Name: Aye Nako
Sound: ’90s-tinged pop-punk with guitars that go from a mid-range twang to a fuzzy rumble. Lyrics subtly but powerfully investigate the specific struggles of LGBTQ folks and people of color in the punk and indie scenes.
Latest Project: “The Blackest Eye” EP (2015, Don Giovanni Records)
Why You Should Care: Indie scenesters from neighborhoods such as Los Angeles’ Silverlake, Chicago’s Wicker Park and most of Brooklyn like to pretend that their cultivated taste and DIY aesthetic insulates them from the race and gender problems that plague much of pop culture. And when presented with these issues, few are willing to admit how deep the systematic inequality goes. The Afghan-Indian writer Sarah Sahim said as much in “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie,” a trenchant editorial for Pitchfork, a music criticism and festival giant that is a huge part of the problem.
In indie rock, white is the norm. While indie rock and the DIY underground, historically, have been proud to disassociate themselves from popular culture, there is no divorcing a predominantly white scene from systemic ideals ingrained in white Western culture. That status quo creates a barrier in terms of both the sanctioned participation of artists of color and the amount of respect afforded them, all of which sets people of color up to forever be seen as interlopers and outsiders. Whiteness is the very ideal for which art is made in Western culture, be it the cinema of Wes Anderson or, say, the artists on Merge Records.
Cultural arbiters such as Afropunk have started to reverse that trend, creating powerful platforms for independent artists from marginalized groups and safe spaces for fans to enjoy their work. But the indie/punk rock sector of the music business is still filtered through a white-, male-, cis-normative lens. Aye Nako, a Brooklyn-based rock quartet, is one of a number of acts trying to break the glass ceiling with catchy riffs and irreverent lyrics about systemic racism and its purview in this culture.
The four members of Aye Nako—vocalist/guitarist Mars Ganito, bassist Joe McCann, guitarist Jade Payne, and drummer Angie Boylan—embody the sociopolitical ethos and sonic textures of punk and DIY. Mars and Jade are people of color, while Mars and Joe identify as trans or multigender. Their experiences of those identities being erased or silenced in indie culture and in broader American society constitute important parts of their lyrics.
Take “White Noise,” the fourth track off of their excellent new EP, “The Blackest Eye,” whose title was inspired by Toni Morrison’s first novel. The song jumps into a searing distorted guitar line and stark lyrics about internalized racism—“I’ve let white noise fuzz in my head for so long.” And it takes on media bias and fear-mongering:
Oh yeah, you’re just confused about the creatures you read in the news/ Oh yeah, you’re totally confused/Well, if it’s printed, it must be true… Man, I ain’t never seen what it’s like. Why cut out a cross section of our lives when I can wipe my ass with it?
This is just one example of the viewpoint that saturates “The Blackest Eye.” This is a band that, bolstered by music-blog acclaim and an intense touring schedule, isn’t scared to say what it wants. When asked by Colorlines to address audiences that are turned off by indie’s normativity and/or don’t know much about indie rock, the band issued the following joint statement:
Yes, know that we’ve all been turned off by [the normativity] and aren’t really here for that. There are many of us that don’t fit into “white/male/cis-normativity” specifically, including Black/POC musicians and artists from all fields out there right now putting in all of their time and work to not only alter the landscape of current scenes by just having a presence and voice, but also just straight-up creating new worlds for ourselves and others to exist, create, and feel supported in. Many people out here do so much hard and often thankless work, so it really means everything to come out and support it.
After prominent tours with the likes of Speedy Ortiz and recognition from movements like Afropunk, Aye Nako is better poised than most rock bands to bridge the divides between marginalized people and an often unwelcoming underground world. If you’re a lover of cultural transcendence, anomalies and rock, this is a band you should be paying attention to.
Check out Aye Nako’s latest EP, “The Blackest Eye,” released last month on Don Giovanni Records, and see them as they tour the East Coast this fall.