Category Archives: Politics and Music

LW Politics & Music – Part 4: Jen Doveton (Colour Me Wednesday)

by Kris Smith

The media regularly bemoan a lack of politics in music, compared to a mythic 60s/70s/80s ‘good old days’ – only to salute as an exception the occasional gobby indie-boy band trying to kickstart their career with some token rebellious rhetoric. Meanwhile, every year there are more fiercely-politicised, intelligent and committed activists working hard to build the DIY feminist punk scene, far from the plaudits and pitfalls of the spotlight. In this new series of interviews, LOUD WOMEN meets them and asks them some of the questions that the music industry won’t.

#4  Jen Doveton (Colour Me Wednesday)

jen

What made you decide to use (some of) your songwriting to express political viewpoints?
I’m not sure whether all political musicians think in this way but I think it’s because it feels like it’s something that isn’t being said, so it’s something I feel like I want to rant about. And it feels like a topic that is important enough to play to people over and over.

Do you use songs as tools to put across prefigured messages – or is it more that you self-express in general through music, with politics just one aspect of that?
I am always going on political rants anyway, but to be a song something has to have an emotional core, to me. That’s why it’s going in a song rather than an essay or something else.

Is the function of politics in music to affirm views within a reciprocal social group, or convert – or at least converse with – a wider public?
We hope we’re saying something people haven’t heard before but actually, when we started the band we were a group of fairly isolated left wing kids in a tory London borough and it came as a surprise to be preaching to the converted (once we found our crowd). I think hearing someone confirm or express how you already feel is really good for your mental health so it’s just as worthy to speak to people who share your views as it is to present a persuasive argument to people who might not agree in the wider public.

Explicit or ideological politics is a rarity in music, even most punk/DIY scenes: is that something you’re conscious of, and does it matter?
I am conscious that it makes some people bristle. Either they don’t like [us talking about] politics or they don’t like the over-earnestness of political music. People are much more comfortable with political satire (i.e. topical panel shows and sketch shows) than with political music. But that might have something to do with most satire being a bit toothless, does it really challenge people’s beliefs? Does music? I don’t know.

Do you see yourself as part of, and drawing influence from, a tradition of politicised music/art? 
Yes I suppose I do, but I don’t know what names I am supposed to drop here. I studied fine art and political art felt deeply unfashionable at the time. So I felt like I would never fit in to that scene, cos I saw political issues everywhere. That’s why I turned to DIY punk, and zines. I definitely see myself as part of the radical crafts movement, if that’s the right term. I was made to make zines/handmade cd covers. Being a politicised artist for me means, obviously, being broadly left wing but also having a community-based consciousness. So you’re creating stuff that can be really personal, because of who you are, the personal is political but you’re also aware of the larger community. I’m aware of the space I’m taking up, aware of how it impacts the scene and aware of how I can collaborate with others. In a way this seems incompatible with what we’re being told about being an artist. We’re brought up thinking being an artist is very individualistic and naval gazing. We’re taught about larger than life icons without learning properly about the complexities of the community that built them, who influenced them. I feel like I learn more about being a DIY musician from activist traditions and community-building than from any artistic or business tradition. I guess my head is more in the process than the output when I’m thinking about your question.

Is there a pressure that comes with being known as a political musician? And is there a balance to strike between work on the one hand, and fun and self-care on the other?
I feel like men have it easier when it comes to politics, they’re less likely to be told to ‘stay out of politics’ for a start. Being a woman and being read as quite young, it’s really intimidating to express a political opinion, particularly online where a man, usually from an older generation, is always ready to pop up to tell you to ‘stay out of politics’, or to try to correct or “mansplain”. And going ahead with writing now, I do feel like there’s a pressure to be able to encapsulate a lot of the political issues going on right now in my music. But sometimes I just feel like writing song after song about how fucking suffocating winter is. All I really want to do is watch netflix and eat pasta. Harriet and I are the types of people who are very task-oriented. We don’t set aside time to socialise and you have to force Harriet to relax. I’ve lost friends, I think, because I don’t make time to invite them round or do relationship maintenance. I have to tell people now, if you want to be my friend you just have to invite yourself round. I’ll cook for you, and I’ll probably give you some merch to package up or you’ll have to sit there while I make CD covers. Being in a DIY band, there’s no line to tell you to stop working, cos you’re working at what you are passionate about and it’s entirely self-propelled. There’s also a huge burnout cycle where you push yourself too hard on tour, have to be ‘on’ in terms of socialising every night and come home and get ill and beat yourself up for not being able to bounce straight back into work or into a social life. I’m not sure how to remedy this because most of my friends are exactly the same, they’re in bands and we only really see each other ‘at work’.

