Music: Meet the Women Bringing Riot Grrrl Back From the Grave
Written by: Violet Myers
I’d always wanted to be in a band as a teenager, but was far too impatient and preoccupied with meticulously watering down my parent’s liquor cabinet to learn an instrument. When I first discovered Riot Grrrl I was 22 and rummaging through a used book shop, uncovering collections of zines from the early 90’s, which featured articles on ‘How to start your own girl riot’ and was stuffed with grainy photos of bands I’d never heard of and shaven head girls, who even at 22 I yearned to be. I identified with the rebellious, underground feminist feel of it instantly and though thrilled to have found a whole new genre of music to enjoy, couldn’t help feeling disappointed to have missed it.
The legend goes that Bikini Kill’s lead singer Kathleen Hanna started the movement in Washington back in 1992. The groups were set up to share music, encourage new female musicians and discuss subjects such as sexual abuse, feminism and patriarchy.
Their mission was to bring girls to the front of music and create a safe environment of self expression. The movement soon spread and made it’s way across the pond to her majesty’s United Kingdom, inspiring British bands such as Huggy Bear and the lesser known Gertrude, who were touring underground gigs and squat parties throughout London at the time. I interviewed this band a few years ago, who joyfully talked about the wild times of punk during the 90s and although they’re now a collection of nurses and music teachers they still play together and appear to have the greatest bond four women can have: bandmates.
As well as inspiring many women to strap on a guitar and give being a rock star a go, it inspired a generation of people to get involved in other ways; start fanzines, feminist organisations and invent a new type of punk. Riot Grrrl’s music is raw, it’s great to dance to, scream to, to spread some liberal anarchy to. But the movement was about a lot more than music, it was about giving young girls a powerful voice, being unapologetically female and working to reverse the stereotype that ‘girl’ ultimately equals ‘weak’.
As it goes with cool new things, it wasn’t to last and following some bad break ups, disagreements and poorly organised events the movement seemed to disappear. With just an archive of zines and a cheaply produced ‘Riot Grrrl Costume’ on sale at Walmart to remember it by. Riot Grrrl was soon gone from people’s minds, with The Spice Girls becoming the feminists of the music world, it was time to stop the riot and time to spice up all of our respective lives.
But here’s the thing, it never really died. Due to a small handful of amazing female led bands, Riot Grrrl is alive and well and she lives in London.
“Riot Grrrl showed me that women could be powerful and provocative both on stage and off, and gave off this idea of freedom at a time when I think I really needed to see that women could do whatever they want.”
Says Estella Adeyeri, one half of band Junk. Though not technically identifying as a Riot Grrrl band, they describe themselves as trashy indie punk, but Junk definitely emits the Riot Grrrl attitude, with their views on feminism and politics:
“The music I write is usually inspired by whatever’s going on in my life at the time, and is naturally tied to my own ethics and beliefs. Ideologically I’m aligned with black feminists thought, which I discovered at university and seemed to put words to the experiences I found living as a black British woman in London. Learning about how oppression operates at intersections within society was kind of a political awakening for me”
I met Estrella just after her set at The Fiddler’s Elbow in Camden, at new music night: ‘Who Run the World‘ an event committed to showcasing the best female lead bands in the country, including an incredible mix of Riot Grrrl bands and bands inspired by the movement.
As well as Junk, the lineup included; ¡Ay, Carmela! an indie punk band made up of stressed teaching assistants, Pretty Ugly a high energy grunge band from Brighton, ARXX a bluesy punk duo with stronger pipes than London’s sewage system and finally the headliners Big Joanie who, although missing their bassist, treated the crowd to a Riot Grrrl style rendition of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’. Hey man, making do is what it’s all about!
Beth White is the ones responsible for these oestrogen filled nights, she’s joined by Jojo who photographs these events, she also runs a grrlgigs a site devoted to the Riot Grrl community:
“At Who Run the World events it’s always a very supportive and welcoming energy. The bands feel incredibly comfortable playing to one another without any pre judgements and usually all bands tend to stick around to watch the entire line up, which is a very rare occurrence in today’s music scene. To me, Riot Grrrl means bringing women in punk to the front of the stage, because it’s really about not giving a f*ck or caring how others judge you. It’s about women supporting women in music.”
These kind of nights, though rare, can be found around London, it’s just knowing where to look for them. Watch out for ‘Loud Women’ and future ‘Who the Run the World’ events as well as gigs at The Montague Arms in Peckham, which often holds nights designated to showing female punk bands. The music is fierce and so loud you can hear it vibrating in your ears three days later, the mix of acts is eclectic – ranging from North London based superstars Skinny Girl Diet to The Dykeness a lesbian Darkness tribute act (complete with fake facial hair and a whole lot of spandex. ) With all these incredible bands and nights popping up is it safe to say the movement is back for good?
“I don’t think it ever went away. The UK punk scene has always been evident and just because it isn’t highlighted by the media or immersed in mainstream channels doesn’t mean it’s dead.”
Says Jojo. “Riot Grrrl, in my eyes, is essentially a feminist movement and with the wave returning high in 2015, the music and pop culture thrives from it so I believe it’s rising again as opposed to returning.”
And it seems this belief is intrinsic within female punk and rock bands. Perhaps Riot Grrrl isn’t the recognised genre it once was in the 90’s. It’s no longer hitting the papers and the fandom has really calmed, but incredible female led bands are still pushing to the front and demanding their turn on stage, supporting each other in music and beyond, and most of all showing that girls are just as strong as the guys – exactly what the movement solely stood for. The music may have evolved but the spirit and the ethos lives on.
Perhaps it’s time to stop referring to Riot Grrrl in the past tense.
Photographs: Mike Ashdown
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