We’re Not Ok, But We’re Having Fun

Not Ok is the emo pop-punk club night creating space for alternative queer PoCs.

Community is no longer just our next-door neighbours – it’s the people we connect with around the world through shared identities, values and interests. In our new series Community Curators, Politics Editor Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin meets the individuals & organisations changing lives through community action.

PHOTOGRAPHY Michele Baron

From the subcultural icon Don Letts – who was spinning primarily reggae and ska records during punk nights at The Roxy and managing The Stilts – to Poly Styrene – the very influential frontwoman of X-Ray Spex – the history of punk music isn’t painted so heavily white as might seem at first glance.  Although the anger and betrayal experienced by the white working class in the 1970s partially gave momentum to UK punk, the scene was deeply rooted in, and inspired by, the musical innovation and the political drive of the Black community. But as punk became more entangled with far-right white nationalist organisations – such as the National Front – via the ‘Oi!’ movement, it soon began to be perceived by society as a predominantly white scene. And as the genre developed down new pathways, this association between punk – its music, fanbase, and even fashion – and fascism stuck, leaving countless musicians of colour out in the cold.

Propelled into the late-90s and early-00s charts by all-male bands, such as Green Day, Blink-182, and New Found Glory, pop-punk was – and often still is – perceived as exclusionary to those belonging to more marginalised communities. Even Black pop-punk artists with successful careers have struggled to find acceptance and community within this space. Travie McCoy, Gym Class Heroes’ frontman, told Slate in 2021 that he “was definitely a sore thumb at a lot of shows in the early days”. And with a stream of pop-punk artists abusing their power against fans – with Panic! at the Disco’s touring guitarist, Kenny Harris, leaving the band after being accused of inappropriate behaviour, Warped Tour festival closing at the height of the #MeToo movement, and Burger Records shutting down after allegations of sexual abuse were made against several associated musicians – the scene seemed inherently unsafe for anybody who wasn’t white, cis-heterosexual, and a man.

Both punk and queerness represent – and demand – freedom to exist outside of society’s normative pressures and expectations. They’re inherently DIY, anarchist, and anti-establishment.

It’s ironic because, as Brinkhurt-Cuff wrote in Dazed, it’s not so much about “recognising Black people in punk, it’s recognising the punk that already exists in Black culture”. And, in many ways, similar thinking could be applied to the queer community. Punk has long been associated with sexual outsiders, with the word itself meaning “prostitute” and then “young men who sell sex to older men” in Shakespearean English. But both the punk subculture and queerness are so much more than sexual “deviancy”. They represent – and demand – freedom to exist outside of society’s normative pressures and expectations. They’re inherently DIY, anarchist, and anti-establishment. As my queer family often says: “Not gay as in who you f*ck, but queer as in f*ck the system”.

From this symbiotic relationship was born the Queercore movement in the mid-1980s, which resisted the homonormative attitudes of the mainstream LGBTQIA+ movement. “Losers, freaks, and deviants started this movement…”, said Penny Arcade in the 2017 documentary Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution. But despite queer and punk occupying two faces of the same coin, queerphobia poisons many alt nights. Queer and trans people are questioned on everything from clothing choices to bathroom use in these co-opted spaces, where cis-het men have yet to learn that painting their nails Black doesn’t absolve them of their privileges.

Now, with pop-punk princess Olivia Rodrigo and queer artists, such as Willow Smith, cashing in on the nostalgia-fuelled return of the genre, and Avril Lavigne making a triumphant comeback with Love Sux, it may seem as if the scene is shifting. But many of the most well-known artists in this recent pop-punk revival, such as ex-rapper Machine Gun Kelly – who has a history of sexualising minors and fetishising women of colour – continue to drive a toxic misogynistic culture. 

All this has created an environment where queer, trans, and intersex people of colour (QTIPoCs) don’t feel as comfortable existing or participating in alternative music scenes, with DJs and musicians often opting to develop expertise in genres more traditionally associated with their communities. But rising queer bands comprised of people of colour (PoCs), such as The Tuts and Meet Me @ The Altar, are challenging this norm. And, now, a recently launched club night is helping the QTIPoC community in London slowly dismantle the boxes so many of us have constructed around us to feel safe.

Very few club nights have felt as safe, welcoming, and joyous as Not Ok did – the only other that compares is Pxssy Palace. It’s a space us queer Black and Brown alt kids have been in desperate need of.