CMWAs with most traditions, what we think of as political or “protest” music has previously been white-male dominated. Have things changed?
The pocket that I’ve found myself in definitely doesn’t feel male centred. But it has to be said, that is not a very profitable or high-status pocket. It doesn’t feel like that long ago that I felt that I would never feel at home in the punk or rock or indie scene because I could or we could never compete with the ideal of what a band should look like. A bunch of white men, anything else would be an exception, novelty, or a bad emulation of what people expected to see. I’m not sure how much society has progressed, but I know we’ve moved out of that crowd so we’re not exposed to it as much. There has been more criticism of white-male dominated music scenes in the mainstream press – like in the case of calling out male-dominated festival lineups – which is promising. If you’re asking whether political and protest music in particular is white-male dominated in its own right, aside from the fact that most of the arts are – I don’t know. Anecdotally, white men seem to get more praise for what I see as fairly obvious political statements and mediocre creative output than people in other demographics. People aren’t always aware of their prejudices and give more time and consideration to white men in general in all fields, it seems. I think in terms of activism, some people think that being a good left wing activist is about being passionate, loud and angry. Maybe that idea does stem from the same ideas that make toxic masculinity so toxic. Most long term political activists aren’t fuelled by anger – I don’t think anger is a sustainable state of being.

How do you view the contemporary music industry as a whole?
I see it as very streamlined to create the most amount of profit for the smallest amount of effort. The radio stations, magazines, TV shows, festival bookers are all told who to play/promote/book by the handful of major labels and their subsidiaries. No one else gets a look in apart from this small top tier. The talent-show TV format (which I love, don’t get me wrong) gives us the vague, background idea that it’s a meritocratic lottery – that deserving young kids are plucked out of obscurity and it’s a beautiful thing. In the real world, anyone who isn’t in this top tier – getting regular radio play etc. – is forced to undersell themselves and work for basically nothing. There’s no one to regulate for when they are short changed or fucked over and they have to rely on the personal, individual patronage of their fans to survive and succeed. The internet has made it infinitely more possible to reach fans and cut out this middle man of mainstream media promo, which has guaranteed its own obsolescence by being such a gated industry.

What are the primary political issues we face, in the UK and globally?
The normalisation of fascism? Maybe everyone took for granted that nazi=bad and forgot to keep hammering that point home. Or maybe it was hammered home too narrowly? Because people are failing to recognise nazis when they are out of the context of grainy footage of 1940s Germany? Or they don’t understand what’s wrong with platforming fascists because they’ve been placed on an arbitrary/bogus spectrum which makes them the equal and opposite number of the only people willing to oppose them, the ‘far-left’? I dunno.


CMW LP2Colour Me Wednesday's second album is available now to pre-order from their own Dovetown label:
http://www.dovetownrecords.com/

https://colourmewednesday.bandcamp.com/

https://www.facebook.com/colourmewednesday/
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LW Politics & Music – Part 3: Janey Starling (Dream Nails)

by Kris Smith

Although we don’t believe in ‘good old days’ nostalgia, we make a slight exception for music journalism. In the late 70s and 80s post-punk period, large-circulation weeklies like NME and Melody Maker competed to interrogate musicians about what they were doing and why, about their songs and their thoughts on the state of society. At some point in the 90s, however, the music press became all copy and no content, and in the years since the media has tended to bemoan a lack of politics in contemporary pop, a situation which they helped to shape.

And yet, there is always political music being made by a minority, and increasingly it is being made, ill-reported and under-celebrated, by musicians from marginalised constituencies, who perhaps have more of a stake in making their voices heard. Every year we find more fiercely-politicised, intelligently committed, female* activists getting busy on the DIY punk scene, far from the plaudits and pitfalls of the spotlight. In this series of interviews, LOUD WOMEN meets them and asks some of the questions that the music industry won’t.

#3 Janey Starling (Dream Nails)

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What made you decide to use your songwriting to express political viewpoints?
Politics is about delivering a message and building communities based on shared values. There’s no better medium for that than live music – and as a woman, it’s a radical act to express anger publicly and create a space for other women to do the same. I’m a feminist direct action activist and Dream Nails is an extension of that.

Do you use songs as tools to put across prefigured messages – or is it more that you self-express in general through music, with politics just one aspect of that?
It’s both. I’m an activist through and through, so the songs that I tend to write (though not exclusively) are political because that’s what’s on my mind; and that’s what’s important to say. After shows we get so many women and non-binary people thanking us for singing so openly, recently a woman told us that our gig was “like therapy”. Politics is often positioned as this serious and dry thing when in truth there’s nothing more passionate, and we have a lot of fun with it too. It’s not an abstract, academic thing or a topic to speak about – it’s in the way we host our shows. 

