Calling You In: How Solarized is challenging the status quo and diversifying the the punk scene
Solarized performs at Break Free Fest | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Throughout history, the potent dynamics of race, gender, economic class and sexuality have shaped every aspect of human social activity. Politics, love, war, art, all of it has been invariably touched by these social forces, and music is no different. The realities of racism and the complexity of identity play themselves out nationally, internationally and in our local music scenes. For all its historical emphasis on rebellion, freedom and challenging of the status quo, punk as a subculture has not avoided the oppressive aspects of these social dynamics.

In his infamous 1979 Village Voice article “The White Noise Supremacists”, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs addresses his own racist views, couching it within a exploration of racism in New York’s then burgeoning punk scene. Bangs interviews with black punks / rockers on the scene, with fellow rock critic Richard Pinkston offering an insight on the scene that runs counter to the narrative offered up in books and glowing documentaries: “When I go to CBGB’s I feel like I’m in East Berlin. It’s like, I don’t mind liberal guilt if it gets me in the restaurant, even if I know the guy still hates me in his mind. But it’s like down there they’re striving to be offensive however they can, so it’s more vocal and they’re freer. It’s semi-mob thinking.”

As punk rock spread nationwide, with scenes cropping up in small towns and cities alike, the kind of deep racism, sexism and homophobia that tends to permeate homogenous white spaces grew relatively unchecked. This has not always taken the form of skinheads and Nazi punks in Third Reich insignia. Sometimes punk’s complicated relationship with race (and gender and sexuality) surfaces in more insidious forms, including the outright silencing of black and POC punks and their contribution to the culture.

Philly Post-Hardcore quintet Solarized is a wailing force in the eye of the storm. Fronted by vocalist Alex Smith — who is also an author and music journalist who contributes to The Key — Solarized takes the propulsive, riff-heavy formula of 90’s hardcore and implodes it from within with a touch the avant-garde and a political heart that centers Smith’s experiences as a black, gay man. Founded in 2016, the band debuted with the blistering A New World demo that was recorded in the band’s practice space. Cassette copies of the demo quickly circulated through the punk and underground music circles, heads were forced to take notice of this new band powered by fire, rage and revolutionary love. Their newest EP, Thermo Dynamics of Life, finds Solarized expanding on its sound, weaving strands of feedback and ambience into its violent, progressive hardcore.

When speaking with the band, a persistent theme that arises is the need for accountability in punk and an understanding that the kind of reductive “casual” racism, sexism and homophobia that has lived in punk since its beginnings will not be tolerated. “You put up some fucked up, sexist shit on the flyer to a punk rock show, you’re not challenging the status quo, you’re doing it wrong,” says Smith.

Solarized | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The band itself is a challenge to established conventions, musically, philosophically and in action, with Smith taking it upon himself to confront and call-in local promoters, with the goal of assuring that Philly’s punk shows remain diverse: “I could be, and I’ve been doing this a lot lately with people who book shows, when they don’t include people of color or queer people,” Smith explains. “I could be like ‘hey, I see you’re booking a show. Put some color up in this jawn or I’m protesting’ OR I could ask ‘hey, what’s the [race/sex/gender] make-up of this show? Just hit me up if you need some examples.’” Bassist/vocalist Josh Alvarez adds; “The beauty of it is that when we play, regardless, our presence challenges people. We demand diverse bills.”

By taking on this responsibility of challenging the status quo and diversifying the scene, Solarized along with a host of new punk bands in the city and nationwide are tapping into the transformative and revolutionary potential of punk as a community, refusing to allow the scene to be weighed down by sexism, homophobia or white, racial hegemony. “Like, what are we really doing?” Smith asks. “We have all of these resources as a punk community, what are we doing to enact this liberation that we’re all seeking?”

In the winter of 2014, Noisey — the music blog arm of the Vice multimedia juggernaut — published an annoyingly snarky little article called Philadelphia Has The Best Punk Scene In The Country Right Now. In the article, the writer Dan Ozzi lays out a neat list of his favorite emerging indie-punk bands, including Hop Along, Epitaph singees The Menzingers and the magnificent West Philly lo-fi duo, Heavy Bangs.

Despite the fact that the piece shined some much-needed light on a few quality bands, it was clear as day that the bands spotlighted were almost all white, male-led. By excluding the city’s black and brown bands, Noisey not only missed a chance to enrich its readers ears by introducing them to some amazing artists, they completely glossed over much of what actually made (and continues to make) Philadelphia’s punk scene so vibrant and impactful.

For a decade-plus, Philadelphia has played host to Rockers, a homegrown, live music monthly with the stated mission to showcase punk and hard rock bands whose members were black, brown and queer. Founded by two women of color (Camae Ayewa and Rebecca Roe of the band Mighty Paradocs), Rockers carved out its own distinctive lane in the Philly punk scene while nurturing a host of creative bands that emerged in it’s wake, enriching our city’s Punk scene a thousand-fold.

As a band, Solarized is a product of this praxis. The idea that kids who were deemed too black, too femme, too “weird” to participate in certain white punk circles have decided to take direct action, creating their own scenes, booking shows and building a new world that will blossom out of the hearts and minds of the most outcast outcasts.

Solarized play Lava Space on Sunday, June 25th; more information can be found here.

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