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Maneka’s Punk Pulpit

Devin McKnight’s new project asks if a racial slur can ever be used to redistributive ends

Ex-Speedy Ortiz guitarist and current Maneka frontman Devin McKnight is a dude I knew I was supposed to know before I ever met him. We grew up in the same small, incestuous high school punk community in Silver Spring, MD. Other local high school punks would often ask me, apropos of nothing, if I knew Devin. By about the third or fourth time his name came up, I concluded that Devin and I probably had at least one other thing in common: he had to be the other black guy. We eventually came face-to-face and became fast friends when our respective bands shared a bill, and over the years I’ve watched and listened proudly as Devin blossomed from being my childhood counterpart to a stellar guitarist and songwriter of increasing national renown. He cut his teeth with Boston post-hardcore heroes Grass is Green before eventually joining up with Speedy Ortiz, a quirky, female-fronted indie act that became visible enough to grace the pages of Rolling Stone and the New York Times. When things grew uncharacteristically quiet from the Speedy Ortiz camp and McKnight founded a Facebook page for Maneka last spring, I was excited to see the intrepid guitar-slinger venture out on a new expedition.

The biography on Maneka’s Facebook page helped me to connect the double entendre: “[McKnight’s] struggles with racial identity in the indie/punk scenes of America influenced his naming of this project. If you don’t get it, then he probably didn’t feel comfortable explaining it to you.” Pronounced one way, the band name is as innocuous as a Friends reference. Use another inflection and it’s a historically fraught term of endearment that aptly characterizes my relationship to the artist. The name of McKnight’s solo project essentially compresses that classic Key and Peele skit “Obama Meet & Greet”—a sendup of the difference between how the 44th president greeted black people and non-black people—into a brand. Maneka is a secret handshake, a winking acknowledgment of familial kinship decipherable to those it’s meant to incorporate but possibly opaque to those it keeps at arm’s length.

There are some cans of worms that the punk community is more equipped to smash open than others.

I registered the complexity of my friend’s new musical identity with some ambivalence. Challenging taboos and unsettling prevailing assumptions is certainly a key component of a punk rocker’s job description. But there are some cans of worms that the punk community is more equipped to smash open than others. The use of the Western hemisphere’s most infamous slur remains controversial enough in hip-hop, a genre in which the principal performers are black, even if the listenership is primarily not. That McKnight would sound his wry dog whistle in a rock context initially struck me as the willful spreading of a pathogen into a demographic even less prepared to tackle it.

After all, Maneka enters the zeitgeist at a juncture when Piers Morgan has opined that the public should blame the rap industry when white girls go viral shamelessly bleating the hook to Kanye’s “Gold Digger” without censor. Maneka’s debut album Is You Is was released this September on Exploding Sound Records, a few days before Spin ran an article titled “How Do Rappers Handle ‘Nigga’ During the Rise of White-Dominated Festivals?” The breathless fascination with when, how, and why or why not white hip-hop listeners can utter the Voldemort of epithets has always struck me as a means of reasserting the primacy of white perspectives in a cultural context in which they might otherwise take a backseat for once. When women affectionately refer to one another in colorful terms, the knowledge that the same words from my own male lips conjure different associations does not ravage me with envy. I’ve never listened to a gay person casually call another gay person by their own loaded pejorative and felt overwhelmed by the injustice of it all. Of course, both of these analogies are inadequate because no slur has been made ubiquitous, and aestheticized, to a comparable degree. There is something singularly acquisitive and self-serving about contesting the territoriality black folks feel about a word freighted with the legacy of subhumanity codified in law. It’s a petty revanchism with endlessly renewable cachet.

McKnight fully appreciates the precarity of the tightrope he’s walking. “The way I feel is that it’s not okay for anybody to say it,” says McKnight. “You can use all the mental gymnastics and rationalizing and stuff like that but someone who has the historical argument—let’s say an old-school black person who’s older than our parents—they’re going to be like ‘nah dude, don’t say that shit.’ And I can’t really argue.”

“We’ve been able to take so many negatives, put our own spin on things and kind of like always be ahead of the curve creatively—so much that it’s like you create a language of your own and it becomes cool because only some people are allowed to use it,” the singer-guitarist continues. “And that’s a power that we made for ourselves. . . . That’s why that word is such an issue.”

