The role of platform for an artist, political figure, or really any athlete is an opportunity. Since our inception, Downtown Boys has always elected to use whatever platform we can in order to connect with people using culture as a weapon. We know that any time you bring a group of people into a room, there’s gonna be the same power dynamics that are happening outside of that room. And by no means do we have an expectation for it not to be. We want to play to a cross section of what reality is rather than to some hyper-curated group. Because we’re a traveling band—which not all bands are—we’ve traveled the country a couple of times. We play so many cities, and we’ve seen in one or two cities like McAllen, Texas or Oakland, California where we are playing and actually looking at people who look like us, and it’s so rare. Even in New York, people of color fight to come out to our shows, and fight for the front, but New York is so big and it’s also so gentrified. So the few shows where we see people who look like us, it’s so incredible, and we’re like, ‘this is reality for a lot of people.’ But ultimately, we know that that’s not how it is in a lot of the scenes that we’re playing in, and a lot of the cities that we’re in. So it’s an amazing thing when you’re playing to 200 black and brown people, but by no means is that an expectation, because we know that’s not a reality of the DIY scene. We absolutely try to confront the same power dynamics that are happening outside of the show inside of the show. One of the ways we do that is through using our platform to demand change, since our platform and our shows are our means and we will use our means as we think is most necessary.
We would love to take this chance to highlight three very distinct and different platforms that we have played in the Fall 2016 leading up to the Presidential Elections and some quotes from interviews about the shows.
People might now know this, but we are often driving for hours on end, getting to a venue or show location, setting up to play and then we use the time between to talk to people. We try to engage people coming to shows, figure out the political and social climate of where we are performing to the best of our ability, to not give anyone a canned show. One of the ways we do this is taking advantage of interview opportunities and working with show goers, writers, and other participants in the music scene who believe that culture is a mechanism for pushing the limits of the status quo.
One of the shows we playing in August of 2016 was AFROPUNK. They asked us about what it meant to be playing political music. The festival featured so many artists, mostly artists of color and was based in Brooklyn.
This is an excerpt from our interview with AFROPUNK.
AFROPUNK: “What about the intersection of art and activism? To what extent do you think those are inherent allies in the struggle for justice, or are you using that intersection in your own ways?”
Norlan Olivo (Drums): Everyone is political. Art is political; how you choose to go about it, or if you choose to use it in a political way. And we always have discussions about how because we’re a band that outwardly says political things in our art that happens to be a punk rock style band, we get asked a lot of these questions or we get put on the spot a lot. But you don’t hear anyone asking the Mumford Sons or these bands of all white men about political issues. It’s interesting that when you speak out, that you’re supposed to be a spokesperson for political action, but no-one’s holding these other bands accountable for not being political at all, when they should be political in a time when so many people of color are being killed by cops in the streets and so many injustices are happening in the streets. I think we use it in the way that we use it, but the question that should be asked more is why isn’t anyone else speaking up? And why aren’t these other bands or other people being held accountable in the same way that we’re being held accountable. Because I feel a lot of pressure as a male of color—when I went to art school, or when I walk into a space full of all white people, or whatever it may be—I feel a lot of pressure to be political or this speaking voice. And it’s an interesting dynamic.”
We also played a rowdy and beer filled festival in Raleigh, North Carolina called Hopscotch. It is a very special festival because it often brings together people from various independent music scenes for a festival that really does have a lot of bands who believe in an alternative music community. We closed out the festival, playing at a grungy and loud punk dive bar. There was a lot of intersectionality between different ages, music scenes, and social circles. We were so happy because there was a group of Latinx activists that came as a group and stood in the front and took the mic to sing “She’s Brown, She’s Smart,” at the end our song Monstro. Even at a weekend music festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, we were interviewed by an incredible Feminist Independent Mag called, “Hooligan Magazine.” They did an awesome “Women of Hopscotch” feature. This is what came out of that interview. Hooligan Mag is a
Chicago/Milwaukee based webzine that celebrates art.
Hooligan Magazine: “What is the earliest memory you have of creating something you were proud of?”
Victoria: In first grade I won a speech contest and it was throughout the whole district. My grandma came and she missed bingo, and after I won she was holding my hand and she was like, “Stay right here.” So we stayed in the middle of the doorway and all the people had to walk around us and she was like, “I want people to know you are my granddaughter.”
Mary: When I was in third grade I wrote a poem and it got an award. I remember working really hard on it and showing it to my family who didn’t speak English, and they didn’t really understand it, but it was about monsters. I don’t have the poem anymore, but I still have the award.”
Unique from Hopscotch and Afropunk are a set of shows we played called, “Rock Against the TPP.” Labor and community groups spearheaded by Fight for the Future came together to fight against the Trans Pacific Partnership. It was very exciting because we got to play with amazing people a rapper name Son of Nun and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine! More than anything, we were able to stand up against a trade deal that would be socially and economically terrifying.
This is a quote about the TPP from Melisma Magazine:
Melisma: “I read in old interviews that you guys have a lot of discussions on tour together about current events and political issues, and I was wondering if there was anything recent you wanted to bring attention to?”
Joey: This van ride over here we were talking about the TPP. The Trans-Pacific Partnership which is supposedly a free trade deal that’s being negotiated to the United States along with other countries. Something like 6 out of 30 articles don’t actually have anything to do with trade; a lot of it is giving power to corporate interests to regulate regulations in countries. So a corporation can come in if they don’t like an environmental regulation a particular state or country is imposing and sue that government for, supposedly, fringing upon their business interests. There’s that, and there’s many other things wrong. It’s this extra government judicial system that is essentially going to be run by corporations through this “free-trade agreement”. And this is something that has already been ratified at a certain level, but congress still needs to pass this agreement. So there’s a big fight right now to try and get congress to not pass this agreement. And I don’t know, that’s just one thing.”
Seeing the country and meeting so many people throughout the history of this band has afforded us tremendous opportunity. With the advent of a Trump Presidency and a huge increase in risk for so many immigrants, Muslims, People of Color, people with criminal records, poor people, and LGBTQ people, we will continue to tour and play shows and take space for messages of justice. We are close to finishing a new album. All the songs are relevant to confronting the injustice that the white supremacist president-elect represents, but to be honest, they would also be relevant to confronting the injustice Hillary would have represented as president. I think that’s because the music is not meant for the dictator, the boss, the creator of neoliberalism, the deporter-in-chief – the music is meant for everyone else. I think our music will continue to play an offensive game with culture rather than a defensive one. We don’t have to defend white culture and we don’t have to defend fear about being brown; we have to take space, we have to connect, and we have to change the game, not get held down by the players.
Subcomandante Marcos of the Zaptaistas in Mexico, has a quote that I think will drive our new music in a new way, though the music and the way will always be connected to our history as well: “The world we want to transform has already been worked on by history and is largely hollow. We must nevertheless be inventive enough to change it and build a new world. Take care and do not forget ideas are also weapons.”