band because there was something natural and obvious about playing music together, not only because we are friends, but because I think we all feel some degree of insider/outsider-ness vis-a-vis the punk scene, even though we’ve all been involved with punk for a long time. That has to do with things like gender/queerness/race, etc. It also — for me anyway, at this point in time — has to do with being a bit older than a lot of the current hardcore/punk kids in NYC.
In truth, I think In School is a bit of an awkward fit in a NYC scene that is divided into a raw/crust punk scene that is younger and more drug-lovin’ than we are, a largely whitestraightboy hardcore scene, some scattered emo kids, grrrl bands that are cool but not at all HC, garage & indie rock bands that are a world away from us in terms of DIY ethics, etc. When we show up to gigs all brown and kind of old and holding hands and wearing floor length dresses and shit (well, some of us to all of the above) but then play raging, angry hardcore, I think we confuse some people! It’s no surprise (to me at least) that, while we have some great friends and supporters in these various NYC scenes, we’ve also garnered much of our support from outside of New York.
Regardless of whatever is going on in NYC, we jump at any opportunity to play with other bands (wherever they’re from) with women, queers, punx of color, or freaks and fellow travellers of any kind, particularly if they also play raw and vicious punk. Playing the POC Zine Tour event was awesome, as were shows with bands like Pig DNA, Criaturas (probably my fave band in the U.S. these days), Hysterics, Potty Mouth, Shoxx, Shoppers, No Babies, etc.
|Bidi (vocals) and Golnar (drums) of In School. |
The title of this interview is taken from one of their songs. Photo by Jesse Riggins
FMH: You play drums for In School, while Bidi Choudhury sings and is probably responsible for the lyrical content. Even so, could you talk about the messages you’re sending out with your band? When I listen to it, I hear anti-apathy, pro-accountability sentiments, but without the self-righteousness dogmatism that infects so much other positive hardcore.
GN: You’re right that Bidi writes all of the lyrics for our band, but 100% of In School is majorly excited about the lyrics that she writes. I didn’t know that this was going to be the case before the band started, but it turns out that Bidi is simply my favorite lyricist in the current punk scene.
The lyrics are, in Bidi’s own words, about standing up and fighting back when you are being shat on. What I hear in our lyrics is an unwillingness to succumb to the cruel pressures that life exposes us to on a day-to-day level. The lyrics deal with confronting violence in our communities, apathy in our scene, and assholes in general. The members of In School are usually easy-going people, but we are an angry band because this world is a fucked up place.
FMH: Tell us about B|ta'arof Magazine. The very first issue just came out this month. Who do you work with on it and how did the idea come about?GN: B|ta’arof is a cultural arts magazine about Iranian lives and histories. The magazine features short stories adapted from oral history interviews, archival excavations, visual arts pieces by Iranian artists both in and out of Iran, and essays/articles/interviews on music, film, political/intellectual history, etc. The first issue of the magazine was just released, and the second is slated to come out in Spring of 2013. For the first issue, I wrote an essay on the preponderance of American and European labels reissuing classic Iranian pop records in particular, and the politics of global music reissues in general.
I was the last of four (all-volunteer) editors to join onto the project, which was pitched to me over giant margaritas about a year and a half ago by my friend Arash Davari, a fellow grad student and writer. The magazine is a passion project — like In School or Maximum Rocknroll, B|t a labor of love. We do it because there are very few outlets through which Iranians are able to speak across generational lines, borders, or languages. Because of the vicissitudes of politics and history, Iranians are spread around the world, and as a result our lived experiences and intellectual worlds are rich but fractured. While in the scheme of things ours is a small project, the idea is to be intentional in the act of making culture. This means that culture (like art) is not something we simply “have” but a process through which we make sense of the world around us.
|Cover of the 2nd issue of B|ta'arof magazine.|
FMH: Did the experience you gained as coordinator at Maximum Rocknroll prepare you for your work with B|ta'arof Magazine? How so, and also how is it completely different?
GN: I don’t think I would be working on B|ta’arof had it not been for my experience coordinating MRR. When my three co-editors at B|t asked me to join work with them on the magazine, none of them had any experience working on a functioning periodical — this was their major impetus in asking me to join forces with them to begin with. At first, we had a lot of great ideas but not a whole lot of structure; as a result, I borrowed a lot of MRR’s structures and strategies to deal with the day-to-day labor of putting out a magazine. Creating workable internal deadlines, dealing with late writers, haggling with printers, all-night editing sessions, and most importantly, my belief that a project like this can and should be do-it-yourself -- all of these are skills hard-won from my three years at Maximum. Of course, it’s different than MRR in that when all four editors are in the same room working I get out-voted when I want to listen to Anti-Cimex.
