‘Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché’ Tells The Legacy Of A Black Woman In Punk [Interview]

Selome Hailu Selome Hailu is a freelance culture writer based in Austin,…
Poly Styrene holding mic
The documentary Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché focuses not only on Styrene's legacy but on the more complicated aspects of her fight-the-man sensibilities. Photo Credit: Gus Stewart/Redferns Via Getty.

We spoke with Celeste Bell, the daughter of Poly Styrene, about her documentary that focuses on her mother’s legacy as an artist, and more.

“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I think, ‘Oh bondage, up yours!'” shouts Marianne Elliot-Said, better known as Poly Styrene, on Oh Bondage Up Yours!,” the 1977 debut single from X-Ray Spex. As the Black frontwoman of the ’70s British punk band, Poly Styrene decried the abuses of society — all while baring a youthful smile full of braces. Like other pioneering Black figures in early punk — Detroit’s Death, DC’s Bad Brains — Styrene serves as a reminder of how Black people were foundational to punk’s rise globally, despite the erasing or minimizing of their contributions. And although her legacy might not have been well known for some time, her daughter, Celeste Bell, hopes to change that with a new documentary, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché

The film, co-directed by Paul Sng and named after the song “I Am A Cliché” — a single originally released alongside “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” that appeared on the 1991 re-release of the band’s 1978 debut album Germfree Adolescents — premiered at this year’s SXSW, and focuses not only on Styrene’s legacy but on the more complicated aspects of her fight-the-man sensibilities. 

Interspersed with X-Ray Spex concert videos and Top of the Pops interviews are shots of Bell flipping through Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story, the 2018 biography she was working on with her mother prior to her death in 2011. She smiles gently over the pages of Dayglo! while admitting, in voiceover, that her mother was often neglectful. Bell recalls her grandmother intervening repeatedly in her youth as Styrene’s work and mental health made her a volatile, unreliable parent. There were fights, custody disputes, and even a stint in the Hare Krishna movement. Bell never had a normal childhood.

Still, she approaches the project of remembering Poly Styrene with a well of empathy. Bell laments the white male journalists who projected labels onto her mother when she was only a teenager and the doctors who misdiagnosed her bipolar disorder as schizophrenia. She identifies the harm done to her mother by racism and misogyny in the entertainment industry and in Britain at large. And she cherishes the later, more lucid days of Styrene’s life, after their mother-daughter relationship had done some healing. 

Now, a decade after Styrene’s untimely death from breast cancer, Bell continues making up for lost time. She’s devoted to making people see the gory details of the fame machine, and takes pride in the example her mother set by ending her performing career to try to salvage her sense of identity. And she also revels in the more joyful or little-known bits, like Styrene’s gibberish-studded lyrics, or the fact that she never actually thought of herself as a punk. We recently met with Bell to talk about the methods and memories behind the documentary. 

Let’s start with the subtitle of the film: I Am A Cliché. Why did you choose to frame the whole story around that song?

I liked that title particularly because, obviously, she wasn’t a cliche. There’s an irony there. It just seemed very appropriate to who my mom was, and her writing style to go with that title and those kinds of lyrics.

Did she continue to resonate with that style as she began to shed the persona of Poly Styrene, and then later came back to it?

Yeah. She enjoyed that song because not a lot of thought went into it. It was one of those songs that she wrote in maybe half an hour on the back of an envelope, that kind of thing. And I think she enjoyed the fact that she had really stupid lyrics in there, like “Yama, yama, yama.” She could get away with that. She definitely had affection for those really silly songs that she felt like she got away with, maybe only thanks to punk.

Ruth Negga does a lovely job playing the voice of your mother by reading her old diary entries. Why did you decide to cast a voice actor and why her?

