Alternatives to Alternatives: the Black Grrrls Riot Ignored
Nineties nostalgia has transformed the Riot Grrrl movement from the alternative underground to a mainstream obsession. But just like before, black women are being left out.
Image by Alex Cook
NYU's Riot Grrrl Collection, curated by Lisa Darms, is impressive by almost every measure. Spanning from 1989 to 1996, the archive contains diaryesque zines, documents, and ephemera from the movement, chronicling a huge part of history written by women--girls--that you can sort with your hands. Combing through carefully scanned pages of zines that were passed from teenage girl to teenage girl, documenting their lives as they lived them, feels like reading letters from long lost best friends. Every duh and sk8 brings on a thick wave of nostalgia. But the archive is also notable for a less inspiring reason: Amongst the hundreds of documents is only one issue of one zine that tells the story of one black riot grrrl. There are other zines, like Chop Suey Specs or Bamboo Girl, that critique Riot Grrrl from the perspective of Asian American girls within the scene, but it was striking to search through the listings and find only one zine by one black girl, Ramdasha Bikceem. Riot Grrrl's Black Friend. Put in that position so often, I knew I had to find her.
Bikceem was introduced to Riot Grrrl after an older friend of hers moved from Bikceem's home in New Jersey to Olympia, Washington; the friend became roommates with the soon-to-be drummer of Bikini Kill, Tobi Vail, and started mailing zines to Bikceem back east. Living in the New Jersey suburbs, Bikceem was already into punk (the members of the Bouncing Souls went to her school), and she couldn't help but identify with these missives from the West Coast. "I was into punk music and I wanted to start a band and they were doing all the things I wanted to do," she said over the phone. "They started to write me letters and then it just evolved into pen pal friendships with people." Soon after reading zines like Girl Germ and Bikini Kill from her pen pals, she started a zine of her own when she was 15. Initially "just pictures of [her] friends and song lyrics," GUNK was born.
When our preoccupation with 90s nostalgia aligned with the development of NYU's Riot Grrrl Collection, a subsequent book of the same name, and a Kathleen Hanna biopic, the most tangible result was the revitalization of the Riot Grrrl movement's visibility in the press. As it's remembered, Riot Grrrl--born out a frustration with a society and a music scene that reinforced the idea that, as the "Riot Grrrl Manifesto" says, "Girl=Dumb, Girl=Bad, Girl=Weak"--was the culmination of DIY punk culture and third-wave feminism in the early part of the decade. The myth of Riot Grrrl is often told through first-person accounts from its foremothers (most notably that charismatic Bikini Kill frontwoman) who have to be up for the challenge of defining a fragmentary movement that didn't really exist in one time or place. But for all the struggling to distill what Riot Grrrl was and remains in the past and present, there's one thing that can be agreed on: Somewhere among the grafs remembering "revolution grrrl now!" the history of Riot Grrrl is inevitably written as "predominately white," glossing over the contributions of black women and other women of color.
The typical Riot Grrrl, as outlined in an infamous 1992 Newsweek article that defined the movement for the mainstream, was 'young, white, suburban and middle class.'
The typical Riot Grrrl, as outlined in an infamous 1992 Newsweek article that defined the movement for the mainstream, was "young, white, suburban and middle class," and in her intro to The Riot Grrrl Collection, Le Tigre's Johanna Fateman confirms this descriptor. It wasn't all white she explains, but "how could girls--drawn from punk's predominantly white demographic, who relied on that scene's resources and aesthetics--forge a truly inclusive, revolutionary agenda?"
In contrast to this ironclad narrative of the white Riot Grrrl, black women did participate in the movement. Few and far between, maybe, but they participated nonetheless, and they deserve more than to be swept under a rug of whiteness. What's more, despite Fateman's apologetic assertions that punk and the punk aesthetic are white culture, there were black women who imbibed with the spirit of punk in their bones outside the Riot Grrrl movement as well. These women carved their own feminist pathways into the hardcore scene, precisely because they were rendered invisible by the Riot Grrrl movement.