FMH: Punk rock can have the effect of taking you places in life you never thought you’d go. Do you relate to that, especially in relation to your experience at Maximum?
GN: My time at Maximum was completely transformational. When I started there, I was a 22-year old kid who had never really lived anywhere other than New York and had never worked terribly hard at anything I actually cared about. Not only did the folks at Maximum let me into their lives, but they basically said, “Here’s the keys kid, the place is yours.” I had no experience, and yet I was totally entrusted with something that was (and remains) precious to a lot of people. I didn’t want to let the punx — or myself — down, so I worked my ass off. I didn’t realize it right away, but that experience changed me from a shy goofball into someone generally unafraid of trying any sort of project or standing up for myself in any situation.
Before I worked at MRR, I already believed in DIY because I was punk as fuck (duh). Still, MRR turned DIY from a concept into an everyday reality for me. The truth is, my three years at Maximum were both difficult and lonely -- I worked 70, 80 hour weeks to make the magazine work with a single-minded focus I don’t hope to recreate on any other project. I did this all in a city that never stopped feeling every bit of the 3,000 miles away from home that it was. Still, when I’m on my deathbed I’ll look back at that time as three of the truly great years of my life because the people and process at MRR taught me all sorts of things about friendship, art, community, inspiration, and ethics that I could never have hoped to gain anywhere else. Maximum Rocknroll is fucking awesome, and I am proud to be a part of its history.
On a less corny note, punk rock has opened a crazy number of doors for me. It’s helped me travel, tour, teach myself how to play the drums, learn how to really write, make the best friends I have, etc. I’ve felt outside of punk, or alienated by punk, or one foot out the punk scene more times than I can remember. Still, I never manage to get all the way out because well, punk rules, OK!
FMH: How has your relationship to punk changed since you left MRR, or has it?
GN: When I first left MRR (I was coordinator from 2004-2007), I was pretty burned out on the punk scene. I had had one too many stupid conversations about whether or not I was the PC police and one too many altercations with assholes who didn’t get why I was not impressed by their “shocking” antics. I was even burned out on the stuff I loved about punk -- I was tired of shooting the shit aimlessly about my favorite Discharge song or my most recent record score. Worst of all, I was getting less pleasure out of actually putting the zine together towards the end of my run, whereas for most of my time at MRR I fuckin’ loved working on the zine. All of this made it impossible for me to stay at MRR any longer.
After I left, I threw myself into all sorts of things I was craving, including many things that were decidedly not punk. I went to graduate school (I’m still there, working on a dissertation on 19th & 20th century Iranian political and intellectual history), reconnected with friends who were queers, poets, freaks, artists, whatever, but who happened not to be punk, hung out like crazy with my family, went to more baseball games, and got involved more intensively in political organizing.
FMH: So, besides being a Die Kreuzen reference, at least a couple of you in In School are actually in school! You have interesting thoughts on the intersection of punk and academia, especially when it comes to feminist zine culture. Please share.
GN: Phew, this is a hard question, and something I could talk about for days...! Generally speaking, I am wary of academic projects on punk or its surrounding subcultures. This is not because I am “anti-intellectual,” — as someone accused me of being after reading my review of White Riot in MRR (!!) — but rather because as both a practicing historian and punk, I believe that most academic studies of punk suffer from being methodologically unsound, poorly researched, and limited in their archival scope.
In the academy, all scholarly work is anonymously “peer reviewed” by other scholars in the field before being released as a book or in a scholarly journal. This doesn’t really happen in so-called “punk studies,” because the “peers” who would most easily see through the holes in this work are punk’s own historians and zinesters, who are largely unaffiliated with the academy. This makes “punk studies” a closed echo chamber that tacitly condones the trading in of “insider” experiences in the punk scene for steps up the rungs of the academic ladder. The academic notion of expertise (hierarchical, institution-centered) is utterly antithetical to the punk notion of expertise (democratic, DIY, auto-didactic). Legit experts are shut out of academic debates in punk studies. Punks are instead patronizingly treated as “raw material” that cannot speak back to the academy.
