Justin Brannan and the Politics of Hardcore

11/06/2017 08:59 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2017
Photo provided by Brannan Campaign

“I’ve never asked for anything from life

I’d rather give than take from it

I’ve never turned my back, I never will

This life is what we make of it”

From “Believe” by Indecision

Justin Brannan grew up as a hardcore punk kid and eventually went on to be the guitarist in a series of bands, including hardcore band Indecision, grindcore band Caninus (which featured dogs as vocalists) and metalcore band Most Precious Blood.

Justin Brannan is also running for New York City Council, District 43.

For many people, this is a contradiction. What does aggressive, seemingly violent music have to do with government? Well, for Brannan, quite a lot.

To understand this connection, we need to step back for some historical context. At the core of Brannan’s commitment to hardcore punk rock was a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethic. During the late 70’s and early 80’s, hardcore punk evolved as a reaction to the social, cultural and political landscape at the time. Young kids felt that politicians and the cultural landscape didn’t represent them and the social structures didn’t accept them.

And what emerged was a vicious and visceral art form that emphasized speed and intensity – all while spouting thought provoking lyrics that challenged every norm – social, cultural and/or political. And because no one was listening – the hardcore community had to do things on their own – booking their own shows, recording their own albums and doing all the legwork that goes with live performances.

They simply would not take no for an answer.

And for Brannan, government represents an opportunity to continue in this hardcore tradition. He finds himself in a world where many people feel that they don’t have the same opportunities as others and don’t have a government that looks out for them or their interests. So Brannan’s natural response is not to wait for others to take action.

He has to do it himself.

Brannan recalled growing up feeling like a bit of an outsider. Perhaps ironically, part of this feeling was because while Brooklyn is now considered a mecca for the hip and cool, it was anything but when Brannan was growing up there.

“People are drawn to this music because you are a square peg,” Brannan told me. “This was when Brooklyn was a different planet – when it was not as cool as everyone thinks it is now. Being from Brooklyn was not a selling point back then. It was an obstacle.”

But soon, Brannan discovered hardcore and was enthralled with the powerful intensity of the music. It was truly something he had never experienced.

“The first band I got into in that whole world was Black Flag. And it sort of just snowballed from there. I got into Sick of It All after that. I remember I was at a mall with my parents; I was at a Tape World and I saw the binding of the cassette,” Brannan recalled. “And I saw all the people on the cover with the shattered glass and it was so intriguing – like what’s going on here? And then I listened to the lyrics and I was like wow this is really positive stuff. It was very much speaking to things I was going through.”

And yet while the music truly spoke to him, at the same time he saw these artists as being from another world – a plane that he could never touch. More, he was not under the impression that he could create this music himself.

“This music was being created by supernatural beings who I could never dream to be – especially Black Flag and the Damaged record. You just assumed you were nowhere on their wavelength,” he said. “A lot of times when you have a cassette and you don’t know what the band looks like, it was hard to imagine creating music yourself or that this was ever going to be a reality.”

One could imagine Brannan’s shock when he discovered that his heroes were his age and looked just like him. And that opened up a world of possibility. “So I remember when I first got Napalm Death Scum – seeing a photo of the guys in the band, it blew my mind because they were all teenagers. And that’s when later on getting into Sick of It All I saw what those guys looked like,” Brannan described. “These amazing sounds were being created by people who were not different from me and not much older than me.

“It suddenly became something like, I could do that.”

Inspired, Brannan soon started playing his own music. “I remember being in sixth or seventh grade and thinking I’ll never be able to start a band because I don’t know how to read music,” Brannan explained. “And then to realize you didn’t need any of that – I taught myself how to play guitar and wound up playing my first show on stage when I was 14. That was the impetus I needed to see that I could also do this stuff.”

Before hardcore punk, the music industry was often fairly straightforward. Bands made a demo tape, shopped it around and hopefully got funding from a label to put out a record. And the label would then help to book shows to support that record. But those doors were not open to hardcore bands – no one was interested. Brannan reflected on the DIY spirit that he and his band mates in Indecision adopted.

“I take a lot of pride in knowing that DIY originated in the punk and hardcore scene. And now it’s a household term. But it all started with restless and creative kids looking to get their message out to the world. And we didn’t have anyone to rely on who would show us the way. We had no choice but to figure it out as we went along,” he said. “It became a real learning experience because there was no playbook. I remember some of our earlier tours in Europe, before they had GPS and stuff. Our guy would drive us to the center of town and he would look at some map at the bus station to find out where we were going to play that night. And we did this for two and a half months every night. But you didn’t think anything of it – that was just the way you did it.

“The beauty was finding your own way.”

Brannan felt that the experience broadened his horizons as he became more familiar with other countries and cultures. And just as he needed to become open-minded about how to approach his career in music, he needed to learn quickly how to listen to and be accepting of multiple perspectives. The combined experience emboldened him to overcome barriers.

"Travelling the world like that – different cultures in different countries – it taught me how to listen and learn from other people and how to respect other viewpoints. It really opened me up to so many things. I think I turned 18 when I was on tour in Germany – it made me inquisitive. It made me understanding of people from all walks of life,” Brannan explained. “It definitely filled you with this sense of positive fearlessness where you could do anything because that’s what you had to do. If you wanted to put your message out there, tour and put out records, you just had to figure out how to do it.

“It made me unafraid.”

