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How a Generation of Hardcore Legends All Became Motivational Speakers

After all, they’ve got that PMA

John Joseph grew up on the streets of New York City in the 1970s. He survived abuse, homelessness and drug addiction by turning to punk rock, the Hare Krishna religion, veganism, and eventually, working out. And while he’s best-known as being the singer of the band the Cro-Mags, who put out The Age of Quarrel in 1986, one of the greatest hardcore records ever, his Speakerpedia entry says Joseph can speak on topics like “Beating the Odds: How We Can All Triumph Over Obstacles – Big or Small – To Live Meaningful Lives”; “A Message to Kids of All Ages: Dream Big and Stay Out of Trouble”; and, of course, those covered in his book, Meat Is for Pussies: A How-To Guide for Dudes Who Want to Get Fit, Kick Ass, and Take Names. (As for the “vegan feminists” who don’t like the title, “I’m like, ‘Sorry… bitch,’” he told the London Real YouTube show.)

Joseph, like a number of his hardcore contemporaries, has aged out of stalking the stage at shows to commanding it at conventions. He gets much of his work now doing these motivational, mantra-based talks, leveraging his natural charisma as a professional thought leader and quasi-celebrity guest.

In some ways, it’s a natural fit; hardcore has always been driven by a flawed, primal philosophy, a rules-of-the-road preaching that attracted a certain kind of devotion from a certain kind of congregant. The music is punk rock’s uglier younger sibling — faster and angrier. The live shows reflect this aggression by being marked (or defined) by acts of violence. As such, hardcore as a genre had little chance and likely little interest in reaching mainstream popularity, but appealing to the masses was never really the point, especially in the early days. From the very names of the bands (Millions of Dead Cops to Circle Jerks), to the threatening live ambiance and the sheer speed and volume of the music itself, it wasn’t so much that hardcore isn’t for everyone; rather, hardcore is exclusionary by design.

That meant hardcore, despite being a full-blown youth movement at one point in the early 1980s, precluded many; it has long been a scene made up of white men in their teens and early 20s. But the popular refrain was that hardcore was for “the kids.” Read anything about the glory days of hardcore (spanning, generously, the decades between 1980 and 2000) and the centering of youth is a common thread throughout. There’s the iconic 1982 SSD album The Kids Will Have Their Say; Kevin Seconds of the band 7 Seconds sang about staying “Young til’ I Die”; the Swedish band DS-13 put out an album called Killed by the Kids; the powerviolence (an even faster brand of hardcore) band Charles Bronson’s one LP is titled Youth Attack!, and the band’s singer started a record label of the same name; there have been bands called Youth of Today, Reagan Youth, Wasted Youth, Crippled Youth and Youth Brigade; and dedicated fans of the genre, no matter what age, still tend to be called “hardcore kids.”

Today, however, hardcore is undeniably middle-aged. While there are still young people drawn to local hardcore scenes, as well as new bands and labels popping up, its stalwarts, members of bands that put out records in the 1980s and 1990s, are on the upper end of “all ages”: Karl Buechner of Earth Crisis is 47; Ian MacKaye of bands like Minor Threat and Fugazi is 56; Kevin Seconds is 57; Vinnie Stigma of Agnostic Front is 62; Keith Morris of Black Flag, the Circle Jerks and Off! is 63. And that’s no knock against any of them. It just shows that youth movements eventually grow up and all that macho aggression has to go somewhere. You can’t crowd punch your way into your golden years; people and their ideals must evolve.

Scholars have been researching the relationship between masculinity, religion and hardcore for decades, tracing the entwinement of authentic Christianity and Hinduism with the organization of the scene and its music. But what if these arguments simply give hardcore too much credit? What if metaphysical overtures like Joseph’s are, as a matter of fact, about the commoditization of the spirit and philosophy of hardcore, and the application of hardcore to the business of motivation?

Joseph, however, isn’t the only veteran of the hardcore scene with a message to spread. And those messages vary from practicing yoga and keeping a positive mindset at all times to a call for white nationalism that has its roots in the far-right strains of the hardcore scene. Take Ray Cappo, now known as Raghunath, the vocalist for New York hardcore bands Youth of Today and Shelter. He gravitated toward Krishna Consciousness in the 1980s. After going to India and eventually becoming a celibate monk for six years, he became a yogi. Today, when not playing shows with his reunited bands, he leads workshops and yoga retreats all over the world, and dabbles in motivational speaking.

