“Well, maybe you should give it back then,” Asim fires back, to which he is promptly ejected from the classroom, all the while suppressing a cheeky smirk.
This early scene serves as a recurring theme in “Boyz N the Void,” Asim’s first book. A principled, outspoken, young and gifted Black man, Asim often finds himself either misunderstood or reprimanded by teachers, co-workers, friends, family, bandmates and romantic interests. Describing himself during his formative years as “an academically withdrawn malcontent with an allergy to authority,” Asim finds refuge — like so many other authority-adverse malcontents — in punk rock. But to be a Black kid with a passion for punk rock is to attract even more misunderstanding and confusion, and Asim finds himself straddling two opposing worlds, not allowed to fully occupy either one.
“Boyz N the Void” is subtitled “A Mixtape to My Brother,” and Asim presents the book as a compilation of personal letters to his younger brother, Gyasi, supplemented by its own song, usually of the pop-punk variety. Following a similar model as James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” — works written, respectively, to Baldwin’s nephew and Coates’s son — Asim seeks to convey caution and road-weary wisdom to his young charge, in whom he recognizes a fellow, introverted malcontent, one with a similar “inability to envision a future in which a person such as he can fit comfortably into a ruthlessly competitive, anti-intellectual, anti-black society.”
Asim was part of a “close-knit but contentious family of bookish eccentrics,” raised in a “hyperliterate household,” by studious, accomplished and artistically driven parents. Even after making the transition into a card-carrying punk rocker in his teens, he remains a literary-minded theorist and critical thinker. Essay topics in “Boyz N the Void” range from navigating race and racism in America, working menial jobs, straight edge, surviving sexual assault and the euphoria of hearing his band’s song on the radio for the first time — often all in the same essay, which can lead to a sense of whiplash.
Asim is at his best, and most natural, when appraising the music and culture he dearly loves. Throughout “Boyz N the Void,” Asim brilliantly addresses the racial and gender homogeneity of punk rock; not an altogether new topic, but a topic which benefits from Asim’s careful and thoughtful analyses. A natural born iconoclast, Asim isn’t afraid to critique the punk scene’s faults and limitations. In a passage on Laura Jane Grace, the transgender frontwoman of Florida punk band Against Me, Asim writes:
“For all its radical bravado, punk remains prone to replicating the social hierarchy of the dominant culture it purports to undermine. White cisgender males are the patrician class of punk, the default vantage point from which punk lyrics are expected to speak.”
Asim directly follows this by calling out punk fans as “too often seeking in punk rock an echo chamber of their own dominant group perspectives, dressed up in a hollow guise of dissent.”
You can almost hear the mic drop.
By combining pop culture, memoir and social criticism, “Boyz N the Void” calls to mind Hanif Abdurraqib’s “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” and “Go Ahead in the Rain.” But though Asim is a shrewd and critical thinker, his intelligence and sharp wit more often than not alienate him from others. He struggles as a student from a lack of intellectual stimulation and motivation, and struggles again with a society that doesn’t know what to do with a cerebral Black kid who can (and won’t hesitate to) simultaneously quote W.E.B. DuBois and Propagandhi lyrics. He acknowledges as much, by admitting he has a tendency to come across as “someone you’d rather borrow lecture notes from than have a beer with.” It’s difficult to tell if Asim — now an assistant professor of nonfiction writing at Ithaca College — sees this as a point of shame or of pride.
Even with the much overdue rise of Black and Brown punk bands and festivals, in the United States and abroad, the existence of punks of color remains to many people a curiosity. “Being a black punk rocker is about maintaining a feat of punk rock inception,” Asim writes. “You are a punk among punks, a subversion of rules that themselves are subversions of yet other rules.” As a punk, straight edge and exceptionally erudite Black man, Asim is othered to the point of obscurity. With “Boyz N the Void,” he uses the virtues that have been used against him — his skepticism, shrewdness and liminality — to assert his existence, as a young Black man insisting to be acknowledged in a world that either cannot or refuses to see him. He demands to be more than an invisible man
Santi Elijah Holley is a journalist, essayist and the author of “Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads.”
Boyz n the Void
A Mixtape to My Brother
By G’Ra Asim
Beacon Press. 272 pp. $24.95