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WOMXN TO THE FRONT: FEMINIST PUNK IN AOTEAROA (FULL STORY)

WOMXN TO THE FRONT: FEMINIST PUNK IN AOTEAROA (FULL STORY)

by Kate Powell

Kate has been a published arts columnist and critic since 2013. Her work has featured in the New Zealand Herald, Waikato Times, Rip It Up, Audioculture, The Big Idea and more.


Photo - Dick Move - by Connor Crawford 

Aotearoa’s underground music scene has always championed a DIY ethos; a gritty sensibility that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and demands that you sit up and pay attention. This attitude has always lent itself well to punk. But in the last decade, it has been a real joy to see our womxn pushing themselves to the front and making their voices heard.

Make no mistake, feminist punk does not begin and end with the Riot Grrrl era of the 1990s. It stretches back far beyond and remains a vital force in 2020. In the last two decades, we have seen increased austerity and the rise of the #MeToo movement. Coupled with a lifetime of wage gaps, environmental pillaging, policing of bodies, vocal rejection of the gender binary and colonial forces to name but a few, it is no wonder that anger on the streets has spilled onto the stage and that womxn are leading the charge. 

Below are the thoughts of some of the best established, emerging and unsigned womxn in Aotearoa punk right now dissecting what it means to be a womxn and an artist in 2020. There are similarities, differences and everything in between. Nothing is static, but their voices speak volumes. Womxn to the front forever.

Kate Powell, 2020

Contenders

For the last 20 years, Kirikiriroa Hamilton has been a hotbed of punk in Aotearoa, and Contenders are the city’s finest export. Their debut LP released in 2019 is one of the most compelling and fun punk records in recent years and was on high rotation on 95bFM. Blending early punk with elements of rock n’roll and 1980s hardcore, Contenders have made a name for themselves for blistering live shows that harness the raw energy of Dead Kennedy’s and the catchy, sarcastic snarl of Poly Styrene but they still manage to make it sound fresh and urgent. Onstage, singer Cilla Kinnaird has a seemingly indominable presence, but she hasn’t always felt so confident.

“I was in Barbershop during High School and played drums in a couple of punk bands (Boring Girls and Pink Bats) but for a long time, I felt too shy to sing” she recalls. “Seeing other female-fronted punk bands like Rogernomix perform really opened those doors for me – it felt relatable and like something I can do.” After joining Contenders, Kinnaird began writing songs, something she has always loved. “It’s a very precious thing to me – you get so much freedom yet so much restriction and I always think about who might hear it.”

When it comes to their music, Kinnaird believes that Contenders are a feminist band only as much as the audience considers themselves to be a feminist band. “I write about so many different things because there are so many important things to talk about, such as the environment or police brutality” she says. “Through my songs, I’m encouraging people to step back and think about the autonomy they may have over their own lives. That overarching idea of freedom of choice across all of our songs could be read as feminist in a way, but it all comes down to the person in the audience and how they relate to it.” As a singer, Kinnaird does not bristle with the usual aggression we have come to expect from punk. This has been a deliberate shift for her as she has found her voice on a male-dominated stage.

“Initially when we started Contenders I used noisier vocals and was aggressive in my delivery. I got to a point where I instinctively didn’t always need that aggression in my voice because my performance and songs did require that approach. The early years taught me a lot about writing and figuring out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. There can be an expectation for feminist punk music to be really aggressive, loud and in your face and maybe traditionally it has been. But it’s like it almost had to be [during the 1980-90s] and it’s because of their early efforts that I don’t have to be aggressive, but I can still get my point across. It’s still an ongoing battle of women to the front. Despite her staunch feminist beliefs, Kinnaird struggles with how the identifier is used in the male-dominated music sector.

“My beliefs line up with feminism and I will never not call myself a feminist. But also, having to be labelled a feminist feels unnatural because if it is what you believe, it just is” she says. “I respect the feminist movement, although it is frustrating at times being labelled a feminist just because you front a punk band. [Because] it’s all part of the male construct, the male-dominated industry that we say ‘female artists’ – we shouldn’t have to say that. It’s because of the male-dominated industry that we have to put our foot down and say ‘I’m here and I belong here.’ An important part of being a feminist is that you’re speaking for yourself as well as every other woman, which is a beautiful thing. Ultimately, I’m just a woman doing what I want to do, and you can take that any which way, but in the end it is feminism.”