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Dream Nails: Anya, Janey, Lucy, Mimi. Photo by Poppy Marriott


Is the function of politics in music to affirm views within a reciprocal social group, or convert – or at least converse with – a wider public?
Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, as you’re always playing to a different audience. It serves both purposes, but ultimately there are limits on how much you can express through the music alone – often I do a lot of talking onstage, and will share the national domestic violence helpline number too. That kind of stuff is always useful to say and share, because you never know who’s in the crowd and who might take something away.

Explicit or ideological politics is a rarity in music, even most punk/DIY scenes: is that something you’re conscious of, and does it matter?
It’s interesting you say that, because I agree. I expected there to be more activists within the punk/DIY scene. Music alone will not resolve the structural issues we face, but it can empower individuals with the strength they need to take concrete action, and by that I mean strategic and direct responses like campaigning, direct action and grafting at community building (which is different to socialising). It also comes down to how you live your politics and political identity; for me it’s a lifelong learning as opposed to a label I wear, and that learning can only be done through action, dialogue and often feeling uncomfortable. Like, it’s great to be in a punk band, but make sure you’re actively involved in migrant rights activism, campaigning against police violence and volunteering on your local rape crisis helpline.

Do you see yourself as part of, and drawing influence from, a tradition of politicised music/art?
I do things very instinctively and in honesty, what I do doesn’t come from identifying as a musician, more an activist with a microphone. I don’t really listen to music and think “I want to do that”. When I have something I want to say, I’ll write some lyrics and the band will discuss the idea, and the band then builds a song around it.

There are various ways that a performer’s politics might not communicate to an audience, but you also make a point of speaking between songs to reinforce the message. Did that come naturally, in terms of the confidence needed? Is it to break the ice, to break down barriers with a crowd, or to clarify  – or all of those?
I’ve always done it and never thought twice about it, mainly because punk venues have shitty sound and nobody can actually hear the lyrics I’m singing!

The success of someone like Billy Bragg (approachably media-friendly, active in mild, non-threatening campaigns) might suggest that in terms of politics-in-music the music can actually be of secondary importance: is that true?
Yeah definitely. It’s an important aspect of what I do, but writing a song isn’t going to change a law or stop a fascist party coming into power. However, saying that, the music I write and the politics I hold aren’t mild or designed for mass appeal: they’re unapologetically radical, intersectional, trans-inclusive and queer. I do think that writing this music has the power to give other people the confidence to do the same, and convince them that what they have to say is important and they have a right to be heard – that in itself should open up more public space for radical voices.

Is there a pressure that comes with being known as a political musician? And is there a balance to strike between work on the one hand, and fun and self-care on the other?
Dream Nails have so much fun whatever we do. Sometimes we’re angry, sometimes we’re laughing – it’s all a release. We have a really great time away on tour together, though touring is unimaginably exhausting.  However, it does feel like we fall in this weird middle area where you’re open to a lot of criticism – too political and radical for the mainstream crowd, but not articulate or nuanced enough for the activist crowd. There’s definitely a pressure to always say the right thing. It’s really hard to do that in the music alone, and even through the spaces we have between the music, but we’re always conscious, listening and trying. I do think we’re held to a higher standard than, for example, standard dry man bands – because we’re openly political, and because women are immediately open to more criticism anyway.

As with most traditions, what we think of as political or “protest” music has previously been white/male dominated. Have things changed?
We live under hetero-patriarchal white supremacy so yeah, everything is white male dominated. Well, except the global market in care work, or NHS nursing, or everyday emotional labour, but that’s a different conversation. The DIY scene is doing really great things to challenge the lack of female representation and to skill-up musicians, but I still see all-white line ups and I still see DIY promoters fucking over working class female musicians by not paying them enough, or not at all. The DIY scene is as much about the promoters and venues as it is the musicians – everyone has a part to play.

How do you view the contemporary music industry as a whole?
Exploitative. We get paid 5x more (I’m not even exaggerating) by DIY promoters than we do by big bookers, so we have to balance out the gigs that we do in order to make sure we can financially survive. Like so many other creative industries, if you have a financial safety net then you can take risks, swallow losses and afford to spend more time cultivating your artistic expression. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the DIY scene, we wouldn’t exist! What is exciting though is the fact that DIY is growing.

What are the primary political issues we face, in the UK and globally?
Instead of naming an issue or cause, I’d say that one of the primary issues we face is an inability to put our egos aside and listen to one another – and to view oppressions as intersecting and connected. That requires honesty, humility and discomfort and in order to feel those things in a constructive way and to nourish each other to build a better world together, we need to create a kinder and more patient, reflective politics. It goes back to what I said about politics being a lifelong learning, not a label – we’re all learning and growing, all the time, and in order to do that we need to also express forgiveness and gratitude.


Find Dream Nails on Facebook

LW Politics & Music – Part 2: Cassie Agbehenu (Fight Rosa Fight!)