Another longtime member of the New York hardcore scene, Toby Morse, singer of the band H20, started One Life One Chance, a nonprofit with a mission to “engage and inspire elementary, middle and high school students to make healthy choices and live a drug-free life.” Morse, 48, says he’s been Straight Edge his entire life — no drinking, drugs or smoking. He’s also vegan, and goes to schools and tries to sell kids on a similar lifestyle. Covered in tattoos and looking like your friendly neighborhood skater dad, he’s the exact opposite of pretty much every anti-drug crusader you’ve ever seen.

Jezebel Senior Writer Maria Sherman thinks there could be a lot to gain from listening to what some of these scene veterans have to say. “At the risk of losing all of my street cred, I do believe there’s a way to usher in progressive, punk ideologies into schools, corporations and wellness conferences,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with retired punks teaching their good book of pit politics, but it’s wrong if they’re crossing a line that exploits real, true community work.” She adds, “On the flip, I do think everyone would do better to listen to Kathleen Hanna [Bikini Kill and Le Tigre] or Alice Bag [The Bags] for, like, a nanosecond than John Joseph’s meat bashing, but I recognize that might be a matter of personal opinion.”

Others, like author Jason Heller, who grew up in the hardcore and punk scene of the 1980s and 1990s, points out that the spoken-word style of hardcore singing, assertive body language and positive messages all lend themselves to speaking in public to large audiences. He goes on to mention that the 1995 debut album by the band CIV, fronted by former Gorilla Biscuits lead singer Anthony Civarelli and members of New York Hardcore mainstays like Judge and Youth of Today, saying that record’s title and opening track, Set Your Goals, “couldn’t be a more generic corporate slogan.” Heller adds, “There’s something that reeks of classism to me, especially since I grew up as a poor kid in the hardcore scene surrounded mostly by kids who were well off.”

He thinks that the scene’s “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ethic” came off as arrogant and entitled. “But I can’t deny that the uplifting and often socially conscious messages of posicore and youth crew were tremendously empowering to me as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks.”

That message of empowerment is the one Raghunath and Morse are attempting to push into the world. Morse, who is a very active Instagram user, constantly posts stories ranging from making fun of his teenage son’s love of modern-day hip-hop in a very fortysomething-year-old dad way, to selling T-shirts, to pushing the power of P.M.A., or “positive mental attitude,” a philosophy Morse says has been guiding him since he was a teenager and heard the Bad Brains song “Attitude.”

The lyrics, “Hey, we got that PMA,” were derived from self-help thinker Napoleon Hill’s 1937 book Think and Grow Rich. Hill, during the Great Depression, made countless readers believe that in order to attain wealth, people needed to have a positive mental attitude and follow 11 other steps including harmony in human relationships, a labor of love and the capacity to understand people. From Hill to Bad Brains to Morse, the core philosophy of Think and Grow Rich has come full-circle and is now filtered through what Morse learned growing up in the hardcore scene.

Another lead singer who has found a different use for a microphone, Greg Bennick, always seemed like a natural fit for the speaking circuit. His most well-known band, Trial, were one of the most outspoken and politically-minded groups to come out of the mid-1990s when punk and hardcore had moved from tossing around words like anarchy, to actually taking political stances on everything from feminism to LGBT rights, immigration and veganism. Trial covered much of that ground and would include quotes and explanations in the liner notes, and Bennick would take nearly as much time during live sets talking as he did screaming his lyrics.

Today, Bennick speaks to “hundreds of school groups, commercial audiences and colleges” about topics from “new angles on the psychology of leadership, teamwork and communication to more ambitious personal subjects like the dynamics of human aggression, radical ideas for living and breaking the chains of self-doubt.” He explains, “Much of what I learned in hardcore makes its way into those presentations.” Bennick’s own path to a career in public speaking actually predates his involvement in the hardcore scene. He started when he was around 14: “My mom is a gifted speaker, dynamic and engaging, and growing up in a house where she was a teacher, class instructor and speaker really influenced me.” He also points out that he “had a natural inclination for it.”

As for the connection between being a lead singer (like Morse, Raghunath and Joseph) and a public speaker, that’s an obvious one. Bennick says that he realized he had no talent whatsoever for playing an instrument, so he was left to scream the lyrics. “I took the opportunity to introduce songs before we played them,” he says. “Playing 500-plus shows over the years was a great training ground for learning how to engage difficult (or nearly impossible!) audiences and to keep their attention.”

