Afropunk rockers trained as lawyers, combatting systematic oppression one performance at a time. Talking to the members of Crystal Axis, a band out of Nairobi, Kenya, I realized that these musicians are doing so much more than making anti-colonial music that pushes back against centuries of imperial violence on the African continent and across the globe. They’re putting theory into practice, and they know their stuff. Singles like “Leopold” and “Nyayo House” fold past into present, challenging listeners to decenter their knowledge, to fight against the cyclical nature of colonial repression, and to change history.
I got a chance to talk with AB, Djae, Fox, and Doug of Crystal Axis as Black Lives Matter protest movements erupted around the world following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Our conversation also took place just a couple weeks after Representative John Lewis, an American Civil Rights icon, travelled to Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. shortly before his death. “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis said. Although the members of Crystal Axis don’t consider themselves to be activists, they’re certainly making some noise, and they’re sending a message to their listeners around the world: knowledge is power. And, lucky for all of you listeners, you can learn to remake history while you’re “wilding out,” as the band says, to some badass Afropunk music.
LTW: An Afropunk band made up of musicians trained as lawyers! The political urgency in your songs hooked me right away, and it struck me that your understanding of the law must influence your music. Do you think about the connection when you’re writing songs?
Djae: We make music with messages we want to convey. Even before we all went to law school, we were putting music out . . .
AB: But we were a bunch of 17-year-old boys making music to talk about politics we didn’t really understand.
Djae: In law school, when you get to actually study the mechanisms surrounding how these things work, and how certain laws have come to exist, it certainly changes how you look at society. So definitely, 100%, law school tied into everything for sure.
Fox: . . . All those suits you wear on stage [laughs].
AB: [laughs] Yes, it definitely influenced our music. I personally am a human rights lawyer, and I’m brought in to give a human rights and constitutional perspective [on particular socio legal issues]. One of the major problems is awareness of adolescent rights, and different avenues for reaching adolescents, reaching youth.
If we [as a band] can make a song that’s going to make you wild out—but after you wild out you do a quick Google search—that’s using different avenues to spread the message that we need protection of our rights and we need to know our rights. To get to that point, we need to revise our history. We must know where we come from, what we’re entitled to, and what’s right and wrong.
LTW: Certainly, histories have been framed in dangerous ways by dominant voices that seek to marginalize, to limit those who don’t adhere to Western narratives. Undoing those histories feels integral to your music.
AB: You have to look at the social, economic, and political effects of history—the reason why a young Black person will limit themselves. Africans have been told, “you’re savages, you’re uncivilised, and foreign powers came and rescued you from yourself.”
So, as a Black person growing up, you’re reading that “history,” and you’re thinking, “well, I guess I’m not innovative, I can’t come up with new ideas, I need to be taught…” So when I say revise history, let’s look into African history. Let’s look into the facts, and let’s not simply look at history as written by the victors. Let’s look into what was taken away from African history. Then you’re looking forward, and you can empower the present and the future. And maybe even empower the past a little bit.
Fox: I’m a strong believer that we’re all living in a singularity with the past, the present, and the future. I can’t ignore what happened in the past because it does affect me. We often don’t get this history, and what’s worse is that people don’t care about learning about this history. People think, “that’s ancient history,” or “we’ve gotta move on.” Yet the government [in the present] is still functioning in relation to events and violence of the past.
We have a responsibility if we’re going to be musicians, if we’re going to be artists. And if we can educate someone, actually teach you more about yourself and teach you in a way you never thought you’d learn, well, that’s . . . really something.
AB: Revising that history addresses everyday situations. Black Lives Matter is trending because of systemic racism and police brutality in America, but the reason it’s trending globally is that we have to revise our entire [world] history. We have to realize that, historically, people of colour have been seen as the criminals. As an officer, you have carte blanche against a person of colour regardless of whether you have a warrant [or any other apparent legal authority]. In Kenya, colonial training has played a role in police training, and it’s systemic. The police were trained before 1963—Kenya’s independence—to treat Kenyans and people of colour with no rights. After that, yes, we had Black people come into power, but the people who were put into power were the allies of the colonialists, so the same ideology was trained into the police system.
