interview: downtown boys get real about intersectionality and punk rock #soundcheck
By Sound Check
August 5, 2016
Downtown Boys are responsible for one of the most essential punk rock albums in recent history. 2015’s Full Communism is uncompromising, outspoken, and somehow still a lot of fun. With songs like “Wave of History,” “Tall Boys,” and “Monstro,” the Rhode Island-based band has defined themselves by taking on white supremacy, sexism, xenophobia, and queerphobia both inside the punk scene and out. In anticipation of what is guaranteed to be an unforgettable performance at AFROPUNK BROOKLYN 2016, we got a chance to speak with singer Victoria Ruiz and drummer Norlan Olivio about the intersections of race and politics in music.
By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK contributor
You’re in these spaces that view themselves as radical or at the very least progressive, but are in reality pretty traditionally straight white male macho spaces. Have you had situations where like tall boys come up to you and be like “oh I didn’t realize I was being a macho asshole?”
It’s definitely been mixed. We’ve had people come up to us and be like “oh my god that song describes someone that I know” or “it describes the way that people treat me.” And people are really supportive of it. But we actually don’t play it anymore because we’ve had literal tall boys come up to us and be like “we are you hating? Why do you gotta judge tall men?” And took it really literally. And it’s kind of ridiculous because it’s not about actual height, it’s about how you’re using your dominant power and privilege. I remember when Pitchfork was reviewing the album, they asked us the night before “how tall is Victoria” because I think they wanted to comment on that song, so I wrote back and said “I’m 10 feet tall” just to not even go there, because it’s not about that. So it’s definitely a mix of people being really down and other people being threatened, because they know that we’re talking about power and it makes them feel uncomfortable.
Do you feel like the punk scene in general is receptive to that sort of self-criticism? I definitely feel like there’s a tendency in the scene to have a very reactionary response any time criticism is leveled at them that’s deeper than “oh that band sold out.”
I think that people who are in the scene for the wrong reasons are the ones who are the most unreceptive to being criticized or trying to move the conversation forward. It’s just like any scene, there are people who get it and want to see the scene progress and don’t necessarily agree with this 1980’s punk ideal of a scene where people are macho and pushing each other around. There’s people that are stuck in that nostalgia of what punk once was or whatever that means. It’s like you see Bernie Sanders and you see Trump; the scary thing or the interesting thing about those candidates in regards to certain rhetoric in punk communities, there are a lot of people who actually agree with you but they’re so afraid to speak up in these communities where they shut down anyone trying to say “well maybe we shouldn’t beat the shit out of each other” or “maybe we should make more space in the front” or whatever it may be. There are a lot of people who agree with that rhetoric, but there are a lot of people who agree with Trump’s rhetoric and who also feel like “no we don’t want to do this,” “we want things to stay the same,” “we want things to be this way or that way “or “that’s bullshit.” It’s always surprising when you try to critique a community or try to build a community and try to fix things.
You guys have a good balance I feel like of critiquing the scene versus the larger the culture. In which ways do you see the scene mirroring the larger culture and which ways do you see the scene combating it?
I was just talking about this last night, that I think we know that any time you bring a group of people into a room, there’s gonna be the same power dynamics that are happening outside of that room. And by no means do we have an expectation for it not to be. And personally I would rather play to a cross section of what reality is than some hyper-curated group. There have been moments where, because we’re are a traveling band—which not all bands are—we’ve traveled the country a couple of times. You play so many cities, and you see one or two cities like McAllen, Texas or Oakland, California where you’re playing and actually looking at people who look like you, and it’s so rare. Even in New York, people of color fight to come out to our shows, and fight for the front, but New York is so big and it’s also so gentrified. So the few shows where you see people who look like you, it’s so incredible, and you’re like this is reality for a lot of people. But ultimately, we know that that’s not how it is in a lot of the scenes that we’re playing in, and a lot of the cities that we’re in. So it’s an amazing thing when you’re playing to 200 black and brown people, but by no means is that an expectation, because we know that’s not a reality of the DIY scene. So we absolutely try to confront the same power dynamics that are happening outside of the show inside of the show.
In both scenarios, the most important thing is being in a room with people who look like you, and identify with similar things as you, and embrace that space. But there’s also value in going to a place like Alabama and playing in a room full of a bunch of white people who might not align with the same things as you, because it’s inherently political and it’s inherently confrontational to be in that space and take up space and talk about these issues. There’s a lot of value in both like Victoria was saying.
How do you find responses in places like Alabama where you’re calling for Communism and they’re calling for the most extreme version of capitalism, what’s the most interesting conversation that you’ve had around that?