By Kris Smith

The media regularly bemoan a lack of politics in music, compared to a mythic 60s/70s/80s ‘good old days’ – only to salute as an exception the occasional gobby indie-boy band trying to kick-start their career with some token rebellious rhetoric.

Meanwhile, every year there are more fiercely-politicised, intelligently committed, female activists getting busy on the DIY punk scene, far from the plaudits and pitfalls of the spotlight. In this new series of interviews, Loud Women meets these women and asks them some of the questions that the music industry won’t.

#2 Cassie Agbehenu (Fight Rosa Fight!)

cassie


What made you decide to use your songwriting to express political viewpoints?

Music and politics fit together naturally for me. They’re both about expression and belief. I can’t separate the two really. Music has always been such a huge part of my life and I love music that gives a platform to the discussion of current issues. Feminism and punk collided in my life and that’s when Fight Rosa Fight! was born. I realised I had a lot to say and to shout about and to be angry about so why not use music as a medium to express *that*?

Do you use songs as tools to put across prefigured messages – or is it more that you self-express in general through music, with politics just one aspect of that?

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Cassie’s zine about race in the UK DIY Punk scene – get yours from http://www.fightrosafight.bandcamp.com/merch

Yeah I guess the messages and the politics come first for me. I write about things that are on my mind at the time. Usually with a feminist and/or political theme. I’ve been writing a lot about race and feminism for quite a while. I’m moving to write more about personal relationships which is a different path for me. I find that writing about these things is so cathartic. And what’s even more cathartic is screaming about them in a band.

Is the function of politics in music to affirm views within a reciprocal social group, or convert – or at least converse with – a wider public?

Totally both. We talk about this a lot in the band. We play in a brilliant DIY feminist, queer punk scene which is wonderful and supportive. But I can’t help but feel like we’re preaching to the converted. Which is fine in the sense that it’s great being surrounded by like-minded people who are going to cheer when I get on the mic to shout about calling out rape culture, but what are we doing to actually change our wider social culture?

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Listen to Cassie and Bridget’s podcast at https://soundcloud.com/user-535636211/2-activism-recording-radical-softness

We’ve built this amazing space (which still has problems) but we can’t just keep those conversations in DIY spaces. Although it sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable, when I play shows with Fight Rosa Fight to crowds that that perhaps we wouldn’t usually play to, I know we’re doing the right thing. Myself and my friend Bridget Hart have also started a podcast to discuss politics and the DIY punk scene because we feel like we should be talking about this stuff in a more accessible way.

Do you see yourself as part of, and drawing influence from, a tradition of politicised music/art? 

I suppose I didn’t really see myself as part of that tradition to begin with. But there’s something so powerful about deliberately taking up space as a brown woman in what is often a very male dominated space. Particularly now that I also play in hardcore band (Worst Witch) I know that just being there is powerful. The thing is, women (particularly women of colour) have been using politicised art/music/expression as a means to fight for change for decades and if it’s perceived that I have become part of that tradition then I am honoured. I’m inspired by the women, trans and non-binary people that I surround myself with every day and they give me so much strength to believe that my voice is important. And the men in my life who have actively done the work to break down the ways in which they may have been holding up misogynistic ideals or whatever; I feel so lucky to have so many supportive men around me but that should be the norm and not luck. I’ve been told that I’m inspiring to others which is such a weird compliment to take. I just hope others feel empowered enough to push for the change they want to see. When there are lots of women or brown people at the shows I put on/play or whatever, I hope they leave feeling politicised and empowered.

There are various ways that a performer’s politics might not communicate to an audience, but you make a point of speaking between songs to reinforce the message. Did that come naturally, in terms of the confidence needed? Is it to break the ice, to break down barriers with a crowd, or to clarify  – or all of those?  

All of those things really. I have always had a lot to say but it’s taken time to feel coherent enough to do it on stage. I try to keep it natural and conversational and the most important thing to me is to be honest about how I feel. I have also learned that some things I say are going to make people uncomfortable. Like when I’m challenging a room full of white people on why it might be that I’m the only brown person at the show – I know that might make people feel uncomfortable but in that sense I think when you’re made to feel uncomfortable then you’re probably learning something. The bands I play in have political messages so it would be such a missed opportunity if we didn’t talk about them during the set.

I’ve been given a mic so I should use it to its fullest potential if I can.

Is there a pressure that comes with being known as a political musician? And is there a balance to strike between work on the one hand, and fun and self-care on the other?

15732129_1304721109602000_15215251762937123_oYeah I think there probably is pressure – first and foremost to always be right which is totally not the case. I make mistakes, I will slip up. I have misgendered people at shows. But it’s important that I hold my hands up to that and learn from it. I’m not perfect but I hope the things I say are read as genuine and I’m totally committed to our scene and helping others learn too. My mistake is more hurtful to someone else than it is to me.

