March 8, 2019

Rebel Girls: D.C. Women In Punk

By Mark Gunnery

Fire Party

Fire Party

Many know about D.C.’s storied punk history in bands like Fugazi and Bad Brains, and a punk scene that’s still thriving today in genres like hardcore and pop punk. Lesser known is how integral women have been to the region’s punk scene. Groups like Chalk Circle carved out space for themselves in the early ‘80s when women playing in punk bands was still rare. The launch of the earliest riot grrrl zines happened in D.C. in the early ‘90s, as did the movement’s first national convention. Punk women—as well as trans, nonbinary and femme punks—have played in bands, documented the scene through photography and writing, booked and promoted shows and festivals, and created visual media like flyers and album covers that pushed punk and related genres forward. More recently, bands like Coup Sauvage and the Snips and 1905 and projects like Girls Rock! and Ladyfest picked up the mantle, weaving activism and music in a distinctively D.C. way.

For this year’s International Women’s Day, here are ten bands that feature local women who have shaped the sound, look and politics of D.C. punk over the years.

Fire Party

Photo courtesy of Natalie Avery

Fire Party was a band of four women that played in D.C. in the second half of the ’80s. They formed in the aftermath of Revolution Summer, the season in 1985 when punks in D.C. organized protests against South African apartheid, played explicitly feminist shows, created zines and launched communal houses and collectives. Cynthia Connolly, photographer, artist, and co-author of Banned in D.C., told the Kojo Nnamdi Show that “Revolution Summer was a reassessment of what was going on,” as well as a response to what they saw as stagnation in the scene. Fire Party vocalist Amy Pickering came up with the idea of Revolution Summer, and the band was a continuation of that summer’s energy.

Priests

Photo by Mike Maguire

Priests is a band that typifies the do-it-yourself ethos that has been part of D.C. punk since the ’80s. They run their own record label, Sister Polygon Records, where they’ve released music by local and national artists including Downtown Boys and Snail Mail. They are also artists with literary influences that include Susan Sontag, Chris Kraus and Eileen Myles. In describing their upcoming album, The Seduction of Kansas, to writer Jenn Pelly, vocalist Katie Alice Greer says that “art is meant to be incendiary, meant to make you feel and see and enrich your otherwise tepid human existence. The Seduction of Kansas will be released in April by Sister Polygon Records.

Coup Sauvage and the Snips

Photo by Mike Maguire

Coup Sauvage and the Snips was a creation of veteran D.C. musicians and activists who were just as much inspired by ’60s soul, the ballroom scene, electronic music and politics as by punk music. “D.C. has its own very unique history of music and politics joining forces,” bassist Elizabeth Sauvage told the Kojo Nnamdi Show. “It comes naturally to a lot of us to have politics be part of our music. We leaned into it. We wanted to take it further.” Members of the band have been active in organizing around street harassment and racial justice, and took aim at gentrification in their music and performances. “When people lose connection to the culture of a place,” vocalist Kristina Sauvage says of gentrification in D.C., “it erodes social cohesion.” 

 Sneaks

Photo by Antonia Tricarico

Sneaks is the musical project of D.C. native Eva Moolchan. Her songs are short, abstract and poetic, and cover topics like anxiety, Orson Welles, quinoa and the woods. Her early recordings had a post-punk sound with sparse bass-and-drum-machine instrumentation. On her latest album, though, this year’s Highway Hypnosis, she expands her sonic palate to include electronic, hip hop, trap, and dub influences.

1905

1905, photo courtesy of D.C. Punk Archive/D.C. Public Library from the Scott Sommers collection

1905 was a band that was active in D.C. in the first half of the 2000s. Inspired by hardcore, anarchist peace punk and screamo, they were alternately tender and tough. “As a teen, I loved the D.C. punk scene, and I loved that it was more political than other places,” vocalist Jess Kamen told the Kojo Nnamdi Show. “We were fighting to make feminism a part of the punk scene. To some extent it was there, but there was still a lot of work to be done, especially around how the scene handled sexual assault. But to me, feminism was an essential part of the scene and I never thought there was a place for punk without it.”

Bad Moves

Photo by Mike Maguire

Bad Moves is a power pop group made up of D.C. punks who have played in other local bands like Hemlines and the Max Levine Ensemble. “D.C. has a lot of amazing women musicians who are able to support each other,” guitarist and vocalist Katie Park told the Kojo Nnamdi Show. She points out, though, that there is still room to grow. “Not all spaces in the D.C. punk scene are necessarily safe for women or people across gender and sexuality spectrums. We still need to do more to address that.”

Mock Identity

Photo by Mike Maguire

Mock Identity is a relatively new D.C. band that released their debut album Paradise last year. They merge post-punk, grunge and rock influences with explicitly political and multilingual lyrics that are both urgent and poetic. “Let’s sing ourselves a hymn to find comfort in,” vocalist Adriana-Lucia Cotes sings on Hymn. “When the world eats you away say ‘you won’t erase me today.’”

Ex Hex

Photo by Antonia Tricarico

Ex Hex is a three piece band that formed in 2013. Singer and guitar player Mary Timony has deep musical roots in the District, where she studied music at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and played in Autoclave, another all-woman band active in the early ‘90s. Ex Hex played at WAMU’s studios when their debut album came out, and their newest album, It’s Real, will be released by Merge Records later this month.

Bikini Kill

Flier courtesy of D.C. Punk Archive/D.C. Public Library from the Ryan Shepard collection

Bikini Kill is often remembered as an Olympia band but vocalist Kathleen Hanna lived in Calverton, Maryland as a young person and the band spent time in D.C. They were there in the summer of 1991 which D.C. punks called “Revolution Summer Girl Style,” a reference both to the previous Revolution Summer and the Mt. Pleasant riots that happened earlier that year. Sara Marcus, author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, told the Kojo Nnamdi Show that, during that summer, D.C. punks combined “a particular brand of political punk and hardcore in the ethos of Dischord and Positive Force with explicit feminism and an openness to everyone participating without being super schooled in music.” Bikini Kill recently announced a reunion tour.

Bratmobile

Bratmobile, photo courtesy of D.C. Punk Archive/D.C. Public Library from the Scott Sommers collection

Bikini Kill was joined that summer in D.C. by another riot grrrl band, Bratmobile. Formed by Allison Wolfe, Erin Smith and Molly Neuman, they were a bicoastal group, splitting their time between Olympia and D.C. One iteration of Bratmobile that included D.C.’s Jen Smith and Christina Billotte recorded a cassette tape in Washington called Bratmobile DC. Late last year the record label Kill Rock Stars produced a podcast series about the band and the recording and release of their album Pottymouth called Girl Germs, named after the feminist zine Bratmobile members published in the early ’90s.

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