On January 6, 2021, I watched the pearly Capitol dome rising above a sea of scrambling bodies. I heard voices pitched in bellicose unison amongst the sounds of breaking glass. Traumatic and horrifying though it was, the sight of the dome reminded me of a crucial artifact of musical history. It was 1982 when the Bad Brains, an anomaly in a mostly monochromatic music scene, released their debut album. Rather than depicting a democracy snuffing coup d’état, theirs was a symbolic gesture at untangling systemic problems facing America.
The Bad Brains began as a Washington DC jazz-fusion combo. Dispensing with their original moniker, the band became prophets of hardcore punk—a translation informed by reggae. “Seeing Bob Marley playing live in concert is what changed our minds completely,” said vocalist, H.R. On their debut, the Bad Brains swerved from the throbbing bass guitar gallop of “Don’t Need It” into the measured, sparsely melodic “Jah Calling,” signaling their embrace of Rastafarianism. To see four Black kids from Washington D.C. performing a sophisticated blend of lightning punk rock and liquid reggae flabbergasted their predominantly pasty-White audiences.
The positivity embraced by the Bad Brains was a fortifying counterbalance to the lyrical pursuits of the punk rock status quo. “You know, a punk rocker can write a song about hate,” bassist Daryl Jenifer said. “I hate my mom or some shit, you know? We wasn’t on no shit like that.” Jenifer said their songs reflected their worldview. “We started kicking P.M.A. [Positive Mental Attitude] in our music,” Jenifer says, “and the message was different than the regular punk rock. When we first came out, [punk] was kind of on some vulgar shit.” And when audiences saw them perform, Jenifer said, “every kid’s heart and mind was opened.” When they sang about maintaining a positive frame of mind, they saw it change how their audience saw the band and saw themselves by extension. “There was a whole mode of consciousness that was coming through it,” he says.
Bad Brains’ guitarist Dr. Know talked about the band’s work defying expectations: “We kind of musically open up and just break down the barriers: a bunch of black dudes playing crazy rock’n’roll that you rock’n’roll white people can’t even play.” He laughed. “Playing some funk and this and that, and then playing reggae too.”
But today, in the aftermath of the public lynching of George Floyd, the subsequent racial justice protests, and post-election mayhem, the Bad Brains’ cultural significance is remarkable because they’ve shown that the barriers of inequity were meant to be broken down. Sometimes I wonder how today’s divided public would receive their music. Are we too polarized now? In 2020, H.R. published I’ve Got the P.M.A!, a children’s book about having a Positive Mental Attitude. Hopefully, before long, H.R. and the band will record a follow-up to 2012’s Into the Future, an album still craning its neck toward that new chapter, toward that P.M.A.