The Good Hair
On Missed Connections in Punk
…lungs that holler in a sleeper hold.
(Were we supposed to die alone?)
Position the stiches
like miles of torpedoes
—“Cosmonaut” by At the Drive-In
You, with a gold waterfall of hair that nourished and calmed the other men, white as stage lights in the eyes. Straight silk dyed an American gloss. Your goatee peppered with age to let them know you know things. Me, with dreads tightened by Africa, wound the nap into rope fastened enough to climb into my father’s sun.
You, with stubby fingers that tap my shoulders at the Palladium in Los Angeles—my eyes waiting for Jawbreaker amid the pit, hoping (but knowing they won’t) play “Do You Still Hate Me?” trying my best (and failing) to ignore the three brown kids so as to not remind myself we comprise the only people of color at the show, outnumbered. You wait for me to turn around, and I oblige you, as you knew I would. You, surrounded by a choir of golden haloed punks whose outcasting was alleviated as you swayed drunk and snapped your fingers to the tune of Counting Crow’s “A long December and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.” The punks laugh, burying me deeper into the sea of white men in the pit of the Palladium. You, with knowledge that dreads belonged to singer Adam Duritz at the peak of mid-90s fashion, taking over the airwaves in 1996 with Alternative Folk safe for white teens suffering from suburban malaise. Recovering the Satellites topped the Billboard charts at the time Jawbreaker called it quits a year after Dear You failed to impress MTV. You, in 1996, know dreads as another thing white men can smuggle from Africa and wear as a crown in front of cameras, tell the suburban kids “we can have this, too! This is what the good hair looks like!”
Me, once watched the scene from Do The Right Thing where Radio Raheem showed his knuckles to a true friend. “I love you, brother,” he says to Mookie after this lecture: Left hand hates, “it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother.” Right hand loves. Five fingers to the soul. “The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that’s right. Yea, boom, it’s a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down. Ooh! Ooh! Left-Hand Hate KO’ed by Love.” Me, watched Radio Raheem smile with his brother, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” pouring out of Raheem’s boombox and washing over both of them like baptism, both sporting high-top fades still solely claimed by the black working class showing the spoils of their hard work, showing their barbershop sculptures shaped by number 2 shears and conversations as proof of survival, showing the lines shaved in the scalp as artistic flair, as a treat for successful reclamation of one’s own body. Me, once watched Radio Raheem’s boombox destroyed after he and Buggin’ Out tried to create more black visibility in a Brooklyn pizza parlor. Me, once watched Radio Raheem choked to death by policemen not long after—the silhouette of his high-top fade blackened under a mountain of blue with boots kicked into his dead ribs over screams of “quit fakin’ it!”
You, laughing with the white punks as I had turned my attention back to the stage.
Me, with “go fuck yourself,” choked in my throat. Me, waiting for a circle pit to start during “The Boat Dreams From the Hill” to lodge a right elbow over your gray beard and call it an accident. Me, with left elbow, avoids you ever again.
You, whom I could have sang back, “Ice, ice, baby, do do do dododo do!” knowing you know Vanilla Ice better than you would have ever known Radio Raheem. You would know Vanilla Ice’s high-top fade since he highjacked it from the projects to make it safe for suburban malaise. You would know it after being illuminated in the video where darkness surrounded the black backup dancers until Vanilla Ice hopped into the shot with his own grooves. One time, Suge Knight held Vanilla Ice by his ankles over a hotel balcony due to royalty disputes for “Ice Ice Baby.” Suge Knight did not spare Biggie—Tupac taken as collateral—but Vanilla Ice lived, as did his high-top fade. Radio Raheem, and the actor who played him, are still dead.
Me, sometime in 1996, watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Secret of the Ooze, confused as to why the Ninja Turtles are dancing. Vanilla Ice in the background, high-top fade intact, the Ninja Turtles fight evil ninjas as they dance and not one concert goer is phased. The Ninja Turtles have impromptu mastered the choreography of Vanilla Ice as “Go ninja! Go ninja! Go!” is repeated over and over again. Sometime in 2018, I watch this movie again, aware of Vanilla Ice’s tangible thirst to swap “ninja” with “nigga.”
