Vive Les Differences
I was sitting outside of the Rotunda in Philadelphia, crouched on a concrete step, on a Saturday in June with my friends Taylor and Meghann, one-half of Chicago’s sinisterly sweet indie-rock quartet Blizzard Babies. It had poured sheets of rain the night before, delaying my flight in so I didn’t get to see them perform at Ladyfest Philly, but they were sticking around the whole weekend, and I was reading at an afternoon zine reading that was due to start shortly. As we sucked down iced coffee and lazed in the sun for a bit, I asked them how their show had gone the night before. Taylor said, “You know, this is the first time I’ve played a show where I didn’t expect the worst, where I didn’t expect someone to do or say something fucked up that would bum me out.”
It hit me hard. That’s really one of the main reasons why Ladyfest, and other fests like it, like CLITfest, which happened in Chicago this past weekend, and the Black and Brown Punk Show, which is happening August 30th and 31st in Chicago, exist. From outside, these fests might seem divisive—there is the old canard lingering out there that if we just ignore the vast plurality of different experiences and backgrounds of musicians and the communities that support them and that we don’t give in to “identity politics” all of the Bad Structural Things (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on) just won’t be an issue. As an older organizer (at the ripe old age of 34, I’m about 80 in Punk Years), and a person who generally tries to keep their eyes open, that contradicts all of my life experiences. When you pretend that differences in background, experience and perspective don’t exist, you end up erasing all of the experiences that don’t fit into a generalized worldview, and the generalized worldview always comes from that which is considered ‘average’ or ‘normal’ by society at large, which is the view of the most privileged. That’s the thing about whiteness, straightness, maleness—they’re considered the default positions. There are obviously so many of us out there who are shoved to the margins to make room for that default, our experiences and perspectives flattened, ghostly, anomalous. We get written out of narratives, and we aren’t allowed the time to shine that we deserve just as much as anyone else. Ladyfest, CLITfest, and Black and Brown are attempts to correct that, to make space for the rest of us. These are fests where nobody should have to worry about being assumed to be the girlfriend of someone else in their band, or to get that weird sideways look that says, "What are YOU doing here, YOU aren’t like everyone else," where nobody questions why you’re speaking Spanish with your friends and nobody tries to touch your hair—where assumptions are left at the door as much as possible and all social systems are genuinely questioned and abandoned if they’re not worthwhile. That’s unlike any other kind of music fest in the world, even other punk fests.
Ladyfest and CLITfest have both come under appropriate criticism for their names, as both could be argued to make reference to a gender-essentialist, biological view of womanhood. One of the first designated "safe spaces" in music, after all, was the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which has had an active policy excluding trans women since at least 1991. Both Ladyfest and CLITfest were organized specifically to be open to and even to highlight diversity in non-normative gender and gender expression, something Ladyfest Philly organizer Grace Ambrose noted in the organizers’ interview with The Media: “Some of us had reservations about the inclusivity of the word "Lady." What if you wouldn't identify yourself as a "lady" but otherwise, our mission and activities seemed right-on to you? Ultimately, I think we decided to stick with it because of the history of the term. Ladyfests are special, in that no two look alike. There's no governing body of Ladyfests, there are no guidelines for how they are run or when and where they happen. Instead, it's a term that is flexible—you can pick it up and make it into what you want (or need) when you need it. I think as a form, they are very responsive to the needs of the communities that birth them. At Ladyfest Philly, we belong to a history, but we are not beholden to it.”
That history begins in Olympia in 2000. Riot Grrrl as an active network of organizations and a cultural moment had faded, and the first Ladyfest was not quite a revival thereof, but was instead a next step for many of the people involved. A lot of the bands that played—Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney, Emily’s Sassy Lime, The Haggard, The Need—were Riot Grrrl and/or ‘90s queercore mainstays. By the time I became an organizer of Ladyfest DC in 2002, there was already a good amount of talk about how to make sure the organizing teams and the talent on display weren’t just going to be white cis women (‘cis’ is a Latin prefix roughly meaning ‘on the same side’ and refers to women who ID as the gender they were assigned at birth, as opposed to ‘trans,’ which roughly means ‘on the opposite side’). There have now been close to 100 Ladyfests around the world, and, if Ladyfest Philly this year is any indication, they have only gotten more thoughtful and more thorough in considering what makes a music festival truly diverse and inclusive (access to technology we didn’t really have in 2002 has definitely helped on a lot of fronts, as has the continued conversations going on as different communities organize their own Ladyfests).
CLITfest, a feminist festival specifically organized for the punk/hardcore side of things (there is obviously a large overlap with Ladyfest, but Ladyfest bills tend to be a little less focused on punk), has been taking place around the world in a style similar to Ladyfest since 2004. CLIT stands for “Combating Latent Inequality Together,” and, as the organizers for this year’s fest wrote in their mission statement, it’s a fest encouraging all marginalized people and our allies to come together to combat systemic oppression and violence in the punk scene and beyond. Like many of the Ladyfests, CLITfests focus on a wide diversity of gender and gender expression. This year, it took place at Co-Prosperity Sphere (an art gallery on the South Side of Chicago that sometimes hosts experimental, noise and punk shows) and Benton House, a former school-turned-social service agency that has a giant gym with a stage. While other fests have used more traditional club spaces, one of the things I love about this summer’s crop of small community fests is their insistence on staying strictly DIY.