Self-care is really important and I’ve found it very difficult in the past. I am learning much better coping strategies to look after my mental health. I read a lot of non-fiction and then write a lot about tough subjects which can take its toll so I have to take time for myself. But regardless of the subject matter, I absolutely love playing in bands and that will always make me happy. I am so lucky to be in bands with the best people.

As with most traditions, what we think of as political or “protest” music has previously been white/male dominated. Have things changed?

The punk scene in all its guises is changing hugely. It’s been 18 years since I went to my first punk show and it’s so different now. We still have work to do but I can’t help but feel really happy about the amazing spaces that we are helping to create. I feel like we (by we I mean, not white, not cis, not men) are not just asking politely, we’re demanding space. And visibly owning it. And that’s really powerful. But I feel like I always want to go further than *that*, it’s about challenging the hierarchies of the scene and enabling the white dudes to feel comfortable to step back and to understand why it’s important that they support this evolution. It’s not about taking things away from people, it’s about being truly inclusive. We talk the talk in this scene but sometimes struggle to walk the walk but it’s getting better all the time. I was talking to a friend the other day about building proper accountability processes within the scene for known abusers; why don’t we have that?? This is totally another separate point but I guess I’m saying we still have work to do and we need to do that together. But I’m excited for what this looks like and to be part of it. It’s an exciting time to be punx.

One interesting aspect of your politics is that they encompass an attack on the Tories and on Austerity-as-class-war. Interestingly you’ve worked as a trade union rep, which is perhaps unusual and something more associated with the traditional Left. In contrast it can appear that class and ideology are missing from the worldview of contemporary musicians. Are people wary of speaking overtly on the subject, or are we going through a period of reaction to Left politics being all about class to the detriment of anything else?

I think the basis of it is that we’ve always been really keen to show that women have ideas about this stuff too – our punk politics aren’t just about being nice to people at shows and creating safe spaces (which of course is important too!) –  we care about the impact of austerity on marginalised groups, and we hate the Tories! We hate what they’re doing to this country and how they’re demonising the poor/Muslims/everyone! Music seemed like a great platform to express this. We care about all the things that impact on people beyond the walls of the venue. We’re a very lefty band and that’s pretty obvious but I think it’s also about making politics accessible. I truly believe in people power, no matter how cheesy that is. The anarcho-punk ideal of not voting/taking part in a broken democratic system is so fucking selfish and I get sick of it. Yes the system is broken, but you’re a privileged fuck if you have the audacity to either believe that politics doesn’t affect you or that you can refuse to participate instead of standing in solidarity with others.

27993226_1800237803383659_8627617246203819600_oI think for us it’s always been about being unapologetically feminist and unapologetically political and that still stands. We’re deliberately brash and open about our views and we hope that we help people understand a little more or go and investigate things. But at the same time it’s like, we know we won’t gain any Tory fans! (Do we want them though!?) I think we’re able to reflect on intersectionality quite a lot and that crosses over into our writing. We might be writing about class, or abortion, or sexual abuse, but behind it all is how those things affect the lives of all different types of people – I guess that’s the message. Yes, I was a union rep (still am!) and worked full time for a trade union for a bit – I’ve never thought about how that influences my writing but it certainly affects my politics and my activism. In fact it’s part of my day to day activism. People spend so much time at work – may as well try and make it as good as possible!


Fight Rosa Fight! are playing their last ever shows next month,

Sunday 11th March - Matinee show, Smokey Joe's in Cheltenham
https://www.facebook.com/events/165944360704941/?ti=cl

Sunday 11th March - Hydra Books in Bristol

Find Fight Rosa Fight! on Facebook and look out for Cassie's new band, Worst Witch

Too Punk to be Queer – a guest blog by Siobhan Fahey

bolloxThe story of punk and the story of queer are tied so closely together.  Bollox, the UK’s biggest Queer Alt. Club night and Rebel Dykes, a film in production about punk dykes from 1980s, are coming together to celebrate the history of punk and queer at HOME in Manchester on Sunday afternoon, on February 25th called Too Punk to be Queer.

Lucy Robinson, Punk Professor from Sussex University suggests that the word Punk is from the Polari (a gay slang) and meant a young virgin homosexual.  Kath McDermott, who is on the panel discussion as part of the event, produced a brilliant BBC podcast, “Queer as Punk”.  This tells the story of how early punk took its inspiration from the queer world. The Bromley contingent, which included Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol, socialised in a lesbian bar in Soho. The Ranch on Dale Street in Manchester is often mentioned as the true home of Manchester punk.  It was beneath drag bar Foo Foo’s Palace and was connected to the Foo Foo’s by a door behind the bar.  The Ranch was host to bands like Buzzcocks, The Fall and The Distractions. Lesbian and gay bars offered a sort of security to young punks in the 70s and 80s, and punk was a subculture which was welcoming to young queers.

