Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Wednesday, February 3, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Boyz n the Void

Beacon Press: Boyz N the Void: A Mixtape to My Brother by G'Ra Asim

Beacon Press: Boyz N the Void: A Mixtape to My Brother by G'Ra Asim

Beacon Press: Boyz N the Void: A Mixtape to My Brother by G'Ra Asim

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Boyz n the Void: a mixtape to my brother

by G'Ra Asim

Boyz n the Void: a mixtape to my brother is an entertainingly discursive ode to the power of punk by writer and punk musician G'Ra Asim. Addressed to Asim's younger brother, Gyasi, Boyz n the Void uses Asim's infatuation with punk as a way into conversations about race, conformity, masculinity and much more. Each chapter is inspired by a specific punk song, from Anti-Flag's "A Start" to Brand New's "Sic Transit Gloria... Glory Fades." While enthusiasts of punk music and culture will be right at home, no knowledge of the genre is necessary to appreciate Asim's insights and his sparky, idiosyncratic writing. In line with the music it celebrates, Boyz n the Void is provocative, opinionated, and fun.

Asim characterizes Gyasi as a "capable but disinterested student" who "predominantly lurks indoors like some Wi-Fi-empowered Boo Radley." He believes that Gyasi might be suffering from a kind of angst similar to that which afflicted him as a teenager, born from "an inability to envision a future in which a person such as he can fit comfortably into a ruthlessly competitive, anti-intellectual, anti-black society." The need to find a place within or in opposition to a relentlessly hostile society is one of Boyz n the Void's main themes, a search that led Asim to punk music and culture. His own loneliness and alienation were assuaged by a genre of music about alienation, one that offered an intellectual sense of anti-authoritarian belonging as well as a physical one in the ritualized chaos of the mosh pit. Asim does not attempt to impress his taste in music on Gyasi or the reader, though his mixtape could serve as an interesting primer; rather, he explains how punk became his refuge from a world that didn't have a place for him.

In Boyz n the Void, the question of belonging is inseparable from that of identity, particularly in Asim's need to rebel against racist assumptions that in his case led to "a lifetime of being called 'oreo' and 'white boy' by people of all races..." which in turn "demanded a consolidation of my blackness at a tender age." He challenges the widespread, racist assumption that racial identity is tied to aesthetic taste. Simply by enthusing over punk aesthetics--a genre that in the past could seem dominated by white men--Asim was "affirming things about myself that, according to an all too pervasive view, belied my physical appearance." These racialized assumptions and expectations only add to the alienation of those like Asim and Gyasi who don't fit into a predetermined mold. In one painful personal anecdote, Asim recalls how a joyful moment enjoying a Taking Back Sunday song quickly collapsed when his prospective date comments: "You like this white boy music but you're dancing like you're black." She backtracks and tries to explain the comment away as a joke, but the damage is done: Asim finds himself once again fighting for his individuality against the suffocating weight of racialized expectations.

Part of what makes Boyz n the Void so enjoyable is the wealth of unexpected digressions. Asim delves deep into contemporary pop culture, for example, offering a number of provocative opinions on everything from Issa Rae and "black normcore" to the state of punk music. Despite or because of his obvious affection for punk, Asim is able to critique the ways in which the supposedly rebellious subculture has so often reinforced the masculine, white-centered status quo. He offers a number of rays of hope, however, highlighting bands that push punk to realize its inclusive promise. While his seeming tangents often loop back around to the questions that preoccupy Asim, along the way he might indulge in a detailed exegesis of a gif of Tahj Mowry from Disney's Smart Guy. Boyz n the Void feels fresh by taking surprising paths to its conclusions, leading readers through an idiosyncratic series of associations that are the product of a highly original mind. Even if you disagree with Asim's (quite strong) opinions, he is never boring.

Much of Boyz n the Void is about rejecting easy labels and avoiding being forced into a box, so it's fitting that the book is an unclassifiable mix of music criticism, memoir, essay and a dozen other components. It's a lively, unpredictable stew with punk music and culture as its inspiration. For anyone looking for an introduction to the joys of punk, Boyz n the Void would more than serve the purpose, and for everyone else, it's worth being reminded that music and other art forms can offer more than a way to pass the time. They can offer transcendence and escape from expectations, a vehicle for feelings that need to be expressed, and belonging for nonconformists like Asim, and, perhaps, Gyasi. --Hank Stephenson

Beacon Press, $25.95, hardcover, 272p., 9780807059487, May 11, 2021

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G'Ra Asim: Punk Is Radically Participatory

(photo: Selina Stoane)

G'Ra Asim is an assistant professor of nonfiction writing at Ithaca College and a member of the pop punk band babygotbacktalk. Asim's debut book, Boyz n the Void: a mixtape to my brother, combines personal essay, memoir and pop culture critique in an entertainingly discursive ode to punk music and culture. The book is addressed to his younger brother, Gyasi, and serves as something between a road map and an ongoing conversation. Boyz n the Void will be published by Beacon Press on May 11, 2021.

What was your process for selecting each song in your mixtape?