Like McKnight, I’m a conscientious objector to the reclamatory use of the epithet among and between black people. Still, I empathize with the impulse to impose a rampart between those who endure the traumatic weight of the term and those who benefit from it. In an age in which charges of cultural appropriation are as pervasive as the Migos flow, the widely held perception of the “soft A” sobriquet as exclusive property of those its “hard R” cousin has oppressed is perhaps the closest thing to a consensus cultural fault line. The Maneka frontman’s life experience has proved even that divide to be more negotiable in some zones than in others. Three years ago, McKnight’s alma mater Springbrook High School was the subject of a Washington Post article titled “Redefining the Word,” a deep-dive into the evolving conventions surrounding the word on a suburban high school football team. The article paints the disagreement over the word’s connotations as primarily generational, but includes the observation that Springbrook students of all races eventually adopted its use.  

“I played on that football team, I heard that word hundreds of times,” McKnight remembers. “At least. I mean even in school. But like if [the coach] had brought that up back then, people would’ve just laughed at him. They’re still gonna say it. What are you talking about? Trying to ban the word on a 95 percent black team in Colesville, MD is like, ‘what?!’ Not gonna happen. This is how some people that live here talk, and because of its history, it’s just complicated. But at the same time, it’s our word. There’s power in that.”

His recognition of that power—and even its multivalence—is the reason he’s tapped the troublesome word like a talisman to propel his first solo endeavor. McKnight’s record label’s website mentions that he founded Maneka partially out of concern that the overwhelming whiteness of his professional life was causing him to lose his cultural identity. Using a black autonym as the name of a rock band is a potent means of giving cultural production a decidedly black intonation in a majority-white genre. The band Aye Nako culled a move from a similar playbook, naming their punk/alternative quartet for a Tagalog phrase that roughly means “for crying out loud.” Aye Nako vocalist-guitarist Mars Ganito has noted that “most white people don’t bother looking up the meaning or the pronunciation. Some people think that I’m saying ‘I, Nichole.”

Aye Nako’s band name borrows a phrase from a culture that the majority of rock listeners might typically otherize, and repurposes it. Both acts are sublimating the experiences of people of color into their participation in a predominantly white subculture—even if they’re subtweeting their audiences in the process. By consciously locating themselves at the intersection of multiple and contrasting identities and traditions, Aye Nako and Maneka each act like translators, ones that evade the pitfalls Rudolf Pannwitz supposes even the best are susceptible to: “Our translations . . . proceed from the wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, and English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue . . . He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language.”

The communion McKnight seeks between the one at the mic and those in the mosh pit is not predicated on any aspirations of universality.

During McKnight’s tenure in Speedy Ortiz, I always found it telling that so much of the press about the band centered on founder and lead singer Sadie DuPuis’s gender, but that in all of the conversation about refreshing representation, McKnight’s contributions as a person of color never seemed to come up. I suspect that in order to catalyze any critical conversation about being a conspicuously black performer making rock music, McKnight has to resort to more provocative measures because there is generally less trepidation about discussing the dynamics of gender in rock music than those of race. He’s careful to note that such measures are not an invitation for his listeners to toy with the same taboos that he does.

“If you’re really giving someone a fair shake to make themselves heard, you know, being on the stage is a form of power and those who are watching are relinquishing power,” McKnight points out, offering a subversion of the traditional punk rock precept that artist and audience operate on equal ground. “There’s a part of being an audience that’s about giving [the performer] the floor. If that’s the case, then why not let them have the floor? You shouldn’t be going in there and like, making up your own rules for their message. It’s their story to tell.”

McKnight’s approach is a stark contrast to contemporaries like Julien Baker, a singer-songwriter whose new album Turn Out the Lights boasts a sound equally indebted to sacramental confession and Dashboard Confessional. “A house show feels like a true faith community, socialist and communal,” she told The New Yorker recently. “The lead singer is less than two feet away from people who are screaming the same thing. Punk teaches the same inversion of power as the Gospel—you learn that the coolest thing about having a microphone is turning it away from your own mouth.” McKnight grew up absorbing a similar blueprint, but the muscular, impishly dissonant jams on Is You Is reflect a pointedly different take on punk’s redistributive potential. The communion McKnight seeks between the one at the mic and those in the mosh pit is not predicated on any aspirations of universality, but on the conviction that readily acknowledging disjunctures—and using punk as a bully pulpit to make their ramifications visible—might be the balm for even the most historically intractable fissures.