Howard’s Student Group, Label Us Black, On Breaking Racial Barriers In Indie Music


Nia Johnson understood from a very early age that music would play a big role in her life.

“As a kid, I’d do finger painting and my parents enrolled me in piano. When I got to high school I also did some singing,” Johnson says about her youth in Worcester, Massachusetts. As she grew older, Johnson showed a stronger interest for Afro-punk music, with bands like Trash Talk, Death, The Skins and Bad Brains on heavy rotation. Unfortunately, Worcester didn’t offer much for an audiophile like Johnson.

“There was not much of a scene I could really get into. In Worcester, life really revolves around the car and I didn’t drive,” she laughs.

When she came to D.C. in 2012 to attend Howard University, she wanted to connect with more people who were interested in the Afro-punk scene. Initially, it was a challenging conquest for Johnson.

“I was trying to get a bunch of Howard students to go see the Afro-punk [festival] in New York,” she says, but found it a little difficult to connect with people in the beginning. “Howard’s not known as a huge beacon for the DIY [rock] scene.”

It was through Facebook that Johnson connected with another Afro-punk fan on Howard’s campus, Jamal Jones. Jones suggested that they make a full club out of their shared interest, and the two began Label Us Black, Howard’s DIY student group, in the fall of 2013. The club’s name developed from Labelless Blacks, but as Johnson explains, “The irony is that people want to label you or what your interests are because of your skin color, so it’s an ironic play on ‘Yeah, you’re labeling me because of how I look like, but you’re totally wrong.’”

In no time, the club began to grow in membership.

“I met more people in person. My laptop is totally stickered with various bands and people would start conversations through that,” she says. “You’d look at people and think ‘Hmm, would they be interested?’ and then it kind of mutated and people would tell their friends.”

Now with around 20 members, the club offers a space for students on Howard’s campus who have an affinity for Afro-punk. For Label Us Black, the meaning behind Afro-punk goes beyond just the music-it’s also a way of living.

“We’re modeled partially off of the Afro-punk concept; alternative blackness and showing interests other than the typical hip-hop/R&B and BET,” Johnson says. While the roots are within Afro-punk, Johnson says that the club is not adverse to different genres or different ideas people might bring. “We want to keep our roots in DIY, indie [and] alternative. You can do anything and we’re not going to judge you.”

Last February the club held socials and its first showcase featuring rappers from EMP artists collective and a headlining set from local alternative rock band Tarfu. Johnson says that the club is looking forward to building a stronger community both on and off Howard’s campus by connecting more on social media and collaborating further with D.C.’s creative community.  Notably, Label Us Black will be a part of the inaugural In It Together Fest, a four day celebration of DIY music and art in D.C., at the end of July.

“D.C. is a city where you see a lot of examples of alternative blackness. I want us to bring everyone together as well as having a strong base at Howard too,” Johnson says. “You just come as you are; that’s what the club is.”