Through his travels, Brannan was able to experience the strength of the hardcore community throughout the world – likeminded kids who were finding each other. “There’s nothing like it. In any town we’d go to we could draw 500 to 1,000 kids,” Brannan recalled. “Where else in the world can you expect a band to play a different kind of music and have that kind of following? We would go play in Croatia and people wouldn’t know who the hell we are. But it was about that scene, that camaraderie.

“People would come out.”

Eventually Brannan developed a camaraderie with the very same bands that enticed him to check out hardcore –bands who had traveled a similar path reached out to help Indecision on their journey. “There was a real sense of camaraderie, especially when you started being a band who went on tour – not just playing local shows. That was a whole layer of camaraderie who understood what it was like to go on tour and play all these crazy cities and countries,” Brannan said. “Sick of it All were like our older brothers. We grew up listening to them. They were one of the bands that really got me into all this stuff. Finally meeting them and becoming friends with them and going on tour with them. Sick of it All and Agnostic Front were really the guys who helped show us the way.”

Soon, Brannan discovered that just as members of the hardcore community were taking a DIY approach in their music, many were taking it upon themselves to address the very socio-cultural issues that made them feel disconnected and alienated from society in the first place. Concepts like straight edge – the decision to avoid drugs and alcohol – as well as activism supporting animal and environmental rights were commonplace in the hardcore community. This was quite a contrast to some in the punk rock community who adopted “sex, drugs and rock and roll” themes and many in the heavy metal community whose lyrics focused more on science fiction and fantasy.

“And for a lot of us who got involved in the early days of straight edge and that kind of stuff, that’s where we were at. We weren’t into the nihilistic punk rock kind of thing. We were more about a brotherhood or sisterhood,” Brannan described. “I remember going to shows where there would be just as many tables about animal rights and vegetarianism as there were tables selling t-shirts. I can honestly say that I learned as much listening to the Minutemen or Napalm Death or Dead Kennedys as I did in history class. Because these bands were singing about stuff I had to look up in my encyclopedia because I had no idea what they were talking about. They were talking about real sociopolitical issues.

“They weren’t singing about Dungeons and Dragons.”

Whether it was always in him, or he was inspired by hardcore, Brannan soon found himself getting involved politically.

“I started out as an activist when I was a teenager. I was involved with AIDS activism, animal rights, environmental rights – all that stuff. That’s really my first taste of politics I guess,” he said. “Later I got into union organizing and things started coming together for me and crystallizing that if I really wanted to effect positive change that I was going to have to find a way inside the building, and not just standing outside the building protesting.”

Having this foundation in activism led Brannan to approach politics the same way he approached music – he just wanted to get things done. Thus, local politics felt much more appealing to Brannan than national politics; it was more immediate and visceral, and much more consistent with his DIY vision of the world.

“Electoral politics was very foreign to me because it didn’t immediately seem to affect my life. I mean the rent was due on the first, I was living paycheck to paycheck and I had to figure out how I was going to buy groceries … quite frankly what the president was saying on television didn’t really effect my day to day life,” Brannan described. “And I started getting involved in my community. I started seeing that local government is the closest thing I could find to the instant gratification of my days as an activist. Because this is where you can help people on a real one to one basis. Where someone comes into your office … and you can help them with their problem and send them on their way that same day. That was always what I believed the government was there for – to help everyday average working people navigate their life.

“To help pick you up when you were down.”

Brannan found that the skills he learned from years of touring started to apply to politics and he refused to be deterred by adversity.

“I had a knack for getting things done for people – because I didn’t take no for an answer. I had that fighter spirit in me that I wasn’t afraid to use against what was usually a crippling bureaucracy,” he said. “So a bureaucrat giving me some excuse about why this senior citizen couldn’t get her rent frozen or else she’d be kicked out in the street – that was not going to be ok with me.”

As time went on, Brannan felt disconnected from existing political groups – which motivated him to decide to run for office himself. “I think my DIY ethics came back into play when I started looking around at most civic groups and political clubs. And most of them either just weren’t my speed or they weren’t interested in an outsider,” Brannan described. “I said fine I’ll just start my own civic group, my own political club because that’s the only thing I knew how to do. The same way that Barack Obama said, ‘You don’t like something that’s going on in your neighborhood, pick up a clipboard and run for office.’ That is the DIY spirit.

“If you don’t like something, it’s up to you to stand up and do something about it.”

Although Brannan is running as a Democrat, he sees his approach to local government as universal. “Some of the stuff I talk about in my campaign is a return to common sense … When you have the perception that government is not being responsive to their day-to-day struggles, it’s a misconception but there’s some truth there,” he explained. “And I think for me, representing my community, making sure everyone has a fair shot no matter who they are or where they come from … it means making sure government functions at the most basic level.”

At first blush, Brannan realizes that, back in the day, he might have scoffed at the idea of getting into politics. But now, he realizes it is a natural progression from the hardcore scene in which he grew up. “I think if you would have told me back when I was onstage at CBGBs that I would run for political office, I would have cracked up. But believe it or not, I’ve met a lot of people who got involved with policy or politics who were also from the hardcore and punk scene,” Brannan explained. “If you were one of these teenagers that was looking to change the world, if you continued following your heart, then, this is one of the places that you’d end up –advocacy, policy, non-profit.

“Trying to leave the world a little bit better than how you found it.”

Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow him on Twitter @drmikefriedman.

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