Even though books have been written and films have been made about Washington, D.C. punk band Bad Brains, their influence on white American culture is obscured in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s even an armchair student of the parasitic process of white supremacy. And though they were a primary—if not the primary—inspiration to Minor Threat, Fugazi, Black Flag, Cro-Mags, Nirvana, and other bands, the four original members of Bad Brains won’t ever accumulate the cash or social capital those bands have. To make a long story short: America’s most fiery, technically skilled, and innovative hardcore punk band was Black, which meant that its contributions to American culture weren’t going to be recognized until they’d been appropriated and reconstituted by white practitioners. This is why Ian MacKaye has got some millions in the bank, while Bad Brains vocalist H.R. lives modestly in Philly, and guitarist Dr. Know was employed for many years at a grocery store in Woodstock, New York.
There are plenty of other ways whiteness dogged Bad Brains its entire career. The following anecdote is just one.
In 1986 the band was at a recording studio in rural Massachusetts, at work on the rasta-metal album I Against I with producer Ron Saint Germain. After all but one of the vocal tracks had been recorded, H.R. informed Saint Germain he had to immediately jump in a car to return to D.C. in order to turn himself in to serve time for a marijuana charge.
The two of them eventually devised a way for H.R. to record the vocals for “Sacred Love”: over the phone from Lorton Reformatory in Laurel Hill, Virginia. “H.R. unscrewed the mouthpiece of the telephone so that there could be no background noise, and sang into it.”
No matter how much Bad Brains has been emulated, appropriated, and even incarcerated, H.R., Dr. Know, Darryl Jenifer, and Earl Hudson are still out there, and their listeners multiply at an exponential rate. Check out how Ypsilanti media artist Ashanti Africana has brought “Sacred Love” to the screen: