The Evolving Politics of Punk in the Nation's Capital


The Evolving Politics of Punk in the Nation's Capital

Retrospective projects like the library's new Punk Archive uncover D.C.'s radical past, but the scene remains at the center of the struggle for inclusion and human rights.

July 15, 2015

Photos by Mike Maguire

One Thursday evening in December, beyond the signs for Microsoft Word tutorials and panel discussions on language immersion, a popular local punk band named Priests delivered a blazing performance in the basement of Washington, D.C.’s Martin Luther King Jr. public library.

Before the doors opened, attendees gathered in a hot and crowded hallway, next to tables displaying books curated to the night’s guests: an oral history of punk, a Bob Dylan biography, a chronology of the riot-grrrl movement. When the doors finally opened, parents with children on their shoulders and teenagers with dyed-blue hair and safety-pinned jackets filed past librarians who stamped their hands with “WITHDRAWN.”

“Librarian joke,” one of them said with a smirk.

Less than a week before, Priests had played to a full crowd at one of the District of Columbia’s top music venues, the 9:30 Club, where the price of admission was $25. But the show in the library basement was free and for all ages. It was a celebration of the library’s newly created Punk Archive, a project meant to document, save, and catalog the city’s punk and hardcore history and culture.

Opening for Priests were two other local bands, Blockhead and Nox. Many of the performers, like the three high-school girls comprising Nox, weren’t old enough to have seen the bands celebrated by the Punk Archive—bands like Bad Brains, Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, and Minor Threat that thrived during the District’s punk heyday, which began in the late 1970s and continued into to early ’90s.

The flyer for the MLK Library basement show in December 2014

Located about a half-mile from the White House, the MLK Library is a modernist, glass-and-steel structure that looms large among the downtown office buildings housing lobbyists and special-interest groups.

If it seems surprising that such a strait-laced city has long been a hotbed of a stripped-down, confrontational genre of music, consider the logic of it: Where better to nurture a political, anti-authority art form than the home of that authority?

That a public library is the latest institution to commemorate a genre centered on fighting the establishment might also be counterintuitive, but the sense of D.C.’s past punk glory is strong and for many it is an inextricable part of local culture. Recent years have seen a number of documentary films and projects memorializing the District’s punk scene. But the rash of recent reminiscence has prompted some to meditate on the timing: Perhaps it’s pure coincidence, or perhaps a couple of decades is just the typical time lapse before nostalgia sets in.

Or perhaps, for a city that has undergone massive changes in the past decade—hyperspeed development, skyrocketing cost of living, neighborhood gentrification, and demographic shifts—the reason for the current retrospective is not simply to document the music; it’s to document the way the city used to be. The hope for those active in D.C.’s music scene is that despite all the change and all the looking back, art here can still take on its own meaning and propel change.



(Photo: Mike Maguire)

Priests performed a free show in the basement of D.C.'s central public library. Less than a week earlier, they had opened for the Dismemberment Plan at the city's famous 9:30 Club. In this photo is bassist Taylor Mulitz (left) and singer Katie Alice Greer. Other members of the band include drummer Daniele Daniele and guitarist G.L. Jaguar.

MLK’S PUNK ARCHIVE ISN'T the first such collection of local music. George Washington University houses a vernacular music archive that includes punk items, and also features folk music and go-go—D.C.’s homegrown fusion of funk, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop. Academic institutions across the country preserve local art and music, and Michele Casto, special collections librarian and curator of the Punk Archive, cites the University of Louisville’s Underground Music Archive as another example. It is a testament, though, to the tremendous impact Washington, D.C.’s scene has had on the genre that the Punk Archive was recently awarded a four-minute segment on the BBC, which included footage from the first basement show in October, featuring the feminist punk band Hemlines.

“I’m constantly, constantly amazed at how much great local music is being produced here,” Casto said. “We don’t just mean Minor Threat or Fugazi—it’s much more expansive.” She hopes that eventually the archive will feature other aspects of the District’s music culture, specifically go-go and jazz.

