I Will Resist With Every Inch and Every Breath: Punk and the Art of Feminism

Me, Osa Atoe by David Ensminger
This is the talk I gave on a recent panel I was asked to participate in at the Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, along with Astria Suparak (the curator of the "Alien She" riot grrrl exhibits), Johanna Fateman (Le Tigre, "Artaud-Mania" zine), performance artist Narcissister and an artist and musician I've admire for a very long time, Lydia Lunch. The panel was titled, "I Will Resist with Every Inch and Every Breath: Punk and the Art of Feminism" and it took place on Thursday, March 12, 2015 to a live audience as well as an online audience via livestream. I thought I was going to be really nervous--and I was before we started--but when I began speaking, I suddenly felt really grounded and like I was talking to people who pretty much already understood where I was coming from, so I could just be myself and not worry. My mom was there with one of her best friends, a lot of old friends I've known for over 10 years showed up and so did Aaron Cometbus. After the show, I hurried over to 538 Johnson and caught Honey and my favorite current band Sheer Mag! I woke up the next morning after some bad sleep on a dirty couch feeling super pumped.

Hi, my name is Osa Atoe. I’m an art teacher and potter in New Orleans, Louisiana. I used to play in bands all the time but they kept breaking up and I couldn’t take it anymore so I guess you could say I’m on an indefinite hiatus from music making. I’m sitting here on this panel tonight because I’m a punk and a feminist, but I lived those ideologies out in the world mainly through being in bands and booking shows. That’s why, more than anything else, “Shotgun Seamstress” has been a music fanzine.

Before I was a punk or a feminist, I was a teenage music nerd. I was an only child of Nigerian immigrant parents living in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. Starting at the age of 14, I would sit in my room alone ingesting as many band interviews and record reviews as I could. At first, I was fixated on underground hip-hop and then I switched to alternative. I loved the Smashing Pumpkins and Courtney Love. Reading their interviews lead me into the world of 90s indie rock and then later punk. Doesn’t sound too unusual except when you consider that around the same time, the other black girls in my school were listening to TLC and Boys II Men. Also, although my dad had a large vinyl collection, it contained not a single iota of rock’n’roll. He likes African pop and R&B and stuff like that.
I had to learn about rock music all by myself, with no help from friends or older siblings.

And to be clear, I'm not whining about that; I'm proud of it. I think it's really cool that I cared so much.

We had a little bit of intermittent internet access, if you remember those free AOL dial up disks that came in the mail… But mostly I relied on magazines for most of my information. I read “Rolling Stone” and “Spin” and then “Ray Gun”, “Venus” and “BB Gun” magazines. I read Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs. I remember trading mixtapes and live show bootlegs in the mail with other music nerd penpals around the country.

I grew up playing the violin in school orchestra, but I was 19 when I started playing guitar. At the age of 20, after dropping out of college for the first time, I moved to DC and put ads in the “Washington City Paper” to find bandmates. I am still in touch with some of the people I met through placing those ads. Being so consumed with starting bands and playing shows and touring in my 20s resulted in me not finishing college until 2007, at the ripe old age of 28, despite the fact that I graduated high school and started college at the age of 17. I actually dropped out of school for about 5 years and was convinced I could learn everything I needed to know through self-education. I had read a book called The Day I Became an Autodidact when I was younger and didn’t see the point of paying thousands of dollars for information I could find myself for free. My parents, having left Nigeria specifically in order to procure college educations, never let the issue rest and so I did end up finishing eventually, thanks to them.
My parents on graduation day with baby me.

So, the first issue of “Shotgun Seamstress” came out in 2006. I had a head full of feminist theory that I had acquired on my own, through my community and from school—including the very useful concept of intersecting identities. I was also volunteering a lot and doing some community organizing and felt that any art I made should also be political.

The intersection of punk and radical politics felt natural to me, being from the Washington, DC area (with Fugazi, Positive Force, etc.) and also having been deeply inspired by riot grrrl. And most of all, I began to feel very isolated as a black person in punk—particularly when I moved to Portland, Oregon and found myself in a political but predominantly white punk scene that was constantly but awkwardly attempting to address its own racism.
Positive Force from washingtonpost.com
Marc Anderson in second row, Jenny Toomey to his left.

By that time, I had already read many other zines by punks of color that described the problem of being isolated and misunderstood within a predominantly white scene. They detailed the symptoms of white privilege and created a space for dialogue for kids of color that had not previously existed. One such zine that really inspired me in this way was “Evolution of a Race Riot” edited by Mimi Nguyen. I think that if it wasn’t for that zine in particular, mine would never have gotten made. I’ve spoken to other people of color who never were able to find POC (people of color) zines. I’ve spoken to women who grew up only seeing guys in bands.