No that’s not to say that everyone that everyone in Alabama’s a total fucking asshole.
No that’s true. I tour a lot too and have had some really amazing experiences in places like Tennessee and stuff. So you’re right, it’s not fair to paint Alabama as inherently reactionary there.
I got into a fight with someone about Israel and Palestine with someone in Tennessee. It luckily didn’t get physical or anything. But people feel really strongly. Victoria have you had any experiences?
We were in Knoxville Tennessee, and it was like tonight was one of the most informative nights for us as a band, like “thank you Knoxville!” Norlan got into a fight about Palestine, and we had this member from the band Harry and the Potters; he was a ringer for us. At that time he was playing sax, and he got into a fight as well with someone who asked him “why does your singer have to say so many things about white people?” He had to get into a fight with them and he never gets into fights. He was appalled that people would even criticize me. And I was getting into fights with people, but also activists were coming up to me and saying “you should know about this thing we’re working on” and getting really excited. And I think the craziest conversations I tend to have are when you have one person on your right who wants to get into a fight with you, and one person on the left who wants to engage with what you’re working on. And see that your band has a lot of value and worth. And those are the wild moments when you have these contradicting sides but everyone’s sitting around the same table. Those are more the intense moments.
Specifically one of the craziest conversations I’ve had was in New York at a show. This woman came up to me, and she was a black woman and was saying how she took the train and a bus from New Jersey to see us. And she was trying to start doing music, but her parents were really against her doing music because that’s not what they worked so hard for her to be able to do. And she gave me a hug and started crying. And shew wasn’t a punk, she didn’t have a punk aesthetic. She was just there and that was one of the most intense moments because I never really saw that what we were doing was something that could support someone in that desire in that moment.
Well it’s funny not clocking the experience of an audience member finding meaning in seeing themselves represented on stage, when you were just talking about that same thing with your audience in Oakland. Did you have a moment growing up or coming up as a musician when you realized “oh shit, I can do this. I can be the frontperson of a punk band?”
I mean had that moment when I got to join the band. I didn’t have that moment before. I knew that I could be in the punk scene and go to shows, but I didn’t have that moment until I got to do it. What about you Norlan?
I think it was probably the same. More recently, in the last two or three years I’ve come to learn for myself what punk or DIY means, and how that relates to me as a person of color—or a person of color who came from working class communities where punk shows don’t necessarily go on, and art isn’t a scene. I didn’t ever have that thing when I was a kid where I was like “yeah I wanna be in a punk band and tour” because my parents just wanted me to go to engineering school and be an engineer—which I did and dropped out of course, and then went to art school and finished. I just didn’t grow up with those expectations, or thinking that art was cool or had promise.
What about the intersection of art and activism? To what extent do you think those are inherent allies in the struggle for justice, or are you using that intersection in your own ways?
Everyone is political. Art is political; how you choose to go about it, or if you choose to use it in a political way. And we always have discussions about how because we’re a band that outwardly says political things in our art that happens to be a punk rock style band, we get asked a lot of these questions or we get put on the spot a lot. But you don’t hear anyone asking the Mumford Sons or these bands of all white men about political issues. It’s interesting that when you speak out, that you’re supposed to be a spokesperson for political action, but no-one’s holding these other bands accountable for not being political at all, when they should be political in a time when so many people of color are being killed by cops in the streets and so many injustices are happening in the streets. I think we use it in the way that we use it, but the question that should be asked more is why isn’t anyone else speaking up? And why aren’t these other bands or other people being held accountable in the same way that we’re being held accountable. Because I feel a lot of pressure as a male of color—when I went to art school, or when I walk into a space full of all white people, or whatever it may be—I feel a lot of pressure to be political or this speaking voice. And it’s an interesting dynamic. What do you think Victoria?
I completely agree. There’s already an expectation on us to explain ourselves all of the time because of who we are. Especially as a Latina artist, to people who look like me I find myself explaining myself, like why am I doing this thing, and to white people I’m constantly explaining myself. So you’re already going to have this dual identity, so it’s like let’s just put it all out there. And AFROPUNK has been this really interesting thing, because the other day someone hit us up on Twitter and said “oh this band doesn’t have Afro representation, they don’t have black people,” and I was like “yeah that’s something to take up with the festival organizers, but also that’s not necessarily true,” and secondly it’s a really big deal, because it means that AFROPUNK isn’t erasing all the black people that come to our shows and all the Afro-Latino people that come to our shows. And I was solid in how I felt and didn’t feel the need to explain myself. And then the person was like “oh I just realized that your drummer is Afro-Latino,” as if because we have that representation we’re free of having to explain our art and our participation. And that’s how superficial some of these conversations are because it’s all about representation to some people. With Downtown Boys, we’re trying to go beyond representation. With me and Norlan, and Marie who’s Mexican-American, we can show up anywhere we want and it’ll be like “these are people of color.” And people are still being killed by the police. So we need to go beyond representation and start disrupting the status quo.
