Downtown Boys Are the Perfect Cure for the Great American Apathy

On February 1, the Spark City collective was unceremoniously evicted from the “Radical Cultural Space” that had been its home for three years. Amongst other things, the space had been the spiritual home of Downtown Boys, the activist punk band that Rolling Stone recently dubbed “the most exciting punk band on the planet.”

Flavorwire arrives in the band’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, just two days after the eviction, and their voices betray a defiant solemnity. “[Spark City] is where we practiced, that’s where we played a lot of shows, that’s where we put on a lot of our friends’ touring bands,” says Joey De Francesco, the band’s founding guitarist and vocalist. “It was a really cool space that had a lot of people who we wanted coming to a lot of our different shows. It was a really special community that we built at Spark City, and I think directly because of that, our landlord was threatened by it and kicked us out, while maintaining a lot of other tenants who were also noisy and had a lot of other things going on.”

Downtown Boys are what the French would call antagonistes—agitators, opponents of the status quo. They’re usually a five-piece, with Mary Regalado on bass, De Francesco on guitar, Adrienne Berry on saxophone, Norlan Olivo on percussion, and Victoria Ruiz doing lead vocals. Their music is brash and aggressive; Their politics are progressive and confrontational. De Francesco writes a lot of the music (but not all — Regalado wrote a recent tune), and Ruiz does most of the lyrics.

Their most recent full-length release, Full Communism, is bursting with energy, passion, and a platform: it’s a 24-minute sprint through brown pride anthems like “Monstro” (sample lyric: “She’s brown! She’s smart!”) and “Wave of History,” the music video for which is one of the more angry (and pretty!) PowerPoint presentations you’ll ever see.

Downtown Boys (L-R): Adrienne Berry, Joey La Neve DeFrancesco, Mary Regalado, Victoria Ruiz, and Norlan Olivo. Photo by Chona Kasinger.
Downtown Boys lounge in a booth at Olneyville New York System in Providence, Rhode Island. (L-R): Adrienne Berry, Joey La Neve DeFrancesco, Mary Regalado, Victoria Ruiz, and Norlan Olivo. Photo by Chona Kasinger.

Live, the music feels liberating, as if you can feel the apathy being beaten out of you, one downbeat at a time. Olivo will often drag his floor tom out into the crowd, bandana over his face like a villain in a western, banging it with his drumstick and physically challenging the audience with his invasion of their space. Ruiz often freestyles rants to intro songs that blend seamlessly into the music, and it can be hard to tell where the speech ends and the song begins.Their shows are energizing, but don’t always win new fans; sometimes their challenge of the status quo doesn’t go over so well with, well…the status quo.

“We’re just trying to bring the show space into the rest of our lives,” says Ruiz. “Trying for it to not be a show, but a moment to bring what’s going on outside of those walls in, and then hopefully take it back out. We are really adamant about not appropriating language, not saying anything just to say it, but saying it because it’s necessary and because it relates to our experiences. Ultimately, a lot of people think that the stuff we say or our experiences are somehow insulting to them. But I think that that’s part of the fear that a lot of people have, to actually see and hear what it’s like going on in our status quo.”

Victoria Ruiz and Adrienne Berry. Photo by Chona Kasinger.
Victoria Ruiz and Adrienne Berry. Photo by Chona Kasinger.

It’s no act. The band’s activism goes beyond just the music; they use their songs to mobilize people. In Providence, outside of the arts spaces and the city council meetings, the front line on the war on poor and brown people is right downtown, inside the luxury Renaissance Hotel. It’s where Ruiz met De Francesco, and where the current iteration of Downtown Boys was formed. De Francesco worked at the hotel for almost five years. Ruiz was only there about 12 months, working in the call center. But it didn’t take long to see people getting exploited. Ruiz says people of color hired to work the front desk would only be placed on the desk during overnight shifts, otherwise being relegated to the call center. There was a complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board, alleging “multiple acts of interfering with, restraining and coercing employee organizing rights, including interrogation and illegal promises of benefits to induce workers to abandon union organizing.” The hotel was ordered to cease and desist their union-busting tactics.

During his time at the Renaissance, De Francesco made several attempts to unionize the workforce; a election was recently held, and the housekeeping department voted to form a union. But the hotel’s tactics are ruthless; they busted any chance for a successful unionization of the room service employees — of which De Francesco was a part — by subcontracting that service out to another company.