Multiple essays in GUNK attempt to articulate the double burden of being a black girl who has to deal with the white girls in the scene on top of being a girl who has to deal with the white boys who dominated the mosh pits at punk shows. Talking to Bikceem, I felt her frustration at having to be the Black One, both in dealing with racism at the time and in retrospect. At one point during our conversation, she sighed and said, "I just hesitate to talk about Riot Grrrl like this because I become a footnote all the time, for reference." But Bikceem and GUNK are more than an obligatory example of "diversity in Riot Grrrl." In her zine Bikceem illustrates the intersection of race and gender in Riot Grrrl so perfectly, as only an angsty teen girl could. An essay titled "I'm Laughing So Hard It Doesn't Look Like I'm Laughing Anymore" in GUNK #4 distills the politics of being a black grrrl, often only seen as a skin tone:
White kids in general, regardless if they are punk or not, can get away with having green Mohawks and pierced lips 'cause no matter how much they deviated from the norms of society their whiteness always shows through. For instance, I'll go out somewhere with my friends who all look equally as weird as me, but say we get hassled by the cops for skating or something. That cop is going to remember my face a lot clearer than say one of my white girlfriends. I can just hear him now... 'Yeah there was this black girl w/pink [sic] hair and two other girls.'
In a later passage, a journal of her experience at the first Riot Grrrl convention in D.C., Bikceem again notes this lack of awareness of intersectionality within the scene:
They had a workshop on racism and I heard it wasn't too effective, but really how could it have been if it was filled up with mostly all white girls. One girl I spoke to after the meetings said the Asian girls were blaming all the white girls for racism and that she 'just couldn't handle that.' Ever heard of the word Guilt???... The overall experience of the Riot Grrrl convention showed me a lot of different things and I'm sorry to say most of them were not very good ones... Don't get me wrong I am totally for revolution grrrl now... but maybe it shouldn't just be limited to white, middle-class, punk rock grrrls 'cuz there's no denyin' [sic] that's what it is.
It was disheartening to see how few of the stories in the annals of the Riot Grrrl Collection were by black women. The archive importantly preserves an alternative history of secret notes and public zines shared among girls--a narrative that never would have come from the perspective of power. But as I was looking at the history of Riot Grrrl in front of me I was left wondering: Where was the alternative to the alternative?
In the late 90s, hardcore musician Tamar-kali Brown was surveying the punk scene and wondering the same thing. Eventually she would found Sista Grrrl Riots, a string of one-night blowouts for and by black women who fronted bands or rocked solo. It was one black woman's alternative to both the male-dominated punk scene and the white-dominated Riot Grrrl.
Tamar-kali Brown, or just Tamar-kali, as she's been known throughout her decades-long career as a musician, has a Labret piercing and a shoulder's worth of tattoos; for now, she wears her hair in long braids wrapped up in a scarf. According to her scandalously sparse Wikipedia page, she borrowed the hyphenated part of her name from the Hindu goddess of war and power. Needless to say, she's very cool. So cool, in fact, that in 2006 she was chosen as the face of Afro-Punk, a documentary on contemporary black musicians in the punk scene. But back in 1997, New York's black punk and hardcore scene existed in a bubble, without a film, a festival, or a lifestyle blog to bring together the disparate group of musicians that took part in "the other black experience." Being a black woman in the scene was even more isolating. "I had been in the scene feeling like an island, dealing with all these boys and their penises," Brown said. "Not personally, but just they way they insert them into life and into the air and the space around you."
Somewhere among the grafs remembering 'revolution grrrl now!' the history of Riot Grrrl is inevitably written as 'predominately white.'
A self-proclaimed "tough girl," Brown had always had to deal with boys and their penises. For Brown--a black girl going to school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, during a time when a 25-year-old black man named Yusef Hawkins was attacked and killed by a mob of up to 40 white kids while walking through the neighborhood--becoming a "tough girl" wasn't so much of a choice. The crime was so close to home that the sister of Hawkins's killer attended Brown's school. Brown became the "tough girl" to prove that she could both hang with the boys and defend herself from them. From there, her taste in music mingled with her attitude. Brown had loved rock music from the moment she stole her dad's Bad Company T-shirt, but her musical leanings became progressively harder in high school. She shaved her head bald, claimed straightedge, and was careful not portray herself as "fuckable." Tough girls don't get fucked--they fuck shit up.