Elizabeth Sauvage of the band Coup Sauvage and the Snips, which played the library basement in April, is all for that. “Just because D.C. punk was the dominant white-kid form of expression at the time, it doesn’t mean there was a space for me or others like me,” said Sauvage. “However, for better or worse, we are an extension of that punk and hardcore scene, having grown up steeped in it and the DIY ethos of this town. But in no way is that all we are. Plus there’s a whole other rich vein of D.C. music that gets ignored.”

The Punk Archive’s intention of including other aspects of the District’s musical heritage, from go-go to Black Broadway (as the U Street Corridor was known) is widely supported. “D.C. is not known as a cultural capital,” Mark Andersen, historian of the punk scene and community activist, told me. “Part of the blindness to D.C.’s cultural richness is racism. The importance of that history should not be underestimated.”

In the third-floor special collections section of the MLK library, Casto showed me the corner where all the punk artifacts are being stored. I asked to see the collection of riot-grrrl zines, and she pulled down a box filled with neat stacks of the black-and-white books from the early 1990s, made on photocopiers. I carefully thumbed through the pages of defiantly feminist poetry, essays, and art. Casto moved to a table where posters were layered between clear plastic. Many of them were for shows featuring the band the Slickee Boys, who were active during the 1970s and ’80s.

A shorter-term goal of Casto’s is to create and online portal with PDFs of the punk posters and zines, streaming music, and links to other archives. Guests to the collection will also be able to listen to donated cassettes and vinyl LPs. “It’s telling a story with context,” she explained. “The archival material will bring the descriptive content to life.”

In addition to all the fans who contributed their mementos to the archive, Casto has a roster of dozens of volunteers anxious to donate their time to building websites or cataloging content.

A wealth of archival material came when Casto got in touch with filmmaker James Schneider, a connection that helped catalyze the archive project she said library staff had been discussing for months. During the course of creating the forthcoming documentary Punk the Capital: Straight from Washington, D.C., Schneider and co-filmmaker Paul Bishow compiled enormous amounts of historical material, ranging from rare photographs and posters to more than a mile of Super-8 footage.

(Photo: Mike Maguire)

Ian Svenonius and his band Chain and the Gang perform at the MLK Memorial Library in January. Svenonius's music career has included multiple Washington, D.C.-based bands, including the Make-Up and Nation of Ulysses.

The workspace for the Punk the Capital documentary is in a century-old building in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. (Casto lives in the same building, and had helped the filmmakers secure their space.) Just a couple blocks away is the building that was once the fabled Madams Organ house (not to be confused with Madam’s Organ, a nearby bar). By varying descriptions, Madams Organ was in the late 1970s an art space, a collective, a music venue, and a punk squatter’s paradise.

The heart of Schneider and Bishow’s film is rare footage of early Madams Organ shows, filmed long before the neighborhood of Adams Morgan was transformed into the nightlife mecca it is now. “It’s a really symbolic place where the old passes into the new,” Schneider said.

Sitting in front of the large computer monitor in his studio, Schneider scrolled past grainy Super-8 footage of an early Bad Brains show and hit play on an interview with Brian Baker of Minor Threat. “This is the soundtrack to my teenage years, basically,” Schneider said.

“Doing things here takes on a new meaning, of fighting the power,” Schneider said of the punk scene in the nation’s capital. “It created a charged atmosphere, where you had to take a stand for who you were and what you believed. It has meaning beyond the music.”

Now nearing completion, according to Schneider, Punk the Capital will be the latest in a spate of films devoted to the District’s scene and its history. There’s Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. (1980-90), and Positive Force: More Than a Witness, about the punk activist organization of the same name. Then there’s last year’s D.C. episode of Dave Grohl’s HBO series, Sonic Highways, and the upcoming documentary about H.R. of Bad Brains, called Finding Joseph I.

“I hope it is more than nostalgia, because nostalgia is kind of a totally anti-punk thing,” Mark Anderson said in an October appearance on WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show. “Punk is about now.”

Coup Sauvage and the Snips perform in the basement of Washington, D.C.'s central library in April. The ongoing series of shows in in support of the library's Punk Archive.

Andersen is the author of and contributor to several books, including Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. A co-founder of Positive Force D.C., which has been organizing benefit shows and raising money in the District for more than three decades, he has been active in the city’s punk community since he moved here in 1984. Today he co-directs We Are Family, a senior outreach program, embracing what he calls a “punk approach” to community activism.