Fox: Then it turns into classism [other guys nodding definitively].
AB: Then you add in classism!
The first thing that happens when you’re trained to be a police officer here is dehumanisation. You don’t see the people you’re supposed to be protecting as humans. You see them as cattle you’re supposed to be prodding and punishing. And this all goes back to history again. It’s the history we’re taught by our so-called leaders that has been used to subjugate Others.
Djae: History has been incredibly whitewashed in the literal and non-literal sense. If you read history textbooks, you read one account by one group of people that has exploited another group of people. The world over, we all learn about Hitler, yet no one knows about King Leopold—it’s not taught in schools.
Anyone who thinks colonialism isn’t relevant to historical knowledge doesn’t understand the extent that former colonisers plundered and continue to impact the present.
Crystal Axis’s song Leopold is “about King Leopold II of Belgium and his tyranny in Congo.” The song seeks to reveal and unmake the violent colonial histories to which the band refers. In the band’s words, the song “is an African musical narrative illustrating the plight and struggles of the African people. The single was spurred by the lack of dialogue in the role the Western world has played towards the colonisation and plunder of African countries. It was inspired by the fact that, the world over, we all know the atrocities committed by Western dictators and oppressors. The whole world knows of all the wrongdoings committed in Europe. However, it seems as though a blind-eye is turned on the atrocities committed against people of colour, predominantly Africans and black people.”
I’ll let the band’s lyrics tell you more of what you need to know:
I’m spinning into control
Gold is food for the soul.
I stole and plundered your own
I got you stuck in my hold!
Now watch me as I grow
The Free State, it’s all for show.
So if my story ain’t told
Hello it’s Leopold!
Catch me drinking a pint of love
At Freedom Station.
Break from your arms, Free from charm
Leopold, won’t happen again
Leopold, go tell your friends!
I’m going to eat you alive
Skin and bones it’s suppertime.
A shop of horrors sublime.
History says I’m alright!
I’m the king and it’s all mine
Under Force Publique and Christ
Your hands are mine tonight
Fingers up one time!
Djae: People fail to take into account that countries like Kenya, Congo, are the way they are as a direct result of colonisation. Africans are not poor by choice. Technically speaking, we are the richest continent in the world in terms of raw materials, resources. However, thanks to colonisation and the systems that have been put into place, ordinary Africans never received a share of those resources. So, back to revising history—we need to do it in the sense we need to get people to understand that the world is the way it is as a direct result of certain actions.
As much as colonialism may be in the past in certain ways, the effects of colonialism are still being felt today. And that’s a conversation that needs to be heard on a much wider scale.
So, if we can get someone to groove to a song and then two minutes later Google what it’s about [“Leopold,” e.g.], that’s close to revising history in a way, to an extent—to achieving the end goal that we want with our music.
Frantz Fanon wrote powerfully of the historical and ideological violence of colonialism in The Wretched of the Earth: “The colonist makes history and he knows it. And because he refers constantly to the history of the metropolis, he plainly indicates that here he is the extension of this metropolis. The history he writes is therefore not the history of the country he is despoiling, but the history of his own nation’s looting, raping, and starving to death. The immobility to which the colonised subject is condemned can be challenged only if he decides to put an end to the history of colonisation and the history of despoliation in order to bring to life the history of the nation, the history of decolonisation.”
LTW: Your songs approach both global and local histories. Is there a distinction between thinking locally and thinking globally?
AB: Sometimes the biggest criticism toward activists—we’re not activists—is “oh what about your own community? Why don’t you start from home?” When you talk about starting locally, we start from a global perspective, but then we look locally.