“Punk in its very essence is queer,” said Tali Clarke, a London-based filmmaker and creator of the Pride Punx float, which recently took part in London’s annual pride parade. “It’s no labels, open and accepting and very anti-homophobic and anti-racist. In its essence, LGBTQ culture strives to be accepted and commercialized in the mainstream consciousness. Punk rock and alternative culture wants the very opposite of that.”

At the Bollox and Rebel Dykes event,  Queen Zee & The Sasstones are giving a rare acoustic performance to welcome the audience into the Cinema.   Queen Zee describes their music as, “a hardcore band playing pop music, or maybe a pop band playing hardcore music – it’s somewhere between there. It’s essentially just a noisy, angry, very lame band”.

As part of the event, Bollox and Rebel Dykes are bringing to HOME in Manchester one of the first UK showings of a documentary film directed by Berlin-based filmmaker Yony Leyser.  “Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution” is a feature-length snapshot into the music and magazines that gave voice to LGBTQ outsiders — those who didn’t subscribe to the dominant gay scenes erupting in vogue dance or macho dress, for example.  The rejection of mainstream gay culture and the full-throttled embrace of an alternative to the fight for widespread acceptance are among the defining characteristics of a queer underground scene born in the 1980s with punk rock roots.

Leyser said that he was a freak, “I dressed different. I thought different. I was always rejected by society, and I also felt rejected by the gay community. I wanted to be an activist. I wanted to go to rock shows. I wanted to make art.”  “Queercore,” or “homocore,” was one of the gay punk movement that provided an answer.

While having grown up in Chicago nearly a decade after his documentary’s timeline starts, Leyser’s experience of social isolation mirrors that of his film’s protagonists, Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones, who in the 1980s were two twenty-somethings living in Toronto who liked rock music and embraced their queerness. But LaBruce, now a well-known filmmaker and provocateur, and Jones, one of the founders of the all-female, post-punk band Fifth Column, didn’t exactly identify with gay culture at the time, relating more to the anti-establishment call of the punk movement.

Leyser’s film is packed with archival footage and fresh interviews that educate his audience about queercore’s cultural significance. Southern California bands like Tribe 8 and Pansy Division, which would lay the groundwork to influence others like Green Day, Nirvana and Peaches, are among the groups featured in the film. These bands turned sexuality upside down, offering alternative representations to the mainstream, most noted today by transgender woman Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Against Me!.

“Rebel Dykes,” an upcoming documentary about punk lesbians in 1980s London. Siobhan Fahey, who is producing the film said, “I was a rebel dyke. I felt very excluded from mainstream society but also from the more mainstream lesbians who had, what we thought, were some problematic politics. They were very separatist and quite anti-men, and we just wanted to have a lot of fun, do drugs and have lots of sex and make music, which they seemed to disapprove of. So we created our own scene.”

Bollox and Rebel Dykes will be bringing together Kath McDermott,  and Susan O’Shea, who has written about Punk-Inspired Feminist Networks,  and Yony Leyser, to discuss the legacy and the future of queer punk music and subculture.

Love from Siobhan Fahey

Producer of documentary REBEL DYKES
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LW Politics & Music – Part 1: Ren Aldridge (Petrol Girls)

By Kris Smith

The media regularly bemoan a lack of politics in music, compared to a mythical 60s/70s/80s ‘good old days’ – only to salute as an exception the occasional gobby indie-boy band trying to kickstart their career with some token rebellious rhetoric. Meanwhile, every year there are more fiercely-politicised, intelligent and committed activists getting busy on the DIY feminist punk scene, far from the plaudits and pitfalls of the spotlight. In the first part of a new series of interviews, LOUD WOMEN meets them and asks them some of the questions that the music industry won’t.

#1 Ren Aldridge (Petrol Girls)
ren1

What made you decide to use your songwriting to express political viewpoints?

I don’t think it was a deliberate decision when I started doing it, it just made sense because music is what politicised me. Going to punk shows as a teenager introduced me to antifascist and anticapitalist politics. Then when I started Petrol Girls it was motivated by feeling like a feminist politics wasn’t really present in the scene I was part of. Turns out there was shitloads of other DIY feminist punk happening in other scenes but I didn’t find most of it until we started gigging.

Now my reasons for continuing to express politics through music are more deliberate. I see ideas like the gender binary and nationalism as being continually produced and maintained by culture so culture makes sense to me as a battleground, as a point where these dominant ideologies might be destabilised. I think words are important – so many of the (shit) ideas our lives are organised around are just stories in the end  and writing and ‘expressing’ words is something I can do.

