‘I’m in the Band’ Ep. 2: Brontez Purnell Talks Growing Up Black, Gay & Punk

‘I’m in the Band’ Ep. 2: Brontez Purnell Talks Growing Up Black, Gay & Punk

From Oakland, California by way of small-town Alabama, Brontez Purnell was originally known for his punk bands Gravy Train!!!! and the Younger Lovers, along with his cult classic fanzine Fag School.

Purnell has since branched out to take on dance and choreography (Brontez Purnell Dance Company), acting and filmmaking (100 Boyfriends Mixtape, Unstoppable Feat: The Dances of Ed Mock), and authoring three books (Cruising Diaries, Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger? and Since I Laid My Burden Down).

As a teen, Purnell couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the deep South, and, yet, his experiences there form the driving forces behind his creative output. His laugh-to-keep-from-crying style of storytelling reveals a complex character exploring themes of sexual identity, racism and what we might call “punk damage.” No matter what medium he engages with, Purnell is a performance artist at heart and knows how to work a room.

In this second episode of I’m in the Band, Purnell tells all about growing up black, gay and punk in the dirty South.

On getting older… I turned 35 last week, and I had this realization: I am older now than I ever pictured myself being — not because I thought I would be dead or anything. But you don’t have a script, you don’t see people like you on TV, or you don’t always read about people like you in books. That’s the reason I became a punk. I think that’s where the first set of confusion comes in, or panic, because there’s not a framework there. It’s like stepping into the deep end of a pool that’s completely black. You’re like, ‘What the fuck is gonna happen?’

On being black, gay and punk in the South… My mom remembers when she started going to school with other white kids. My dad was from Southern Alabama and never went to school with white kids because the race politics there were way more fucked up. A couple of years later, you have this son listening to rock & roll; he’s a vegetarian. They’re just like, ‘Your mind is being polluted by these white, devil-worshipping freaks.’ So my mom got really scared when I was moving to Chattanooga, ‘cause she thought something bad was gonna happen to me. She was just like, ‘He’s gay as fuck, obviously, and he’s black. They’re gonna single him out. They’re gonna hurt him.’ Which now I have a lot more respect for. But at the time, I was just like, ‘I wanna drink beer and fuck boys, and I’m not gonna be able to do that here.’

On early bands… Somehow in Alabama there was this one other black punk riot grrrl at my high school. At first we hated each other, but eventually we became friends. I started a band with her called the Social Lies. I think if I had not met her, I probably would have killed myself.

On a surprising Southern interaction… My friend Vice called me from Mobile and said, ‘Hey, me and my brother are gonna move to California in a couple days. Do you wanna hop in the van and come with us?’ The farthest west I’d been was Arkansas. When I get there, they have a van with no license plate, the speedometer doesn’t work, and they don’t have insurance. There’s maybe 200 bucks amongst the three of us. In that damn van, we had all my band equipment, amps, two guitars, a drum set, two fucking dogs.

Thirty minutes outside of Mobile, Vice fell asleep and hit a bridge, and a tire blew out. This is back in the day when we used to dress like sluts, and we didn’t know how to change a tire. I’m out there with Daisy Dukes on, Vice is wearing some belt buckle that said ‘Slut’ or ‘Use me’ or something like that, and these rednecks stop. I think they thought we were girls. They stopped from a long way away, and they get up and survey the scene, and they’re just like, ‘What the fuck?’ But that’s the other side of Southern people, because they don’t say a word, and they just help us change the tire.

On making his own zine… Growing up, girl culture was so much cooler, especially for the scene I was in. Girls did everything better. The one mag I grew up with was fucking horrible. It was the most vicious, gay male body shit thrown at you. I hardly ever saw any black boys in it. So when I wrote Fag School, it was me wishing that there had been a cool fag magazine to have. It was me wanting there to be a Sassy for gay boys, so gay boys could learn not to be so shitty and be more celebratory of each other.

On breaking from a stale scene… I can’t deal with a bunch of white boys playing surf rock and not inviting me to their festivals. It just wasn’t gonna work for me. I remember going to some of the festivals and being in a room full of boys with better connections than me, and they’re all fighting for their spot on the Ty Segall Pandora Station. And then when I turn on those stations, I’m one of the only black people even singing. For as much as they fuckin’ rip off Bo Diddley — this is a fucking scam. This is total bullshit. So I was just like, ‘I have to do something else. I’ll die here if I don’t try something else.’

Photo Credit: Vice Cooler

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