And even though hardcore came before he started speaking to audiences, the scene is never far behind. “There’s quite a bit of the hardcore scene in my public speaking. Ideas like being drug and alcohol free, intensity in how we approach life, living with passion, building community, communicating clearly and dealing with issues around leadership that are challenging often play into my commercial speaking engagements,” he says.

There are others, however, who took the things they learned from the hardcore scene in a different direction entirely. “I grew up playing in hardcore punk bands and fighting skinheads,” wrote Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of VICE magazine and VICE Media in his 2012 Taki’s Magazine article, “Punk Rockers Make Good Conservatives.” In list form, McInnes gives 10 reasons that he feels the scene he grew up with and his current political mindset are one and the same, from “slam dancing teaches camaraderie” to how fighting back against skinheads at hardcore shows is the same as “when the PC left comes in demanding apologies or extremist Muslims insist you accept Sharia law, you don’t capitulate, you attack.”

Much of McInnes’ entire career has been based off what he learned in the hardcore scene. While it’s difficult to tell these days, the history of the media company he co-founded, VICE, always talks about the early days starting out as a “punk-rock magazine.” His second act as the founder and face of the far-right group the Proud Boys (which, as of this writing, McInnes has apparently quit), also carries with it influences from the hardcore scene, of course, but this time he’s courting the kinds of people he claims to have fought against in his hardcore days.

Look at any picture of the Proud Boys, and juxtapose it against any photo you might find Googling “hardcore crew,” and you’ll see a lot of similarities, mostly white men covered in tattoos, some wearing T-shirts, others clad in Fred Perry polos. Recently, McInnes proclaimed his admiration for the New York hardcore band Sheer Terror. The endorsement was rejected by the band’s singer, Paul Bearer, who told RVA Mag, “The whole ‘Conservatism Is The New Punk’ thought is a fucking travesty, and a sad joke. I don’t want to hear about how you’ve ‘grown up, and have kids and a mortgage.’ You don’t eat shit just because the toilet’s closer than the fridge.”

Yet McInnes goes beyond the internet to spread his white nationalist, anti-leftist, anti-LGBT message. Recently, members of the Proud Boys made news after they attacked people protesting a speech McInnes was giving in Manhattan at the Metropolitan Republican Club. But it was far from a rare public appearance by the “prankster, provocateur, comedian and creator of contemporary, alternative pop culture,” as his Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau profile calls him. When he’s not giving speeches at Republican hangouts, McInnes can be found giving talks and readings as “Gavin McInnes — The Godfather of Hipsterdom!” His agency lists, “Youth Culture for Corporate Types,” “Being an Entrepreneur in Today’s Economy” and “Choosing Writing as a Career” as suggested topics he can speak to. (Simon & Schuster didn’t respond to a request for comments as to whether they were still actively booking McInnes, or whether they had a hand in booking his event at the Metropolitan Republican Club.)

McInnes’ using what he learned coming up in the hardcore scene to promote and speak to crowds about his message unfortunately isn’t that surprising. Hardcore has flirted with right-wing ideology before — from racist skinheads being visible in the scene to One Life Crew, the band that, in 1996, was dropped from their label, Victory Records, then the biggest hardcore label in America. The label claimed it was because they didn’t agree with the band’s anti-immigrant stance on songs like “Pure Disgust” (with lyrics like, “Don’t come over here / We don’t need or want you / A country for Americans / Vultures won’t rule”), but that only came after the label released their record and a fight broke out at a hardcore festival in Ohio in 1996 between the band and members of the scene who didn’t agree with their lyrics.

Hardcore is far from perfect then. In fact, there’s a reason that it’s stayed largely underground. But it also makes perfect sense that its influence can be felt outside of the scene, whether people realize it or not, in music or fashion (see brands like The Hundreds and Noah, or GQ sending a photographer to document the style at a Turnstile show). Its importance is even slowly being recognized by publications like The New Yorker and artists who came up through the scene, like Raymond Pettibon, are getting retrospectives at major museums.

Ultimately, hardcore has always been more about its message than the music. Boiled down, that message is that the world is a fucked up place that wants to hold you back, and you’ve got to do what it takes to not only survive, but try and make it what you’d consider a better place. As the people who came up in the scene apply its principles to life coaching, the results show just how varied, positive and destructive hardcore can be.

“Hardcore is still by and large a social experiment,” Bennick says. “It’s constantly in a state of transformation and by no means has arrived at a final point or reached a state of total grace. It always has issues and problems that are in need of examination, but what people not involved in hardcore could find — if they looked beyond the screaming and stage dives — is a generally connected group of individuals trying to make something work where nothing existed before.”