At least once a year I’m asked by a high school or college student or by the people that teach them to reminisce or answer questions about riot grrrl. But this year is different. Last year Pussy Riot brought riot grrrl back into the news as hipsters and journalists alike searched for adjectives of historical relevance. Now the Kathleen Hanna documentary is sparking riot grrrl reunions and conversations. Spring 2013 has brought abundant blossoms of “riot grrrl” in the Google newsfeed, most often used as an adjective to describe new bands and even six hundred dollar leather jackets. I recall buying our clothes by the pound at thrift stores. Team Dresch had the best band merch because they’d buy a tour’s worth of thrift store clothes and silkscreen their name on them creating unique keepsakes instead of interchangeable mass produced logo wear. I don’t remember any leather jackets. Cow murder was frowned upon for food or fashion, amongst the riot grrrls I knew.
We’ve had several riot grrrl documentaries so far, and several books, all precious documentation of a movement that deserves to be exhaustively archived as a rare explosion of female art and politics in a genuine subculture. Because the most popular bands and scenes continue to receive the most attention a riot grrrl stereotype has formed: white, collegiate, and probably gay.
Happily, Angie Young, director of The Coat Hanger Project, and first time director and riot grrrl veteran Vega Darling have been filming interviews for their documentary Riot Grrrl: The Self Told Narrative, which focuses on previously neglected scenes like Los Angeles and Atlanta. In Los Angeles white girls were the minority. The best place to see riot grrrl shows was at Macondo Cultural Center in East L.A. Orange County riot grrrl promoted matinee shows at the original Koo’s Cafe in Santa Ana with the local peace punks, Food Not Bombs, and the Black Panthers, no less. In Atlanta riot grrrl had a thoroughly pagan flavor with witchy pentagrams decorating the fliers of bands like Pagan Holiday.
The Revolution Rising zine collective in Los Angeles were a real revolution in my life. Their zines, like Meathook and Housewife Turned Assassin, two of my favorite titles, contained writing that was a revelation, and the realization that I wasn’t alone. A quote surrounded by heart and kitten stickers could shine like a bright spotlight on some dark corner in your life. Revolution Rising were former members of L.A’s first riot grrrl chapter who had gone off to start a collective that would focus on issues of race, art and writing, and they wanted to include males. They were Equalists, inclusive not exclusive. I loved their art shows; blank walls filled by anyone who cared to share their creations.
Revolution Rising fundraisers always had the coolest bands: TummyAche, Crown for Athena, Heavens to Betsy. Founding member Tye would sit in a corner reading the tarot for free. Tye was my Benjamin Franklin. She taught me to say genderism, instead of sexism, because sexism isn’t sexy. Because of her I notice whenever I or anybody else addresses a group that includes women as “you guys.” She’d do it, too, and we’d all end up laughing. I learned to call myself not a feminist, but an equalist. Tye’s fellow Revolution Rising founders Sisi, Danielle, and Debbie L. were the most articulate, determined, creative women I had ever met. I was so thrilled when they asked me to join Revolution Rising, and never felt worthy even when they treated me as an equal. They stage mothered me into my first show, booking my band to play a fundraiser before we had a name, drummer, or songs. Soon I was doing my own zines (TVi, Eracism, Light and Shadow) and trading them with zine writers all over the world. All the ladies at the post office knew me by name.
Revolution Rising and riot grrrl changed my life, gave me back my voice, and gave me the courage to express myself (and to glitter sticker everything in my vicinity including my guitar). Riot grrrl has changed thousands of lives, mostly but not exclusively females. I would never have written songs, played guitar or bass, started a band, toured, become an editor for an award winning online journal of progressive politics, studied martial arts, or produced documentaries if it hadn’t been for riot grrrl. Before riot grrrl I didn’t believe in myself or my gender. I found my self-esteem in being what people wanted me to be. Family, friends, and schools had all convinced me my nick name was “shut up”. I had been threatened, attacked, even nearly murdered so by the time I was in high school I didn’t have ambitions; I was working on my survival skills.
The inspiring example of so many women and girls, and supportive males, putting on shows, starting bands, running clubs, and record labels, organizing collectives, raising money and finding supplies for homeless and abuse shelters made us feel like we could do anything. My band’s third show was opening for riot grrrl icons Bikini Kill. Almost a thousand kids were there with zero corporate involvement. No mafia clubs. Nothing but fans and bands. Kathleen Hanna herself frisked the ticket buyers as they entered.
At the time I thought these were the first sparks of a prairie fire of cultural evolution that was going to sweep across the world. It seemed like girls were forming bands in every high school and college in America and the UK. But actually I had arrived late to the party; riot grrrl was already in decline. The media was saying the movement was no more. At least the LA Times had the guts to publish my letter pointing out that we were playing seven riot grrrl conventions the summer after they had pronounced it dead.