To someone in London, sure, Winston Churchill was your Prime Minister when the war was over, but do you also know about the four million Bengalis he let starve [in the Bengal famine of 1943]? Or the 150,000 Kenyans he put in concentration camps over here [in October 1952, in response to the anti-colonial uprising]? This is not history that’s far away. These are our grandparents! The 1950s are not that far away. You’re talking about figures who put up statues of themselves, made sure their faces were in every business, and created a cult of personality.
We’re in an ever-globalizing world, so why not have us [members of Crystal Axis] locally tell you about those leaders that have been idolized and how perspectives shift from distinct local positions? We’re revising history locally and talking about it globally.
Fox: I like how musicians have become the new authors now. We’re telling the stories that no one wants to tell.
LTW: Why do you say you’re not activists? You might not be engaging in more traditional ideas of what activism looks like, but surely, in my mind anyhow, you’re doing activist work to help create a more just and egalitarian world.
Fox: ‘Cause we’re not . . . we’re just people who read books [laughs]. But seriously, “activist” is a term for me that speaks to those who are on the front lines, actively yelling at the president, fighting injustice. For me, Boniface Mwangi, now that’s an activist. We’re people who speak about our reality and our surroundings.
Djae: We might not be activists, but 100% we use our platform as musicians at every single juncture we have to speak about issues like the ones we’ve been discussing, issues concerning African people, issues concerning rights. We want to hold people accountable for their actions—what they say, what they did. If we don’t . . .
AB: As a decent human being, you need to know you have a duty of care toward humanity. We live in a time when ignorance is a hard choice. If you want to be ignorant, you really have to be ignorant and climb into your echo chamber. Twenty years ago, I could have told you such-and-such thing is going on in Kenya, but you’d turn on your nine o’clock news—your whitewashed news—and you’d be like, “what are you talking about?” Now, we’re in a moment where there’s free-flowing information. So ultimately, I’m not an activist, but I have a duty of care toward people. And if I can help you have a good time [attending a gig] while also providing you with the information you need to enact that duty of care, I think that’s a brilliant role to play.
LTW: I’d call you activists. Anti-colonial punk, that’s a form of activism!
AB: Well, you can call us activists, but I didn’t say that!
LTW: Speaking of activism, Nyayo House feels like a necessary uncovering of the very recent history of violence in Kenya under Moi, and a challenging of the narratives that seek to hide government torture. How have listeners responded to the song?
Djae: In Kenya, there’s a trend for the past dictatorship that’s linked to the whitewashing of history. There are nasty aspects of it being slapped under the rug and left to be forgotten. In many ways, we got the reaction we wanted to get with Nyayo House. Every now and then we’ll have someone come up to us [after hearing Nyayo House] and say, “Dude, I had no idea that’s what Nyayo House was used for,” which is crazy because it’s one of the busiest buildings in Nairobi. Everything concerning citizenship, residency, immigration—people are in and out of there on a daily basis, you drive past it when you go to work. Yet there is a large percentage of the population that has no idea what used to go on in the basement.
AB: And when you hear stories from survivors . . . they’re extremely graphic.
Djae: They’re jarring.
AB: It’s amazing and makes you think about history more broadly. When someone says, “why are you making this about race”, or “that was in the past,” it’s like, I hear people telling me about how they were locked up! This isn’t ancient history.
Fox: It’s hard not to think about it.
Djae: One of the most jarring aspects, as we were writing Nyayo House was that we did some research and read different government accounts and survivor accounts. Those accounts are all there and they’re documented. You have to do a bit of digging if you want all the information, but they’re there. The crazy thing is, to this day, that regime was never held accountable. So the song is also an attempt to raise awareness and to say that we can’t just let this go unaccounted for.
We need to remake the processes involved in whitewashing history that lead people to see Churchill or Columbus as heroic figures.
AB: Empowerment comes in both large and small ways. If you can tell people, “listen, there’s power in the people, and you’ve been wronged. That so-called benevolent dictator that you thought provided for you, but maybe gave you 10 percent access, now say, guess what, 90 percent of access was given to him alone.”
So if we can say that in our music, and people can listen and realize that we’re not just subjugated masses and our leaders are not infallible, we can question those ideas and we can empower ourselves.
