RESONANCE Finding Portals: Fishbone’s “Fishbone” EP By Sarah O'Neal · Illustration by Sofia Figlie · March 19, 2024

My obsession with my father’s belongings began sometime in second grade. I would rush home after school, eager to spend hours sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the storage closet where my father’s memory was packed away. I carefully pulled out boxes of photos, fanning the pictures out around me to sift through, making sure I could quickly pack them up before my mom got home from work. I loved looking through images of my dad when he was young and still alive. I searched for myself in the angles of his face, willing there to be a resemblance between us.

I was two years old when my dad died. When you grow up in the shadow of a dead parent, everyone wants to tell you about how good a person they were. From the stories I’d been told, my dad often seemed more like an angel than a person—impossibly perfect which only made him feel further away. My aunt Risa provided a strange and unexpected window into my father’s memory that felt more honest compared to what I heard from other people. A few years younger than him, Risa’s memories of my dad would surface unexpectedly, triggered by a painting, a look from my sibling, a word said in passing. She shared things that others had forgotten, little moments that made my dad seem complex and even difficult—like how he once locked his siblings out of the house and poured dirty dishwater on them as a form of punishment for their antics. Once, she gave me two Keith Haring prints because my dad liked his art—or mentioned it enough for her to remember. I was grateful for these bursts of memory; they made the man I have spent my life grieving more human.

One afternoon, when I was in high school, my aunt told me about this band my dad used to listen to. I was wearing a thin golden chain with a fishbone pendant. It had a small fake gem as an eye and I loved it. I remember picking out the necklace, and purchasing it with money I had saved from a housekeeping job. It wasn’t remarkable or expensive, but it was mine. On that day, my aunt paused, noting it. Your dad used to like a band called Fishbone. She didn’t add any further details, and I don’t remember if I asked for more. I don’t recall if I looked the band up immediately, or if I questioned the authenticity of this anecdote. My aunt had a way of saying things that blurred the distinction between the real and the imagined. Of all the bands he must’ve listened to, why was this the only one she mentioned? But I repeated the name to myself: Fishbone. It sounded strange. Made-up. Still, I filed the memory away because any detail, even the smallest insight into who my dad might have been meant everything to me.

Sometime during my sophomore year of college I was thumbing through albums at Amoeba Records when I came across a divider bearing the name Fishbone. I pulled out the lone album in the bin and found myself holding the Fishbone EP. The cover itself was an electric black and white image of the band in an unfurnished room. “Fishbone” was scrawled in yellow on the top left corner. Each band member was striking their own unique pose, but it was their outfits that really caught my eye. They wore oversized suits and ties, T-shirts and suspenders, black dress shoes and checkered Vans. Their expressive faces relayed the craziness they were known for—their willingness to go there with their performances. This wasn’t some reggae band or hip-hop act—other music I knew my dad listened to. These were hardcore punk kids. And from the look of the photo, cool-ass punks at that. I bought it.

I grew up listening to a lot of punk. I was obsessed with everything punk rock. From Fall Out Boy to System of a Down, I found ways to listen to the music I was prohibited from listening to at home for religious reasons. I was a closeted queer, hijab-wearing, mixed-race pre-teen in post 9/11 America growing up in a suburb of the Bay Area, where anti-Black racism and anti-Muslim violence was rampant, yet everyone was “colorblind.” I was angry and often felt deeply misunderstood by the people around me. Punk music helped soothe and process the alienation that often came with my intense emotions about injustice. The rage I felt didn’t make me a freak with a chip on their shoulder: it was righteous, and I wasn’t alone in feeling it.

By all accounts, my father was not a punk. Nothing about the clothes he wore made me think he was punk. I don’t know much about his music taste. He saved a Prince concert ticket in a childhood photo album along with CDs by the Fugees and KRS-One that I found with his other belongings, which also included lectures from Islamic scholars of the early ‘90s. From the books he left behind, I knew he was political and very pro-Black. I knew he converted to Islam when he was young and had an affinity for ‘90s clothing. He was stylish, but it wasn’t anything I could explicitly link to a subculture.

Yet somehow, he found himself listening to a band called Fishbone—so much so that his younger sister remembered it after 25 years, remembered it enough to tell me about it. A group of six Black teenagers from Los Angeles, the members of Fishbone met during junior high, where they were being bussed to predominantly white schools. Their sound could best be described as ska-punk-metal-reggae-funk. Fishbone were a group of misfits with a lot to say and zero interest in being limited to a category.

Fishbone’s impact is incalculable. They shaped a generation of artists, from Weezer to No Doubt to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They gave generations of Black punk kids permission to say exactly what they wanted to, however they wanted to, all while critiquing—and mostly mocking—the system that kept the sound of punk so generic, white, categorized, and boring. In their interviews, there was always a feeling that they had only just decided to let you in on their joke, or that maybe they were still pulling one over on you—you couldn’t quite tell. They were keeping you on your toes and having fun doing it.

Fishbone’s ability to create brilliant and trailblazing music while also saying “fuck you” to the whole system was incredible to me. When I listened to the EP on vinyl, I wondered about the kind of teenager my father had been. I wondered what it was like to grow up with divorced parents, a white mother and Black father who could both be described as “emotionally distant.” I wondered what it was like to grow up in such an amalgamation of half-siblings and homes, living between New York and Florida. I wonder if this band of misfits might have influenced his decision to move to California—if he thought, like many before him, that this state was a place he might make sense. Did he have any premonitions that his own children would be Californians, that they’d grow up in the Golden State of contradictions that Fishbone called home? My dad was a New Yorker. He was born in Harlem and went to school all across the city. Yet even as I write that, I think about the summers he spent living with his mother in Florida or Tangier. I wonder if he himself would have identified as a New Yorker. I wonder how he identified at all.