I think to add to that, what people perceive themselves to be and what they look like to other people, there’s a big discrepancy there. I grew up on the South Side of Providence and I grew up in the South Bronx, and I identify just as much as black as I do Latino. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter. When I’m in South Providence, or when I’m in the Bronx, or when I’m in Manhattan, and a cop pulls me over—or when I’m in Missouri or wherever it may be and a cop pulls me over—they don’t see “this person is Afro-Latino, or they’re Dominican, or they’re black,” they see a person of color who is not white and is therefore a threat. So at the end of the day if I say I’m an Afro-Latino, or I’m an Afro-Punk, or I’m black, or I’m Dominican, or whatever it may be, I’m seen as a threat. I’m seen a certain way by police and by white people in this country. I’m just as susceptible to be killed as a person of color in any community. So the conversation needs to be about why are people of color being killed? And why can’t we unite as people of color? So it’s weird when a person’s like “oh you have a person who identifies that way, so it’s fine.” It creates a strange identity.
Well it’s complicated when you’re dealing with outward appearance versus inward identity in a space that is sort of defined by identity.
Because on the one hand you want to maintain the integrity and the sanctity and safety of that space, but then on the other hand, the second you exclude someone who’s particularly light-skinned or white-passing or whatever, you’ve failed at your mission. And the second you start creating divisions between what defines a person of color when the goal is dismantling white supremacy on all fronts, those semantics get really really fucking complicated.
Yeah. Because like let’s not fuck it up. A lot of people, and if we use that type of logic, a lot of people who are hashtagging for Alton—all these white people who are hashtagging for Alton Sterling—they they don’t hang out with anyone who looks like Alton Sterling. Their fathers look like Donald Sterling. But they don’t hang out with people who look like Alton Sterling. They don’t talk to people who look that way. When they talk about POC, they mean “safe” people of color. People of color that look like you, who come to punk shows and wear Doc Martens and wear all black. And that’s not to say those people of color are any less people of color. But to me, the term “POC,” for me anyway, as a person of color who hangs out these communities? I live in Providence, Rhode Island, the home of Lightning Bolt. I hang out with people on the South Side of Providence who have lived here for 20 years who don’t know who Lightning Bolt is, and don’t know about these crazy punk spaces that have existed in our communities. So what does that say? Does that make me less of a person of color? Does that make me less of a person of color if I’m educated? So when I hear terms like “POC” being used by—anyone really, but specifically white people—I don’t know what that means anymore. Because sometimes it means all people of color. Sometimes it means people of color who look and talk like me. And it’s like you said, it takes away from the general idea of “let’s just dismantle white supremacy.”
I mean I think as people of color we have to recognize we have a common enemy which is white supremacy. That’s the oppressor: white supremacy. I think about that a lot, because yesterday, for example, there was a Black Lives Matter march in Providence. And I have my friends of color who are punks of color and go to shows and I met them through doing art and stuff like that, and I have other friends of color who are organizers and I met through social justice work. And not all of us talk to each other all day long we’re not all best friends. But white people think that as long as there are a group of people of color there, they don’t care about our own internal dynamics. And look, people don’t care that some of us identify as queer and some of identify as trans, and some of us have no idea what either of those two words mean in terms of power. But whiteness doesn’t care about that. They don’t care about us. So we have to stop caring about whiteness; we have to care about each other a lot more.
So there was this person there who was a young black youth and she came up to me and was like “I feel really unwelcome here because I actually really want to be a police officer.” And we had this whole conversation about that, and white people don’t see this. All they’re trying to do is get their guilt out there, and to try and dispel their guilt. They don’t have to engage with our communities. So I do think that being in Downtown Boys and being in this band, people put a lot on us. So that Oakland show, the reason I don’t know if I had an impact on someone who’s trying to do music at that show, is because my entire family came from San Jose. So I was spending before and after the show with my 70 year old grandmother, and my 500 pound Chicano uncle. I wasn’t really talking to people in the crowd trying to get the vibe. And that’s the thing, as musicians, we’re there to play music. I’m not there to organize the crowd, and Norlan’s not there to photograph the crowd. We all do these other things outside of the music, but when we’re there, we’re there to play the music and give people that experience. And we have to realize that as people of color, people are going to put the weight of the world on our shoulders, and you have to decide constantly how much you want to carry.
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