Since being founded in 1980 by Bad Religion guitarist/songwriter Brett Gurewitz, Epitaph Records has become synonymous with punk rock. Whether you’re a punk lifer or a casual fan of the Offspring’s Smash, Epitaph has had a big, loud effect on your life. Scan the spines in your vinyl collection. You’ll see their signature tombstone logo printed next to the titles of some of your most treasured albums. Everyone from Descendents to Pennywise and From First To Last to Bring Me The Horizon have cut records for the label. Epitaph is also responsible for the Punk-O-Rama compilation series—providing a magnificent gateway into punk rock. An entry point for anyone even remotely curious about the genre to discover bands such as Rancid, NOFX and Bad Religion.
However, 2020 has taught Gurewitz that “a lot of people who got into punk rock had no idea what punk rock is about.”
In response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the resulting international outcry for social justice and protests against systemic racism, Gurewitz has dedicated the Epitaph platform in solidarity to amplify Black voices and promote tools to becoming a better ally. Gurewitz spoke to Alternative Press about the ethics of punk and the complicity of silence. He also insists that it’s imperative to become involved in the massive social justice movement currently surging throughout the United States. And if you don’t, he thinks you’re missing the point of punk rock.
How are you trying to utilize Epitaph’s platform to increase the voices and the visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement?
There’s a massive social justice movement happening right now. The world is embracing Black Lives Matter as never before, and Epitaph is participating in that. As a music label, it owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Black community, particularly the enslaved peoples that came here from Africa. We have no rock ’n’ roll at all without these enslaved peoples and their beautiful culture. We need to use our platform to support the movement, and we have been. We had a complete marketing blackout for a pretty long period of time. But at the same time, we do have recording artists, and we’re a business, and we have to do some normal work and return to normal work.
So what we’ve begun doing is promoting our artists and helping them while, at the same time, using our platform to amplify Black voices and point allies toward direct action. And the way we’ve been doing that is roughly on a one-to-one basis. So for every music post we do, we’ll do a post about direct action or amplify a Black voice or direct people to resources about how to conduct themselves as allies. So that’s how we’re approaching this, and I would encourage other businesses to do the same and other recording artists to do the same as well.
When talking to artists who are on the Epitaph label, what has been your advice to encourage people to get involved and use their platform to speak on these issues?
I’m not giving advice because I’m not a Black person. But I am taking advice, and the advice I’ve been following is basically what Black Lives Matter is recommending for allyship, which is don’t express your own opinion if you’re a white business, or if you’re a white person, amplify Black voices and use the language of the Black Lives Matter movement and direct people to resources for direct action and so forth. The thing is that it’s not really enough to be a nonracist today. You have to be an anti-racist, and racism won’t die until white people see it as a white issue they need to solve rather than a Black issue that we need to empathize with. I think that the way to fix it is to switch the perspective.
Since the tragic murder of George Floyd and the subsequent surge in attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, what’s the biggest takeaway you’ve had? What’s the biggest lesson you have learned based solely on the events of the last month?
That’s a tough question. I guess the biggest thing I’ve learned is how many of my peers in the punk-rock community have remained silent when this great and noble cause has arisen. I think silence is complicity. I think many punk and hardcore bands, not all, are doing the right thing. But too many of them who are a part of this scene, a scene that is rooted in social justice, have remained silent. And to me, silence in this moment is complicity. It’s an important moment. It’s an important moment of social change that people will look back on and see their behavior in that moment was pivotal and revealing. It’s a pity.
What I’ve learned is that many people were attracted to punk because of the violence and anti-social aspect, and I guess they never understood the ethics of punk. But for me, and I’m one of the original guys from the original punk scene who’s still around, the ethics of punk were always the ethics of social justice. It’s always been about speaking truth to power. The ethics of punk is shocking people in order to change social norms, hopefully for the better, but not merely for shock value. And yeah, the pit is violent and cathartic, but that’s for dancing. What’s fueling the music and the need for cathartic dancing is anger and outrage at the injustice in the world. That’s what punk is about. And that’s for our Black brothers and sisters. The future is multicultural. The future is all-inclusive. There’s no future in racism at all. Me and my friends who were doing punk rock—we were progressive. There was nothing conservative about us. And the ugly aspects of the punk scene that have always been there have come to the forefront and just really made me feel bad.
