In the early ‘90s, when riot grrrl was just gaining momentum, zines played a crucial role. At first, zines were the only form of media reporting on riot grrrl bands, meetings and political organizing. And for many young women, self-publishing was a lot more accessible than starting a band.
Voices in this episode: Musician and zine-makers Ramdasha Bikceem, Allison Wolfe and Tobi Vail along with scholar and “Girls to the Front” author Sara Marcus, journalist and zine-maker Sarah Shay Mirk and Mimi Thi Nguyen, curator of the “Evolution of a Race Riot” zine and associate professor and chair of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Our theme music is by Ray Aggs.
Special thanks to JT Griffith and our riot grrrl manifesto readers: Deena Barnwell, Jenn Chavez and Prakruti Bhatt
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
Fabi Reyna: In 1990, Ramdasha (rum-DAH-shuh) Bikceem (BICK-seem) was living in suburban New Jersey. Bikceem was 14 or 15 years old at the time. They were feeling isolated as one of the only punks, and one of the only Black people in their community. But they had a friend who moved to the Pacific Northwest…
Ramdasha Bikceem: She knew I was kind of struggling in high school, just being miserable for a number of reasons, and she sent me a bunch of zines and that really inspired me. She sent me “Jigsaw” and “Bikini Kill” zine and I think “Girl Germs.”
Reyna: “Girl Germs” was a zine made by the members of Bratmobile. Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail did the zine “Jigsaw.” The packages that arrived in the mail from the West Coast were a lifeline. They inspired Bikceem to create their own zine called “Gunk.”
In the early 90s, when riot grrrl was just gaining momentum, zines played a crucial role. At first, zines were the only form of media reporting on riot grrrl bands, meetings and political organizing. And for many young women, self-publishing was a lot more accessible than starting a band.
In “Gunk”, Bikceem started out focusing on their interests – skateboarding and punk. They hoped to empower other femmes to skateboard. They also ended up writing about their experiences as a Black person growing up in a predominantly white, upper middle class community.
Bikceem: And then started doing zine reviews, band reviews, going to shows, interviewing people and that’s how I became penpals with Tobi Vail and Allison Wolfe and Kathleen Hanna, and then it sprouted. And I mean, this was all before cell phones and everything, so like we wrote letters, so that’s how I had a whole community that was like beyond where I grew up.
Reyna: There was a riot grrrl manifesto circulating at the time. Bikceem reprinted it in one of their zines.
Riot Grrrl Manifesto read by Deena Barnwell, Jenn Chavez and Prakruti Bhatt:
BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.
BECAUSE we wanna make it easier for girls to see/hear each other’s work so that we can share strategies and criticize-applaud each other.
BECAUSE we must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings.
BECAUSE viewing our work as being connected to our girlfriends-politics-real lives is essential if we are gonna figure out how we are doing impacts, reflects, perpetuates, or DISRUPTS the status quo.
BECAUSE we don’t want to assimilate to someone else’s standards of what is or isn’t “good” music or punk rock or “good” writing and thus need to create forms where we can recreate, destroy and define our own visions.
BECAUSE we know that life is much more than physical survival and are patently aware that the punk rock “you can do anything” idea is crucial to the coming angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours.
BECAUSE doing/reading/seeking/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodyism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives.
BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.
BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will, change the world for real.
Reyna: Bikceem also started a band called Gunk. And in 1992, they played at the first Riot Grrrl Convention in Washington DC. That’s when riot grrrl became three dimensional for them.
Bikceem: And I got to see all these bands that I had been reading about in zines and buying their 7″ and records and tapes.
Reyna: While attending the convention, Bikceem stayed in a punk house in DC. That was also something they’d only read about in zines.
Bikceem: I remember it got broken into in the night that we were living there because the house was deep in the ‘hood somewhere, somewhere where a bunch of white punks should not probably have been living.
Reyna: Despite the break-in that night,they still managed to have a pretty good time.
Bikceem: There was a show in that house that night and I remember Kathleen [Hanna] was go-go dancing. And yeah it was just fun to have the kind of wild experience and just be in the spirit of the time.
Reyna: Bikceem says that part of what made riot grrrl fun was feeling like you were part of a secret crew.
Bikceem: We had secret meetings. We had secret letters we wrote to each other.
Reyna: But the mainstream media was starting to get very interested in these secrets. A USA Today reporter came to that 1992 convention and, according to Bikceem, the resulting article included their home address.
Bikceem: And so I got mail, like garbage bags full of mail for years of people wanting my zine and I just couldn’t keep up with it.
Reyna: I’m Fabi Reyna, founder of She Shreds Media and this is Starting a Riot.
Twelve years ago I started She Shreds, the world’s first print publication dedicated to women and nonbinary guitarists. The first issue was actually a zine. And somehow, it feels like as women or gender expansive people in music zines just find you
The first zine I remember reading had guitarist Des Ark on the cover. I’d never seen a woman guitarist on the cover of anything. That was my introduction to self-made media. I found a space where I could share and distribute my truth, ask questions, and collaborate with others on finding answers.
