In 2006 Osa Atoe, a Black feminist punk living in Portland, did what felt natural in the punk scene: she started a zine. “Shotgun Seamstress” was a fanzine by, for and about Black punks that published eight issues. Now, a new book reprints all the zines in one place. Osa Atoe joins us to talk about “Shotgun Seamstress,” zines and the joys of punk music.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. In 2006, Osa Atoe, a Black feminist punk living in Portland did what felt natural in the punk scene: she started a zine. “Shotgun Seamstress” was, as she put it, ‘a zine by, for, and about Black punks, queers, feminists, outsider artists and musicians.’ She put out eight issues of “Shotgun Seamstress” in total. Now a new book has collected those issues in one place. Osa Atoe joins us to talk about “Shotgun Seamstress,” joy and the transformative power of punk. It’s good to have you on the show.
Osa Atoe: Thanks for having me.
Miller: You grew up in DC. Which has, or had, a famous punk scene. When would you have first said, ‘I am a punk?’
Atoe: That is a good question. I don’t know if it was ever about naming myself that, or labeling myself that. I think it was more about participating. And I think that that’s what punk has always asked people to do…just be a part of it. So start a band, start a zine. I just first started off by going to shows, attending shows in DC. So that was my entryway.
Miller: What was the reason that you came to Portland in the early 2000s?
Atoe: Well, I had been living in D.C. I was living in a group house - a punk house - and I knew people who had lived in Portland and some of them were making their way back. And I’d heard so much about the scene there. How there are more women involved. Portland was very close to Olympia, Washington and Seattle, which everyone knew at the time was tied to grunge and Riot Grrrl. And it just seemed like this vibrant ‘other place,’ that I wanted to experience. So I ended up following some friends back to Portland, who had lived there before.
Miller: How much of what you’d heard before you got there was actually a reality, when you moved 3,000 miles away?
Atoe: It was all true. So what I encountered that I didn’t see in D.C. as much, was a specifically queer punk scene, where women were predominating. I was going to shows in basements and small venues all over the city where I was getting to witness like all female, non-binary and queer bands playing all the time. I was able to form bands with people who had identities similar to mine. Also just that legacy of like The Wipers and Dead Moon and Team Dresch. And yeah, it was all there; it was all true.
Miller: What’s a band that you loved to see, a band that you look back [on] now, as just being one of the really significant ones that shaped your time in Portland [and] your experience of the scene?
Atoe: Honestly, all of my friends’ bands. When I moved there I moved into a house with five other people, and every one of us was in a band. All of us were in bands. And I think, in my life in D.C., I was going to see touring bands that were kind of more nationally popular. In Portland, it was so much more about what your friends were doing. It was a very ‘DIY’ scene. So we were all in our own bands, recording our own bands, putting on our own shows. That is what I was immersed in at the time.
Miller: You ended up later moving to New Orleans and then Sarasota, Florida where you live now. How did your time in Portland shape you, change you?
Atoe: Oh my gosh! I wouldn’t be who I am without the time that I had in Portland. When I was in New Orleans I started a show-booking ‘entity,’ if you want to call it that, called ‘No More Fiction.’ It was just the name that I booked shows under. And again, I wanted to prioritize women, non-binary and queer performers and musicians. New Orleans had a bit of that going on already, but I felt like there could be more space for it, especially considering where I had come from and what I had come to expect out of a punk scene. Yeah, that never would have happened if I hadn’t lived in Portland. We had an event called ‘Not Enough Fest,’ that was basically a festival of bands performing for the very first time, to encourage more women, non-binary and queer musicians to come out to the front. And I got that idea from my friends in Portland who had started it. They had a festival called ‘Not Enough,’ and I kind of mimicked the idea and brought it to New Orleans. So everything that I am today, I feel, is because of that experience that I had living in Portland.
Miller: What were your hopes for “Shotgun Seamstress” when you first started it?
Atoe: No hopes at all.
Miller: [Chuckling] Just do it?
Atoe: Just do it. A lot of people number their zine issues, and I didn’t even put number one on the first issue because I wasn’t sure that there would be a number two. It was just like . . .just take the first step and see what happens. And I think that mentality has just served me so well up until today, to not worry about what things are going to become and just take that first step.
Miller: Without that, do you think you could have done it? I mean, if your hopes have been very different and grandiose, you’re saying it, it would have been hard to do that first step?
Atoe: I think it just becomes intimidating, right? When your dreams are too complex, you can become daunted, right? And so I think it just becomes easier to take that first step and just get started when you keep it simple in your head, and then things are just inevitably going to become more developed and more complicated over time, anyway. I mean that’s what happened. I never thought that it was going to be a book. I never thought that in 15 years I would still be talking about it. But it was just about taking that first step and then everything kind of blossoming and unfolding after that.
Miller: Where did the title come from: “Shotgun Seamstress?”
Atoe: My mom actually called me that once because I used to sew. I don’t sew a lot anymore, but I used to, and all of my projects were just really quick and dirty.
Miller: So did she mean it as a dig, but you embraced it as an ethos?