When I see Bad Religion fans coming out and saying, “Well, you know, Blue Lives Matter,” it just makes me feel shame that these kids listen to my music. They’re not kids anymore. These guys are like 40-year-olds, 50-year-olds. But luckily, the true message of my band has withstood the test of time. We’ve had social justice lyrics going back to 1981. I put together a playlist, actually, of Bad Religion protest songs that span several decades, and it’s up on Spotify and Apple [Music]. People can listen to it, and the lyrics that relate to the values that we felt then—the values of social justice, racial justice, inclusion—they’re more poignant today than they’ve ever been. But what I’ve learned is that a lot of people who got into punk rock had no idea what punk rock is about.
Sometimes, people are afraid they’re going to say or do the wrong thing but want to contribute to the conversation and appropriately signal boost. What advice do you have for someone who wants to use their platform but they just don’t know exactly what to say or what to do? What do you think are the first steps in allyship?
I think the wrong thing to do is to make it be about you. I think the wrong thing to do is to become an overnight expert on racism in America, especially if you’re a white person. I think the first thing you can do is educate yourself. You can do some reading—there’s an excellent reading list on the Epitaph website and the ANTI- website. [By reading] books like How To Be An Antiracist and Me And White Supremacy, you can learn a lot. You can also go on social media and follow Black Lives Matter and similar websites. They are trying to teach their allies how to practice allyship, so if you’re willing to learn and do the work and improve yourself, just study up on it a little bit and put yourself in the backseat and use your platform to amplify Black voices and to elevate Black activists. That’s what I would recommend, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
And anybody jumping in right now, I just want to say they’re welcome. That’s another thing: I think many on the left, particularly on the orthodox left, are a little too unforgiving, and I think it’s possible for people who have racist beliefs to see that they’re wrong and to want to change their beliefs and change their behaviors. I think when people are willing to do that, they should be welcomed because that’s the only way we heal, and that’s the only way to move forward into the future. So those of us on the left need to be welcoming and inclusive, and those people who really have not, in the past, understood the systemic racism in the U.S. but want to, and want to do better, they should work on themselves, do the work, and when they do, they should be embraced warmly by the left. That’s what I would like to see.
A lot of people are realizing that they have to step up and may have to confront people close to them about racism but may not know how to approach the issue. What advice do you have for someone who needs to initiate a conversation with somebody about becoming aware of their racist beliefs?
I’m not an expert on difficult conversations. I know there’s a lot of literature out there about it—maybe do some research there. But I will say that nothing takes the place of conversation. Silence is complicity. And no matter how difficult it may be, it’s worth it. We have to be uncomfortable. There are only two potential ways of making progress in this world. One is violence, and one is conversation. If we can’t have conversations, the alternative is no good. So [if] we can’t talk to our family, who can we talk to? Nobody’s safer to talk to. The worst thing you could end up having is a feud or a grudge, but we need to have those difficult conversations at the family level, at the level of the workplace, at the level of the local community, at the level of government—it’s all about conversation. It’s all about speech. It’s all about exploring ideas. That’s what it’s all about. My advice is feel the discomfort and do the work and have the talk. It’s no fun defending racism. Have the difficult conversation.
When we look back at this time period in history, what do you hope will be written about the last month and everything surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement? What do you hope the change will be? Looking back, what do you hope will be written about this period of time in the future?
What I hope is that this will be the decisive moment where Trump and his sycophants lost their momentum and started their exit from power and the promise of the civil rights movement finally began to coalesce for the Black people in this country and delivered the promise that it always had. I feel that can happen if we all join together in a united message that we’re all people, we’re all human beings [and] our differences are skin deep. Of course, there are centuries of political wrongdoing that have impacted the Black population and need to be repaired, but inside, we’re all people, and skin color should not matter any more than hair color. And that’s the place we should all be moving together, where we’re a race-blind society. We all love each other regardless of our appearance, just as human beings.