Afropunk and Tamar-Kali Brown: The Issue of Universalizing the Riot Grrrl Experience

By Marian Phillips

The film The Punk Singer (2013), directed by Sini Anderson (a white woman), took the world by storm in the 21st century when it exposed the importance of punk music to women as a way to express feminist ideologies. Anderson’s documentary focuses on frontwoman Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill and noted founder of the “Riot Grrrl” movement. The trailer to the documentary introduces its potential viewer to the difficulties women had faced in finding a place in feminism, and achieving one through punk music and performance. Bikini Kill’s live concerts in the 1990s are featured throughout the trailer, showing women such as Hanna questioning patriarchal structures in society and performing partially nude as a political statement. The film ultimately emphasizes how women navigated the world of punk with a feminist lens, but its most notable aspect is the lack of representation of Black women that participated in punk and made statements of their own in the popular subculture. 

One would find, after a quick search of “Black women in punk music” on Google, that Tamar-Kali Brown, a Black woman, is a pioneer of feminist punk movements; so why does Anderson’s trailer not mention or feature Brown’s experience amongst Hanna’s in the 90s Riot Grrrl movement? Yes, the trailer makes it explicitly clear that the film is about Kathleen Hanna, but Anderson includes other feminist punk women such as Carrie Brownstein, Johanna Fateman, and Kim Gordon, therefore featuring Tamar-Kali Brown wouldn’t have detracted from its primary character. Brown is known for speaking publicly on the movement, as she is featured in the documentary Afropunk (2004) [1] about Black punk musicians and made nine years prior to The Punk Singer (2013). As the trailer does not include her, nor any mention of Black women or the Afropunk movement that was born out of frustrations towards white-centric punk, the difference in women’s experiences in the movement are ignored. 

(Tamar-Kali Brown, photo courtesy of https://www.tamar-kali.com/)

The Riot Grrrl punk movement contributed to the ability for feminism and feminist ideas to grow in a community that felt left out, using shock to prompt society to pay attention to the frustration women felt socially, culturally, and politically through music. What the trailer and interviewees speak to is a white punk feminist movement despite the assertion of providing voice to the voiceless. The white-centric approach of the trailer further silences the voices of Black women when differences in experience and representation are lacking.  

Historically, white men dominate the conversation of punk music. Anderson’s focus on women in the punk movement is justifiable in this regard, but the whitewashing of the feminist punk movement is unfounded when women such as Brown are present. Regarded as an Afropunk today, Brown founded the Sista Grrrl Riot movement during the 1990s when she found that Riot Grrrl was resistant to, and excluded women of color that participated in punk music in a similar fashion as white women. In Anderson’s trailer, Black women’s efforts to find a punk movement for themselves goes unnoticed, and constructs Riot Grrrl to be the only one that women participated in. Furthermore, it provides the viewer with an image of universal experiences within the movement. The women interviewed mention the sense of community and collective agreement on the issues they faced as riot grrrls but not every woman, especially not Black and Brown women, felt that they faced similar issues or sense of community.

(Afropunk Music Festival Attendees, photo courtesy of https://www.manrepeller.com/2018/08/afropunk-festival-street-style-2018.html)

Anderson’s trailer for the film does not mention the Afropunk movement let alone Sista Grrrl Riot. The Afropunk movement, while never given a specific date as to when it was initially created, was largely popularized when the documentary premiered in 2004; detailing the lives of Black punks, and prompting an annual festival of the same name to begin. One would assume that Anderson’s research on the histories of the punk movement of the 1990s would take note of this documentary that historicizes a subculture within it and features Black women . As The Punk Singer (2013) was released almost ten years after Afropunk (2004), it poses the question of Anderson choosing to ignore these histories, or if it felt of no use to her own work.  Anderson, consciously or unconsciously, produces a piece that aims at historicizing a woman led feminist punk movement, but excludes the differences Black women experienced in it. Black women, such as Tamar-Kali Brown, provide ample evidence of difference in the feminist punk movement of Riot Grrrl. Anderson does not project this in the film’s trailer, and ultimately creates an image of the movement as experienced and created by white women, and that white women’s experience in Riot Grrrl are universal to all women in it. 

If we are to continue to craft histories on groups of women in moments such as these, recognizing differences is intrinsic to understanding the social, cultural, and political landscape that persists in mapping them out. By not including intersections of identity in these conversations, historians risk creating and upholding an ahistorical framework that universalizes women and their experiences, such as Sini Anderson has conclusively done through the trailer of her documentary. Afropunk, Sista Grrrl Riot, and Tamar-Kali Brown speak to the importance of punk to Black women. When Riot Grrrl disregarded the intersections of race and punk, Black women created a movement of their own that resists the notion that all punk is white and male, and that all Riot Grrrls are white. 

Please find here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fanQHFAxXH0&t=2496s) a link to watch the Afropunk (2004) film in full for free. 

Notes

[1] Spooner, James, “AFROPUNK: The Movie – Trailer,” Youtube, Posted by James Spooner, January 30, 2013, Accessed November 13, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJQRJZU0Zhc.

[2]  Bess, Gabby, (2015), Alternatives to Alternatives: The Black Grrrls Riot Ignored. [online] Broadly, Available at: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/9k99a7/alternatives-to-alternatives-the-black-grrrls-riot-ignored (Accessed 14 Nov. 2018).

Sources

Anderson, Sini, “The Punk Singer Official Trailer 1 (2013) – Documentary HD,” YouTube, Posted by Movieclips Indie, October 31, 2013, Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMbLzaVkn2s.

Bess, Gabby, (2015), Alternatives to Alternatives: The Black Grrrls Riot Ignored. [online] Broadly, Available at: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/9k99a7/alternatives-to alternatives-the-black-grrrls-riot-ignored (Accessed 14 Nov. 2018).

Joan Scott, “Introduction” in Feminism and History, (Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 1996,) 1-13.  

Spooner, James, “AFROPUNK: The Movie – Trailer,” YouTube, Posted by James Spooner, January 30, 2013, Accessed November 13, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJQRJZU0Zhc.

Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate at Sarah Lawrence College studying Women’s and Gender History. Her research interests include LGBTQIA+ history, the history of punk movements/music, social movements, 1950s Cold War America, and Horror film studies.

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