This Politician Doesn’t Mind If You Call Him a Punk
Meet New York City Councilman and former hardcore legend Justin Brannan.
Change and progress, the processes that move nations and slow stoplights, is implicit in the hope of rock’n’roll.
Even the darkest or most nihilistic music – whether it’s Morrissey or Morbid Angel – is truly an assertion of identity and the sound of community. Music is the noise made and the noise celebrated when people try to find their friends, their peers, the people with whom they will write the future.
Some musicians are taking that to the next logical step, and turning that hope into a working reality.
Brooklyn native Justin Brannan was elected a Councilman from New York’s 43rd district in 2017. He represents Bay Ridge and a large swath of working class and middle class Brooklyn, but he is no ordinary politician.
The 40-year-old Brannan was also the founding member and guitarist of two famous New York-based hardcore punk bands, Indecision (1993 – 2000) and Most Precious Blood (who formed out of Indecision in 2000).
Like a radio broadcast from a furious future past, Most Precious Blood raged against the impotency compelled by conformity. Conjuring a bruising, chunky noise, like the Swans, Lightning Bolt, and Discharge, Brannan’s bands used sound as a last stand against that complacency.
It’s no surprise that a noise-punk musician is moving successfully into politics; it’s probably a surprise that there are not more of them (it’s worth noting that Danica Roem, who was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017, was also the member of a thrash/metal band). Former Foss bassist Beto O’Rourke is now better known for his unsuccessful senatorial run in Texas against Republican Ted Cruz than he is for his music roots.
Since Brannan and his punk, noise and hardcore peers were involved in social activism while musicians, it makes total sense that it was only a matter of time before this energy, action, and intelligence would seep into real-time politics.
“I’m not a Saul Alinsky disciple,” Brannan states, “but I do believe it when he says, ‘true revolutionaries cut their hair, buy a suit, and try to infiltrate from within.’ I spent a lot of time outside the building throwing proverbial rocks at the building, maybe now it’s time for me to get inside the building and make change from the inside out. And ultimately, that’s what I ended up doing.”
Max Rose, the new Democratic congressman from New York’s 11th District (which encompasses Staten Island and some of Brooklyn), is another big fan of Councilman Brannan. This past November, Rose, 32, won in a district long thought to be a Republican stronghold, and Brannan is credited with being a major part of the team who made that victory possible.
“The great thing about Justin is he doesn’t just back people after he knows they’re going to win, or because the establishment told him to,” Rose said. “He supports people he really believes in, who share the same values as him, and then he works his ass off to turn that vision into a reality. He’s not in it just to win campaigns, he’s in it to change politics.”
That’s why Brannan fell in love with local politics.
“It was tangible, I could smell it, I could taste it, and I could touch it,” he said. “Someone walks into the office disgruntled and feeling like no one’s listening to them, and they leave the office thinking, ‘Gee thanks so much.’ It’s making people believe that the system isn’t evil if you know how to work the levers and if you find good people that are really there as public servants who want to help people.
“It’s the day-to-day stuff that’s always driven me. It’s like, look, it’s great that we all want to change the world but you change the world pothole by pothole. That’s how you make people believe in government. That’s how you make people believe elected officials and stuff can actually help you.”
Brannan’s commitment to the day-to-day needs of his Brooklyn constituents is underlined by Matthew Goodman, a best-selling non-fiction author and political aficionado who lives in Brannan’s district. “In a half-century of observing politicians, I’ve never seen anyone so devoted to constituent services,” Goodman notes. “In one of our Bay Ridge Facebook groups, someone will say something like, ’There’s a new pothole on Colonial and 72nd,’ or ‘last night’s wind knocked over an awning on Third Avenue’ and inevitably someone will tag Justin, and within a couple of hours Justin will have personally responded about how he’s gotten a DPW crew over to the scene to fix the problem. Justin has become something of a Superman figure around the neighborhood.”
Brannan doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave that neighborhood: “The idea of putting on a suit and going up to Washington, D.C. just seemed very foreign to me. So, it wasn’t until I made that connection with local politics that suddenly it all made sense. And it very much is connected to my music career, I could draw a straight line from me sleeping on floors with hardcore bands to doing what I do now. I might be getting too old for the mosh pit but I still believe this shit and I still want to change the world.”
