Von Phoenix can remember the exact moment PUNK BLACK was conceived. The date was May 22, 2015, and his band Howling Star was organizing a show, in part to help raise votes to compete in Afropunk’s Battle of the Bands. During the course of their planning, however, the group came to the realization that the festival and cultural movement had evolved beyond it’s predominately punk, rock, and metal roots and grown into something that no longer represented their musical ideals. “We’ve all been fans of Afropunk for a long time, but it’s changed over the years, and they no longer really include rock music” Phoenix explains. “So it started basically because we realized that Afropunk wasn’t really gonna save anybody and we had to save ourselves, so to speak.”
Rather that wallowing in nostalgia, Phoenix, along with then bandmates Akkade Kult and Jamie Cornelia, decided to start their own collective aimed at increasing the representation of people of color in local music and media. The name PUNK BLACK came to them quickly, emerging out of a barrage of texts and Facebook messages shared among the three founders, and soon the trio were organizing their first gathering — a modest house show featuring five bands and two vendors. Although the inaugural event was small in scope, it provided a broad template for the organization moving forward.
Since the beginning, PUNK BLACK’s core mission has been to organize a DIY framework where aspiring POC musicians, artists, craftsmen, cosplayers, and more are provided with the space and means to express themselves creatively. Working with inclusive venues like WonderRoot, Union EAV, and 368 Ponce, the group began hosting monthly events that combined their love for punk, metal, Japanese anime, and science fiction, gathering followers and building relationships within a broader community of black and brown creatives who felt marginalized or disconnected from Atlanta’s primarily white male rock and punk scenes.
There have been obstacles, of course, foremost being lack of budget and resources, but also, surprisingly, a considerable shortage of bands to book. “Trying to find bands of color was really, really eye-opening,” Phoenix reveals. “It was like ‘Holy shit! There’s not a lot of people or at least there’s not a lot of organized spaces where they play.’ So one of the hardest things was bringing all of these bands and elements together. It’s been very fun, but difficult.”
As the collective began working with more acts, a pattern began to emerge. Regardless of their level of talent, most bands had little knowledge or experience about marketing themselves, making their music accessible, or the process necessary to contact venues and book shows. (“The artists just don’t have the information or the know-how to get themselves out of the garage,” says Phoenix.) As such, PUNK BLACK began to serve as an educational and resource center for young groups looking to learn the ropes, offering consultation and advice, and, in some cases, taking groups under their wing and working to promote them.
In addition to strengthening their artist base, the hope has been to help bands and musicians integrate into the broader Atlanta music scene. They’ve had some limited success, but Phoenix argues that local bookers and promoters need to be more proactive about working with minority acts, while also acknowledging that many aspiring groups lack the basic business fundamentals to make a proper first impression.
“It would be better, of course, in a perfect world, if it wasn’t about making money and keeping up bar sales and everything like that,” Phoenix says. “But if they included more minority bands in their lineups, that’d be nice. I mean, there’s an opening act here and there, but there are a lot of bands trying to get into those spaces and they don’t even know how. I still get emails, like really basic, unprofessional emails that I can tell they’ve sent to another venue who just didn’t reply to it… I think there’s gotta be compromises on both levels. The bands need to do a little more and the venues need to compromise a little more. Especially if they want to grow the actual music scene in Atlanta — otherwise it’s just gonna become stagnant.”
To further assist artists of color, there have been talks of formally adding management and artist development services to PUNK BLACK’s core objectives, but, for now, the collective remains focused on securing additional funding, expanding their events, and building up the black rock scene. Since hosting their first festival two years ago, attendance at their events has grown steadily, as has their network of POC artists, increasing from just five acts at PUNK BLACK’s inception to their current number of over 30 affiliated bands. All things considered, that’s an impressive amount of growth, and Phoenix proclaims they are just getting started.
“In the next couple of years, we’ll start moving into bigger venues,” he pronounces. “We’re looking for more bands, more sponsors — people that will invest in PUNK BLACK. But even then, we sort of want it to grow at the same rate it’s been growing. No matter how much money we have, we want it to grow organically. We don’t want to pump a bunch of money into it and say ‘Now we’re this.'”
Among their many ideas for expansion, the organization has been toying with the possibility of putting together a national tour of PUNK BLACK affiliated bands. They’ve also had multiple discussions with groups in Chicago and Los Angeles who have expressed interest in organizing their own PUNK BLACK chapters. Then there is their decision to attach a greater focus on cosplay this year with the goal of establishing a new event featuring bands, cosplayers, panelists, and “much more.”
“A lot of the graphics we use are heavily anime influenced,” says Phoenix. “We’re all huge nerds, and most of the people that come to PUNK BLACK end up being that way as well. I don’t even know how we found each other. Maybe it’s because of the graphics we use, but a lot of our fans end up also being into cosplay and anime. We’ve always wanted to break into cosplay, but there’s very few events and cosplay networks that really put POC on the cosplay scene. So we’re creating our own.”
But perhaps PUNK BLACK’s most critical evolution will arrive in the form of increasing its political presence and building partnerships with local activist groups aimed at creating positive social change. Punk music has always been fertile ground for confrontation and challenging the status quo, and many within the organization feel they would be failing their mission if they didn’t adopt a more aggressive social and political stance.
“I think that there’s an intrinsic connection between punk rock and resistance,” says Howling Star bassist and PUNK BLACK organizer Lucas Wolf. “The fact that we are people of color living in America increases that connection a hundredfold. That said, I think that while PUNK BLACK is currently an organization that hosts a series of events and conversations, we will gradually become more prominent and vocal in the political sphere. We’ve already been in contact with some non-profit organizations in Atlanta and exploring strategies to tackle hunger and homelessness, gentrification, police brutality, and several other topics that often arise in our music.”
With so much on the horizon, you could forgive Phoenix and company for losing sight of the present, but with PUNK BLACK’s third festival taking place tonight (pre-fest at Union EAV) and tomorrow (all-day fest at 368 Ponce), the crew is locked into the moment. Tomorrow’s 13-band lineup, while heavy on locals, features a number of touring acts, highlighting the festival’s growing presence and widening appeal outside Atlanta. And as in past events, cosplay is actively encouraged with cosplayers receiving free entry to the pre-fest and a half-off discount at the festival door. Still, despite their many plans and aspirations, Phoenix remains clear on PUNK BLACK’s primary directive.
“I just want to make sure that when rock comes back around on the wheel that it’s led by people of color,” he says. “That’s like one of our far off in the distance kind of goals.”
PUNK BLACK Festival Edition III goes down tomorrow at 368 Ponce. Doors open at 2 p.m. Admission is $10. All Ages. A pre-festival event takes place tonight at Union EAV featuring Erzulie and the Raging Kids. Doors open at 8 p.m. Admission is $5. 21+ to enter.