Looking forward, Kinnaird says “there’s a lot of incredible female expression now, but there’s going to be way more further down the track. Punk is such a great vehicle for expression – it’s still so exciting and fresh and an alternative route. But there are still so many walls to be broken down for women. As we see those barriers being broken down in real life, that’s when we will see more freedom for women to express themselves truly, without any weird social constructs that we may have been given in day-to-day life.” She would like to see “more effort and time spent listening to and discovering women artists because the more you listen and discover, the more you're going to hear something you like and book them. There’s still a lot of male-dominated festival line-ups and women struggle to be taken seriously and recognised in a male-dominated world, even if they are incredible.”

Dick Move
Photo by Connor Crawford

Dick Move

Tāmaki-makau-rau Auckland based Dick Move (pictured above) are something of a local supergroup, comprising of members of Master Blaster, ShitripperNa Noise and Dateline. Their debut album Chop! was released on October 16 and in line with their live shows, it's a ripper. They crackle with an authentic DIY energy, youthful anger and the type of enthusiasm that only comes with learning as you go. Make no mistake, singer Lucy Suttor perfectly encapsulates a classic punk sound and ethos. “Before Dick Move, I’d not sung at all and Lulu [Macrae] learnt the bass to be in the band” recalls Suttor. “I found singing terrifying. I’m from an acting background and I was notoriously the one in my class at drama school that didn’t sing” she laughs. 

But like Kinnaird, Suttor found herself inspired by watching the amazing women performing as she worked the bar at Whammy. “They made me feel like I could get up there and do it too. Now I bloody love it. I guess my background helped me feel comfortable on stage, but then I realised it's less about holding a tune and more about screaming about what is happening around you and feeding off the people in front of you. The crowd really helps.”

She describes Dick Move as a “hard, fast, and spitty socialist punk band - we want people to have fun while they’re being fed these important messages.” Initially, they shied away from being labelled a feminist band. "It was more about turning late night politics chats into songs for everyone and anyone who needed to hear it. But when you have a front woman on stage screaming about injustice it just naturally evolves into that, and I'm beginning to see why naming that thing is important. We will always be fighting this fight and as long as women are still being oppressed, we will sing and scream about it." 

Considering the feminist punk movement in the last decade. Suttor says “you’ve seen women be a lot more comfortable taking up space, not just onstage, but in crowds and mosh pits. There has been a really empowering feedback between performers and crowds.”

This sense of lifting each other up is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that many of Dick Move’s songs are inspired by conversations Suttor has with women directly after their show. “I once had a woman come up to me after a show and say "fuck I needed that" and that's awesome. And inspiring. And ultimately why I do it, I've realised. Punk music should be as cathartic to watch as it is to perform. When we first started performing we made an effort to say ‘women to the front;’ now we don’t even have to say it, there are two or three rows of women [in the front]. I also write about songs that are reflective of my own experience – about being a woman, growing up a woman working in bars too.”

“Hopefully we start to see more balanced line-ups at festivals; we’ve really begun to see people calling out inequalities there” says Suttor. "That's ultimately the responsibility of the promoters. The artists are there, ready to be asked. It's really not hard. We are getting better, but we still have a way to go."

Rogernomix

In case you haven’t picked it up yet, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington’s Rogernomix are titans within Aotearoa’s punk scene. For the last decade their angular, aggressive, classic punk sound has inspired countless people up and down the country to pick up an instrument and scream their discontent. Rogernomix were born out of the ashes of Auckland and Wellington punk bands The Wrongmen and Shortlived. They wear their political and sonic influences on their sleeve and are nothing short of enthralling. Their 2018 EP Punch a Nazi in the Face is an excellent example of their modus operandi; it simultaneously makes you want to dance and destroy a capitalist, colonialist, patriarchal world.

“Political commentary is generally where Rogernomix is coming from, though feminist issues crop up” says bassist Sarsha Leigh DouglasWhen asked to comment on any resurgence of feminist punk in the last decade, she responds “I don’t think I’ve perceived any real resurgence lately to be honest. Maybe I’ve had a unique experience in that there’s always been a feminist presence over the couple decades of my involvement in the punk scene. Additionally, I’ve noticed Wellington particularly has had a consistent female presence at shows, in bands, and the community as a whole over the years.”

“The Aotearoa punk scene has some really good music and bands” says Douglas. “I think our isolation and unique colonial structure is reflected in how our punk scene is: Slightly depressing, manifesting in our music through angry, tongue-in-cheek, nihilistic boredom.” For her, the impact of colonialism and race is key to her creative output.

“I grew up feminist, with my Mum laying some strong foundations” Douglas says. “When I moved to Wellington, my affinity with anarchism was confirmed. I’m not as active nowadays, but the ideas still resonate. Colonisation is a constant aggravation to deal with. Indigenous rights are at the centre of my politics. Indigeneity and race are aspects that I still find the most conflict within punk circles, let alone out in the wild mainstream world. Shit is interconnected though. Feminism, trans rights, gay rights, environmental issues - these things cannot be viewed in isolation.”