I feel really lucky to say that by the time I started writing zines and playing in bands, I had the road already paved for me by people who had already come before me. 

A zine like “Evolution of a Race Riot” was not only educational and cathartic for its readers but also assured me that if I made a zine about black punks, there was an audience of interested readers waiting for me out there. That zine created a sense of a unified POC community within punk that I don’t think existed before.

by Mimi Thi Nguyen
I’ve spoken in the past about how riot grrrl and Cometbus spawned a lot of personal zine writing and how I felt inundated by that style by the time I started my own zine. That’s one reason I chose to make a fanzine. I also didn’t want to come from a place of critique. Other people were already doing that. I wanted to make a zine that was a celebration of black punk identity and I made it about black punks specifically because there weren’t many black voices within the dialogue that was occurring among punks of color. The punks of color dialogue was dominated by light skinned people: mixed folks, Latinos and Asians especially on the West Coast. Plus, I grew up in a house full of “Ebony” and “Essence” magazine…

So, my zine was kinda like a junior "Maximum Rocknroll" or "Punk Planet" for black kids. I didn’t really talk about feminism so much, it just was feminist in its approach. In the first issue, I interviewed my friends: Brontez Purnell and my ex-girlfriend Adee Roberson who would later become my bandmate. In the next issue, I wrote about a book I read by RuPaul and another I read by Don Letts (the reggae DJ who brought reggae to the London punx.) In later issues, I covered New York photographer Alvin Baltrop and performance artist Kalup Linzy. I got to interview Mick Collins of the Gories face to face and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex via e-mail shortly before she died. I wrote about all the black kids in early 1980s DC hardcore scene and wondered what happened to them all because by the time I got there, the scene was pretty much all white. I paid homage to the punk photo book Banned in DC by Cynthia Connolly, Leslie Clague and Sharon Cheslow because it showed me that black people have always been a part of punk and hardcore.

“Shotgun Seamstress” was definitely me creating a psychic refuge for myself and other black kids isolated in white punk scenes.

 For those of you who don’t know, the name of this event is taken from the song “Resist Psychic Death.” It is one of my favorite Bikini Kill songs and I even have a vague memory of one of my old bands covering it. Although sung by a white woman, the words “psychic death” remind me of the character Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye. To make a short story even shorter, Pecola is born a dark-skinned black girl into a racist, misogynist, violent world that eventually drives her to insanity. Now, I am not saying that mental illness is equivalent to psychic death. I know that’s not true. The culprit in the book isn’t insanity, the culprit is hatred and its internalization. We live in an ugly and dysfunctional world and we all carry that ugliness and dysfunction around inside of us. Our mission in this life is to prevent self-destruction, to prevent our own psychic deaths--and then to lend a hand to others so that they can do the same. Often, it’s just as simple as speaking publicly from your experience just so that other people like you realize they are not alone in their thoughts and experiences.

And then there are those among us who actually experience physical death. Premature, violent, unjust physical death. In the last year, we’ve seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement here in the U.S. in the response to the killings of unarmed black men and the lack of accountability for their deaths. Of course, this predicament isn’t new and my zine was definitely written in reaction to the limited expectations placed on black people solely because of our skin color. Like the Afro-Punk movement, I focus on freedom of expression for black people--but admittedly, this goal has seemed frivolous to me when compared to the myriad other challenges faced by black American communities. But on the other hand, look at how acceptable black expression and representation has been newly confined in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin in particular. Now, black men can’t wear hoodies without feeling the weight of suspicion on their backs? Respectability politics are in increased effect in black communities and in its own little way, “Shotgun Seamstress" was always meant to reject those kinds of confines.

 I attempt to use a Xerox copy music fanzine to resist stereotypical conceptions of blackness. It doesn’t feel like much, but I promise, the desire to redefine ourselves, to redefine blackness, to surprise people with the scope of our self-expression, was always central to the project. 

Marc Edwards came to see me!
Photo from the event by Marc Edwards







  Thank you to Leah DeVun and Jess Wilcox at the Brooklyn Museum for coordinating the event.


 A review:

Feminist Punk Panel Talks Zines, Radical Politics, And Race


  1. Sharing this to my Black Women In Rock Tumblr blog. Thanks SO MUCH for sharing this!

  2. Tried commenting three times, hopefully I'm let through this time! Thanks SO much for sharing this. I will be posting a link to this post on my Black Women In Rock blog on Tumblr. This is so important!


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