I actually met Ruth just by chance in London, on the street in Soho one night. We just got to chatting and we hit it off, and then I discovered that she was a big fan of my mom. My mom’s story really resonated with Ruth because Ruth is also biracial — half-Ethiopian, half-Irish. And with my mom’s struggles, she’d faced similar difficulties in her life. We bonded over that. Then later, I was talking to my co-director [Paul Sng] about [bringing] my mother’s diary entries to life. I could have read them but you hear my voice throughout the film, and I’m not a trained actor. So, I think we did want an actor who could really recreate my mother’s voice. Ruth was the first person that came to my mind. 

How did it feel to hear her emulate your mother’s voice after she’d passed away?

I was just so impressed. She came in and she nailed it in one day. It’s not an easy accent to imitate — my mom had a very distinctive, quite nasally South London tone, so I was just blown away by how well she did.

There’s plenty of other voiceover as well, but there are no “talking heads.” All of the other voices are played over archival footage of your mother and others. Why didn’t you want to show the interviewees’ faces?

It was one of the first choices that we made. It was Paul Sng’s idea to not have talking heads because we wanted a more cinematic experience. We want you to be immersed in the story. 

Where did all of that archival footage come from?

Some of it I was gifted by my mom’s ex-manager Falcon Stuart — well, his widow. He passed away, but he was a filmmaker as well, so he took a lot of footage of the band. I had access to this rare, unseen footage, which was very lucky. But all the rest of the footage we had to go out there and find. We had to go to archive houses [like] Kino and Getty. Kino’s just got some of the best footage of ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s Britain. 

There’s a certain softness and brightness to the film. Many might have expected a different tone and aesthetic from a documentary about a punk star, something darker and louder. How did Poly Styrene influence your filmmaking style itself?

My mom wasn’t your archetypal punk at all. She had a very distinct look and a very distinct sound. She also had a very distinct approach to her art and aesthetic. If you had to use just one adjective to describe X-Ray Spex in comparison to other punks: colorful. [“The Day the World Turned Day-Glo”], that’s the title of one of her tracks, and that really sums it up. Day-Glo colors, very bright, very much in your face. We wanted to bring that element to the film. Make it colorful, make it bright, and then contrast that with more dreamy, soft, even heavenly elements because that’s also a big part of her personality. Her inner self.

In the film, you describe your mother as “an observer rather than a critic.” Can you elaborate on what that means?

She was definitely an observer in terms of her lyrics. I think the lyrics are really, really important when we think about my mom’s legacy because, first and foremost, she was a writer. [Being a] performer came second. She’s describing the world and she’s describing current events at that time that feel very current now, but she’s not giving a straightforward opinion.

She’s not saying “this is wrong” or “this is right.” She’s just saying, “Let’s look at this! Isn’t it strange? Isn’t it weird? Isn’t it funny?” And leaves the listener to make up their own minds. I think that’s a really hard thing to do as a writer, especially if you’re writing about anything that’s political. It would be very easy to end up being quite preachy, and my mom was not that type of person. Her ideas were very fluid. She was constantly changing her mind. She was an empath who was able to take in information in a way that most people are not able to do.

But that very much affected our relationship as well because she was such a highly sensitive, artistic, creative person that she was always somewhere else. She was never fully present, which could be quite annoying when that’s your mom.

The film is also about your own artistry almost as much as your mother’s. What about you? Are you an observer or a critic?

I’m more of a critic than my mom. Whenever I wrote songs that were political my mom would be the one saying, “You need to be more subtle.” She gave me some good advice in terms of songwriting, but I’m definitely more political than my mom. I have stronger political ideas because I grew up in a very different time. My mom was much more influenced by the hippie movement than the punk movement.

She grew up inspired by those early beat poets. She was interested in psychedelics and Eastern philosophy and spirituality. That was her thing more than politics. But current affairs really did influence her. She was a news junkie; she was always reading the paper and watching the news, and she got a lot of inspiration from that. But I would say I have stronger opinions… but as you get older, you tend to soften on the very strong opinions that you have when you’re a teenager and a young adult. So, I guess I am becoming maybe a little bit more like my mom.

