Noise From Underground
The nation's capital has been an unlikely hub of underground political and cultural activity since its Revolution Summer in 1985, when members of Beefeater and others in the music community staged "Punk Percussion Protests" in front of the South African Embassy. That year a group of local independent music fans and musicians founded a nonprofit organization, Positive Force, to pursue their political goals. Through Positive Force, Fugazi has donated the proceeds from every live performance in DC since 1989--more than $100,000--to grassroots groups ranging from the Community for Creative Nonviolence Homeless Shelter to Washington Inner City Self-Help, a low-income people's organization, to the Tenants and Workers Support Group of Alexandria, Virginia. At the same time, the band maintains a strict policy of low ticket prices--never more than $6, even at benefit concerts--when it could charge what other bands of similar stature do, up to $20 per ticket. "Established fundraisers scratch their heads and think what we're doing is dumb. We could raise so much more money, [but] the low door price is an important part of the band," explains singer/guitarist Ian MacKaye. "If $1,000 is collected at the door, every single dollar goes straight to a group that will use that money directly toward a grassroots operation. It doesn't go through some fundraising organization; there aren't people taking cuts along the way."
These days, much of the energy at Positive Force is channeled into the development of the Arthur S. Flemming Center, which will be owned and operated by DC's Emmaus Services for the Aging. The Flemming Center will house a variety of nonprofit activist and direct-service groups, with special emphasis on local music and art and service to the surrounding low-income community. Also, this past summer Positive Force hosted one of four benefits across the country for Voices in the Wilderness, the humanitarian renegade operation challenging the economic strangulation of Iraqi citizens by the US embargo. Sparked by a feature in the fanzine Punk Planet detailing the activities of the organization, underground activists in DC, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle staged events that funded a fact-finding delegation of Congressional aides to Iraq in late August, despite State Department objections and a US travel ban.
The San Francisco Bay Area has similarly been a hotbed of punk activism since the early eighties. As the singer for punk legends the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra was dragged through court by the Parents Music Resource Center and lambasted by its talking head, Tipper Gore, for "distribution of harmful matter to minors" after the band released an album with artwork that included a reproduction of a painting by Swiss Surrealist H.R. Giger depicting several rows of copulating male genitalia. Biafra traveled the country raising awareness and money for his First Amendment defense, while underscoring his view that punk rock was a movement of constructive idealism, not of the sullen apathy that the mainstream media have attributed to Generation X. In addition to producing music, Biafra's independent record label, Alternative Tentacles, focuses on spoken-word recordings, including albums featuring lectures by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The mobilization to save the life of Abu-Jamal has been one of the few grassroots movements to unite punks with other artists and activists on a broad scale. On September 11, Mumia 911--an ad hoc group based in New York--orchestrated more than 100 artist-driven events and actions nationwide for a "national day of art of stop the execution." New York hardcore bands Ricanstruction and Huasipungo hit a Lower East Side nightclub with the same message of resistance that Angela Davis and hip-hop artist Michael Franti propounded in San Francisco's Dolores Park. Maximizing the visceral power and popular appeal of music, theater, spoken word, dance and visual art, Mumia 911 successfully laid the foundation for what the organizers hope will become a sustained movement to "transform the climate of cruelty" that infects American politics.
Resistance is everywhere, it always has been and always will be.... Being told you are a worthless piece of shit and not believing it is a form of resistance. One girl calling another girl to warn her about a guy who date raped her is another. And while she may look like a big haired makeup girl who goes out with jocks, she is a soldier along with every other girl, and even though she may not be fighting in the same loud way that some of us can (and do), it is the fact that she is resisting that connects us.
--Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill, CD liner notes
Though women made inroads toward punk prominence in the early hardcore years, it was not until the nineties that the Riot Grrrl movement--championed by some members of the now-defunct Bikini Kill and their peers--ushered Third Wave feminism to the forefront of the punk political agenda. Bikini Kill, whose albums were released by the independent label Kill Rock Stars, based in Olympia, Washington, wrote jarring, confrontational songs that defied the silence surrounding violence against women. Kathleen Hanna, the band's lead singer, found herself counseling young women at concerts who turned to her with their stories of sexual abuse. Hanna helped organize some of the many benefit concerts that Bikini Kill played and, along with several other women, initiated "Girl Talk," a teenage sexual assault support group run out of Olympia's Safe Place Domestic Violence Shelter. After moving to DC, Hanna continued her outreach at such venues as Blair High School in Maryland, where she spoke to student assemblies about rape and the services available to women who have been abused. The response from girls at the public school was overwhelming, and school administrators cleared out the nurse's office to bring Hanna back for private sessions with students.
If I love a man, what is it to you?
If my people, my friends, have turned their backs on me, I know why.
But understand one thing: I want to be free, instead of living a lie.
-- Los Crudos, "A Los Inseguros" (To the Insecure)
(lyrics translated from the Spanish)
Ideological rifts led to the collapse of the Riot Grrrl movement, but punk feminism remains alive and kicking, and has facilitated the increasing visibility of gay men and lesbians in punk rock through independent bands like Los Crudos, Tribe 8, Pansy Division and The Butchies. Though the band recently dissolved, Los Crudos spent most of the nineties fueling the Latino corner of the punk scene with hardcore songs in Spanish--released on its own label, Lengua Armada--addressing issues ranging from homophobia to California's anti-immigrant ballot propositions. "One of the main reasons for singing in Spanish was to communicate directly with kids in our neighborhood," says the band's Uruguayan singer, Martín Sorrondeguy. Los Crudos worked closely in Pilsen--its Latino neighborhood in Chicago--with community organizations like Project Vida, an AIDS prevention program, and Project Hablo, a support group for Latina victims of domestic violence. Hardcore music played only a small role in the neighborhood events that the band helped to plan. "Punk is important to us, but community is even more important. When we're writing songs with angry lyrics, what's the point if we're not going to extend our hands to try to work with other people?" asks Sorrondeguy. "Punk music has to cross borders; we're all too familiar with borders."