Naz Toorabally, Weirdo zine

Not Ok, started by Russie (a.k.a. Yanaboth), is a club night by QTIPoC for QTIPoC, with DJs from the community spinning emo pop-punk throwbacks and remixes all night at The Yard Theatre in London. The initiative not only aims to create a safe space for queer PoCs to engage with the alternative scene, but also provides a platform for QTIPoC DJs to broaden their repertoire and develop as artists.

“Many alternative people of colour have the shared experience of feeling excluded from the alternative scene, from not seeing people who look like us on gig and festival lineups to experiencing racism,” says Naz Toorabally (she/her), founder of Weirdo zine, which platforms South Asian people in the alternative scene. “Very few club nights have felt as safe, welcoming, and joyous as Not Ok did – the only other that compares is Pxssy Palace. It’s a space us queer Black and Brown alt kids have been in desperate need of.” 

We spoke to Russie to find out more about their intentions and vision.

Prishita: Could you tell me a little bit about Not Ok?

Russie: Not Ok is an emo pop-punk night created by myself. Originally, it started off as a birthday party idea as I’d never had one! But then I came across the Night Drafts Scheme by The Yard, [which supports promoters, musicians, artists, producers to start a new series of events over six months], and I had to apply. I love queer raves, but sometimes a non-binary babe just wants to rock out to some Fall Out Boy!

P: What’s the need for this initiative in society? What space is it occupying?

R: I was born and raised in Camden, and grew up around alternative scenes where I was often the only person of colour. From my own experiences and through conversations with others, it’s obvious that PoCs have been kicked to the sidelines in the alt scene. And when we are there, we get told that we’re “trying to be white”. As much as I love alt nights, I’m not here to share spaces with people like that.

I originally wanted to provide a place for QTIPoC people to be centred and to rock out to pop-punk. But I soon realised there’s a real lack of DJs who play the genre, so the night adjusted to be a QTIPoC DJ development platform first, and then, more broadly, a queer PoC-centred club night. To be honest, I never asked if anyone needed this emo pop-punk night, but I needed it. To my surprise, I wasn’t alone.

P: What does community mean to you?

R: Community provides not only a healing space, but also a space that will challenge, support, and uplift you. It means that you can have all this with the people that you relate to, connect with, and can trust.

P: What’ve been some of your favourite moments since setting up Not Ok?

R: Without a doubt, it would be meeting so many new DJs, with some people really stepping out of their comfort zones and smashing it on the decks. I also love how many other Emos of Colour turn up to the events – everyone’s told me since the first event that the crowd have been so loving and caring towards one another. Also, when DJ June Bellebono played an emo version of Let it Go from Frozen, my jaw fell to the floor!

P: I love that! What do you hope to achieve through this initiative?

R: To provide QTIPoC DJ’s at all levels the space to gain more experience of playing emo pop-punk music so that they can expand their repertoire and play even bigger nights going forward. It’s still early days, and I don’t intend for the night to be as big or as successful as other queer-centred nights, like Crossbreed or Pxssy Palace. I enjoy that it’s raw and unpolished. I’m all about vibes. It’s important to step away from the day-to-day and reminisce, reconnect, or simply express oneself

P: What’re your hopes for the future? Both for Not Ok and for the wider alt music scene?

R: To expand out of London and to see a rise of alternative spaces that are QTIPoC friendly. And just to connect with more queer PoCs – the people are the best bit! To be honest, I’m not asking anything from the wider scene. Not Ok has simply been set up to provide a safe space in which alt queer PoCs can connect. The wider scene may create similar nights, and that’s great, as long as my community knows they have a space for them at Not OK.

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

Our Politics Editor, Prishita (they/them) is a writer, editor, and LGBTQ+ community organiser. They’re currently a Trustee with Voices4 London and sit on the Advisory Board for Split Banana, a social enterprise redesigning relationship and sex-ed by bringing in the perspectives of groups traditionally excluded from the curriculum. Prishita has been published or featured in METAL, gal-dem, Hunger, and Dazed, amongst others. They also featured in ‘Soul of a Movement’, a film by British creative directors Carson McColl and Gareth Pugh that documents some of the British LGBTQ+ activists, artists and allies carrying the revolutionary fire of the Stonewall Uprising today.
Prishita‘s writing is represented by The Good Literary Agency, and they’re also a signed model and social human with CRUMB.

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