The first Providence punk show I ever attended was a concert at AS220 last fall featuring Downtown Boys—a punk band whose music often promotes radical politics and centers its members’ identities as people of color. About halfway through the show, frontwoman Victoria Ruiz offered an invitation: women who wanted to be up front, without being pushed around, were welcome to join the band onstage. I looked up over the burly arms of many large, sweat-drenched male moshers and saw Ruiz pull the women up by the arms, stationing them right next to her as she screamed out her next furious lines. Ruiz was making a statement in line with the band’s anti-misogynist politics: the women the band valorizes in its music were now a part of the band’s stage presence.
I’ve attended more punk shows in Providence since then, but none have so actively aligned a radical, often political spirit of Downtown Boys’ brand of punk with the structure of the show space itself. Punk music is difficult to categorize, but as a broad genre, the movement finds definition in its rejection of musical norms and its oppositional political practices. While American interventionism and expanding police influence in the 70s and 80s highlighted US state power, punks during that time wanted their music to be uncontrollable; riot grrrl sought, in the 90s, to offer assertive representation to women of varying identities in its incorporation of third-wave feminism.
Many of the markers of these earlier versions of punk are still visible in Providence. Moshing, which originated in Orange County in the early 80s, often dominates the dancing at shows. Providence’s many DIY spaces carry a flame from the city’s grassroots rock heyday in the mid-90s, when warehouses like Olneyville’s Fort Thunder served as a petri dish for the city’s brand of punk.
While some of the elements of the Providence punk scene were once seen as progressive, they’re regular occurrences at some venues now. Moshing, once seen as a restructuring of the dancefloor as a combined outlet of aggression and intimacy, can be a weekly activity for the (often able-bodied, white, and male) inclined. The aggression involved also points to a kind of homogeneity: a population whose experiences of physical violence can be enjoyable, or at least limited to the dance floor.
Spark City, a DIY venue founded and operated by some of the members of Downtown Boys, was a leader in promoting a diverse lineup, and repeatedly hosted nights centered around queer artists and fans; they were evicted in February of this year, marking the loss of one of Providence’s most progressively-minded music spaces. Its absence marks an opportunity for other venues to invite the diverse audience Spark City once served.
Ruiz’s privileging of female show-goers presented a strong example of how venue space can be structured progressively and inclusively. By reinforcing the band’s politics, she was also offering a response to one of the scene’s most pressing concerns: how does Providence punk create safer spaces in a genre and experience defined by aggression itself?
The problem often prompts differing approaches—not least because the term “safe space” itself warrants different definitions for different parties. A safe space can aim for a broad range of goals, from the most basic precautions against assault to more nuanced protections of individual expression.
For AS220 Live Arts Director Jacob Nathan, AS220’s role in creating a safe space at its shows lies somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. The organization’s approach seems largely based on an organically developing relationship between audience, artist, and institution. Unlike other venues, they have no security team, relying instead on an implicit reciprocity between the space’s disparate parties. “We have developed a culture where we respect our audience and performers,” Nathan says, “and in turn they respect our spaces and organization.” This means that the cultural expectations against harassment are abided by through a self-regulating community. The freedom of the space is one of AS220’s draws for more aggressive acts—its booking is unjuried and uncensored—but Nathan sees this freedom as inspiring its own community regulation, rather than enabling harassment to occur unchecked.
Machines with Magnets, a Pawtucket-area venue, operates upon a similar principle, but with an even more intimate scope. “The general attitude of the staff is going to create a space—whatever that space is going to be,” the venue’s creative director, Michael McVay, told me. “You create a relationship with the people who are playing the music, and you monitor who is coming through the door, and their attitude.” Machines with Magnets does this by using the venue’s obscurity to its advantage: they avoid booking acts that are so large that the people gathering to enjoy the music don’t know each other, and Machines has yet to utilize its building’s front entrance, instead forcing fans to discover the space through the back door. “I will say that we’re looking to use the front entrance again in the next year,” McVay says, “and [questions of safety] are important considerations when that happens. There’s the possibility that [Machines'] bubble could be burst.”
Joey DeFrancesco, Downtown Boys’ lead guitarist and co-founder of Spark City, told me that a music scene’s bubbles, like the one at Machines, might actually limit a space’s claim to safety by limiting who can feel included in its insularity. “I think within the punk world especially, the emphasis on secrecy and keeping it tiny and exclusive definitely gets to be detrimental to the art form, and detrimental to the form as a means of social change,” he told me in a phone interview. “How are [people who are traditionally excluded] going to feel safe about entering [spaces] and joining this community?”
