- Donté Oxun and Monika Estrella Negra
The Chicago punk scene wasn't very kind to Donté Oxun after the 29-year-old moved here from Washington, D.C., in 2007. "These punk dudes gave me the name 'the faggot' or 'culero,' meaning ass fucker or ass man," Oxun says. "There was a lot of machismo, antiblack sentiment, sexist and homophobic sentiment, and lots of side comments and treatment like that."
Monika Estrella Negra moved to Chicago from Milwaukee in 2009, and she too noticed disparaging remarks and ugly attitudes toward LGBTQ people at shows—it especially distressed her to see that sort of thing coming from people of color. "People can get weird when they encounter gender-nonconforming or trans folks, because it's still a very big issue in communities of color," she explains. "Whether it's shit talking or weird stares, some people get upset because they don't understand. That's always the underlying issue."
In 2010 Oxun and Estrella Negra decided to organize about it. They became the cofounders of Black and Brown Punk Show Collective, a Chicago-based group that follows a DIY punk ethos as it works to support like-minded communities of color by fund-raising at underground shows and challenging machismo and "boy culture" in the scene. Punks suffer from an undeserved reputation as fuckups and weirdos who only care about getting trashed and partying, but Black and Brown maintains a commitment to radical, inclusive politics and justice for marginalized communities. The collective focuses on queer, trans, and intersex people of color (QTIPOC), in no small part because most of its members, including Estrella Negra and Oxun, identify as such.
The Chicago chapter, which is now giving rise to offshoots in other parts of the country, has ten active members (though they don't all still live here) and raises most of its money at an annual summer festival. This year's fest is Friday and Saturday, August 28 and 29, at a DIY space and at ChiTown Futbol. It includes workshops on "antiblackness sentiment" (which Estrella Negra describes as a passive and pervasive form of racism) as well as sets from nearly two dozen bands.
Oxun, who moved from Chicago to New Orleans last year, went to Georgetown University in D.C., and recalls feeling alienated by the city's overwhelmingly white, straight, male punk scene—even when people at shows did try to start conversations, the only black band they could bring up was Bad Brains, a hardcore act tainted by accusations of homophobia.
Oxun eventually found a sense of community in D.C.'s punk houses and squats, though, and soon fell in love with the bands that played there. As a kid, the Houston native had liked pop-punk records (Green Day's Dookie was a special favorite), but years of communal living in otherwise abandoned spaces meant exposure to a much broader range of punk music and culture. "Dumpstering my own food, growing my own food, composting, learning how to patch up my clothes, learning how to make my own shampoo and body-care stuff . . . DIY is what drew me to punk," Oxun says. "I really became involved and inspired by punk communities and the DIY aspect of punk culture way before the music was as important to me as it is now."
Estrella Negra, a 28-year-old Logan Square resident, found a network of black and brown rockers in Chicago before she moved here. While attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she got involved in the online community of the Afropunk movement, which took its name and much of its early momentum from a 2003 documentary by director James Spooner. Till then she'd felt isolated and alone as a young punk fan, but she connected with peers in Chicago and around the globe through the Afropunk message boards. "I went to the library to watch the Afropunk documentary, because we didn't have a computer or Internet in my house," she says. "I remember thinking 'Oh my God, these people are real. I'm not the only one.'"
Oxun and Estrella Negra met in 2009 through their mutual involvement with Anarchist People of Color, a decentralized network that maintained a website and e-mail group connecting people of color interested in antiauthoritarianism. They both worked in Pilsen at Biblioteca Popular del Barrio, an underground library, arts center, and communal living space on Blue Island Avenue. "It was a squatted space, a liberated space, and a lot of community members utilized it for programs," Estrella Negra explains. "We had a full food distro, zine distro, and libraries."