Do you use songs as tools to put across prefigured messages – or is it more that you self-express in general through music, with politics just one aspect of that?

It’s probably a mixture. I pretty much see everything as political. Like, if you’re not challenging dominant power structures then you’re just reinforcing them. I don’t really see this neutral ground a lot of people––mostly white dudes––claim to stand on. It suggests a level playing field that frankly doesn’t exist.

Most of our songs come from a place of anger, and that tends to be political if you search for its roots. Some songs, like ‘Touch Me Again’, have literally grown from a demo chant so I guess that’s pretty prefigured! Others, and most of what we write now, grow pretty organically, and I find political aspects of a song as it takes shape, which then continue shaping it.

Is the function of politics in music to affirm views within a reciprocal social group, or convert – or at least converse with – a wider public?

I think this question is one of the reasons I’m back at uni this year. Punk can be very ‘preaching to the converted’. Political voices are necessary within it because it can be a self-congratulatory hypocritical pile of wank sometimes. There is always work to do within music. But I don’t think music is going to bring down the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy alone. It’s certainly not going to solve climate change.

‘Converting’ is an interesting word, and an idea I’m wary of. I went to a workshop at the Refugee and Migrant conference out in Hamburg a couple of winters ago on how to ‘support’ those kind of struggles as a European. One of the points that came across was how deeply a Christian missionary kind of attitude permeates a lot of charitable efforts. Maybe the idea of ‘converting’ fits in with that. We talked a lot about the difference between solidarity and charity. I think it’s more about seeing how other people’s struggles connect with our own and building bridges, than like, ‘showing someone the light’ (vomit).

There are various ways that a performer’s politics might not communicate to an audience, but you make a point of speaking between songs to reinforce the message. Did that come naturally, in terms of the confidence needed? Is it to break the ice, to break down barriers with a crowd, or to clarify – or all of those?  

Young women with strong political convictions tend to be ignored, patronised, or dismissed as a bit mental, or at least that was my experience. Suddenly once you’re holding a mic, people take you seriously (which is one of the most laughable aspects of the political music community). I felt that difference in reception, and took every chance I got to speak about the things I think are important from a position where its much harder for men to shout me down. From the stage is a pretty weird place to speak about emancipatory politics, though. I guess it’s also about keeping a present tense connection with what the songs are about. Repetition can numb things sometimes. Songs can grow and change in relevance if you keep up an active relationship to them.

The success of someone like Billy Bragg – approachably media-friendly, active in campaigns  (albeit mild, non-threatening ones) – might suggest that in terms of politics-in-music, the music can actually be of secondary importance. Is music just one aspect of what you do?

I don’t really like answering this kind of stuff because I don’t want Petrol Girls to benefit from other things that band members do politically, but then I also believe in using that platform, but not if the benefit to us outweighs the benefit to the cause – I’m not sure about it to be honest. I do think we all have the potential to use music networks in some very practical ways to support causes – using touring vans to shift donations and supplies to refugee camps, for example. In fairness, I’ve not been very active lately because of some other heavy shit I have going on at the moment, and pretty badly burn out.

Is there a pressure that comes with being known as a political musician? And is there a balance to strike between work on the one hand, and fun and self-care on the other?

OK, I have been writing myself around in circles trying to work out how honestly I want to answer this question. Firstly, I’m really lucky to have had incredible support from other women in political bands who, just, get it. And I think, because of conversations I’ve had with a few of them lately, and the pressure they’ve felt, I’d like to be pretty open about it. Most of them have even more heavy shit going on and you’d never even know. What people present on stage and the internet is never the full story. I’m becoming an increasingly private person and I don’t feel like sharing everything I go through with the internet (which is absolutely not to say that is an invalid way of dealing with stuff, it just isn’t my way). I also think I give off a very different impression of myself on stage to who I really am … but basically I’m not coping with the pressure at all, and I haven’t for a long time. I also don’t want pity – I hate feeling pitied and that’s a big reason why I’m hesitating.

ren2I was ready to give up by the end of the summer, but then we went on tour with Dream Nails and I learnt so much, just in that one week, about ways that I might actually be able to make touring as a political band sustainable. Petrol Girls are on a semi-break whilst I’m back at uni for a year and I’m determined to use that time to sort my shit out. I am grumpily coming round to the point that self-care is necessary to sustain political activism and touring in a political band. And that it isn’t––to quote Dream Nails actually––all about bubble baths. So the two things I’m working on are boundaries and resilience.

I chat with people about sexual violence and mental health after pretty much every single show and I kind of feel a bit like a garbage facility trying to process all the scene and wider society’s disgusting violent shit.