“The D.C. punk scene was always about growth and community,” he told me earlier this year. That sense of collectivity is what artists like Schneider are trying to capture, and it’s almost palpable even for artists as young as Anna Wilson, one of the members of Nox, who played the basement show in December with Priests.

Wilson, 15, is a member of the vinyl club at D.C.’s Alice Deal Middle School, which was formed when she was a student there. She has been taking guitar lessons for years from musician Mary Timony (of Helium, Wild Flag, and, now, Ex Hex), who helped connect her six years ago with the two other members of Nox, Stella Green and Claire. She now attends Wilson High School in Northwest D.C.—the same high school that Ian MacKaye attended. (MacKaye, of Minor Threat, Fugazi, and co-founder of Dischord Records, is arguably the most revered figurehead of local punk.)

For Anna Wilson, punk is still important because the issues the members of Fugazi wrote about—war, commercialism and capitalism, racism and sexism—haven’t gone away. “[Punk] influences how I think—you learn from it,” she said. “I think that what a lot of punk songs have in common is that they’re saying something.”

“Growing up here,” Wilson explained, “my parents were always playing Fugazi and go-go bands. You definitely get a reminder and a sense of what it was like.”

But what it was like 30 years ago is very different than it is now. As rent goes up and as noisy rehearsals and performances become less acceptable in gentrified neighborhoods, the documentaries and archive projects are a reminder of what it used to be like in the city that nurtured bands like Fugazi and gave rise to independent record labels like Dischord. But that doesn’t mean that punk’s fusillade of social commentary has ended; it just looks and sounds a bit different than it has in the past, as the genre widens to embrace more groups and new messages. And when it comes to showing how the city has changed, punk’s singers are yelling about it.


(Photo: Mike Maguire)

Chain and the Gang perform in the front hall of the Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library in Washington, D.C., in January. The show was part of the Fringe: Music in the Library series.

WHILE THE CITY SEEMS to have a hard time letting go of the past, the lines defining what is punk, never well-defined, have become blurrier. Though most articles on Priests insist on describing the band as punk, Katie Alice Greer, the band’s singer, remains skeptical of the word, saying it’s more important for the band to have a clear vision of what its members value, and to make art about that. Perhaps that’s because even bands as popular as Priests have a hard time avoiding reviews that mention Ian MacKaye or Fugazi, no matter how different their sound.

“I do think it’s important to write your own history,” Greer told me. “But the only reason to spend time looking backward is to understand where you’re going, to look forward. I just don’t want to be interviewed a million times about Fugazi and other bands when I’m pouring myself into my own music right now.”

“D.C. is really good at mythologizing its punk and hardcore past,” said Kristina Sauvage of Coup Sauvage and the Snips. (The members of the Haus of Sauvage decline to use their “government” names.) “But let’s not forget that as radical as it purports to be, it was hardly as inclusive as it could have been. There have always been people—especially women, queer people, and folks of color—who have felt alienated and been pushed to the margins in punk. It’s hard for me as a black woman who grew up in the D.C. area to be too focused on a past that didn’t always make room for me.”

Three decades later, even as the fight for inclusion continues, a new intersectionality is emerging in the local punk movement, a remedy for the slew of retrospective projects that feature a sea of predominately white and male faces.

Coup Sauvage’s music combines disco, hip-hop, house, electronic, and dance with a message that challenges power structures and calls for progressive action and awareness. They defy an easy genre label, though they accept the term “dance-punk.”

“We’ve also been called neo-soul,” said Kristina Sauvage, the lead singer. “Because apparently when there are three black women singing, that automatically equals soul.”

(Photo: Mike Maguire)

Kristina Sauvage of Coup Sauvage and the Snips performs at the library basement show in April, in support of the library's Punk Archive. "D.C. is really good at mythologizing its punk and hardcore past,” she says. “But let’s not forget that as radical as it purports to be, it was hardly as inclusive as it could have been.”