My father was one of those people that everyone loved. He was careful with his words, slow to anger, thoughtful with his time. He wrote postcards and read voraciously. There are dozens of photos of him reading. He wore large oversized glasses and smiled like he already knew what life was about. He had figured it out early, and that was reflected in the ways he treated those around him. When his family members and the few friends I’ve met talk about him, I always wonder what it would take to become so committed to, and so consistent with, living out your values.

By all accounts, my father was a misfit. He kept to himself and wasn’t easily swayed by peer pressure. He was sober before it was popular to be straight edge. When his brother was out socializing, he preferred to stay home and read. Once my great-grandmother offered to buy him a new watch, but instead of taking her up on it, he chuckled and said he could always ask someone for the time. He had just turned 20 when he converted to Islam, and found himself further alienated from his family and friends. His new faith only further confirmed that he was not interested in the life that was expected from him.

My father didn’t look like an outsider. He was a towering 6’4” and a competitive athlete throughout his life. He was handsome and charming, radiating Leo sun energy. Even in the photos, his silly personality shines through in his unpredictable poses or goofy grin. But I don’t know how my father felt beneath his appearance. I don’t know how he made sense of the strange circumstances of his life, or if he found them strange at all. I don’t know if he related to being mixed, biracial, or Black. I don’t know if he struggled to articulate his feelings around any of this. I don’t know what my dad looked like when he was sad or angry or hurt. I don’t know if he preferred to process out loud or alone. I don’t know what his school friends were like or if he had any at all. I’ve seen a photo of him in a white tux, presumably heading to a prom, but did he have a date? If so, who? What was their night like? Did he tell a lot of jokes? Did his hands get clammy when he was nervous? There’s a lot about my father’s brief and miraculous 30 years of life that I know so little about.

I’ve never met my dad’s friends or classmates. I’ve never talked to an old coach or teacher. But from the photos I’ve seen and my own experience of being young and out of place, I know that loneliness must have run deep, which is why I wonder if he found solace in the six Black boys who made up Fishbone; some of them biracial like him, grappling with a world constantly attempting to reduce you to a single definition and constantly seeking freedom in the space in-between.

When I first started listening to Fishbone, I was in awe of their wildness. Their sheer ability to not give a fuck—to break all boundaries of genre and sound to create a universe uniquely their own. When I looked up their music videos, I was mesmerized by their outfits, their expressiveness. They were genuine fucking weirdos. And so completely cool.

My dad, who had always been this perfect figure, was suddenly a little more human. Maybe we would have bonded over a shared love of punk music. Maybe he would have had more sympathy for the rage I felt that so deeply alienated my mom. Maybe I would have felt just a little less alone.

According to my Aunt Risa, my dad did not believe in coincidences, he saw the signs in everything. He searched for meaning, choosing to see life as a web of connected experiences. As a poet, I have a proclivity for signs too. I have come across the Fishbone logo in unexpected ways over the years.

Before I understood the impact Katherine McKittrick’s scholarship in Black studies would have on me, I followed her on Twitter simply because her profile photo was the Fishbone logo. A few months later, a mentor recommended I read Dear Science and Other Stories, McKittrick’s study of Black and anticolonial methodologies. The book is groundbreaking in the ways it creatively weaves together stories and music, breaking from traditional academic structure. Since then, McKittrick’s writing has profoundly shaped my understanding of having an interdisciplinary approach to scholarly work, allowing the silences of history to weave through as they need to.

Or last Halloween, when I was watching Wendell and Wild (2022), and the main character, Kat, and her father were wearing matching Fishbone tees. Kat’s parents tragically die early in the film, forcing her to face the demons of her grief nearly a decade later. When children experience intense loss, they tend to blame themselves for the circumstances, regardless of how illogical it might seem. The film follows Kat’s grief journey, and how she is guided into transforming this primordial wound.

The parallels were not lost on me, and I found myself wondering if somewhere my dad was reaching through and trying to support me, showing me that childhood grief is particular in its expression, but could be transformed. Wendell and Wild’s director, Henry Selick, is best known for The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Coraline (2009), but before he made those movies he directed one of Fishbone’s first music videos in 1985. While writing this, I keep finding fishbone stickers everywhere across Berlin, where I’m currently visiting. They feel like a gentle nudge, a reminder that my Baba is still nearby, using the smallest noticings to guide me, asking me to be courageous and break from convention, to free and express the voice within.

Sometimes I wonder what my father felt listening to the first Fishbone EP. I wonder what his favorite song was. If he jumped around yelling along with the first track—“U-G-L-Y/ You ain’t got no alibi/ You’re just uglyyyy”—thrashing his arms around like I do. Or did he gravitate towards a different tempo? I can never know for certain. But what I do know is, somewhere, in the realm beyond this one, my dad made sure I listened to Fishbone. And through their multifarious music, I feel a little less alone.

Sarah O’Neal is an artist and writer raised in the Bay Area. Sarah’s work grapples with the impact of colonial violence on familial memory and the way systems of oppression shape the most intimate detail of our lives. Sarah’s debut collection, Even Two Hands Pressed Together Are Split, brought together poetry, photography, and ephemera to unravel the contradictions of our desires. Her writing has been featured in the Institute for Palestine Studies, The Nation, and Teen Vogue. When she is not writing, you can find her scheming on the end of empire, swimming laps, or on Instagram and Twitter @atayqueen

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