Brown went off to college in 1991. That same year, inklings of Riot Grrrl were cropping up in New York, Olympia, and Washington, D.C., but Brown could only find herself unimpressed with the movement. "I was aligned philosophically in terms of understanding, but I still felt on the out because it was a white-dominate scene," she said.
"Being in this urban jungle, I was a different type of girl," she continued. "I was hearing what they were saying, but I was living in an environment where people were getting stabbed. Riot Grrrl felt like a bubblegum expression. I was bald, and I would get a lot of negative attention that bordered on violence, so I wasn't in the world of [baby voice] 'You just think I can't play because I'm a girl!'
"I was just like, 'I have to survive. I have to defend myself.' Riot Grrrl felt really playful, and I wasn't playing," Brown said, again underscoring the friction between being forced to identify as black before being allowed to identify as a woman.
Where Bikceem, perhaps unknowingly, attempted to transform Riot Grrrl's discourse on race from within, Brown was unconcerned with what these white girls were doing. If it's any indication of what type of punk rock girl Brown was, if not a playful one, her favorite zine was Hothead Paisan: Adventures of a Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist.
Brown spent most of the 90s in New York identifying with the boys who were informed by black, alt-rock acts like Fishbone; she was hardly aware of any women like her in the punk scene. She was, indeed, an island, and she was about to become even more so as she thought about quitting the (almost) all-male band she fronted, Song of Seven. When she tried to break from the band, she noticed that "all those kids that dug what we were doing didn't have interest in a woman as a solo artist, whereas if one of the guys [went solo] they could probably pull the same people." With a new chip on her shoulder, it was then that she met one of the first black female musicians she could identify with, Honeychild Coleman.
Riot Grrrl felt really playful, and I wasn't playing.
Coleman grew up as one of the few black girls in her suburban high school in Kentucky--the only black girl amongst her punk outcast friends who listened to Blondie and The Clash-and she had ideas of New York as being full of artists, punks, and weirdos like her after seeing the film The Smithereens. "I just knew that I had to move to New York and find other artists like me," Coleman told me over coffee. "I knew I couldn't be the only one. I was tired of being the only one."
When I sat down to meet her, Coleman was wearing a Blondie shirt and colorful leggings that covered up the Cat in the Hat tattoo on her leg, which anyone who knows her uses as a descriptor. Across the table, I imagined her to be an enlarged version of her as high school student in the mid-80s, sans the Nona Hendrix hair, or even a version of my high school self. A fellow expat of white suburbia, I knew what she meant--what it felt like to always think that your people were nebulously "out there."
For Coleman, they were. After a stint in art school and then following a boyfriend to California, as one does, she moved to New York City to start her music career in the mid-90s. Describing herself (accurately) as musically somewhere between "PJ Harvey and Björk," she started playing in the subway and dabbling as a DJ. "I was always doing it on my own," said Coleman, "but I didn't know where to go. I didn't have a scene because I wasn't a part of the music scene before and I didn't know how to get in." Like Brown, she was an island.
Unable to find any women doing what she wanted to do, she quickly fell in with a crew of boys, most notably DJ Olive, the maestro of Brooklyn's illbient scene who would later collaborate with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. Then, fortuitously, Coleman's roommate brought Brown home for dinner. Upon meeting and finding out that they were both hustling punk musicians, Brown and Coleman were shocked that they had never met before, knowing so many men in bands in common. The two islands in a sea of penises had finally found each other. They quickly became inseparable, often skateboarding around Brooklyn together.
Fate seemed to snowball. The women that Brown had been searching for kept materializing now that she was looking. Soon after meeting Coleman, Brown met Maya Glick, who played "more traditional rock 'n' roll
To hear Brown describe first meeting Glick in the audience of one of her shows is like someone describing finding religion--or just another black woman that they could finally relate to. "A good friend of mine had started playing with this sister named Maya," Brown said. "I remember when I went to go see her, she did a Betty Davis cover. I almost lost my mind because I found out about Betty Davis when I was 19, and this was before she became a thing. When Maya did 'I. Miller Shoes' I ran up to the stage and I started banging on the stage and I totally freaked her out. I was losing it. I was just like, 'Oh my god, she's so awesome.'"
