Flavorwire

The Forgotten Women of Punk: Shotgun Seamstress’ Osa Atoe on the “Super Tiny” World of Black Punk

Osa Atoe, on tour in Memphis in 2013.

There is a narrative about punk – call it the American Hardcore narrative – that women and non-binary-gendered people were active in punk during the initial wave, then disappeared as the 1980s progressed due to the rise of macho hardcore.

As the story goes, these minorities re-emerged during the early ‘90s during the riot grrrl movement – then disappeared again throughout the late ‘90s and ‘00s until the riot grrrl revivalist spirit pervaded the late ‘00s.

We’ve always been here, though – running labels, writing about music, playing in bands, and booking shows, and just because we haven’t always gotten the media spotlight doesn’t mean that we don’t all have stories to tell. And so, this is the first in an ongoing series of interviews meant to spotlight some of the unsung figures written out of this narrative, despite them having kept DIY punk interesting and vital over the years.

Our first interview is with Osa Atoe of New Bloods, a minimal punk outfit who put out one excellent record on Kill Rock Stars in 2008, and Negation, a raw post-punk band who put out a demo and a cassette before folding last year. Originally from the DC area and an alum of the Portland scene, Osa moved to New Orleans in 2009, where she’s been keeping punk alive, booking shows and fests and releasing tapes under the No More Fiction moniker. She’s also a talented writer and historian currently on her eighth issue of Shotgun Seamstress, a zine by and for black punks established in 2006, the first six issues of which are available in a bound anthology.

“Typically, one issue of Shotgun Seamstress takes at least a year to produce,” Atoe says. “The world of black punk rock is super tiny. It takes a long time to accumulate content, especially work that I’m genuinely inspired by.”

Flavorwire: Can you tell us how you got into punk in the first place?

Osa Atoe: Basically, I got into “alternative” rock when I was a teen, then got into indie rock and riot grrrl, which emphasized DIY ethics, which was really motivating for me.

The DIY model was really motivating to me too: making and performing music can seem so completely inaccessible outside of that model.

Yeah. Before I found out about riot grrrl, I was more just a music fan and didn’t really see myself as a potential participant. I didn’t see a way to add anything to the opus of rock’n’roll at that point. I knew I couldn’t really compete on a technical level with rock’n’roll giants that had already lived and died before I ever picked up a guitar. So, riot grrrl and other experimental punk bands like The Raincoats and even Beat Happening, helped me figure out that you didn’t have to be technically perfect, just unique.

Interesting and honest are just as worthwhile as technically dazzling.

Definitely. I still feel so strongly about that perspective, I repeat it every chance I get.

Thinking you have to be technically perfect is such a barrier for non-dudes. You already have to compete harder for your space, and it’s such a waste of energy.

I don’t know if I can relate specifically to the feeling of competing for space, but I do know that there is a lower standard of expectation for people who aren’t cis-gendered men in every realm that is deemed technical in our society. As far as punk goes, I think I’ve been lucky to be in scenes that were pretty woman and queer-positive — so it wasn’t that I felt myself competing for space. It was more that I just had to be brave and put myself out there. And by the time I moved to New Orleans and was 30 years old, I was so used to putting myself out there, I just did it, despite the fact that the scene was a bit less nurturing of women and queer musicians.

That makes a lot of sense. You do lots of different things within punk: booking shows, playing in bands, doing zines. Do you have a favorite project or do you feel like they’re all equally important?

I’d have to say that booking shows is my least favorite. I still do it on a very limited basis, like if a friend who’s booked my bands in the past comes to town, I feel obligated to repay the favor. But grandma’s over it. It’s a lot of work. And I don’t play in bands anymore, either, at the moment. I’ve claimed in the past that I am retired, but who knows what the future holds. So I guess that leaves zines.

The process of laying out and copying is feeling less and less glamorous every day, but zines are very low-pressure for me. I can make one if I want, or not make one for two years, and it’s fine. The great thing about Shotgun Seamstress is that it’s been my longest-running project because I didn’t have to work with anyone else on it. I love working with other people, but everyone — including me — is fickle. We move a lot, we change our minds, we decide to go back to school, etc. If Shotgun Seamstress had been a collective project, it would’ve crumbled after two years, max.

What have been some of your experiences chronicling black punk for the past several years?

Getting to meet my heroes is a big — and unexpected — one. Shotgun Seamstress tries to show varied experiences of what it means to be an “alternative” black person. I mostly focus on the U.S., but some issues touch on experiences in England and Brazil. So, my experience has been getting to talk to people who represent many different facets of black outsider identity: black trans ex-punk, young Nigerian-American punks, a 60-year-old free jazz musician, biracial British art-punk, young Latino punks from LA, young black mother who makes zines in her precious spare time, black drag queen performance artists from places like New York and Berlin.