Their April performance in the MLK Library basement was joyous and glamorous—the completely sober 7:30 p.m. crowd was all smiles and dance—and at the same time profoundly moving. Especially moving was the song “Requiem for a Mountaintop,” in which Kristina calls out the names of victims of police violence. “We dance for every black and queer and trans body that’s been told our lives don’t matter, because we know they do,” she exclaimed before Crystal and Rain Sauvage joined in with the lyrics “Hands up, don’t shoot, no more strange fruit.”

Above all, though, the performance was provoking and motivating. Their song “Don’t Touch My Hair” elicited cheers, and “Heir to Nothing,” about gentrification that displaces longtime residents and erases the city’s cultural history, produced claps and knowing nods in the audience. They might not have sounded like what some would expect punk to sound like, but the gloomy basement was infused with a sense of radical possibility and, importantly, inclusion.

Now less a distinctive sound or look than it is a way of creating art, perhaps punk’s truest indicator is its DIY ethos—the idea that art need not have a steep entrance fee, and that anyone with a guitar can be a creator without help from the commercial industry (or even music lessons).

With punk’s lo-fi values, the absence of the kinds of barriers posed by requirements of virtuosity or fancy equipment provides a path to those who would crash its gates.

For the decade and a half she has lived in the District, Julie Yoder, the drummer of Hemlines (whose newsletters to fans often include links to social justice stories), has been active in promoting women’s inclusion in local music. She is a founding member of Girls Rock! DC, a weeklong summer camp where volunteers teach girls to play instruments and form bands, with the mission of instilling confidence and creating supportive and creative spaces. She was also one of the planners of the legendary LadyFest music festival in the early 2000s.

“The accessibility—in terms of going from not knowing how to play an instrument to knowing how to play it enough to compose a song with other people in a short period of time—is a big part of what punk means to me,” said Yoder. “You don’t have to wait around to consume art; you can do it yourself.”

It helps, too, that D.C.’s punk scene is particularly encouraging and welcoming to new artists. “I feel like people are so supportive, just by showing up and saying that you want to be part of everything,” said Dana Liebelson, the bassist for Hemlines. “It’s been kind of overwhelming.”

(Photo: Mike Maguire)

Coup Sauvage and the Snips perform the song "Don't Touch My Hair" in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in April. The lyrics include the lines "I see you there, I know you're eyeing me/Staring like I'm some great mystery."

“It is a lot of pressure,” added guitarist and singer Katie Park, because instant acceptance can also mean instant placement in a legacy.

A case in point: Hemlines had only been a band for less than a year when they were asked to perform at the first basement show in October. Halfway through the show, Ian Villeda’s guitar broke in half. Before he could stop the music, he said, Amanda MacKaye—of the Routineers and other bands, organizer of the beloved Fort Reno free summer concert series, and sister of the storied Ian MacKaye—was up front, holding his guitar together, instructing him to “keep playing.”


“WHEN YOU ARE MAKING HISTORY, you don’t know it,” Mark Andersen told me. “You’re just doing whatever you’re doing. Hopefully, you’re doing something passionate, creative, and making the world a more just and caring place.” For Andersen, that means continuing to use art to effect change and not being tempted to focus only on the past.

“We use the past as a source of fuel,” Andersen said, “as a way to energize us for what we can do now. What moment are we missing now? What is possible now? It’s not the moment that it was in 1984; it’s a very different Washington, D.C.”

A primary concern in that very different D.C. is the economic transformation of the city brought by the influx of government contractors and dark political money. And of course, all the condos.

At a lunchtime concert on a Friday in January, under the bright fluorescent lights of the front hall of the MLK Library, Ian Svenonius, frontman of the band Chain and the Gang, climbed onto chairs and stepped over audience members, trailing a long microphone cord behind him.

“The city’s changing, new buildings,” Svenonius began monologuing, tossing his mop of black hair out of his eyes. “We weren’t consulted about the state the city would be in!” He wore a sleek silver-gray suit in his trademark mod style, and behind him on the stage, in front of the glass doors that said “POPULAR LIBRARY,” were his bandmates, a male drummer and two women on bass and guitar in stylish matching silver suits.

(Photo: Mike Maguire)

Ian Svenonius of the band Chain and the Gang performs in the MLK Memorial Library in downtown Washington, D.C., in January. Their song "Devitalize the City" addresses the rapid gentrification that has moved through the city, an increasingly common theme in D.C.'s punk music.