Fox: We can know our own truth.
In the band’s own words, Nyayo House is based on the dreaded torture chambers used by the Kenyan government to silence dissidents and the opposition. The single confronts the dark history of the Kenyan government while commenting on issues affecting Kenyans to this day, such as widespread corruption and police brutality.”
Reader, you should know the lyrics to this song:
Take my license, steal my soul,
Throw me in a cold, dark hole.
13 doors all painted red,
They say it never existed, ‘Baba, it’s all in your head.’
Mama said she’s here but on the other side,
Mama said there’s fear, insurgents gotta die.
Mama we don’t know what we’ve all become,
Cause your son’s so numb to what they’ve all done.
We are dissidents.
The coup is imminent.
Lose your discipline.
Nyayo is sickening.
Mwakenya this, Mwakenya that,
They said it’s over my children, it’s a wrap.
Sitting comfy right there on a fat man’s lap,
Feeds me crumbs so I’m numb to that stacked bag.
While you lay on the ground, they move big across town,
Campaigns that you can’t escape that same old sound.
Government’s loving it while we clapping hands and raising flags,
New faces to leave ‘em blameless, no changes and that’s facts.
We are dissidents.
The coup is imminent.
Lose your discipline.
Nyayo is sickening.
LTW: Your music is doing such incredible and necessary political work. Thinking about Nyayo House and some of your other songs, I’m curious about your songwriting process. You mentioned doing research before writing. Are most of the songs written collaboratively?
AB: [points to Djae and Fox] These guys come up with amazing riffs . . .
Fox: The songwriting process has kind of been different every time.
Djae: Yeah, there’s no single way we approach it.
Fox: If someone gets inspiration, they run with it.
AB: And nothing is credited to a single person—our work is a collective idea, and everything is credited to Crystal Axis.
LTW: Where’d the band name come from?
[guys all laugh]
Djae: Every time someone asks this question, I want to come up with something, but truthfully, there’s no great story behind it. Way back when we started the band, we were called Inertia—moving forward, making change. But I literally wrote down a list of names after that, and we picked one.
Fox: You could come up with your own “reasons” we chose Crystal Axis [makes air quotes], but honestly that’s the most honest answer you’re going to get [guys laugh].
Djae: Over time, I think it’ll become its own thing. It’ll mean what it means to you, to anyone.
LTW: So how’d you become part of Decolonise Fest?
Djae: Decolonise Fest! It’s an initiative by a group of artists of colour, and it’s centralised in London. One of the organisers is a members of Big Joanie—I’m a big fan of theirs. I read some information about it, and as a band we decided to apply. In addition to what the festival stands for more generally, we thought it would be amazing for a Kenyan band to fly to London to play at a festival called Decolonise Fest.
AB: That’s the biggest [puts both middle fingers up] to the colonisers.
Djae: We were meant to play this year, but then, coronavirus happened.
Reader, at this point in our conversation, Doug finally made it to the Zoom interview after some unexpected delays. He wasn’t silent up until now—just wasn’t in the virtual space!
LTW: I really hope you’ll make it to the U.K. to play as a band in person at some point in the near future. In the meantime, it’s great you’re still finding ways to write and play. Coming back to songwriting again, who are some of your musical influences?
Fox: When I was a kid, the moment I knew I had to be in a band was when I saw and heard Bad Brains. That set my little-kid mind on fire. Since then, I’ve been attracted to rebel music. Mars Volta, Bob Marley, you know all sorts of rebel music.
Djae: The cool thing about Bad Brains was, as a kid, we could look at them and think, that guy looks like me, so I can do this, too!
Fox: Honestly, back then, Bad Brains were like, the greatest punk band, playing stuff that no one else could play.
Doug: For me, it’s metal and heavy metal influence, death metal. It doesn’t come out in our music in obvious ways, but it does in other ways. Some of the most “metal” lyrics I’ve listened to were written by AB in Leopold. They’re very dark.