When we talk about black culture, it’s normal to use terms that seems monolithic. Even using the term “black culture” is an example of that. The Afro-Punk movie was subtitled The Rock’n’roll Nigger Experience. We are constantly tempted to talk about black experiences as The Black Experience. Making Shotgun Seamstress has been a way for me to keep myself company as one of few black punks in the various scenes I’ve been in, and it’s also been a mode of psychic liberation — maybe even decolonization — for me. Telling varied stories of varied black outsider experiences has proven to me the vastness of black self-expression. And then there’s all the time-consuming cut and paste layout, all the copying, collating, stapling and mailing…

I’ve always loved that with DIY and punk, your heroes aren’t untouchable — they’re your friends, they’re complex, they’re human. Who’re some of the people who’ve inspired you along the way? 

I’m trying to figure out if there’s a difference between inspiration and influence. Everyone I’ve ever interviewed is someone I’m inspired by, which is why I wanted to talk to them. I find inspiration every day in watching kids make art really recklessly and fearlessly without wondering whether its good or not. I get inspired by the physical beauty of New Orleans every single day. As far as punk specifically, I find the band Crass super inspiring. I have a photo of Gee Vaucher over my kitchen sink. I don’t even listen to them that much at the moment, but they were the full package. They tied music, visual art, politics, and lifestyle together seamlessly.

So much of punk is taking in inspiration from the others around you — and, as the genre evolves over time, its myriad histories — and using it to interpret what it means to you.

Yeah, but I think that’s true of art in general. I think punk is generally understood as a specific aesthetic, though, and that is a boring bummer to me. I’m caught somewhere between loving classic-sounding punk and also adoring those who are truly wild and know how to break free of those confines but STILL BE PUNK. And you’ve got excellent examples of this in the Midwest: Crucifucks, End Result, MX-80, and now bands like Coneheads.

Midwest and Texas bands have always been pretty amazing at cultivating little local scenes — like Northwest Indiana now, or Wisconsin in the Die Kreuzen days — to produce some weird stuff, whereas New York and LA have always seemed to be more about A Sound. New Orleans is a good example of the former to me, too.

NOLA is off the beaten path for sure. All my favorite local bands —UltralightMystic Inane, and Curved Dog — just kind of disappeared on me when members moved away and now I don’t know what to do.

It’s tough to make generalizations, but I think there’s something about existing off the beaten path (i.e. the coasts) that produces weird, cool bands. But also, maybe being a weirdo on the coasts just causes you to be obscured because you’re overshadowed by bigger bands. Like, I grew up in the DC area and knew about every Dischord band, but didn’t learn about No Trend until like five years ago.

Why is it important to you personally to focus on black/queer/female artists and promote that work in particular, to give those artists a home?

I don’t think I have focused on queer and female artists in particular. I think there are as many straight men in the zine as anyone else. Honestly, I’m not sure. I never paid attention to the ratio. In my life, I naturally listen to lots of female-fronted music, so of course I wanted to talk to Trash Kit and Poly Styrene and folks like that. In regards to gender and sexuality, I just wanted there to be varied representation, but no focus. I’m just as happy talking about Shawn Brown as I am talking about Vaginal Creme Davis. However, I definitely set out very intentionally to make a Black Punk Fanzine and it’s simply because I’m a black punk and didn’t know many black punks and wanted to create a world where that identity was normal.

I grew up reading my mom’s Ebony and Essence magazines, so a black-focused zine seemed normal to me. I resisted making it a “people of color” zine, because I spent seven years on the west coast where I was always one of the only full-black POC around. Most POCs I knew out there were fair skinned, biracial, and non-black people of color. I’m not trying to play Oppression Olympics, but being black is just different and I wanted to speak to that specific experience instead of constantly having my experience subsumed under this general “people of color” umbrella. And in my zine, I wasn’t thinking so much of giving those artists a home, I was thinking of giving a home to myself and readers who were looking for refuge in a predominantly white punk world.

Is there anything else you’d like to add regarding diversity in music history and punk specifically?

I would just like to say that the diversity in punk is THERE. It’s not something that is missing. It’s there. Over the last month, I’ve been obsessing over the Alley Cats, an old LA band fronted by an Asian woman named Dianne Chai. So many Latinos over the different generations of California punk, from Alice Bag to the Zeros to Sacchrine Trust to Stalag 13. Countless women, from musicians, to bookers to managers to photographers and filmmakers — Cynthia Connolly, Penelope Spheeris and so, so many more. Now, with the internet, you can find out about all of this stuff from the past very, very easily. You can pull up Alley Cats’ full album on YouTube. And that’s not to mention what’s going on right now: Downtown Boys, Pure Disgust, Sheer Mag, In School, CCTV, Glazer.

And that’s not to mention the entire world of zines. I’ve read amazing POC zines over the past year that are increasingly about whatever the fuck the writer is thinking about and not necessarily race/racism. I saw an amazing QTPOC movie with a punk rock soundtrack, written and directed by Alli Lowe, a black queer punk from Denton, Texas who recently moved to New Orleans. [The movie is untitled at the moment.] I see black kids skateboarding all over New Orleans every day. I think that we’re in the future and it feels great. If you want a place in punk, it’s yours. The way has already been paved. If you want in, all you have to do is participate.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Jes Skolnik contributes punk and cultural critique to Pitchfork, The Media, and Rookie; helped start Charm City Art Space in Baltimore and works on a nonprofit arts space called Pure Joy in Chicago; and played in the bands Population and currently, Split Feet.