And although it feels intuitive, making a zine is actually a pretty labor-intensive process. We asked Ramdasha Bikceem and some of the other people we’ve interviewed to tell us a bit about what it takes to put a zine together.
Bikceem: I think I did have a typewriter for part of the time, but I, when I started doing the Zines, I was computers. So I’d write stuff on computer...
Mimi Thi Nguyen: ...and then I would sort of like change the margins to be the right sizes so that I could, when I printed it out, I could cut and paste it into a zine.
Allison Wolfe: lot of the text was handwritten.
Nguyen: lot of people would painstakingly type out their missives and their manifestos on typewriters...
Wolfe: So there’d be a lot of crossed out words or mistakes, tons of mistakes.
Nguyen: Collecting clip art...
Wolfe: ...sometimes, you know, hand drawing...
Nguyen: ...drawing a lot of the drawings myself...
Bikceem: ... cut pictures out.
Nguyen: I would hold the copier door open. I would push the button and then I would close it so that it would create this kind of ombre effect on this piece of paper that I would then cut up and use in my zine.
Wolfe: Then you’d put a black outline around it, by usually just gluing the white cut out onto black paper...
Bikceem: ...kinda collage with it...
Nguyen: ...creating a kind of messy, unprofessional look.
Wolfe: They weren’t really meant to be pretty or...this was more like scribble scribble, scrap scrap, here you go!
Nguyen: I love cutting things up and sticking them down with glue and moving them around and just playing with space.
Bikceem: I just did the like 8.5 by 11 folded over...
Nguyen: ...crowding the page or making a lot of negative space. I love doing all that stuff...
Bikceem: ...and then I eventually got the, you know, the right kind of stapler for zines.
Nguyen: Access to a copier is really important.
Wolfe: You know, you’d kind of rely on someone having a parent who worked at an office that you could kind of sneak into in the middle of the night.
Nguyen: We had a friend who worked at the Kinko’s. She worked the middle of the night shift and she would have punk shows at the Kinko’s and she would also let all the punks come in to make free copies of our zines.
Bikceem: I would sneak the photocopier in the library and that’s how I published my zine that way.
Reyna: Self-publishing has a long history, of course. Zines or “fanzines” first popped up in the 1930s when science fiction fans started creating their own stories. These small publications really took off in the 70s when both punk rock and copy machines started to become ubiquitous.
Sara Marcus: The very first thing to be called “riot grrrl” was a zine.
Reyna: Sara Marcus is a writer and a scholar, and she’s the author of “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.” She’s talking about the zine that Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna created in the summer of 1991. The band was spending the summer in DC and wanted to connect with other young women in the punk scene there.
Marcus: They decided that the first way of finding people and building connections was gonna be a zine. And so the very first zine was called “riot grrrl” R-I-O-T G-R-R-R-L. It was a single sheet of 8.5 by 11 paper folded in quarters. And it just had like a couple little scene reports and I think there was an announcement, there was going to be a show and they put out two more issues of that zine over the course of the summer.
Reyna: Drummer Tobi Vail remembers reading some of Hanna’s early zines and being really impressed.
Tobi Vail: She was actually questioning binary thinking and it was like postmodern writing and it was actually very good.
Reyna: Zines were written for a limited audience of friends, and friends of friends.
Marcus: In an era before anything resembling online social media where nobody had sort of profiles to tell people who they were, or timelines to say what they’re thinking about in the moment, the zine is the way that you communicated with your community about who you are and what’s important to you, what you’re thinking about in the moment, what you’re listening to, what you’re reading.
Reyna: That’s what Ramdasha Bikceem was doing with “Gunk.” Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile remembers riot grrrl zines being personal and confessional…
Wolfe: … girls talking about things that had happened to them, whether it be sexual violence, domestic violence, just you know, whatever sexist experiences they’d been through. Sometimes people would write letters to us after reading the zine and sometimes we’d print the letters.
Reyna: The zines had a kind of shared visual language as well.
Wolfe: Well, I think in a way a lot of riot girl imagery kind of had to do with this virgin/whore complex, that kind of contradiction of what’s expected of women. And so I guess sometimes things would be a little cutesy, but then all of a sudden they’d be like violent or sexualized as well.
Reyna: People might print 25 or 50 copies of a zine. These carefully crafted DIY projects were passed from hand to hand, traded and treasured, mailed to penpals or left behind for someone else to pick up and discover. And in this way, the word spread about riot grrrl.
Wolfe: The media at the time wasn’t really covering alternative culture. I didn’t think, I mean I didn’t see much of that. And so we definitely did have to kind of take over the means of production to have a voice to represent ourselves. And so zines were, you know, have always been kind of the punk way. So yeah, you know, you didn’t just like cut and paste and write things and it was fun. It’s very tactile and zines were very, very tactile and urgent at the time.
