Sunday, 31 January 2016

Big Joanie: Black Feminist DIY Punk.

Photo by Iona Dee.
London based Big Joanie were formed in 2013 and is composed of Chardine on drums/vox, Kiera on bass/vox and Steph on guitar/vox. Citing influences as diverse as X-Ray Spex, Nirvana and Jesus and Mary Chain they describe themselves as sounding like 'The Ronettes filtered through 80s DIY and riot grrrl with a sprinkling of dashikis'(1)! After listening to the excellent Dream No 9 on their EP 'Sistah Punk' I contacted Steph for an interview. 

I first came across you on Not Right's list of UK Riot Grrrl bands where you're described as 'black feminist sistah punk' (2). Had any of you collaborated before or played in other bands?  
Steph: We hadn't collaborated before. We met when I put up a message on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to start a black punk band. Chardine and Kiera hadn't played in other bands before. I previously was the guitarist in the feminist punk band My Therapist Says Hot Damn.
Obviously the band is driven by a strong politics, how did that politics take shape, what were the influences?
Steph: We have a lot of varying influences. I can't speak for the whole band but I felt quite at odds with the punk scene and the way it tackled race and racism. We formed to create a little safe space for us as black women to create. At the same time by creating and performing we hope to influence other black people that punk is a great place to find yourself and be creative. We're influenced by everyone from New Bloods to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and bell hooks to Melissa Harris Perry.
In an interview with you align yourself with an 80s DIY ethos (3) that was also such an empowering aspect of early punk, the idea that everyone can make music. The dismantling of hierarchy seems to be in the DNA of Big Joanie!   How would you more fully describe your music?
Steph: As I mentioned earlier Big Joanie's ethos is to create and inspire in a way. We want more young black people, especially young black women, to use punk and more alternative creative routes as a way to express themselves. 
What sort of subjects do you engage with lyrically?
Steph: We don't particularly have any subjects that we tackle as most of our lyrics are written off the top of my head with no real meaning. A few songs are about love or the concept of love. We have one song that will be on our new single called Crooked Room and it's inspired by a Melissa Harris Perry quote where she compares black women's struggles negotiating this racist, hetronormative, misogynistic society to trying to find your vertical in a room where everything is crooked.
Simone De Beauvoir commented 'One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman' (4) and in the book 'One Chord Wonders' Laing comments that first wave punk created space for women to deconstruct and explore gender (5).  How do you experience the 'punk scene'-has it continued to be a space to explore gendered/non-gendered identities?
Steph:  I think in terms of gender the DIY scene has been incredibly supportive and its rare to see a band without a woman or that isn't female focused. I do feel we in the DIY scene are a bit sheltered from the outside world and how women who involved in other genres experience misogyny, which is both a good and a bad thing I suppose.
Originally Riot Grrrl was a reaction to the US punk scene being predominantly straight white male, with all the attendant problems that brings. How have you experienced the UK punk scene, is it an easy space to be a (black) women?
Steph: The DIY scene is incredibly supportive but it is majority white and that is rarely questioned. Before I started Big Joanie I found that I would have to separate out different parts of myself and have my feminist punk hat on when I was at gigs in the DIY scene and my black feminist hat on when I was at black feminist events or with my friends. Now its so much easier to be able to combine those identities in Big Joanie and not have them clash in any way. There are still issues when it comes to being a black woman in an overwhelming white scene. We've seen a lot of cultural appropriation and still have trouble figuring out what to do when we're playing to majority white audiences but that is slowly changing. At every gig there is always at least one person of colour and there seem to be more people of colour at our gigs the more we play.
You have been together about two and a half years and played live within six months of forming (1)! How have you found playing live? Is that where your music finds its fullest expression or do you prefer writing and recording?
Steph: I'm not sure. I think we like to play live as it's always different every time. Even if we think we played a bad gig someone will always come up to us afterwards and thank us for playing so it is quite reaffirming.  
Feminism includes the concept of intersectionality-that women's experience is affected by class, ethnicity and sexuality. Is that why you describe yourself as black feminists because you are conscious of the diversity of female experience or because black women in particular need a higher profile in DIY/punk?
Steph: I suppose both reasons. We realised that there are black women in bands that are feminists but they rarely declare their identity in such a way. We wanted to make sure other black people knew we were here. We're proud of our identities and want to make sure other people know exactly what we're about.
If we construct ourselves from the cultural resources available to us, what resources and role models have you drawn on to resist a patriarchal, sexist society?   
Steph: I guess bell hooks is always a good one. I love Sister Rosetta Tharpe as not only was she a queer black woman playing guitar in the 20s she also practically invented rock n roll as we know it today.
Who are you currently listening to and reading?  
Steph: I'm reading A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and listening to Bamboo:
Big thanks to Steph for her time and answers.