When increasing gentrification of the neighborhood prompted the city to press the issue of licenses and permits, Oxun and Estrella Negra decided to hold a punk show to raise funds, hoping the money could pay the necessary fees to allow the community to hold on to the space. That show, in late August 2010, birthed the Black and Brown Punk Show Collective, these days usually referred to as Black and Brown or simply BnB. "I am the Pinky to her Brain," Oxun says. "It was Monika's idea, and I've always been here for support and logistics and things like that."
Black and Brown's members all love punk music, but they're more devoted to its DIY spirit, its leftist politics, and its celebration of living proudly outside societal limitations. The collective raises awareness and funds with shows—not just its festival but also four to six smaller concerts throughout the year—and its Web presence serves as a hub for bands and bookers in Chicago and around the country who want to find hospitable venues or get involved booking QTIPOC artists.
Estrella Negra says that the core idea underlying it all is the promotion of self-sufficiency in the larger QTIPOC community, not just in the punk scene—that is, the notion that the community can do for itself and solve its own problems. (Black and Brown isn't a licensed nonprofit and has no interest in becoming one.) The collective might provide people with financial assistance, for instance, so they won't have to choose between maintaining hormone therapy and paying rent. "We're trying to get things rolling for [trans] folks who need access to surgeries and things like that," she explains. "Because it can be a matter of life and death, especially when it comes to passing or getting housing or a job . . . it's this whole idea of dispersing funds for people who really need it."
Some of the collective's ten members have moved out of Chicago and now live in the Bay Area, New Orleans (Oxun isn't alone there), and Buffalo, New York; as a result, new chapters have begun to sprout in the latter two cities. The group meets via Skype and follows democratic protocols that take cues from various members' histories with communal organizing (including their work in Anarchist People of Color). The decision-making process often involves heated, hours-long conversations, but all members must reach a consensus—or at least a compromise that everyone can be comfortable with—before taking on a new cause, booking a band, or committing to a venue. "We are very careful about our [annual summer] show," Oxun says. "We spend months figuring out venues and listening to the lyrics of the artists."
Beneficiaries of Black and Brown's summer festivals have included Feed the People, a grassroots food bank based in Chatham, and the Anhelo Project, which gives college scholarships to undocumented students. The collective's 2012 festival demonstrated its eagerness to operate outside the punk scene, featuring several hip-hop acts and in part benefiting Connect Force, a youth arts organization that provides after-school tutoring and classes on breakdancing, DJing, graffiti art, and hip-hop culture. (Connect Force supplied a DJ, and its students gave breakdancing performances.) Program manager Justin Grey worked closely with Oxun and Estrella Negra, and the festival was held in the Alternatives, Inc. space in Uptown, Connect Force's home at the time. "They did an awesome job at bringing different folks from the community together, including artists, activists, bands, and youth from all different walks of life, to celebrate peacefully in solidarity," Grey says. "The work of bringing different groups together, as well as providing a safe space for the arts, is very crucial for our communities to thrive."
The collective's second festival, held in August 2011 at a Bridgeport DIY space called the Orphanage, remains high on its members' list of favorite events: proceeds went to CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman in Minnesota who in May 2012 agreed to a plea deal on a second-degree manslaughter charge that arose from her fatal June 2011 stabbing of a man who'd been part of a group outside a bar that attacked her and her friends. (She was released from prison in January 2014 after serving 19 months of a 41-month sentence.) The collective encouraged everyone at the fest, performers and fans alike, to dress in drag as a means of challenging gender stereotypes. The church whose basement hosted the event also runs a free "clothing pantry" for the community, and made its wares available to the attendees. "Half of the people were walking around in grandma dresses," Oxun says. "It was such a vibrant and visible way to see duress breaking down in the scene, while at the same time give money to a black transgender woman who was fighting incarceration. We used our show to highlight her experience."
Safe spaces are a primary concern of the Black and Brown collective. "Sometimes we need to create our own spaces in order to make progress, because of so many other social-conditioning issues that come up in the punk scene," Estrella Negra says. "I feel like people of color have never had this choice—to choose where they can feel comfortable, to define that. So I feel like it's important for us to be able to choose what spaces we can feel comfortable in and not catch any flak for it."