I heard that song and thought, these are the kind of guys I want to play with, guys who can take these thematic political elements and turn them into a piece of music like that.
AB: You’d be surprised looking at some of my indie playlists, Bon Iver, Iron & Wine . . . . You’d think, this is the dude who wrote Leopold?! We’re all over the place, but when we come together it bangs.
Fox: We all have broad tastes in music, and that’s why it works.
Djae: Lately I’ve been trying to listen to a lot of hardcore bands like Kublai Kahn and other heavier stuff.
Doug: I’m really into STRUC/TURES, which is a progressive metal band that broke up awhile ago. Currently I’m listening to a lot of Crimson Armada, and Fit for an Autopsy is a big one for me. I’m still into Dimmu Borgir as well, very influential for me, it’s black metal. One I’ve listened to most recently was a very obscure band called Pulse Ultra. They have this album called Headspace.
LTW: Who do you see your music as being in conversation with, what bands of the present or past?
Doug: Fela Kuti is one of those bands. We are influenced by him in many ways, even when it’s not conscious.
Fox: I would say Public Enemy.
AB: I’d say Rage Against the Machine.
Djae: That’s a tough question. But definitely Rage.
LTW: If you could put together a dream lineup for a gig, who would you play with?
Fox: Run the Jewels for sure, 100%.
AB: If we were to open for a single band, I think we’d pick Rage. I heard they’re going back on tour. Can someone leak this interview to Tom Morello? [laughs]
Djae: I think we’d want a lineup with as many bands of colour in the genre as we could.
AG: When I was writing up the question to ask you, I was imagining maybe Bad Brains.
Djae: And Big Joanie—like I said, they are amazing. As people and as musicians. Everything they do is fantastic.
LTW: Punk bands made up of women . . . so amazing, right?
Djae: Just the best!
LTW: It seems like Decolonise Fest, in some ways, is an essential remaking of Rock Against Racism, organised and performed by bands who have experiential knowledge to reframe the conversation.
(I quickly realised that Rock Against Racism, which became a cultural and political movement made up of punk rockers and their fans in the late 1970s, isn’t part of the popular imagination in the way I thought it was! At any rate, I told the guys a little bit about it, and they had some ideas.)
Fox: It’d be cool to organize a Rock Against Racism campaign now.
Djae: How people within the rock community react when people call out instances of racism or discrimination . . . well, you don’t have to look that far to see that the responses could be better. Anytime there’s an issue regarding racism or discrimination, you can go down to the commons and see how people react to these instances being called out: white guilt and virtue signalling, rather than people just taking the time to say “let’s actually address this so it doesn’t continue to happen.” Something like a new Rock Against Racism opens the door to a much larger conversation in the rock community.
LTW: It strikes me that this conversation is important for thinking about why you use the term Afropunk to describe your music . . .
AB: There’s a reason we keep pushing this idea: Yes we are punk, but we’d like to term it as Afropunk as well—Africans singing about African situations. Spreading a local message and a global message. We want to be in that company. We recently included ourselves in a Black Lives Matter t-shirt design through the Hardcore Help Foundation, along with bands from around the world. We’re always ready to step up for what we believe in.
Fox: We don’t want to be exclusionary, but it is the primary focus of what we’re doing.
Djae: It comes back to identity and forging a path forward. The punk scene, the metal scene, the global rock scene—they’re all largely white-male-dominated, so this is us making a space for ourselves. And it’s Afropunk, it’s inclusionary. It’s not designed to be “you’re not from here, so you’re not part of this.” It’s inclusionary in its aim, and it’s about a way of making a space for people who haven’t traditionally been welcomed into that punk space.
AB: It goes back in some ways to this argument people are making about the distinction between Black Lives Matter and “all lives matter.” Of course all lives matter. But it’s like, if there’s a building on fire here, or there’s somebody drowning over there, well . . . you don’t run to save the person whose house isn’t on fire, or the person who isn’t drowning.
