There Are No White Doves in My Neighborhood: Chicago’s Black & Brown Punk Shows

An Interview with Monika Estrella Negra

Monika (left) and Donte, BNB organizers

Monika moved to Chicago from Milwaukee in 2009 and soon became enmeshed in one of the country’s largest, most diverse and most radical punk scenes. As we discuss in the following interview, there is no one Chicago scene. Like the city itself, Chicago’s punk scenes vary greatly by neighborhood, demographic and ideology. Because of the zine I make that centers black punk experiences, I was able to connect with a couple black punks in Chicago who then lead me to the specific scene that Monika inhabits. I have done zine readings in Chicago where the vast majority of faces that looked back at me from the audience were black and brown--a situation I never thought I’d have the chance to experience. It was Monika who set up these zine events for me and the other zinesters of color I was on tour with. It is also Monika who heads up the annual Black and Brown Punk Shows (BNB) in Chicago.

To be sure, BNB is more than just another punk music fest painted black (and brown); The shows reflect the intersectional identity politics that are a part of Monika’s everyday life as a queer black woman in the Midwest. BNB is a space for consciousness raising and community building. It is also a peaceful response to the ongoing strife that is a part of the daily lives of so many Chicagoans who face violence, poverty and the various effects of the city’s gentrification. Furthermore, while the shows’ band lineups reflect the full range of people of color (POC), Monika is specifically attentive to the ways anti-black sentiments and behaviors can still exist in POC spaces. The result is a warm, celebratory, inclusive and safer atmosphere buoyed by the sounds of some of the best punk and hardcore bands in the country. As she put it herself, “I guess that is where I show my understanding of punk and rad subculture. It's more than just music and clothes, it is a lifestyle of resistance, and mutual aid.”

SS: The Black & Brown Punk Show is important to me because it is totally DIY.  I’ve spent so long complaining about Afro-Punk's corporate fest and I love that there's an alternative to it. Did you get the idea for Black & Brown after Afro-Punk was already a thing?  Was it a response to that at all?

Monika:  You know, when I was 15, the “Afro-Punk” documentary was such a relief for me! I found out about it through a Black member of a local punk band in Milwaukee called Eighty-D. The website led me to the forums, in which I met other rad Black punks, metal heads, whatever. That was so life changing, it gave me validation. I was completely obsessed, and immersed myself in everything that involved Afro-Punk. However, as the film became recognized and bigger, the corporate sponsorship and the superficiality started to seep in. I was deeply saddened by it, because it lost it's authenticity for me. I definitely thought of the idea of Afro-Punk influencing BNB, but over the past couple of years I realized that it was Chicago's brown punk scene that inspired the festival.

BNB benefit show (photo by Obsidian Bellis)
SS:  I've seen numbers of punks of color at events in Chicago that I would've never thought possible in the United States.  It's such a unique scene.  If you had to describe the various Chicago scenes to another punk from another city who'd never been there, what would you say?

Monika:  I would say that it’s a very large, diverse and sometimes homogeneous scene. The city is so large that different sects and aesthetics of punk culture exist on different sides of town. You have bar punks, ‘77 punks, queer and trans punks, skins, hardcore punks, DIY punks... It can be a bit overwhelming sometimes. It can also be incredibly hard to navigate if you are new to it. Elitism is something that is often encountered, as with any subculture. It's just good to know that some punk spaces aren't necessarily receptive or sensitive to particular identities and ideologies.

SS:  I'm surprised you used the word homogeneous to describe it.  How is it at the same time diverse and homogenous?

Monika:  Some scenes are more diverse than some. I can't sugarcoat it, there are some shows that are straight up cisgendered, heteronormative white bros who reek of nihilism and apolitical nonsense. Because of their privilege, they are able to maintain spaces that are not welcoming to those who don't fit that demographic. That's nothing new, it's fact. All of the scenes in Chicago fall under the umbrella of 'Punk', they just vary in minor aesthetic. There is no one united punk scene. That's why I used the word homogeneous to describe some.

SS:  What part of Chicago do black and brown punks tend to hang out in?

Bella:  Southside, Northwest side. Due to gentrification, there has been some relocations. The majority of BNB shows have happened on the Southside. The first show happened in Logan Square before gentrification took it's toll. Logan Square used to be a Latino and back neighborhood, but is now seeing the fate of being a new hotspot for collegians and yuppies.

SS:  What year did BNB start?  Was it ever a collective?  Who are the people who made it happen?

Monika:  The first BNB was held in 2010. It was a project that I thought of while being active in Anarchist People of Color (APOC) and volunteering at a radical, DIY library in Pilsen called Biblioteca Popular (now closed.)  BNB wasn’t a full collective at that point, but a lot of my friends in APOC helped make the show happen. In 2011, Donte asked me if I wanted to do BNB again, in order to raise funds for CeCe McDonald, a trans womyn of color who was jailed due to her defending herself. I hadn't planned on doing another BNB because I thought of it as a one time fundraiser. Donte convinced me to do it, and we have busted our asses since then to make the show happen every summer. We finally became a full collective in 2013 and there are countless folks who help make the show happen mostly BNB folks/punks, activists, moms, etc.. We are looking to broaden the collective space and have more people come on board. Collectives are hard to maintain, and take a lot of work. It will take more practice.