From there, Brown knew that Honeychild Coleman and Maya Glick had to meet, so she arranged for them both to come to one of Brown's shows. "But when I get there to load in my stuff for the show, there's this beautiful girl on stage with a violin playing this haunting song and I'm just transfixed by her. I thought she was an angel. Then she put the violin down and starts playing the guitar! Meanwhile, Honeychild's at the bar, and she's just like, 'That's my friend Simi [Stone].' I'm like 'YOU KNOW HER?'
"After that show we were kicking it and just like, what the fuck," Brown continued. "We need to start doing shows together on some sista girl shit."
So they did. On Friday, February 14, 1997, Tamar-kali Brown, Maya Glick, Simi Stone, and Honeychild Coleman threw a fucking riot. For the first time, the four women and their respective bands would put on a night of performances--a Sista Grrrl Riot. Since a riot needs rioters, the four of them excitedly staged a photo shoot and printed an official flyer announcing the bacchanalia, according to Brown. "The first one was crazy," Brown said of the flyer. "It was a lipstick heart with our silhouettes in it, like Charlie's Angels, and we had weapons. I brought my father's machetes and BB guns for our shoot." But unlike the flyer's silhouetted BB guns and machetes would suggest, the riot's real ammunitions were electric violins, bass guitars, and the raging voices of women who were lifelong punk outsiders. On this momentous night at Brownies, a now-defunct rock club on Avenue A, these four women had found their place, playing to a packed crowd who could finally see versions of themselves onstage.
If you bore passing witness to this night, you might have casually referred to Brown, Glick, Stone, and Coleman as Riot Grrrls, if you didn't know any better. They were girls. They were angry. They were tired of playing shitty gigs and taking a backseat to the boys. But these women would scoff at the thought of designating themselves "Riot Grrrls," or just plain correct you. "You had Riot Grrrl," Brown explained, "and this was a Sista Grrrl's Riot." That distinction was crucial.
when I sat down to talk with the co-president of the Black Rock Coalition, LaRonda Davis, she reiterated the importance of sheer visibility, not just for black women in punk music, but for black women, period. "I never looked at a magazine and thought that that was what I was supposed to look like," Davis said. "On one hand, it's actually kind of liberating to not be what this standard of womanhood is. That standard put a lot of women in boxes, and they spend their li[ves] trying to get out of the box. Black women were never allowed in the box. I wasn't looking at TV saying, 'Oh, that represents me.' I wasn't listening to music telling about my experience. I had experiences that told me I wasn't concerned with these things that the happy songs were about."
On one hand, it's actually kind of liberating to not be what this standard of womanhood is, Davis said. That standard put a lot of women in boxes. Black women were never allowed in the box.
The Riot Grrrl box may have been decidedly off-limits in the eyes of Brown and other black women who couldn't see themselves in the movement, but as Davis points out, these women shirked boxes, created their own wave, and reclaimed rock for black women. After all, rock music is black music. While the Sista Grrrls didn't see themselves in Riot Grrrl or in the men they had been playing with in bands, they saw themselves in each other. "I got what Riot Grrrl was about. I didn't think it was exclusive, but it didn't feel inclusive to me," said Brown. "I didn't see myself or my story, and so that's why Sista Grrrl came about later on--out of other women of color that I knew who were punk rock and navigated that scene and had similar feelings about it. Sista Grrrl was my response to Riot Grrrl because it just felt super white."
After that first riot in 1997, Brown, Coleman, Stone, and Glick and their bevy of bands threw riots every couple of months, bringing out other female musicians as openers, making it one big grrrl party, inclusive of all women of color who needed a stage. The Slits's Ari Up even opened one of the riots as a Sista Grrrl ally.
Brown attributes the rapt attendance at the riots to the fact that her "breasts used to fly out all the time"--unfortunately, Brown notes, some men were only there for the spectacle--but Coleman isn't so glib about the impact the Sista Grrrl Riots had. "The thing that was really kind of heartbreaking and awesome was that none of us had ever played to so many black people in one room in our lives until we threw that first riot," said Coleman. That night, they could just play music, for once. As women, as black women, and, most of all, as unapologetic punk rock musicians. "Wow," Coleman remembered thinking as she stared out into the crowd, "This is a whole different game."