You, ignored the brown kids at the Palladium waiting for Jawbreaker to play “Accident Prone” just as badly as you did. You ignore the curls swathed over their heads, the swoops like maps that dress the beauty of accident in a nice silk. You ignore colors painted onto the backyards of Southeast L.A., where malaise was bred from tired lungs and bloodied fingertips, where punk shows turned the grass into a dancing floor because our only shoes could dance on any surface. You ignored my gaze into the lights, nostalgia swimming through the concert hall—2016 and At the Drive-In reunites. At the Drive-In played a show at the Palladium where the opener was Le Butcherettes—Chicana led punk who concern themselves with subversion and destruction of the idea of domesticity. At the Drive-In’s voice was a Chicano’s, as was the bass, the guitars were Afro-Latino, the drums Lebanese. When I look at these bands, I can swim. I see Afros unapologetically grown to be articulate lions, t-shirts tattered and jeans passed down from mothers. I see the malaise imbedded in having to prove that the hair—the cacophonous kaleidoscope of follicles sung into life by blood born outside of borders—deserves eyes of celebration, eyes of acknowledgment, eyes of appreciation without touching.
Me, in a Lyft with three people that know me better than anyone, who have indulged in recreational drugs, but are without appetite as we walk by a college kid’s apartment to get to the car—the smell of marijuana thrown in our faces like an exhaust pipe. Me, in a Lyft with dreads that have just turned two years of age and mouth that has never touched any form of recreational drug through personal choice. Me, in a Lyft with a driver who catches a faintest whiff of pot, looks at me, and says, “Someone’s been having a good time. Must be you!” Me, in a Lyft, to which my friend gave one star.
You, reminding me of a younger Coachella, when my hair screamed of both my parents—the curls of Costa Rica, the Afro of African ancestors. Golden haired babes pick me out of a crowd to ask for lighters in the daytime, LSD at night. They call me a liar to end our conversations. Sometimes, they danced away in headdresses to celebrate no natives.
Me, a punk. Me, finds solace in the circle pits, solace in the histories of POCs and queers and disabled finding home in the screams and blast beats. The aggression ingested from speakers that matched the strength that kept our shoulders from breaking under the weight of being othered. The rules of the pit accentuated by those who understand the struggles: someone falls inside the pit, the movement must stop until that person is standing once again. If someone crowd surfs, it is because hands were cupped to hoist the dancing shoes above our heads, a signal that we have allowed you to fly. Make sure there is room for the brown boys, black boys, Native boys, Asian boys, the girls, the femmes, the trans folk, anyone with a voice that can shout the sorrows and the fury into a translation that leaves everyone without wounds. Make sure to wear fashion that disrupts those very sorrows, mutes them with rips in the cloth and skin modified with metals like a nail securing wood to a home. And the hair—make sure the hair grabs your neighbor’s attention like a soprano. Make sure the hair can spell your name with every wave, every colored root, every inch birthed by time, every follicle lost in the sprint among other bodies in the circle pit, every headbanged hurl of hair—a mermaid emerging from the sea, every strand latched to your head because you told it to be there. Me, takes the slur out of “other” by existing with dreadlocks clung to my scalp like a child on breast.
You—if I may use your colonizing tongue to marginalize colonizers—say a hymn from your John Wayne prayers to bulldoze the color out of the circle, leaving only room for you and the other whites. You break the rules of safety, do not wait for hands to climb above the clouds. No, you use our broken shoulders shattered by your hammers to climb above our heads to get where we work together to be. You crowd surf on a stolen ocean of othered punks. Sometimes, your hair is only skin—the crown of nazi punks that kicked out inclusivity at the Cuckoos Nest in Costa Mesa, when they felt Black Flag needed more left hands swung at jaws in the pit. Sometimes it scared the queers away from pogos when your head collided with their piercings, tears the skin like a skirt attacked at night. Sometimes you wore boots to goosestep onto the backs of women who had only recently extinguished the fear of the circle. Remember A Big Day Out 2001. Remember the Australian punks talking about At The Drive-In, the energy and intensity of a punk band pouring their souls into their music “for the first time in God knows who long.” Remember their set, lasting only three songs: Arcarsenal, Pattern Against User—the interlude where frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala lambasts the photographers, tells them, “I’m not the only one in the