In his work with Downtown Boys and Spark City, DeFrancesco has developed a philosophy of foregrounding traditionally marginalized identities. In this, he diverges from the idea that punk communities could supersede barriers of race, class, and gender identity purely through being close-knit. “I think that show spaces, as much as we tend to focus on them, are going to be a reflection of the broader world,” he says. But like McVay and Nathan, he does see punk shows as an opportunity to take intentional safety measures. With a smaller space comes more opportunities for direct intervention, and more close-up oversight of how a show is going throughout a night. Downtown Boys’ frontwoman Ruiz, in addition to lifting women on stage, will designate spaces on the dance floor for opting in or out of moshing. “Even before and after the performance,” he says, “talking to people foreign to Providence… and giving them some point of contact in that space is a hugely important thing.”
Part of the work, he stresses, is making sure that a diverse group of people is present in the space to begin with. The onus can be equally on the bookers and the artists, and diverse booking was central to the existence of Spark City; now that the venue is gone, it’s up to extant venues to promote diversity within the music scene they represent. “I feel like the music in the city has moved in a good direction,” DeFrancesco said. “Of course, there’s that heyday that people like to think about in Providence, when there were all those mill spaces and Fort Thunder, and you look at that and you’re like, ‘they’re cool and I like so many of those bands, but then you know, this really is heavily dominated (at least with what gets memorialized) with straight white guys…. I feel like there’s an opening and bands coming up now that have people in them that weren’t being represented in that old music scene; there’s so many more acts that represent what the city actually looks like.”
One such up-and-coming act is Lovesick, a punk band consisting entirely of men of color. In an email, bassist and guitarist Nathan Phrathep told me he was thankful that he sees people of color attending Lovesick’s shows in what is otherwise often a whitewashed scene.“There have been times where we’ve gotten weird looks and people not believing we’re Lovesick,” he said, “and we believe that had to do with the fact we look different than the typical rock band.” He wanted to stress, however, that not all spaces he plays in have been homogeneous, and that Providence has treated Lovesick well. “We wouldn't have had as much traction as we do it if wasn’t for Providence.”
Shannon Le Corre, a local guitarist and singer in the folk-doom band Bloodpheasant and the all-female grunge band Gertrude Atherton, says that hardcore spaces can often push female artists and fans to the margins. “At some point, I realized that in the music business, guys take up a lot of space,” she told me. She has fought hard for respect—harder, she says, than many men in the same field—and has become a better guitarist for it. She resents the fact that, in the “pissing contest” of hardcore music, her acceptance is dependent on being able to play better than many of her male peers. “There’s not a lot of people going into music with the view that we still experience the power dynamics of the outside world, even though we’re playing punk music. In some ways those dynamics are there, and they become subtler.”
Part of the solution, she says, is combining the intimacy of DIY spaces with non-male and minority visibility. Even when all-male bands represent seemingly progressive attitudes, the homogeneity of representation can often stall efforts for more inclusion and safety based around non-white-male experiences. “They see themselves represented, so why would they care?” Le Corre sighs. “[The impetus for change] gets put on minorities of all sorts, which is frustrating, but how are we going to get a bunch of white guys to create safer spaces without actually taking up those spaces themselves?”
A few weeks after my first Downtown Boys show, I attended the Ladies Rock Camp showcase at Aurora, which provided an unexpected, yet powerful response to that question. The showcase was organized by Girls Rock! Rhode Island, an institution that provides camp programming for female-identifying adolescents and adults, with the aim to use “music creation and critical thinking to foster empowerment, collaborative relationships, and the development of healthy identities in girls and women.”
The showcase was the culmination of a three-day-long music and mentoring program, in which adult women with little-to-no musical experience formed bands, learned instruments, wrote and performed songs over the course of a weekend. People of all ages, many of them older women, milled about without the relative unease that comes from the culture of moshing. Nowhere was there a burly man looking to crush me with his midsection.
When I ask Hilary Jones, executive director of Girls Rock! Rhode Island, what the program can offer to the much less tame world of Providence punk, she tells me that the women in the program are “learn[ing] to take up space in a way where they might otherwise be uncomfortable doing so.” She hopes that the campers would bring the spirit of the program to other music communities throughout their lives. “This is a space that can be normal,” she stresses, optimistic about the possibilities of inclusion and expression of otherwise marginalized voices in spaces beyond the Girls Rock! program.
Through both the creation of tight-knit communities and the shaping of those communities through the inclusion of marginalized voices, many punk spaces could come to resemble the sense of a secure community of Ladies Rock. Even with the possibility of other spaces emulating it, the inviting warmth and creative spirit of that night still stay in my mind as extraordinary. Four bands, two of which featured women of color, took the stage and jammed out songs that would do the 90s feminist punk movement proud. “They/them, he/she, don’t identify me!” the Sisters Against Social Stereotypes (SASS) sang out. As another singer, a young Latina mother named Natalia Garcia, left the stage, and reflected on her inspiration. “I’m in shock. It’s unbelievable,” she said to me. “It’s so scary, it’s like, why not? It’s like the world is asking me, so what are you going to do now?”
WILL WEATHERLY B’19 hasn’t moshed in months, mostly because he’s dainty.