Was it ever a point of tension in your relationship when she encouraged you to be more subtle about your politics?

Never tension. There was definitely tension in our lives but not about that kind of thing. My mom was a great conversationalist, so we would quite happily chat about politics and things that were going on in the world for hours. She was very supportive. She always supported me thinking for myself and forming my own ideas. She was going to support me, whatever I believed, as long as I could back it up in some strong arguments. She was very supportive of difference in that sense.

X-Ray Spex’s classic debut, Germfree Adolescents, was released in 1978. Soon after, Poly Styrene would leave the band and go solo. It would take nearly 20 years for the punk band to release a follow-up. Photo Credit: Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

What kinds of conversations did you and your mother have about race in the home?

My mom was biracial. She was Somali and English, so race was fundamental to living, being a human. She struggled with her sense of identity. She experienced very, very, very severe racism early in her life. Physical violence and verbal abuse were a regular occurrence when she was growing up. She was born in the late ’50s. At that time, immigration was relatively new in the country. There was a lot of hostility to immigrants, to Black people, to Asian people, to mixed race people. There was this idea that racial mixing was in some way wrong, and it was going to lead to the degeneracy of society. So these mixed race kids, they represented a lot. They were targets. That struggle really informed her later writing and music and art. “Identity” is the title of a song [by X-Ray Spex], but it’s also a strong theme of her work throughout that period. We had many conversations about it.

My father is white. And I’m mixed race but I’m much more white-presenting. So, I didn’t have the same issues as my mom growing up. I didn’t experience any direct racism. I also went to a predominantly Black and mixed-race school, whereas when my mother was growing up, it was much whiter. So my experiences were very different to my mom’s, and we’re all mixed race in my family. So that’s kind of a comfort. But it’s thanks to people like my mom, who had to face those difficulties and be the first ones, that things are much easier for mixed race people. It’s still not great — we just had to watch what poor Meghan Markle went through with the royal family, so still a long way to go. But my mom being a Black woman and a mixed race woman, it’s so important to talk about that. 

In her later years, who was she listening to? Any contemporary artists? Or anyone now that you think she might have liked?

She grew up listening to ska and reggae and Motown, and she was a huge Aretha Franklin fan. I would say Aretha was a big influence actually. You wouldn’t think of Aretha Franklin and Poly Styrene, but she was a big influence. My mom was blown away by her vocal ability. Just that power. My mom had a lot of power in her voice, so she really loved old soul music. 

I think today, there are some really maverick artists that my mom would enjoy. The people who are doing something a little bit different. M.I.A. is a good example. It’s not typical that she’s a producer as well. There are very few women in music who actually produce. I think it’s something like 3%. And my mom was all about doing it yourself. She did work with a producer, but she was also kind of the producer: she put the band together, she auditioned the band, she told the band how to play. And when it came to recording, she was there in the studio giving directions. So, I think [she would have enjoyed] any female artist who’s not just the performer fronting the band, who is also really involved in making and crafting the music. Someone like Missy Elliott, for example. Those are real role models for women in music. Because there were just so few of them [back then]. 

Do you plan to continue working on projects about your mother?

The next film I’ll make will be about the Hare Krishna movement, so it’s more about me and my experience. But the work with my mom’s estate — because I manage my mom’s estate — that’s ongoing. That’s something I’ll be doing for the rest of my life. 

If there’s one thing you hope people take away about your mother’s legacy as a Black woman in punk, what would that be?

What I hope that people can find inspirational about my mom, as a woman, as a Black woman, is that she walked away from something that wasn’t working for her, even though it was working for other people, and even though she was successful. What that takes is bravery. It takes a kind of single-mindedness and strength to do what’s good for you. I think so many of us do what’s good for other people, especially women. And the fact that she was able to make that very difficult choice at such a young age, I hope that is inspirational because I think that’s something that we should all do.

Selome Hailu is a freelance culture writer based in Austin, Texas. She has a special love for coming-of-age films, wacky comedies and anything artsy and Black. 

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