For Oxun, creating safe spaces is about nurturing community, raising awareness of privilege, and being able to have conversations addressing violence, misogyny, or transphobia in the scene—and also about throwing great parties at DIY spaces all over the city, to broaden the visibility of QTIPOC punk culture. White punks usually don't have to worry about where they go to shows, and QTIPOC punks should enjoy that luxury as well. "We're creating a new idea of what it means to be safe, because we're everywhere," Oxun says. "I was inspired by early Dyke March organizing. When I first moved to Chicago, it was very much about Pride in Lakeview, but then it started moving around and expanding."
The Black and Brown collective is wary of unplanned encounters with police and other outsiders, because its members are keenly aware that QTIPOC remain especially vulnerable to harassment and violence from racists and bigots (whether or not they have badges and guns). In the group's five years of organizing shows and events, its members have had one run-in with the police, and they consider themselves lucky: during the last band's set on the last day of the 2012 festival, they got a noise-violation ticket.
"We understand that at a moment's notice things could be taken away from us," Oxun says. "We are queer, gender-variant folks of color. Our access to spaces is very limited. There's a dangerous backlash we could face." Estrella Negra points out that white allies can be particularly helpful in dealing with police. "I've seen this many times before. If the cops come, and you send a white dude to talk to them, the show usually can continue," she says. "When the cops came to our show, we tried to talk to them, and they just kicked everyone out. So we have to think about those kind of safety elements—who you keep around and stuff like that."
The Black and Brown collective seeks allies and supporters in the white punk community, but insists on autonomy—the group will work with white people, but its decisions will never include them. This approach has at times caused friction, which Estrella Negra believes arises because people who aren't part of the minorities that Black and Brown represents can have a hard time understanding why even this mild form of separatism might be crucial.
"People who are so used to taking up space, they don't realize how their words can be really damaging in terms of people trying to speak to their own experience," she explains. Many punk peers, she says, accuse her and the collective of being "too PC"—and the organizers of Chicago's Fed Up Fest, which celebrates queer and transgender identity in the punk scene, have experienced a similar backlash. But Black and Brown's insistence on defining safe spaces of its own choosing isn't being politically correct, Estrella Negra says, but rather exercising a fundamental right. "A lot people don't know they're being disrespectful because they've never hung out with people like us until the point that they come to the festival," she adds. "More than anything else, what we try to do is explain why they are being messed up."
Estrella Negra points out that since the collective began in 2010, many punks who don't identify as QTIPOC have learned to be respectful. Oxun mentions the growing presence of the collective, locally and nationally, and the increasing acceptance of underground rock and punk among people of color. "It's become OK for people of color to be into that," Oxun says. "It's not just a white person's form of expression. I see that so much more now than I did five years ago."
Noe Castro, a 26-year-old musician active in the local Latino punk scene since high school, has seen similar things happening in Chicago. "It's been great to see the pushback on the normative lineups and attendance at shows," he says. "There's definitely a more conscious effort to book bands that have people of color." His band, Tensions, is playing this year's summer Black and Brown Punk Show—the collective's fifth festival, not its sixth, because it skipped 2014 due to Oxun's move to New Orleans. Castro's bandmate Alberto Ruiz, who also plays in Caza Blanca, agrees that queer and transgender punks are more visible now than they were four or five years ago, especially among people of color. "It's really cool, especially speaking from the Latino community, because it's not something that's talked about very much," he says. "It's really great that these bands have a platform to express what they need to express."
Black and Brown is "a game changer in Chicago's DIY punk scene, hands down," says Fed Up Fest organizer Monica Trinidad. "I feel like black- and brown-fronted bands are forming more and actually surviving more than a few months in Chicago, because they know there's a support network available to lean on if necessary. It's one thing to be black or brown and toughing it out in Chicago's punk scene while performing for all white men who don't really get what you're singing about. It's a whole other beautiful world to be black or brown and playing a fest that's made up of dozens of other bands who just get it."