The Black and Brown Punk Show has been happening yearly in Chicago since 2009, building off of the momentum created by the Latin@ punk Southkore scene and other collectives of people of color on the South Side, particularly queer and trans POC. There’s been a drag edition, a year where the collective headed up to the North Side, and so forth—there’s no end to the organizing team’s creativity. This year’s fest features ragers like Puerto Rico’s skate-core champs Diente Perro and Chicago’s The Breathing Light, who bridge hardcore and dark post-punk (think a weirder, more thoughtful version of TSOL circa ‘Beneath the Shadows,’ sans keyboards).
These fests are about as far from the Big Summer Festival Thing as you can get. They have workshops, practical (self-defense, sound engineering, parenting), artistic (zine readings, stop-motion animation, film) and theoretical (victim-blaming in the media, sobriety). Black and Brown Punk Show offers free HIV testing. They benefit local progressive community-centered organizations—this year’s Ladyfest Philly beneficiaries were Women in Transition and Project SAFE, CLITfest benefited the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois, and Black and Brown benefits Feed The People, a grassroots DIY food program serving the South Side of Chicago, and The Crib, a queer/trans youth shelter. There are some bigger acts—Aye Nako played Ladyfest Philly and is playing Black and Brown, Screaming Females and US Girls played Ladyfest Philly—but for the most part these fests highlight smaller bands that don’t have as much visibility beyond their respective scenes, and one might be surprised at how incredibly diverse in aesthetic and composition the band lineups are.
At Ladyfest Philly this June, I fell in love with NYC’s garagey, melodic, witchy Shady Hawkins, Baltimore’s Big Mouth, who are pretty much the perfect fusion of Shellac and Babes in Toyland, and DC’s noisy, howling, powerful Priests. I’d be an idiot not to mention In School, some of my favorite people in the world and one of my favorite current hardcore bands, who tore the place apart completely.
At CLITfest this past weekend, my brand-new post-punk band Split Feet got the honor of playing with queercore badasses Lockjaw Nancy (who were heavier than a Les Rallizes Denudes reference); screamy post-hardcore outfit Lord Snow, who reminded me of the ‘90s hardcore fest circuit in an actually positive way; When Flying Feels Like Falling, a punk band that formed at Girls Rock Camp a few years ago who have kept their sound moving and growing since then; Autonomy, the post-punk band from Carbondale, IL that evolves into a different wonderful form every time I see them—they do a Wipers cover justice, which should tell you something; and No Babies, who were the stars of the night for me. No Babies are from Oakland, and they are dear friends, and they are true weirdos in the best tradition of California experimental punk (Urinals/100 Flowers, Flipper, and so forth)—lots of stops and starts, lots of unexpected changes, lots of dissonance but never schtick-y, even when vocalist Jasmine Watson (also of Neo Cons and other Oakland hardcore/punk bands) pulls out a saxophone. If you can pull out a saxophone during a hardcore set and not have it seem like a gimmick, you are a rare breed indeed.
I didn’t get to attend any of the day shows or the Sunday night show at CLITfest this year, which meant that I unfortunately missed one of my favorite local bands, Escalofrio, Tomboy, from Boston, and Total Trash, from Minneapolis but Saturday night was something really special. I missed local metallic crust openers Krang, but Nu-kle-ar Blast Suntan, who followed, gave an absolutely blistering set, nearly pure noise, which I loved. Bad Idea were one of my most anticipated bands of the night—a newer band with members of Mary Christ and Curmudgeon (who both played after Bad Idea that night), and they did not disappoint despite technical problems with a borrowed amp. Bad Idea have the Boston hardcore sound without the bro bullshit that often comes with it, and they have riffs for days. If someone had let me ride their shoulders around in the pit, I would have.
Mary Christ were from my hometown of DC. Many of their songs also occupy the space between hardcore and post-punk in a noisy, grungy, heavy sort of way, and those songs also have been stuck in my head since this past Saturday. This was unfortunately one of their last shows—their last show was this past Monday at Fort Reno, the most appropriate place to lay your head to rest if you are a DIY band from the DC area. Curmudgeon are a powerviolence trio from Boston, and Krystina (who plays guitar in Bad Idea and sings for Curmudgeon) has a beautiful roar of a voice that, when combined with downtuned guitar (no bassist! None necessary in this case) and the perfect blast beat, got me in the gut.
Far from sucking the air out of the room, when members of the bands spoke about difficult topics from the stage, everyone listened with empathy, respect, and understanding, and everyone mingled in the crowd, allowing a place where difficult and necessary conversations about relationship abuse, eating disorders, racial profiling and other such topics could actually thrive. Again, there is no other music festival environment that I could possibly think of where such a thing would be possible. These things flourished outside of formal workshop settings (we’ve learned our lessons since the ‘90s), in spaces that crossed private and public.
These fests are that kind of environment, where you can bring up something unbearably heavy and sharing it brings relief, rather than further sorrow. That is one of the fringe benefits of safer spaces—without your guard up, as Taylor mentioned, there’s room to set down your burden, room to have difficult conversations if you need to, room to make friends, smile at a stranger without worrying about your future interactions, let go in a way we often can’t as marginalized people in punk and hardcore. That is something immense, something real, something to celebrate.