Araweelo Abroad x Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex)

Araweelo Abroad had the privilege of virtually sitting down with Celeste Dos Santos, daughter of Poly Styrene (born Marianne Joan Elliot-Said). Poly Styrene was the front woman of the legendary punk band X-ray Spex. The daughter of a Somali aristocrat and a British legal secretary, Poly Styrene formed X-ray Spex in London in 1976. Despite their cult following, the group disbanded in 1979 after one successful studio album. However, they reunited on several occasions since 1979 and released a second and final album in 1995. Styrene also went on to have a successful solo career until she passed away from cancer in April of 2011, at age 53. However, her legacy as a punk pioneer will live on forever.

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Celeste Dos Santos fronts the band Celeste Dos Santos & The Tabloid Queens. We spoke to Celeste about the legacy of her mother as a punk pioneer, a Somali woman in music, and the influence she had on Celeste. Most recently, Celeste was at the helm of a successful Indiegogo campaign to fund a feature documentary about her mother. Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is scheduled to be released in November of 2018.

IA: Hi Celeste, mahadsanid for agreeing to this interview. We’re big fans and honored that you’re sitting down with us! How did Poly end up being in a punk band? Why Rock n Roll music?

Celeste: Mum didn't start out as a punk. She was really into ska and reggae and her first single was a pop-reggae song called Silly Billy. It was only when she saw the Sex Pistols play in Hastings before they really blew up that she thought about starting a punk band. I think her thought process was - this looks easy and fun...I could do that!

IA: How was your mother’s music career received by her parents/family? It’s not every day that a Somali woman fronts a legendary punk band.  

Celeste: Her mum, my grandmother, was pretty bewildered with punk, it was all a lot of screaming and noise for her. But ultimately she was proud. As for Osman, my grandfather, he and my mum were estranged during her teens. My mother was protective of her mother and she felt that Osman had not been there for the family. They were able to reconcile their differences as my mother grew older. 

IA: When did you realize that you wanted to play music? Is this something you see yourself doing indefinitely? 

Celeste: I was a big show off as a kid and was always singing and dancing. But I never seriously considered a career in music as I had seen how much my mum had been burned by the whole experience. It was only as I reached my mid-twenties that I got into music...but for me it has never been a professional thing - just something I do for fun.

IA: During the early years, your mother was critical of consumerism and of a ‘plastic’ society. She was ‘eco’ before concerns about the environment really gained popularity. Was this concern about a consumerist society something your mother carried with her later on in life?

Celeste: Yes. My mother was definitely concerned about the direction the world was heading; particularly in her last days. More than anything my mother was an observer and critic of the post-modern culture we find ourselves in - where everything is disposable and fetishized... she really had a lot of foresight as to how plastic and superficial our society would become and how this would affect people's connections with not only the planet but each other. 

IA: What is the relationship Poly had with Somaliniimo, or her Somali identity and how did that paint her life experiences? What is your connection with your Somali identity?

Celeste: My mother has a complicated relationship with her Somali identity and indeed with her racial ambiguity in general. She had a difficult relationship with her father and grew up in a part of London which was predominantly white working class and Afro-Caribbean. There were no Somalis at all. She experienced a lot of racism from white people who would call her and her siblings half-breeds and anti-mixed prejudice could be found within the black community too. As a teen my mother often found it easier to pass - people would often assume she was Cypriot or Indian and she would not necessarily correct them. She only really accepted her Somali identity as her relations with my grandfather improved and she made more contact with our Somali family in East London. 

IA: How has X-ray Spex been received by Somali people over time?

Celeste: Good question! I think the younger generations are discovering more and more about achievements of people of Somali origin thanks to the internet. I certainly hope X-ray Spex has found fans among the Somali youth!

IA: Poly was the only woman in her band (other than Lora Logic’s brief stint in X-Ray Spex). She was also one of, if not the only black woman in the punk scene in London in the 1970s. Did she ever speak to you about how her intersectional identities as a woman and a person of color/black woman in a white male dominated industry impacted her experiences? 

Celeste: Absolutely. She continued to come up against discrimination as she entered the music industry. She felt her race was somehow fetishized and she refused to be defined by her sex or the colour of her skin. We have to remember that 70s Britain was still very much a place where colonialism was a recent memory and many white men saw women of colour in a hyper sexualized context. She was even described by someone in the industry as a jungle bunny- which was of course meant as a compliment! I think this is why my mum was so determined not to be sexy - she cultivated a tomboyish asexual identity when performing, even if this did not really represent who she actually was. 

IA: You are also the only woman in your band. Do you think the experiences of women in the music industry have changed between now and when your mother started X-ray Spex? What if any, challenges have you faced in this regard?

Celeste: I think women in performing arts are still under extreme pressures which perhaps in other industries play a lesser role. The obvious thing would be the scrutiny of physical appearance. Irrespective of the musical genre, female artists are still judged on their looks, age, sex appeal, etc. In many ways it seems to be getting worse - a grungy, slightly chubby girl with braces on her teeth could be a pop star in the 70s- nowadays female pop stars are obliged to push the sexual envelope further and further to gain attention and acclaim. Just one example would be the fact that even someone who claims an avant garde identity such as Lady Gaga still feels the need to appear on stage and in videos in her underwear. What purpose does this serve? In most cases it certainly does not add to the 'art'. 

IA: What advice do you have for young Somali women who want to become musicians or form their own bands? 

Celeste: Go for it! Be aware of the hurdles - but aim to break them down- don't let them stop you. 

IA: Poly Styrene was riot grrrl before riot grrrl existed. What role did feminism play in your mother’s life and what role does it play in your life?  

Celeste: My mum was a feminist without defining herself as one. She was a woman who played by her own rules. She was also not afraid of her power. She was never dependent on any man and forged her own path in life, despite the serious challenges she faced. I am a feminist to the extent that I have no doubt as to my capabilities as a human being and I do not let my having a vagina dissuade me from doing whatever the hell I want to do. 

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IA: Poly was a legend to the rest of the world, but she was also your mother. How did this impact you? Is there a sense of needing to make sure her legacy stays alive? 

Celeste: I never identified my mother with fame or legendary status. To me she was simply my mum. Now she has passed away I do feel an enormous responsibility to ensure her work and her art remains in the public sphere; mainly because what she created and what she represented is so relevant and so important that it would be a crime to let it fade away. 

IA: What can we expect from you next?

Celeste: I have taken a break from music. I decided last year to go back to university for post-graduate study and that is my focus at the moment. I am also working on some ideas to bring my mother's work to greater recognition - so watch this space X-ray Spex fans!

 All photos provided by Celeste from family photo archives.

Ifrah Ahmed is an Editor of Araweelo Abroad.