The conventions were amazing, transformative events. At rape survival workshops just seeing hundreds of young women weeping as they told their horrific stories was profoundly healing, as we realized that our battle for civil rights was far from over. We learned from each other how to play musical instruments, how to sneak free copies at Kinko’s for our zines (scoop straws), we met fellow writers, and distributors, discovered music and art, bands were formed, silk screens bartered and traded.
But the conventions weren’t all revelations and humble thank yous. Mean spirited gossip and back stabbing between fans, bands and show promoters disillusioned many an idealist. My own band once experienced a good old-fashioned shunning based on a rumor that turned out to be a lie. I guess it’s inevitable when you get a bunch of abuse survivors together, and many of them untreated, all hell will break loose as they begin acting out on each other. Whatever happened, it didn’t take long for the whole thing to rip apart. Bands broke up. Radical zines were replaced by benign blogs. Indie distributors closed up shop. The all ages scene across the US disappeared. Clubs like Jabberjaw and Impala in L.A. and The Small Intestine in Baltimore from which bands like Fugazi, Rage Against the Machine and Hole had sprung, were all closed down by local city councils and fire departments who accomplished what the nazi punks who used to attack riot grrrl shows in Los Angeles never could.
One of my colleagues, an otherwise relatively enlightened chap, when chagrined by my sportive angry sense of humor and general pushiness with my opinion, informed me that riot grrrl had died twenty years ago. I was to stop acting like a riot grrrl. Except that I don’t act like anybody but me, thanks to riot grrrl. And riot grrrl didn’t really end, it just went seedy and then had another bloom. OG riot grrrls, OGRG, are now college professors, schoolteachers, published authors, magazine editors, lawyers, filmmakers, professional artists, and yes, many are moms, including gay moms. Whenever I run into another OGRG I imagine that must be what being in the Hell’s Angels is like. It takes three hours just to catch up on news. We all still consider ourselves riot grrrls, even though one of us wrote a thesis about the use of “girl” to minimize women.
New riot grrrls pop up every day. Today chapters exist in London, Berlin, Los Angeles, Adelaide, Hamburg, Paraguay, Birmingham, Vienna, Paris, NYC, Brazil, San Francisco, Limerick, Bielefeld, Wurzburg, and Windsor, Ontario, to name a few; some cool riot grrrl zines come from Tokyo. Tumblr has become a zine unto itself for many new grrrls. Riot grrrl influenced bands are flourishing from Grim Dylan in the U.K, to The Savages, Husbands N Knives, Lisbon’s Anarchicks, and Berlin’s The Jezebels. Check out the long list of bands on Cats Against Catcalling! the new riot grrrl compilation from riot grrrl berlin, their sixth riot grrrl compilation so far. You can download the earlier compilations for free at riot grrrl berlin’s tumblr. My favorite is #5: Mansplaining on the Dancefloor.
Willie Mae Rock Camp, supported by former riot grrrls, has taught many girls how to play instruments and write songs. Riot grrrl lives on in bands and Ladyfests all around the world. Every continent and many countries have now hosted their own modest riot grrrl or riot grrrl inspired events. That doesn’t surprise me, because the injustices that inspired riot grrrl are still with us.
I usually do interviews for Newtopia and Reality Sandwich. I have one in progress with Marianne Williamson. She’s an amazing woman, and very busy. I haven’t heard from her for a couple days. Whenever that happens, with Buddy Roemer or any of my interviews, I always wonder: “Oh shit, did they google me?” That’s part of being a riot grrrl, too. Yet for such fitful exhibitionists we didn’t document ourselves very well. Any old neighborhood garage band has more pictures, fliers, and other memorabilia than your average riot grrrl collective. For all our work on self-awareness we don’t seem to have held our creations in very high esteem. Perhaps their disposability was part of the attraction, another rejection of patriarchal standards.
Courtney Love once warned me that riot grrrl would chew me up, spit me out and leave me bitter. She was right about the chewing up and spitting out, but she was wrong about the bitter. I’m proud of what we accomplished. I’m grateful that I had the chance to change my life, that a whole scene existed that was devoted to liberation, and that I got to see with my own eyes the realization of a culture that I had always been told was impossible. I think of it as a glimpse at a magnificent future. Someday I hope we’ll experience a real female renaissance in the arts, the celebration of our gender when we truly achieve liberation, will light up all humanity. Meanwhile, riot grrrl is here to stay.
If you were a solitary riot grrrl or a member of the collective and you’d like to participate in Riot Grrrl: The Self Told Narrative please contact the directors of the documentary here.
Newtopia staff writer TAMRA SPIVEY is a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War and Exile Nation, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. She was art editor and west coast editor of Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation, collaborating on in depth interviews with whistle blower Michael Ruppert, ACLU and record business honcho Danny Goldberg, and grassroots political strategist Larry Tramutola. Follow her on twitter @MongrelPatriot.