“You do construction?” Svenonius, formerly of the bands Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up, continued as library patrons holding books looked on in curiosity. “Man, I do destruction!”

Delivering that introduction to the song “Devitalize the City,” he kicked the air, sometimes collapsed to the ground, and sang about tearing down real estate, cool bars, and all the trappings of economic “revitalization.”

As Kriston Capps of CityLab wrote, gentrification has replaced Ronald Reagan as the new villain in punk music. There’s concern about resident displacement, income and racial inequality, and unaffordable housing. And in terms of cultural creativity, there’s the fact that it’s often just too expensive to be an artist and live in the city, a subject Priests singer Katie Alice Greer spoke to in a recent an interview with the Baltimore City Paper.

In the audience at the lunchtime show was Ian MacKaye, who said hello to a group of students from D.C. Public Schools, including Anna Wilson, who was there with the vinyl club’s adviser, Lacey Maddrey, a social worker at Alice Deal Middle School. (The students had a half-day at school, a lucky break that allowed Wilson to see one of her favorite bands.) Maddrey has organized field trips to record stores and the first two library basement shows. She said that many of the students are deeply connected to the city’s punk history simply because their parents were the ones who made the music. “We went to the archive, and they were like, ‘Oh look, there’s my dad on this record,’” she said. Maddrey calls the students “punk progeny.”

With a new punk retrospective project, talk, or event announced seemingly every week, it’s to the library’s credit that they seem to be combating nostalgia fatigue by making an effort to tell young musicians, in the words of librarian Michele Casto, “Your music matters just as much as Fugazi’s.” Through their basement show series, they are staking a place in the city’s ongoing musical history by insisting that every show features one D.C.-based high school band, such as Nox.

“The cool thing about the Punk Archive,” Maddrey said, “is that they can go and see the history, but then see history being made at the same time. They’re continuing to grow in their own musical way.”

Schneider, too, hopes his film will help the punk scene grow and continue to engage with important issues. “Hopefully, it will serve as a trampoline for moving forward,” he said. Maybe, once fans get the nostalgia out of their system, they can continue to fight the system.


(Photo: Mike Maguire)

Katie Alice Greer of Priests performs at the DIY art space the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. On the night of their performance in the basement of the central library, December 4, Black Lives Matter protests were weaving through the nation's capital following the announcement that the NYPD officer who had held Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold would not be indicted. Between songs, Greer encouraged the audience to pay attention and engage in protest themselves.

WHILE GREER MAY BE RIGHT to be wary of the term, if being “punk” is simply a matter of embracing an ideology that is critical of power dynamics and cares for the community, then Priests fits the description. And those attending the library basement show in December were treated to a decidedly punk show.

There were the small indications that the show had a leftish bent—Anna Wilson was wearing a T-shirt featuring a screen-printed photo of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with the words “NOTORIOUS R.B.G.” And then there are Priests’ lyrics, which are unapologetically anti-consumerist as well as anti-authority: “Barack Obama killed something in me, and I’m gonna get him for it!”

But the news had made this night—December 4, 2014—a charged night, both in the library basement and elsewhere in the nation’s capital. The day before, a grand jury had decided not to indict the NYPD officer who had held Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, and a large protest was working its way to the Washington Monument from the Justice Department’s headquarters. The marchers, just blocks away from the library, could be heard outside. (When Priests appeared the night before on a New York television show with legendary riot-grrrl band Sleater-Kinney, Greer wore a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt for the performance.)

At the library, Greer still didn’t shy away from the political, encouraging the audience to engage in meaningful protest and pay attention to what was happening outside. “Air Force One is a personal pla-ane!” she cried while standing tall on one of the monitors, towering over the audience. The sound system at the 9:30 Club the week before had been, of course, perfectly good, but there was something far more appropriate and satisfying about the sound crashing into and ricocheting imperfectly off the rectangular walls of the dark basement. The atmosphere was different, too—it wasn’t just a performance; it was a political experience.

A librarian wrapped up the show by stepping onto the stage. At the microphone, she thanked everyone for coming, and reminded them to check the website: “DC library dot org slash punk!”