In many of these books, ex-punk academics often bizarrely treat themselves as scenester/native informants while at the same time maintaining a pretense of scholarly distance and “objectivity” about the scenes they are studying, missing altogether that their experience may not be generalizable for all punks the world over. I should be clear: this is not only an academic phenomenon. Trade books by ex-scenesters -- take Steven Blush’s American Hardcore, for instance — also claim to be definitive statements on punk, simultaneously selling themselves as unimpeachably “insider” accounts at the same time that they feign apparent objectivity. Many of these studies are marred by a brutal combination of know-it-all arrogance and the myopia of believing that their limited understanding of punk is absolutely generalizable.
Aside from ex-punks, “punk studies” is littered with folks who aren’t punk and never really were, but who gain some sense of cool-by-association out of writing about “underground” or even “dangerous” subcultures. (I have noticed that this is much the same some “hip hop studies,” and any kind of subculture studies, really.) I should mention here — and I can’t emphasize this enough — that I do not at all believe that one has to be a true “insider” to write intelligently about punk, but rather that I think that punk has been approached cavalierly by researchers who have so far gotten away with their shoddy scholarship because there is no one to stop them from writing whatever the hell they want.
I question not only the methodologies of these studies — which present clichés about punk as hard and true facts (“these kids are white rebels! James Dean invented the leather jacket! Punks are this generation’s hippies!!”), rarely treat punk as a global phenomenon, and seem unaware of many theoretical debates in historiography/cultural studies/etc. — but also their archives. In many of the studies I’ve seen produced on feminist/riot grrrl zines, for example, zines by grrrls of color are treated as addendums, or later interventions in the larger riot grrrl movement if they are mentioned at all. (Check out Mimi Nguyen’s article exposing the myth of the grrrl of color “intervention” in riot grrrl for a brilliant analysis of this phenomenon.) The fact that riot grrrl zines came out of a larger engagement with punk in general is often ignored or not taken as an intellectually important matter. Only a handful of zinesters — mostly the same great white mothers — are considered important. From these limited archives, researchers feel emboldened to make definitive claims about punk/zines/etc. that barely pass the sniff test let alone close historical scrutiny. And then, these motherfuckers get tenure-track jobs at fancy research universities or book deals with major publishers. Fuck that.
FMH: You laid out a very thorough critique of the book White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race recently in MRR. It seems obvious to me that any book curated by two white guys about race & punk will be inherently flawed. What are some ideas you have about how all punks, and particularly punks of color, can counteract the effects of a book like this. In fact, what are examples of ways that we are already doing so?
Before I answer this question, I have to say that I disagree with the idea that a research book about race & punk by two white dudes is inherently or necessarily flawed, even if if the odds are stacked against such a project. Such a book would be fatally flawed if it spoke for punks of color, or claimed to be the definitive work on race & punk (a la White Riot), but I truly believe that anyone *could* do good analytical work on race/class/gender/history/punk/etc. This goes to my earlier point that I am not making an essentialist argument that only “insiders” can know what’s up. Indeed, there is more than one way to write “about” race. For example, James Baldwin or Audre Lorde teach us certain things about racism in the U.S. that no white author ever could, but that doesn’t mean that, say, David Roediger’s classic scholarly work on race and the labor movement in the U.S. doesn’t also teach us about race in important ways.
That said, I think that there are ways that punks — and particularly punks of color, feminist punks, queer punks, punx around the world, etc. — have always been doing things that would inherently counteract books like White Riot. The academic fascination with punk rock has had its ebbs and tides, but punk has, from its inception, produced countless auto-archiving, self-curating communities that reveal a different picture of punk than the one you’d find in White Riot or books of its ilk. For me, the most important thing about punk is that it has been global since basically day one. This means that people of color — an admittedly flawed category when discussing folks in Asia or Latin America, who don’t deal with hegemonic whiteness in the same way that POCs in the U.S. or Europe do — have always had a formative relationship to punk style, music, fashion, culture, history, et al. We are not simply a reactive mass waiting for white folks to show us the way.
I am obsessed with these histories and linkages, which is why projects like Shotgun Seamstress, histories of global punk scenes in MRR (like their recent two-part history of the Peruvian punk scene), or excavatory reissues of punk records/tapes from Mexico to Greece to Thailand (for just a few examples) are important to me.
Frankly though, I think as punks we don’t have to worry too much about books like White Riot in the long run. We should critique them ruthlessly when they emerge, but we should mainly just poke fun at them amongst ourselves while we keep working on our own infinitely radder books, zines, records, shows, art, etc. I have wasted too much space writing about that book; I should just take the Big Boys advice and go write my own book!