My year as a Black punk-rock kid
Illustration by Beena Mistry
‘Growing Up Black in Canada’ is a writers’ series brought to you by Black Futures Now Toronto in partnership with Shameless Magazine. The series is meant to bring forward local and personal Black histories that do not fit into mainstream narratives about what it means to be a young person in Canada. Throughout the series we will highlight the non-fiction work of five young writers from various backgrounds. Through their stories, we will explore what growing up Black in Canada has meant to them, and the impact that these experiences have had on their sense of self. These pieces explore themes of personal growth, systemic injustices, community, self-awareness, longing, and joy that are unique to each writer, and speak to the particularity of experiences that comes from growing up different locales in Toronto and beyond. Our hope is that by sharing them, they will resonate with others in ways that push them to look at who they are more closely and Canadian history, as well as cultural identities more critically. This is part 4. These are the previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
I grew up Black in a small Canadian town, where being Black felt radical. My parents weren’t born in the same settings that I was born into, even though they both left Haiti at a pretty young age. The funny thing is that they would have probably never met if they had both stayed in their native land. They met in Sherbrooke, and decided to raise their family in Trois-Rivieres, a not-so-small town between Quebec City and Montreal.
From an early age, I learned from my parents that I would have to work twice as hard as my peers to get the same recognition. I had a very strict education, which allowed me to develop a sense of discipline and responsibility. My mother, who is a very smart woman, was able to skip a few classes back in Haiti due to her incredible cognitive skills. She has pushed me hard to get me to where I am today. Bad grades were not allowed in my house. My brothers and I were excellent students, but rebellious in numerous ways. My father, who I thought valued academics more than anything, valued our independence and ability to think critically even more. He secretly enjoyed our little acting-outs, as it taught us to become aware of our environment and to be careful around certain types of people we would meet in the future that wouldn’t let us be human and make mistakes. We learned early that Black people couldn’t make too many mistakes if they wanted to survive in a workplace where they are the only person of color.
I grew up in a household that was very open to all musical genres. I was never taught that some music was made for Black people and that other music was made for white people. The first CD that I purchased with my own money was Californication from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, followed by The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. My brothers introduced me to hip hop, but also to rock and funk music. As I grew older, society taught me, by the way certain genres of music are marketed, that I was supposed to like certain types of music and to look a certain way because of the color of my skin.
As my English improved, I began to notice how misogynistic the lyrics of the music I was listening to were. I felt uncomfortable watching hip hop and rap videos because I didn’t look like the girls in the videos with long skinny legs, light skin with sexy outfits. I felt like an outsider everywhere.
Growing up, there were few Black women I could look up to as role models, and so I grew up feeling misunderstood and unsafe, as soon as I left the house. Whether it was from friends at school or from total strangers, there was always someone to remind me that I did not fit in. From age 12 onward, I was bullied by friends at school, spat on, ostracized and harassed because of the color of my skin and the texture of my hair. My parents did the best they could to support me throughout this trauma, but I still felt so alone.
At 14, I got tired of the pressure to have perfect grades and to blend in with the ideal image of what a Black girl should be. I did not have ‘’good’’ hair, fair skin and a narrow nose. I did not feel comfortable in sexy, feminine clothes. So I decided to become perfectly imperfect. I dropped the piano lessons, lost interest in soccer, failed a math class and I began to chill with the punk-rockers of my school. Some people obviously had a problem with that, mentioning to me how weird it was for me to be Black and embrace punk culture. I never understood those people’s desires to put me in a box, and it was very frustrating. But they had a point. Where were the Black people in the punk scene? I did my research, and I discovered Fefe Dobson, a Black Canadian singer who was very different from all the Black singers that I knew of. She seemed pretty punk-rock to me and I liked that. I also found out about a Canadian metal band called Kittie, which featured a Black girl as a guitarist and back vocalist. Her name was Fallon Bowman and I was obsessed with her self-confidence and daring looks. I felt so validated by her presence. I watched all of her videos and I decided to copy her looks. I had my brother’s then girlfriend cut my hair short in the back, with two long strands in the front.
To my own surprise, my father showed me his support during this phase of mine. He came with me when I was out protesting against the FTTA (Fair Trade Area of the Americas) with my friends, even though he was well aware that I had no idea why I was marching. He shared his knowledge about the great revolutionists of our times, like Che Guevara, who is such an icon for punk rock kids. He even drove me to Montreal to this store called X20, so I could purchase items for my punk kid uniform, such as army pants, studded belt and band t-shirts. The only thing he didn’t want me to buy were Doc Marten boots. I was lucky enough to have a dad understanding enough to show me love and support while I was searching for myself, and for that I will be forever grateful.
After a while of hanging out with these kids, I began to feel pretty good. I thought their marginalized universe would be more welcoming of my differences since they were outsiders and rebels as well. But, I’ve learned the hard way that hate is everywhere. Once, at a punk-rock concert a Neo-Nazi physically attacked me, to the point that I tasted my own blood. That incident confirmed to me that I didn’t fully belong anywhere. So the anger and the feelings of despair struck again. Life went by and I stopped wearing the gothy makeup and the studded belts. I became a young adult and I started a career. But I never stopped thinking that I was not being entirely true to myself. I kept on making myself small to please others and following paths that were not meant for me. I stayed too long in bad relationships and I kept losing myself over and over.
Fast forward to 15 years after my punk-rock teenage phase. I’m attending the Afropunk festival for the first time. At this festival, some magic occurred within me. I finally felt at home, being surrounded by carefree Black people daring to be different and wearing bold outfits, without a single worry in the world. I was at peace with leaving my 9 to 5 job to become a freelance writer. I made the decision that my true self deserves to be seen and to be heard. I made the conscious decision that from now on I would water my own plant. I now know who I am. I just wish I had been aware sooner of such a community. But maybe now is the right time. My heart is opened to it. All of it.
My name is Josiane and I am a 29 year old Haitian-French Canadian woman. Most of my life, I thought that my two cultural identities were irreconcilable. I know now that they make me one of a kind. I have worked for social services for almost ten years, trying to save people. This experience has left my own soul pretty bruised. Writing has always been my way to heal and it has now become my life purpose. I have never been more true to myself than now. I may have been bruised, but I am more alive than ever.