So many people are going through, or have been through, such horrendous shit. And I want to help, I really really do, but I don’t think I can help in that way anymore. I end up in these states where just replying to a message feels like more than I can bare, and I’ve lost touch with a lot of friends from being on tour so much and not having the energy to just reply. I don’t think I can have those conversations anymore. But I also don’t want to leave a hole – make people feel stuff with our music then not follow that up with some kind of support; that would feel like just capitalising on these struggles. So I’m working out what can be done there before we start touring again, what we can signpost, etc. Then resilience I guess is what I prefer to think about instead of self-care. Janey Dream Nails taught me about the four principles (lol we sound like a cult, FEMINIST PUNK IS A CULT *mad cackling*): adaptability, confidence, purpose, community. I need to build resilience because I reached a point where I felt unable to deal with any kind of criticism; completely brittle. I need to get my bounce back to be able to be meaningfully reflective and accountable, not just shattered (in every sense) when someone points out I’m doing something wrong.

So that’s what I’m working on my end, but there is stuff I’d appreciate from other people as well. I thought it was just me being oversensitive and useless but I’ve spoken to others in a similar position, and now actually I do think the expectations placed on us are unfair. I want to research this more, but from the conversations I’ve had, I see a totally disproportionate amount of emotional labour expected of women/queer/‘feminine’ people compared with men in political bands. Men get applauded for managing to not be creeps, or for the one time they called out another creep, whereas this is just expected and often demanded of feminists in bands. It’s nobodies fault and I’m not saying that applause or those demands are wrong in and of themselves, I just think its worth pointing out, because its part of a society-wide labour imbalance in terms of emotional work. But then, as I said, I do think it’s important to be held accountable, especially when claiming terms like feminist. I was actually thinking about dropping ‘feminist’ as a label because I don’t think I can live up to everyone’s expectations of what a feminist band should be. I guess what I’m asking, is for feminists in bands to be treated with a little more empathy and understanding from our community, and as humans who will make mistakes, and who are trying, in the context of a patriarchal world and music scene thats hurting us as well. I can only speak for myself, but I make the music that I need to hear, because I’m not doing too great either!

I want touring to be fun again, and I’m not going to feel guilty about wanting that anymore. I want to get myself back in a head space where I can enjoy meeting people, staying up all night talking and having mad adventures. I miss that version of myself.

Can we make any distinction between big-P and small-P politics – e.g. perhaps state Austerity cf. intersectionality – or is it inseparable, on the principle that the personal is political?

I guess even if you just consider that example, state Austerity disproportionately affects the people who experience intersecting forms of oppression so, ultimately, no. But, something I am scared of, but trying to, write about is an idea of looking both ways. I think identity politics are hugely important. I don’t think they are everything, especially for someone like me who only really experiences oppression as a woman, and privilege in every other aspect of my life. I find the way the term intersectionality is used sometimes defensive and inward looking to the point of not seeing past ourselves as individuals. I think intersectionality is vital, as a way of positioning ourselves within wider struggles, and understanding other’s positions; appreciating why some people react with more emotion to a political conversation because they are actually living what to you might be more of an abstract concept. But yeah, to answer your question, no, everything is so interconnected.

What are the primary political issues we face, now, in the UK and globally?

The primary battle that a lot of us are facing is just surviving, and sometimes holding to account the (mostly) men that have assaulted and/or abused us and/or our friends. I am livid about the amount of energy and life this has taken from me personally over the past ren2few years, and I wrote about that at the end of my chapter for Nasty Women, which is a brilliant collection of essay’s by women on their experiences of being a woman in the 21st century. Reading all the varied contributions in that book can give some insight into the immediate issues that women* have to navigate in their daily lives, which for many, intersect with other forms of oppression like racism.

Personally I would like to put more energy into migrant solidarity work and fighting this terrifying rise in fascism on both a street and governmental level. For example, the Austrian interior minister just openly spoke about wanting to ‘concentrate’ refugees in camps. I think this just makes plain what has been happening for a while. What scares me most is how little people seem to care, but as I just said, many people do, they just have so much of their own shit to cope with first.

And then beyond all of it, the fucking planet’s dying because of humans, specifically because of industrialised nations, particularly the west. Ultimately to me its clear that the entire way Western society is structured is not sustainable for the planet or for the majority of individual human lives, even those of us that mostly benefit from it, which I see as one of the reasons literally everyone I know has some kind of mental health issue. Capitalism is the root of so many of these problems, putting the creation of profit over the immeasurable value of living things. (Like, what the fuck is fracking?!) At the risk of sounding like a massive hippy/Jedi, I think we need to find balance again, and that isn’t a fixed position, that’s a way of being that responds meaningfully to the people, animals and environment around us. And no, of course I have no idea how to do that.

I think we need to move through pity to empathy, through charity to real solidarity and stay flexible and nuanced. I also think that, basically, whatever the fuck masculinity is under capitalism, is most of the problem.


 

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