“The housekeeping department is a lot of people of color, a lot of older people of color, a lot of people with children,” Ruiz says. “They’re dealing with chronic injuries from the job, and from all of the chemicals. This is a luxury hotel where people are paying tons of money per night. When we worked there it [had debt] owned by JPMorgan Chase, and [it] was also running the bank accounts for people with food stamps… what was so interesting was that you were simultaneously working with all these people in the hotel and you were also realizing how this one hotel is being given so much money by the state, by the city — this political entity and how capitalism is no longer one person who’s an owner of something and you can go and [prosecute] them. It really is embedded within this wider system.”

Mary Regalado and Norlan Olivo.
Mary Regalado and Norlan Olivo.

Ruiz got her first taste of engaging with the “system” back in California, where her mother would bring her to city council meetings. In college at Columbia in New York,  she fought against the rapid gentrification of Harlem and her school’s assimilation of the neighborhood. She came to Providence, like the rest of the band, because of its thriving arts scene and the fact that it was “cheaper than New York.” The city’s small size also meant room to grow, a place where an organizer could get involved immediately.

“That’s what’s so cool about Providence. It was like if you want to be involved with something, you can,” Ruiz says. “I got involved with D.A.R.E. — the Direct Action for Rights and Equality — working on the Ban the Box campaign, [advocating for] incarcerated people.”

Adrienne Berry.
Adrienne Berry.

De Francesco is from Hartford, Connecticut; the only arts community he had ever heard of was in Providence. Berry hails from Michigan; she followed the music, and the town reminded her of home. “It really reminded me of Detroit in some ways,” she says. “It felt cool. It felt like a good place.” Spark City may not be open, but AS220, a local nonprofit arts space, still is—Olivo has lived there for “four or five years.” He reps hard for the town’s “underdog” mentality, which is evident in his photography; before our meeting, we saw him photographing some of his prints in situ at a local gallery space.

None of them work at the Renaissance Hotel anymore; De Francesco may have killed that when he famously recorded a video of his old band, the What Cheer? Brigade, play him out of the building after he turned in his letter of resignation to his boss. The clip went viral, from network morning shows to the New York Times. It even reached across the pond to Serbia; the song What Cheer? played him off with was an old Serbian folk song, and the local media ate it up, flying him out to appear on Serbian television.

Back in Providence, Spark City may be dead (or on life support), but Spark Mag has risen from its ashes. David Segal, an organizer and former Rhode Island State Representative (and massive Downtown Boys fan), has allocated funds from the 501(c)4 nonprofit Demand Progress to seed the site, which publishes arts and culture content while driving engagement in social activism. It’s run by De Francesco and Ruiz, who commission articles — often by artists themselves — that would otherwise not likely see the light of day. “It’s giving this type of artist more control,” De Francesco says, “A more explicit voice over what they’re trying to convey that gets obscured so much of the time.”

Joey De Francesco. Photo by Chona Kasinger.
Joey De Francesco. Photo by Chona Kasinger.

The site’s staff wears a few different hats (artist, journalist, activist) that historically have been kept separate. But the phenomenon of artists as journalists is becoming quite common, and some of the best journalism is often done by activists. And it seems really hard to find fault in the things sought by Demand Progress, and subsequently Spark Mag: Basic human rights; a free and open internet; open government. That these demands seem so basic — but remain unmet — is what makes organizers necessary.

As Downtown Boys take their message on the road, they’re conscious of not staying in an information silo, only surrounding themselves with people who agree, preaching to the choir. “We could literally only play with people who think like us and act like us, but we’re not doing that,” Ruiz says. “So it ends up where there’s oftentimes not going to be new friends. But there will be new moments.”

Next up is a short run with Sheer Mag (“I really love Tina [Halladay],” Ruiz admits), through SXSW, Monterrey, Mexico, and the Galax Z Fair in McAllen, Texas, a place Olivo calls “The coolest.” Why? “A bunch of young, cool people of color. Everywhere.”

Downtown Boys (R-L): Mary Regalado, Victoria Ruiz, Joey La Neve DeFrancesco, Adrienne Berry, and Norlan Olivo.
Downtown Boys (R-L): Mary Regalado, Victoria Ruiz, Joey La Neve De Francesco, Adrienne Berry, and Norlan Olivo.