SS:  That's so amazing that you mention APOC as an impetus.  I just got back in touch with an old friend of mine.  We organized an APOC chapter together in 2004. Did you go to the first APOC gathering in Detroit?

Monika:  I did not. I went to the one in Philly in 2009 where it was completely sketch as fuck. (Laughs)

SS:  I missed the one in Detroit, too!  But it's so cool to see all of the ripples it caused.

Monika:  Exactly! Which is what I want to happen with BNB. We have plans of expanding to New Orleans and New York.

SS: That's exactly what I was going to ask you next!  You've talked to me about your plans to expand to other cities.  I would love to see BNB expand its reach, but I also see it as being specific to Chicago.  What do you envision BNB looking like in other cities?  Or how do you anticipate it being different than previous ones?

Monika:  I like to think that punks of color in different cities vary to their own respective scenes, but the experiences had could potentially be the same. We all deal with universal struggle just for being people of color, or queer or trans, identities that are oppressed in this country. I am actually excited to see what manifests in different cities and scenes. BNB is actually supposed to model APOC in a lot of ways. Utilizing DIY culture, communal decision [making], self-sustainability, resistance--these are all concepts that can be learned and maintained in different areas. I am not afraid of differences! I just know that we can all connect a base level, no matter the challenges.

The Breathing Light (Photo provided by Yumii Thecato)
SS:  To be honest, I worry that the entire audience at the New Orleans BNB show would be all white.  Even though there are tons of black people in this town, after living here for years, I haven't seen a place where blackness and punk intersect.  And most of our Latino community are recent immigrants, not like the 2nd and 3rd generation Latinos you have in Chicago… Do you think you can bring out a black and brown audience for BNB New Orleans? Or would it bother you if the audience was majority white?  Does that matter?

Monika:  I think that it is possible to bring out a black and brown audience in New Orleans. I am not bothered by white people coming to our shows, I am more concerned with the highlighting of BNB bands. It would be great to bring those type of shows to the punks in NOLA, and open up the space for the few POC punks that are there. It only takes one person to bring these bands out, or to connect with bands who are touring etc. I also am comfortable with BNB shows 'meshing' the music genres and highlighting artists who may not sound 'punk' in the aesthetic sense, but bring that same ferocity and resistance through other musical disciplines. The politics of punk extends to so many different styles, that I try not to get pigeonholed by thinking only of guitars, brashness and studs.

SS:  List some of the highlights of past BNB shows.

Monika:  The 2nd annual BNB show was by far my favorite. Cojoba from New York performed, as well as R-Tronika and it was my first time seeing The Breathing Light perform. We raised a lot of money for the campaign, and it was my favorite considering that we got raided by the cops! Ha. The 2012 show was a benefit for Connect Force, which was a rad youth breakdancing/graffiti arts program on the Chicago’s Northeast side (Uptown). It was an amazing show! The first day was a sober show, and was for family. The youth showed us their breakdancing skills and we had a barbecue, and some artists painted live. It made me so excited to see the youth excited about a punk show. It showed them a different world aside from what they were used to seeing people of color doing.

SS: Okay, what are your plans for this year's show?

Monika: This year, we’re going to focus on building black solidarity within the black/brown community and combatting anti-blackness and transphobia. At least year's Fed Up Fest, Donte, myself and Kyle [guitarist in The Breathing Light] led a discussion on anti-blackness to a primarily white, queer audience. Our hope is to bring this discussion to BNB this year in order to better relations among people of color in the scene. I spent some time in Ferguson in August and was a bit disappointed to see so few Latinos there in the streets. Same goes for the Black response toward Ayotizinapa. We obviously are all victims of the state, and it's about due time that solidarity and mutually beneficial resistance be discussed. We also want to remember all trans womyn of color murdered over the past five years and highlight the groups who specifically serve that community. It's still in the developing stages, but I think this year will be the most productive and vivacious one yet.
Photo by GlitterGuts

SS: What about bands?
Monika: I really want to get Alice Bag, Pure Hell and Death this year. I want the elders to headline, cause they were among the first punks that I learned about who weren't white. “We Don't Need the English” is probably one of my favorite songs ever. I would love to see some returning guests, like Cihuatl-Ce, La Armada, Yva Las Vegas and some new ones like Tamar Kali, The Younger Lovers and Cakes da Killa, an awesome queer rapper. I want more hip-hop artists this year! I am also hoping to have some locals step up to the plate. It's too bad, but Sick Sad World is playing their last show Friday. They were definitely my first pick. Itto, Ono, Mother Moor Goddess from Philly and a band from the UK called Big Joanie.

SS:  And lastly, for those who might want to make BNB happen in their hometown but don't know where to start, any advice?

Monika:  Organize with friends, and people you trust to get things done. Start volunteering with organizations that you think are important and support them in any way. Maintain safe spaces, and always express your intentions! Hold people accountable for inexcusable behavior, and learn how to communicate efficiently with those who don't know how. Most importantly, keep it fun and creative. Never follow a pattern, and stay true to yourself, no matter the oppositions. 

Printed in Maximum Rocknroll #384 and Shotgun Seamstress #8