I was eager to talk to the Councilman about something we share: Our involvement in the punk rock and hardcore scene in New York City.
“As an only child, my dad used to always say that one day my friends were gonna be my brothers and my sisters, and the first time I really found that was in hardcore,” Brannan said. “After all the touring that we did, and meeting so many people…there’s people that I may never see in person again, I might only keep in touch with them digitally from now on, but I still consider these people my brothers and sisters because of the experiences that we shared.
“There’s no other music scene so large where it’s not a competition. You can be a band and you can tour and go to every little town and go to play to a hundred or a thousand kids or whatever, and there isn’t this cutthroat mentality where you’re trying to outdo the other bands. I don’t know any other type of music where they’re not just all stepping on each other’s necks trying to get a record deal or something like that. So it’s very unique, and the friendships that you make because of that are really valuable and really durable. They last through the years because of the foundations they were built on.”
The Councilman did an extensive amount of touring throughout the world with both Indecision and My Precious Blood. How did that global prospective affect his local perspective?
“I think it builds respect for the differences, how much more we are alike than we are different,” Brannan answered. “Whether we’re a teenager — or a twenty-something, or a thirty-something or a forty-something — in South Africa or New Jersey or New Zealand or Paris, we’re all dealing with the same sh*t. It’s that connectivity. I have to say that the touring also gives you this sense of fearlessness. It definitely prepares you for the rest of your life in ways that you just can’t learn in the classroom.
“Whether it’s problem-solving skills or whether it’s the brush-the-dirt-off and get-up-and-try-again skills, you learn so much just from having to deal with all these different experiences and feeling very much like it’s you against the world. Like when your van breaks down in France, that’s your problem and you have to figure out how to fix that. I wouldn’t have traded those experiences for the world.”
Brannan adds that the touring experience helped him doing fundraising for different humanitarian charities. “I can honestly say that touring the world and getting f*cked with by the cops in different countries really, truly does prepare you to sit at lunch at the Four Seasons across from some big philanthropist and look him dead in the eye and ask him for a million dollars for the charity that you work for, because you just don’t give a sh*t,” he explained.
To what degree have you had to fight stereotypes, about rock musicians, or hardcore musicians specifically?
“Don’t we want to elect leaders who’ve been through some of the same sh*t we’ve been through?” Brannan asserted. “This is why you see so many politicians go down in flames: They’ve spent their whole lives hiding their true selves, trying to make all the right moves and join all the right clubs and all that kind of stuff, and then one day a million skeletons fall out of their closet because they’ve been trying to hide who they really are.
So to Brannan, while people may look “cross-eyed when they looked at my tattoos, and I might not have come up through the traditional ranks and I might not look like the traditional politician,” he thinks most of his constituents get his desire to give back to the neighborhood from which he comes.
“So I just had to own it,” the Councilman continued. “There’s no way I can be someone I’m not. And I’m hoping now we’re getting to the point in politics where maybe those are the types of people we should be electing as our leaders. I think that’s how you can get better people to be involved in the process: by breaking down those barriers and welcoming people to have a seat at the table who may not have in the past, historically or typically, had a seat at the table. Listen, they always say electability is about being the candidate that you want to have a beer with, you know? There is a reason for that: Voters want people that are relatable; they want to believe that this candidate has been through what they’ve been through. I think that’s a very powerful thing, especially coming from the world of hardcore, where one minute there’s a guy standing next to you in the crowd and the next he’s on stage playing bass in the next band. That’s what was always so cool.”
Job satisfaction aside, does Brannan have higher political aspirations?
“I always heard that once you become an elected official, months into becoming an elected official, you’re already thinking about what you’re gonna do next, and I absolutely have caught that sickness,” he said. “It’s very, very weird, I never thought I would become that person. But I think I really, really love this sort of hand-to-hand combat, and helping people with issues that anyone else would consider small. A person’s pothole on the corner is the bane of their existence. I really love those small things. I’ve always been a city guy.
“I don’t really care much for the D.C. or Albany thing, so I think that anything I would do would be New York City-related. The City has always been my thing. If I could find a way to help more people or inspire more people, then I would never rule it out. The stuff that other politicians might find boring is the stuff that I really get into.
Brannan closed the interview out with a riff worthy of a punk rocker.
“Helping people is just a really f*cking good feeling.”