band. You don’t have to take pictures of me all of the time… Just because [the other band members] don’t have curly hair, doesn’t mean they’re not important. Media media media…yellow yellow press”—finishing with Cosmonaut. Remember Cedric Bixler Zavala, frontman, hair afroed from the textures of Mexico, skin darkened against the will of the audience at Big Day Out 2001—an audience seething with frat boy agitation, releases short bursts of Aryan elbows in circle pits, violent as storms that turn others into castaways, waiting for Limp Bizkit. Remember Limp Bizkit, rock appropriated rap, Fred Durst with platinum buzzcut concealed by high end baseball caps. Fred Durst’s hair did not sing the way Cedric’s did. Fred Durst’s hair was smothered by MLB fortunes, and on this day a red cap painted his scalp. Remember once there was a time when red caps didn’t frighten? Remember Cedric begging you to stop? When Jim Ward, At the Drive-In’s second guitarist—the white one, the one whose straight hair is coherent to the ocean of men—asked you to be safe, there were cheers. Then less cheers. Then Cedric sang, and the cheers were resurrected. Then the elbows started colliding with faces. Then white chests are beat like war drums, and lungs lose air across the barricade as sternums of early birds are crushed by steel. Then Cedric spoke, and the cheers died. Then Cedric said, “…it’s a very very sad day when the only way you can express yourself is through slam dancing. Are you all typically white people? Look at that [crowd surfer]! You learned that from the TV. You didn’t learn that from your best friend. You’re a robot. You’re a sheep. BaaaAAAAaAA! BaaaAAAaAAaaAaa! BAaaaaAAAaaaaAAAAaaaaaAAA!” Then Cedric was gone, and you cheered on, louder now that the Afro no longer blotted out the sun. You cheered on when Limp Bizkit took the stage, ordered everyone to break stuff. Remember Jessica Michalik. Remember Jessica Michalik’s lungs collapsing under the feet of white boots. Remember Jessica Michalik, a sixteen-year-old lost in the ocean where she waded only after trusting that the water was safe. Remember Fred Durst doing nothing to stop the circle pits of elbows and boots, the voice of an Afro silenced, the rules of the pit broken as the body of Jessica Michalik fell and the circle still spun revolutions, the only test for life are kicks to the ribs with the mantra, “quit fakin’ it!”
Me, still asks to “use your colonizing tongue.”
You, hair gold as Vanilla Ice when he re-released “Ice, Ice Baby” as “Too Cold”—a nu-metal/butt rock reimaging of the early ‘90s hip-hop classic for a late ‘90s twist. One again, Mr. Ice cashes in on the style of the time. The style siphoned from Rage Against the Machine—siphoned from Afro-Latino voices screaming for change—into the hands of Limp Bizkit. The style Mr. Ice holds in such high regards. Ten years after Jessica Michalik stopped breathing, Fred Durst erases a conversation with Vanilla Ice on Twitter. Regardless, Vanilla Ice says, “thanks bro , you are officially a NINJA now !” Ten years after Jessica Michalik stopped breathing, Fred Durst says her name for the first time. You, who probably doesn’t know any of this, waits for Jawbreaker as I do.
Me, son of a black father who listens to Elvis—erases the hips erased by network censors for bringing sex to 50’s teens, for bringing stolen blackness to suburban malaise. Me, standing in front of you at a Jawbreaker show, punk spawned from suburban malaise. “I don’t care. I love it,” my father and I say. Me, wondering if my dreads are safe in the pit during “The Boat Dreams From the Hill,” wondering if they will fall off if I sing a white man’s words more passionately than Cedric’s, wondering if they will fall off if I sing a white man’s words less passionately than Cedric’s.
You, wash your hair after the show with shampoo and conditioner. Any bottle. Any time. You, with golden waterfall of hair that drowns me, do not know you left me deaf.
Me, lets water bearhug the locks, pulling them down like a dictator’s statue. My hair is an albatross with the lives of my father’s ancestors waiting for my cupped hands to send them above the heads of willing punks. Wash them too often, and they will break. Too little, and strangers will pass by on the sidewalk and assume there are bugs in the hair. Unless they are the white guys from the pit—the ones high on suburban malaise—who skateboard in their off time and scream, “dreadlock rasta!” at me when I leave my home for a few moments. There is a smile, and a hope for acceptance on his part, then a “thank you” when I force out a laugh. He does not hate me. I do not understand how.
Me, with left hand that fit scissors so easily. Can turn locks into skin in moments. In the shower, my hair becomes anvils, and the wrong combination of sulfates will burn through Africa. Right hand carries the dreads from my eyes, reminds me I am not blind. Shower water hits my feet to the rhythm of a blast beat, and I hear the music again once I am certain that I am standing.