Oxun and Estrella Negra are encouraged by the collective's successes, but they remain leery of the kind of exposure or growth that brings with it corporate or capitalistic entanglements. They cite the corporatization of Brooklyn's Afropunk festival as a cautionary tale: originally a financially self-sustaining grassroots party, it now charges high ticket prices (two-day passes this year cost $75, or $250 for VIP) and relies on big-name sponsors such as Red Bull, Coors Light, and Jeep. Festival figurehead and cofounder James Spooner, who made the 2003 documentary Afro-Punk, broke ties with the brand in 2008. "That's what social death looks like," Oxun says. "It really concerns us, and it's why we don't we have sponsors, even though financially that hurts us."
The collective's aversion to corporate involvement (Oxun claims to have turned down sponsorship offers already) hasn't prevented it from growing at a grassroots level—take for instance the offshoots arising in New Orleans and Buffalo. Oxun will visit Chicago for the summer festival, then return home to help lead the New Orleans chapter—which recently built some early momentum with an event celebrating the connections between Chicago house music and New Orleans bounce.
Estrella Negra, on the other hand, feels that her time as a leader on the ground is nearly up—she'd like to focus instead on filmmaking. "I'm trying to mold a bunch of younger kids," she says. "I've been doing this for five years, so at this point I'd rather see younger kids take initiative and see what changes take place." She says her last event for Black and Brown will likely be a show this fall by reunited Latino hardcore band Los Crudos.
For now at least, the collective's other cofounder plans to keep on working to help newbies who are excited about getting involved in the scene. "It makes me really happy to go to a show and have a young person tell me that Black and Brown was their first punk show," Oxun says. "It makes me feel good that these kids didn't have to go through what I went through when I started going to punk shows. They weren't verbally or physically harassed because of their identity . . . that gives me the fire to keep doing this." v
- Courtesy Southpaw Records
- Younger Lovers
Black and Brown Punk Show 2015
This year's Black and Brown Punk Show features bands traveling from as far as New York City and the Bay Area. Its lineup of 22 acts includes punk, hardcore, rock, hip-hop, and less classifiable music; among the highlights are Boston taqwacore quartet the Kominas ("taqwa" refers to God-consciousness in Islam), genre-bending Chicago avant-garde veterans Ono, Philadelphia darkwave experimentalist Moor Mother Goddess, local poet and rapper KrisDeLaRash, Brooklyn punks Aye Nako, New York blues project Black Bandit & the Stickups, and Oakland band the Younger Lovers. The festival also includes visual art and film, and offers free testing for HIV and other STIs. The nonmusical portion of the program focuses on the eradication of antiblack racism and hate crimes against black trans women: representatives from Black Lives Matter will conduct a workshop, as will BnB cofounder Monika Estrella Negra (only black and brown people will be admitted to the latter). The festival benefits Sojourners Land (which organizes rural retreats for QTIPOC) and the Crib (an overnight youth shelter in Lakeview run by the Night Ministry). Black and Brown is also collecting nonperishable donations for the Feed the People food bank. More information at bnbpunkshowcollective.com.
Younger Lovers, Black Bandit & the Stickups, Vagabon, Moor Mother Goddess, Yva Las Vegass, Bruised, Tigress, Crude Humor, Novatore, Tensions, Xille Xille Xille
Fri 8/28, 6 PM-midnight, Chicago Women in Trades, 2444 W. 16th #16, $15, all ages, no alcohol permitted.
KrisDeLaRash, Aye Nako, L(a)kras, Breathing Light, Ono, La Armada, Through & Through, Kominas, R-Tronika, Cabrona, Rumores
Sat 8/29, 5 PM-midnight, ChiTown Futbol, 2255 S. Throop, 312-226-1988, $15, all ages.