(2) UK Riot Grrrl,

(3) Quarshie, J. (2014) 'Black Feminist Punk; Interview with Big Joannie'.

(5) Laing, D. (2015) 'One Chord Wonders; Power and Meaning in Punk Rock', PM Press, Oakland, CA, USA.



Selvhenter; Review of Frk. B. Fricka/Motions of Large Bodies.

Photo by Yvonne Forster.
One of the most irritating people I regularly experience is a prominent Radio 5 football commentator who, as far as I know, has never played pro football or refereed but seems extremely happy to pass scathing judgement on any performance that drops below faultless. I find people who haven't done it being judgemental about people who are doing it can be problematic, so I was always going to struggle as a non musician reviewing the creative output of people who have accomplished artistic heights I can only stare at. However reviewing/commentary doesn't have to be judgemental and fault finding, it can be an expression of enjoyment and here goes!
I first came across Selvhenter last summer on one of those meandering journeys through the internet that most of us experience from time to time-they're comprised of violin, trombone and saxophone put through pedals plus two drummers- turns out they're a Danish band, part of the Copenhagen  based Eget Vearelse collective. They have had two albums out so far Frk. B. Frika (2012) and Motion of Large Bodies (2014), both on the Eget Vaerelse label.
First album Frk. B. Frika starts with short track Bali which reminds of a slightly manic snake-charmer before going into the more representative Aebler og Paerer which is built round a riff that any heavy rock band would be proud to call their own except rather than guitars, keyboards and vocals you get distorted  brass and violin. On next track up Dodsjazz  the intensity builds and then the drums kick in at around 3 mins taking the whole thing up another  level. This is followed by Solkat which is far mellower, and has a kind of free jazz vibe I guess; it gives you time to regroup before the rest of the album. Frk. B. Fricka was the debut album by Selvhenter and is an exhilarating mix of free jazz and experimental rock, the only reference point I have for them is Henry Cow but that is a fleeting impression, on this album Selvhenter are a very different band, more rock, more raucous, more riff driven.
Second album Motion of Large Bodies was actually the first Selvhenter album I got and so it was interesting experiencing them in reverse chronology. Comparing the two I would say that MoLB is more subtle than FBF-it is slightly more focussed, possibly slightly more accessible. First track Golden Boy is superb and comparatively smooth but then track 2 Tribute comes in and you know the adventure has really started, distorted violin/brass over ace drumming which slows for a period mid song before it picks up again. Late Night Ferry starts with melancholic notes before it starts to take shape, like an object slowly emerging from mists-or maybe like a ferry emerging out of the night(!)-this track is restrained, orderly, under control. Track 6 Stirb Langsam is a brooding, slightly sinister sound, droning and wailing, evoking a sense of being on the edge of something about to happen. Les Femmes d'Affaires picks up the pace again before Ballinesk Ruder which has a rhythm that would go down a storm at a Shaman nightclub and dares you to try and dance to it!
Overall MoLB is probably a more atmospheric and nuanced album than FBF but not better, just different, and that has to be a good thing. The two albums are the sound of musicians moving, developing, thinking about what they are doing, not settling but exploring their art form. If you like raucous power maybe you'll prefer FBF, if you like your music a bit more measured start with MoLB. 
I'm sure there is a genre that Selvhenter fit comfortably into and I'm just not aware of it but to me its the sound of musicians on an intense experience of sonic adventure daring you to come with them.

Selvhenter play the Raw Power Festival in London May 27-29 2016.