Atoe: I don’t think she meant it like that, no. I don’t think it was a dig. Also…my mom’s Nigerian. So she was like, ‘You are a shotgun seamstress…’
Atoe: …and she walked off, and she doesn’t even remember saying it till today. I’ll tell her about it and she’s like, ‘I don’t even remember saying that…’
Miller: But it’s poetry, it’s a great phrase.
Atoe: I love it.
Miller: You wrote, at one point, ‘If you look closely, you can see how “Shotgun Seamstress” is a personal zine, even though it is a fanzine full of interviews and articles about other people and places and times.’ What do you mean?
Atoe: I think that I was more comfortable talking about my experience through other people’s experiences or getting people to say the things that I was feeling and thinking, through the interview format. Also a lot of the people that I interviewed were my friends. One thing that I want people to know is that you’re not going to read a lot about Bad Brains or D.H. Peligro from Dead Kennedys, or any of the more famous or infamous figures in punk that are Black, because this was more about the idea that anyone can kind of live out their dreams through punk. It was about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And I could just kind of turn to my friend and say, ‘Talk to me about your project and talk to me about your experiences.’ So in that way it was personal, because my relationships were so personal. But yeah, it was a lot about getting people to say, getting people to express, the things that we had in common.
Miller: As you noted, these were a lot of your friends. But I’m wondering, if starting the zine and having these ‘official interviews,’ gave you license to ask questions that you wouldn’t have asked otherwise?
Atoe: Definitely. I love the interview format for that reason, that you can kind of get deeper with the people that you already know. It’s exactly right. You can tackle topics and just enter into a little bit more depth than you would when you’re just hanging out normally.
Miller: You did an issue, you call it a ‘half issue,’ since it was shorter than some of the others, specifically about the experiences of a handful of Nigerian Americans who identify as punks and who lived in different cities across the country. What was it like for you to put that issue together?
Atoe: It was fun. And then also, again, it was about talking about something that I wouldn’t really talk about with my friends, not because I was ashamed of it or anything like that, it just wouldn’t really come up day to day; What’s it like being a Nigerian punk or what do your parents think about your punk rock life? I mean, again, it was just me talking to my peers about something personal that we don’t have a lot of space to discuss otherwise. My friends never told me this, but maybe it gave them a window into my experience that we just never made the space to talk about otherwise.
Miller: As you noted, you didn’t have big clear plans or hopes when you started. You started this and then figured out you’d see where it went. But where did it go in terms of the feedback that you got from readers? What did you hear about what you’re putting out into the world?
Atoe: I think my favorite thing is going to be talking to Black punks who are younger than I am, who tell me that they have been reading it since they were like 14 or 15. That feels really special, obviously. People who tell me that they wish that they had had something like that to read when they were teenagers. I did a tour called the ‘People of Color Zine Project Tour’ with another really important zinester named Mimi Nguyen and a few other people. On that tour I met a young Black woman who, with Caribbean parents who were really strict and really Christian, and she told me she had to hide her copies of “Shotgun Seamstress,” so that her parents wouldn’t find it. I mean you’ve read a little bit of it, I don’t think there’s anything in it that’s terrible. But in her household, it was like contraband. But the fact that she kept it, and that it was kind of validating in this really special way is so meaningful.
Miller: You wrote in the intro to the sixth issue, ‘I believe so much in the power of punk to transform people’s lives and liberate people, that I can’t just leave it to white people.’ ‘Leave it,’ meaning ‘punk’ to white people. How has punk transformed your life?
Atoe: I just think in this day and age when Black people are being told that we’re at the highest risk for whatever it is and that we can’t feel safe when we’re taking a walk or driving or all these things. I’ve had this like very contrary experience due to the fact that I’ve toured the country as a Black woman and I’ve traveled a lot. And in my zine, I write about my friends who hitchhiked across the country and did all of these things that we would consider risky or that we would be afraid to do. Even non-Black people might be afraid to do. And I’ve always encountered kindness and people willing to help me and share their homes with me and let me sleep in their houses. I just feel like getting out of my bubble, leaving the comfort of what I knew and going out into the world and experiencing that kind of freedom to just travel and know people. Also create this network, like right now, I could go to London and know a ton of people who I’ve met through bands and zines and I can do that in almost any major city in this country. I have this huge network that I built through punk, and then with the way that I run my business as a ceramicist or potter, putting my own events together, not waiting to be invited to a gallery show, but saying I can create this event. I can make this happen because I have so much practice doing that in punk. There’s just so many avenues that it’s opened up. It’s all just about kind of opening up these possibilities in your mind that create liberation for yourself.
Miller: What’s giving you joy these days?
Atoe: Actually, punk. Nature and punk. I moved to Florida two years ago and we have these wonderful springs. It’s manatee season. I got to see some manatees in some springs this weekend; that’s so much joy. But also this book coming out is making me reconnect to punk a lot more and making me re-listen to old bands that I haven’t listened to in a long time. It just makes me feel really, really good.
Miller: Osa Atoe, thanks very much for joining us today. It was a pleasure talking with you.
Atoe: Thank you.
Miller: Osa Atoe is the author of the “Shotgun Seamstress” zine, all the issues of which have been collected in a book that’s about to come out. She is also now a ceramicist, a potter, living in Florida.
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