So when we say Afropunk . . . . Punk, yes, brilliant. Rock, brilliant. Afropunk, meaning punk rock, and there will be a focus on some Afrocentric topics.
Djae: It’s important for us to have that Afropunk identity when we send our music out. There have been instances in the past where I’ve sent our music out to really popular clubs, and well . . .
I’ll never forget, after we put out Leopold, one of the responses I got from Indie Shuffle was, “this isn’t Afropunk, this isn’t African. Where’s the drums?” By using “Afropunk,” we’re trying to move away from this perception people have that, for it to be “African,” it has to have certain elements—bongo drums, whatever. All these misperceptions about what is or isn’t African. Our music, our art, everything about us is African by virtue of the fact that we are African. We don’t need to be singing in Swahili to be African.
AB: We don’t need to add cheetahs and lions for you to think that it’s African.
Fox: People still sit there and think you have to do “Africa things” to be African.
AB: We don’t have to be a minstrel show for nobody. When we talk about revising history, circling back to that idea, nobody should think: “You’re African, dude. You’re limited to ‘x’ thing.” That’s wrong.
LTW: Who was the DJ at Indie Shuffle? That’s some really enraging stuff. So many people’s ideas are framed through discriminatory, racist narratives. I want to know who the DJ is, but do you want me to keep his name out of this interview?
Fox: Call. Him. Out!
Djae: I wrote an entire article about this but I never published it. Indie Shuffle. Jason Grishkoff. I kept a screenshot of it. I was taken aback by the response, but it’s one of those things like, what can you do?
His response was like, “where is the African influence?” But the funny thing is, the song was written by five Africans about African history. How much more African influence do you want? That’s about as African as it gets.
AB: Again, the relevance of, and need for, empowering ourselves as Africans, as Kenyans. Maybe we’ll play for a kid who’s Kenyan who initially thinks, “no, I’m not supposed to be playing this way, I’m Kenyan, I’m not supposed to act that way.” Then, that kid listens to our music and realises the narrative is all wrong. We need to break down the way in which African societies have been compartmentalised and brains have been told, “there’s a limit for you.” We need to change that.
Doug: There are a lot of people looking for the aesthetic of it, rather than the consciousness behind it. That’s why we decided to label ourselves as Afropunk. It’s not just an aesthetic.
When we write a song, we have so many conversations and arguments about the issue we’re writing the song about. By the time it reaches you, what you’re getting is our heart and soul. And by virtue of us being African and wanting to discuss these African issues, that’s African enough.
AB: What Doug’s talking about is refusing to give into the fetishisation of Africa and Africans. When someone has the response “ . . . but, you’re African,” let’s critique that.
Djae: It’s a really common occurrence in the rock and metal communities. If a band is from Africa, people will freak out not because the music is good but because it’s like, these guys are from Africa. You’re looked at as Other. You’re viewed as a novelty as opposed to someone taking the music seriously, someone who wants to be viewed on the basis of their art for what it is and what it’s trying to do.
LTW: I hope there’s more of this necessary music in the near future, but I know the pandemic lockdowns have been tough for bands around the world. Have you been able to work on your music?
Fox: We’re in the writing process. And now, with what the world’s going through, we can’t be silent. We’ve got too much to sing about.
LTW: What’s something you’d like a reader or listener to take away about your band, about your music?
Fox: If anything, just relay our humanity to everyone. That’s all we could ask.
Djae: I would like to challenge bands on the scene: I’d like to see more bands speak up and out against instances of racism. So far it has been nice to see a lot of bands speak out, but there are a lot of bands that are not doing enough, or are not doing anything. This is a time to use your voice and your platform. Don’t use the catch line that music isn’t political. It is.
AB: Silence is complicity.
Doug: Complicity and silence. It’s one of those things we’ve observed in many scenarios. If we’re going to make change, it’s about creating a better environment for anyone who comes after us.
Fox: It’s time to rewrite the history books.
Audrey J. Golden is a literature and film professor who lives in New York. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and you can check out her personal website to learn more about her writing and her archive of books, records, and ephemera.