Part of the concept for this book emerged from hitting a certain point in my late 20s and thinking, "weird--the cliches suggest I should have aged out of this and moved on but I'm still a punk rocker; I wonder why that is." I wrote towards examining whether the tenets of the subculture meant as much as my younger self imagined, or if going to shows, playing in bands and making zines was just a force of habit. I began to select and form chapters around songs that represented some of my philosophical linchpins, or songs that I associated with formative moments where my place in the world came into clearer view. Around the same time, Gyasi sent me the fateful e-mail that I include as the point of departure in the first chapter. From there I realized that if I was to narrate what punk and straight edge had meant and continued to mean to me up to that point, my youngest brother was an ideal audience. And that my doing so might help to illuminate some of the same riddles he was beginning to untangle for himself.

You write about the difficulties of "aestheticizing your personality" in nonfiction. How do you think you aestheticize your personality in Boyz n the Void? Are there elements of your personality that are important for you to communicate in your prose?

Part of the reason I was attracted to punk rock, this haven for weirdos and misfits, is that so much of my life involved people responding to me to the effect of, "Black people are like X, but you are Y. Men are like X, so how can you be Y? People from your seeming class background are X, but you are Y" and so on. In the chapter where I talk about the challenges of aestheticizing my personality, I was anticipating some readers' own possible difficulty imagining a character with my interests and experiences. It's important to me to write that character in a way that is hopefully true to myself: a person who is genuinely passionate about ideas and words but also always a bit impish and playful, and who doesn't think he's hot sh*t.

Punk struck a particular chord and served a particular purpose for you; would you be surprised if Gyasi found similar inspiration elsewhere?

I wouldn't be surprised at all. I'm sure he already does find similar inspiration elsewhere, and I hope he'll share his own insights about the pieces of culture that become dear to him in turn. Punk does have some unique affordances as a genre and cultural tradition, but it is to some extent a McGuffin in this book. It was a bit by the comedian Bill Burr that led me to the strategy of using a "mixtape" as a conceit. Burr says the key to raising a child is to go into the backyard to play catch and talk about life. Instead of sitting down across from your kid and asking them about their day, you use a device--in his case, a game of catch--so that your interaction with your kid doesn't feel as overtly didactic. "You distract them by throwing the ball," Burr says. "They don't even notice you're filling their heads up with your theories."

I figured Burr's rhetorical strategy could be applied to writing a book, and to engaging my teenage brother through that book. The mixtape is intended to keep things casual enough that things I'm telling Gyasi don't end up coming off like a lecture.

Do you think performing punk music has changed how you relate to punk?

For sure. I love that punk is radically participatory. I think about Frank Turner's "Try This at Home" or New Found Glory's "Ready and Willing," which are both songs that make explicit appeals to the listener to pick up the baton and carry the tradition forward by either getting involved with music yourself or approaching your life with punk rock intensity. One of my best friends to this day is a guy who picked up a homemade demo I threw out into the crowd at the end of a show at a community art space 10 years ago. He listened to it, was into it, tracked me down even though I didn't have a cell phone at the time, and told me exactly what he liked about the songwriting and what bands he assumed I listened to based on how my band sounded. Coincidentally, I was familiar with and a fan of his band, too. We hit it off immediately and have been homies ever since. Making punk music is like writing down a message in a bottle and casting it off into the ocean, except a high percentage of the time some pretty cool people receive it and write you back.

Do you ever worry that the response to the book from some quarters will focus on the supposed incongruity of you, as a black person, celebrating punk?

You make a good point--it's certainly possible that people will read the book as a kind of novelty. My attitude about this loosely parallels the tension between "colorblindness" and anti-racism. It's true that I'm a lifetime punk rocker, just like any other, and that being black shouldn't relegate me to some special category. But it's also true that being black has shaped my relationship to punk rock and framed my experiences in the alternative/DIY world. We know by now that overlooking race doesn't undo its profound social consequences.

In 2019, my band, babygotbacktalk, was invited to play the AfroPunk Festival in Brooklyn. A few days before the gig, we were at a networking event about the festival and I was lucky enough to meet Creature, lead singer of the all-black hardcore band Rebelmatic, who are veterans of AfroPunk Festival. We chopped it up for hours about what it was like for each of us being teenage African American punks when almost no one else--neither white people nor other people of color--really understood it. We talked about what it felt like when AfroPunk Festival became trendy years later and a lot of those same people who'd laughed at us when we were kids were members of the audiences we were playing to now. The specific convergence of otherness that is chosen and otherness that is socially imposed is a story that deserves to be told. I call it putting the alt in alternity.

You note that while punk likes to position itself as the ultimate outsider music, it often merely echoes the white cis male status quo. What do you think punk fans and musicians need to do to break that cycle?

Fortunately, this is already changing. I started going to shows in the early 2000s, and the scene in my town was pretty much completely homogeneous. Contemporary punks are for the most part much more conscious of diversifying bills and even about deliberately seeking out bandmates from marginalized groups. (Admittedly, there is a cynically ambitious component to the heightened sensitivity and political correctness among punks today--people want to be viewed as progressive individuals at least as much as they want to achieve progressive outcomes. Still, I'll take it.) The questions I always ask myself when curating a show or some kind of content are, who do I want to participate, what barriers might impede their participation, and how do I eliminate those? It's a process, but that's a solid place to start.

What are you listening to these days?

Lately I have been interested in Townes Van Zandt and Mississippi John Hurt. Something about the cataclysmic backdrop (preventable and ongoing mass death, surges of right-wing violence, exonerations of murderous cops, etc.) makes plaintive acoustic guitar jams especially comforting. In terms of punk stuff, I'm always spinning Rebelmatic, Gibbons, MAAFA, the 1865 and Meet Me @ the Altar. --Hank Stephenson

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