Recognising “when spaces are not equal or safe for womxn and [doing] something about it” is one way Douglas believes the punk scene can become more inclusive. “Don’t wait for womxn to bring shit up. Be mindful of taking up too much space.”

Unsanitary Napkin live at Audio Foundation

Unsanitary Napkin

Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington’s Unsanitary Napkin’s (pictured above) vocalist/guitarist Hannah Salmon first started calling out male chauvinism in the pages of her Zine Daily Secretion. After a few jams with Downer Buzz’s bassist Rupert Hunter, Salmon began putting pen to paper, exploring themes of inequality and power abuse due to classism and sexism. By the time she had finished, they had roped in drummer Ben Knight from Rogernomix to create Unsanitary Napkin

The band merges “angry punk with a poppy, humorous aspect to it to draw attention to the ridiculousness of the things we are critiquing” Salmon explains. With a back catalogue that balances an angry snarl with a cheeky wink, irreverence with danceability, Unsanitary Napkin are a consistently bold and unflinching force on our musical landscape. “I often wonder what people make of our music” muses Salmon. “Personally, I identify with the label anarcho-feminist and record labels such as Crass Records. I don’t think we necessarily sound like those bands, but it’s an ideological alignment.

Salmon reaffirms the common theme weaving through female-fronted bands of feeling “very self-conscious about performing. Women are disproportionately impacted by imposter syndrome.” She first met Hunter at various political events. “There was a shared values system from the start, and I think a mutual understanding about the types of songs that we were going to play. Punk is all about championing ideas and critiquing systems, so it was a logical musical outlet."

While Salmon is glad that “there is more of a spotlight on feminine diverse and non-binary bands, there is still a lot to be done regarding representation and diversity. There are cool initiatives present though, like destroywhitesupremacy, which spotlights people of colour in the punk and metal scenes. Recently, Selina from [Wellington band] Bowel Rupture was profiled. “I’d like to see more education around equipping people with the language and actions to create safe spaces where there really is no sexism, violence, homophobia or transphobia.”

Hagseed. Photo by Caspar Kneale Photography

Hagseed

Taking their name from a Shakespearian insult that means ‘Children of Witches,’ Tāmaki-makau-rau Auckland’s Hagseed are a vicious 3-piece, serving up grunge-tinged punk, consisting of ex-members of Slughugger and Penny Dreadfuls. Their EP ‘Incantations/Exorcism’ is set to be released by the end of the year.

Their formidable live show crackles with static and discontent. They are visceral without pretention, offering a space to let emotions flow freely and without judgement. “We write and perform with the intention of catharsis,” explains vocalist Alanna Wolf. “We are writing about personal experiences, through a critical intersectional feminist lens…We’ve all been involved in political collectives and radical politics, it’s that old saying – the personal is political.”

“The intersectional definition is important,” agrees bassist Cee Te Pania. “To take feminism and not consider all the facets that impact it is not our vibe. It’s inherent in what we do because of all the intersections of our own identities; for me, being queer, takatāpui Māori in colonial Aotearoa means there are a lot of issues that impact our communities both here and abroad. Intersectional feminism recognises the overlap.

Like all of the bands, Hagseed is keen to see a bigger and more inclusive scene that actively supports women and non-binary musicians. “People get burnt out by bullshit so they move onto another genre or art form” says Cee. “We want to foster a sense of community amongst alternative bands that aren’t cis, white men” Alanna continues. “I feel like women, non-binary people, and people of colour can come in and say ‘hey we’ve got different musical influences and different perspectives, we want to take up space and offer something different than the status quo.’ There is definitely still backlash to being confrontational and pushing boundaries, but we’re up for the challenge.”

“I feel like we’re living in a feminist resurgence internationally” continues Alanna. “There are musicians and event organisers who are consciously diversifying their events, but there is always a need to keep breaking new ground.” Cee adds: “It’s great to see bands like Fantails and DÄHTM incorporate Te Reo Māori into their songs because that is of course so unique to Aotearoa.” Cee is Ngā Puhi and Te Rarawa and they are on a path to “learning Te Reo Māori in a decolonised and indigenised way” which they can incorporate into Hagseed’s creative output. “There’s a lot of power in reclaiming a language – in my case when using Te Reo Māori onstage in front of a predominantly Pākehā audience they have no choice but to whakarongo mai. That’s important.”

1 comment


  • As a father of 3 daughters and being in a band with 2 womxn I’m all for getting more womxn on stage and the industry. I also love punk and will be checking these bands out next time they’re in town!!!

    Selwyn Rowe on

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