I WITNESSED A NIGHT OF POWERFUL POC PUNK IN BROOKLYN
By G'Ra Asim
September 5, 2019
POC punk is a phenomenon that should no longer owe its salience to the novelty of melanated folks playing music traditionally viewed as “white,” but for the innovation and redoubled brio that punx of color are using to revive a once stagnant style. I caught a glimpse of that reanimation at The Muslims triumphant headlining gig at El Cortez in Brooklyn, NY last week. The raucous Wednesday night crowd consisted primarily of people of color and non-men, and while a palpable sense of communal enthusiasm rippled through the venue for the whole night, the 50 or so pairs of brown eyes aglow and full lips agape were more attributable to the d-beats than the demographics.
The night began with Universe Ignore Her, a promising act from Staten Island, who despite their name, are impossible not to take notice of. The band began as a harmony-laden acoustic duo and have since evolved into a thrillingly original quartet combining the girl group gravitas of Destiny’s Child with the pulsing heaviness of Dance Gavin Dance.
On her Facebook page, vocalist Ariana Smith describes her contribution to Universe Ignore Her as “boy confidence,” which might actually be giving the fellas too much credit. Smith alternately skulks, struts, and undulates across the stage, corporealizing the band’s R&B, post-hardcore, and early ‘00s mainstreamo influences like a human subtitle. Smith can craft a clever turn of phrase, and deliver it with just the right amount of svelte and snarl: “I’m sick of all these white boys that fuck with me/but don’t fuck with me” she roared during highlight “Fuckboi.”
Scene stalwarts guitarist Rachel Alicea and drummer Wes Ruiz, who pulled double duty holding it down in Universe Ignore Her and Choked Up, were tentpoles of the night. The churning grooves of Universe Ignore Her invited a slight departure from Ruiz’s usually rampunktious style, often punctuated by fills that roughly approximate the sound of Fred Flintstone kickstarting his prehistoric hoopty. While previous UIH lineups have featured a twin guitar attack and the conspicuous absence of low end, the recent addition of bassist Gabby Baez grounded the mix with stout bottom.
Up next was Choked Up, whose singer/guitarist Cristy C. Road is a master of stage banter. Having attended several Choked Up performances since they debuted at Punk Island a few years ago, a number of Road’s off-the-cuff reflections on crushes, social isolation, and life under fascism have ricocheted around my brain even longer than her vocal melodies do. Among them: “We’re really awkward, so if everyone could take a few steps closer to the stage that’d be great. I don’t really understand why anybody with self-confidence would get involved with this art form.” That declaration crystallizes the purposefulness and sincerity that are key to Choked Up’s charm. Perhaps it’s the pathos of the implicit suggestion that the camera-ready power stances, bellowing ad-libs, and spirited pogoing that mark Road’s magnetic stage persona haven’t shored up the social unease that motivated her to pick up the guitar in the first place. Or maybe it’s the idea that someone who fronts a pop punk band recognizes the vocation as something as seemingly grandiose as an art form. The upshot is that if go to a Choked Up show to slamdance whatever is troubling you out of your psyche, the band is working through right alongside you.
Apologizing for being without ailing bassist Rose Bomberg, Road once again flexed her knack for aphorism, telling the audience that in catching a rare three-piece incarnation of the band “you get to have this once-in-a-lifetime treat. Well, it’s not a treat—it’s an experiment.” The pronouncement seemed to describe more than a rock band appearing without its bass player; it was a rallying cry for the whole night, the very project of a society’s most disaffected members snatching the mantle of a musical tradition once as exclusive as the mainstream culture it exists to repudiate. At first blush, the band’s name might seem to mean “near tears,” but upon hearing plucky, concise three-chord rockers like “Bebop & Rocksteady Together 4-Ever”, the image of a determined hitter tightening her grip on a Louisville slugger while staring down a pitchers count is an equally apt encapsulation of Choked Up’s ethic.
Lookout! Records-indebted pop punk segued into brooding post-punk when Brooklyn’s Bachslider took the stage. Bassist and singer Honeychild Coleman yelped or speak-sung her meditative lyrics, almost channeling Sleater-Kinney’s more playful moments. The plodding and at times foreboding soundscapes emphasized texture more than melody, exploding into moody crescendos recalling Nirvana at their most artsy. Ramsey Jones’s daring, inventive drumming added color to guitarist Annu Lilja’s mordant riffs. About midway through the set, Bachslider peeled off a lengthy instrumental digression, generating appreciative whistles and head bobs from the rapt audience. Jones elegantly managed the nuances of the extended jam section, accentuating trilling guitar bends with triplet fills and slowing the tempo to complement a standout bass lick with urgent cymbal flourishes. The passage climaxed with the band flaunting impressive three-part vocal harmonies, repeating the haunting line “the South is softening you” before giving way to an idyllic guitar solo. Lyrics to an offering titled “Identify” sprinkled explicitly Black feminist precepts into an already percolating aesthetic cauldron: “The intersectionality of gender roles/double standard that’s impossible to hold.”
It’s hard to imagine a more timely act than The Muslims. The fiery three-piece outfit from Durham, NC is comprised of drummer FaraH BaHbaH, vocalist/guitarist QADR, and bassist Abu Shea and formed in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Their latest album, Mayo Supreme, skewers Islamophobia, cultural appropriation, and the machinations of cisgender men. These themes resonated with the crowd, some of whom periodically joined the band onstage to underscore the scathing social commentary like a pierced, tatted-up Greek chorus.
With the blunt imperative “stop killing Black people” emblazoned across her guitar, QADR conjured coarse fireworks from her fretboard and howled through the Muslims’ formidable catalog as if she’d installed a toggle switch on her larynx enabling the rapid oscillation between dulcet and demonic tones.
The Muslims commandeered the stage with the self-possession of a band growing into its own powers in real time, operating mostly without a setlist and pausing often for unhurried conversations with the audience. Romantic punx in the crowd had to cajole the band into unleashing the jagged beauty of “Stew”, a perverse love song about making a hearty entree out of the bones of someone one wants to know biblically–er, Quranically. Citing vocal fatigue, QADR initially resisted, but eventually improvised what she called a “chilled out” version that her bandmates instantly fell into step with, showcasing the impressive cohesion they’ve developed via an aggressive tour schedule.
At one point the band turned their own song into a meme clapback when near the end of the set an audience member belatedly requested “Jihadaggedon,” a joint from 2018’s The Muslims that the band had played already. They jokingly scolded the fan by briefly reprising “Ya Late.” The Muslim’s concluded the evening with “Crackhead,” a song QADR said addresses non-Black people’s “fetishization of black culture when they fucking hate Black folks.”
The set’s coda saw drummer FaraH BaHbaH and QADR trading instruments so QADR could rap while accompanying herself with a rudimentary drum beat simulating the effect of an 808. Her spare, terse bars gave way to an affecting chorus bolstered by BaHbaH’s dissonant octave riffs. As we showered the trio with chants of “encore,” QADR briefly looked tempted, but ultimately refused. “Nah,” she shot back playfully. “Fuck that!” Who could argue with such a fitting finale to hot grrrl summer?