Reyna: Being part of a band or starting a riot grrrl chapter might have seemed out of reach for many teenagers. There were logistical and financial barriers to both. But zines were a bit more accessible. A zine might cost a dollar or two. And they were not expensive to create. Even for people who grew up far away from Olympia or DC, zines were available through the mail. That’s how Ramdasha Bikceem became part of the riot grrrl “secret society” all the way from New Jersey. But they were one of only a few people writing about race. A 2015 Vice article about the New York University Riot Grrrl Collection of zines refers to Bikceem as “riot grrrl’s Black friend.” And Bikceem says, that’s not too far off. Sometimes they end up feeling like a footnote in the history of the movement, and it bothers them…
Bikceem: People get erased. And I think that actually happens with with riot grrrl and punk where it’s like, well there was just one – Ramdasha. There wasn’t. There was a lot others too. There’s a lot of people who were influenced and there was a lot of people that were there too.
Reyna: Coming up after a break, we’ll dive into the story of a young, Vietnamese refugee who founded a zine that ended up connecting punks of color everywhere.
Reyna: Mimi Thi Nguyen created a zine as a response to the erasure of people of color in punk and riot grrrl.
Mimi Thi Nguyen: You can say that I am an old punk who teaches feminist theory.
Reyna: She has a big title. She’s an associate-professor-and-chair of Gender-and-Women’s-Studies-and-Asian-American-Studies at the University-of-Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. I want to spend a good chunk of time on her story here because she ended up creating an important space for punks of color to talk about race and racism in their own words. Nguyen was born in Vietnam. When she was a baby, she and her parents came to the U.S. This was 1974, just before the fall of Saigon.
Nguyen: You know, everyone’s seen those kind of very ubiquitous photos of Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, fleeing Saigon in those last few days, right? The people who are trying to get on that helicopter on that roof and people crowded into cargo holds and stuff like that? So, that was us.
Reyna: The family eventually settled in a suburb of Minneapolis. She remembers that there were maybe four Asian kids in her entire elementary school. Nguyen and her brother were two of them.
Nguyen: I was an outsider. I was a weird kid. We were poor. All our clothes came from church basement rummage sales, everything was secondhand. And I remember making certain kinds of conscious decisions to embrace being an outsider.
Reyna: When she was a teenager, Nguyen’s family moved to San Diego where she started reading Maximum Rocknroll. This long-running zine still exists in digital form and it was one of the most widely distributed zines in the world. It’s been around since the early 80s and it’s always been devoted to covering the punk underground. Nguyen found some back issues at a store called The Black Cat. She remembers that she asked her dad to take her there to buy striped tights.
Nguyen: And it was from those earliest issues that I learned that punk was full of people who cared very much about state violence. It was really reading this one column by this musician, Jane Guskin, who was in a band called the Yeastie Girlz, but she wrote a column for Maximum Rock and Roll, which is how I learned about how the US was supporting authoritarian regimes in Guatemala. And that’s how I also learned about a more radical feminism than I found previously on my local library shelves.
Reyna: Reading Maximum Rocknroll, she started to see that punks were very political and were not only making music but running venues, creating DIY record labels and zines. And this subculture seemed like a place she could feel at home.
Nguyen: Being a refugee encountering punk actually made a lot of sense. Discovering punk was absolutely how I processed understanding myself as an outsider in this country.
Reyna: Nguyen says she felt like an outsider in a number of ways – as a refugee, as a non-white person in a majority white community, as someone who came from a poor family… and there was something else too.
Nguyen: I definitely felt like I wasn’t doing gender properly. I definitely remember thinking that I was not ‘good’ quote unquote at being a girl.
Reyna: So, of course she was ready for riot grrrl. She first heard about it from other kids at school.
Nguyen: And then I was like “oh, ok. Here it is.”
Reyna: But ultimately, Nguyen’s relationship to riot grrrl was complicated.
Nguyen: I felt that the intervention that riot grrrl was making into the scene was a necessary intervention for challenging the gendered politics of the scene. But politically, I didn’t always feel like I was on the same page just because I had my eye on a critique of state violence and empire in a way that wasn’t necessarily not a part of the riot grrrl, but it was definitely not central to riot grrrl.
Reyna: By this time, Nguyen was deep in the Bay Area punk scene. She was volunteering her time to Maximum Rocknroll as well as a record store and community space called the Epicenter.
Nguyen: One of the most important moments for me in terms of my own sort of punk history was when I made the “Evolution of a Race Riot” compilation zine.
Reyna: She started Evolution of a Race Riot in response to her own experience of racism at Maximum Rocknroll. They printed a column that included a racist and sexist trope about Asian women. Nguyen wrote an angry letter in response, outlining all the ways that the original column was hurtful and wrong. And the columnist’s response was to write a follow-up, attacking her specifically, in ways that were both racist and sexist. Maximum Rocknroll deemed this second column “satire” and printed it, despite the zine’s policy against racism, sexism or homophobia.
Nguyen: So I felt very betrayed, very angry, I felt alone. And I felt like I was being evicted from the punk scene, right? I had made this a home and then I was without one, and people were very – they didn’t know how to react to this column coming out about me in this international punk magazine, the punk bible. So I really felt like because of this, I was done with punk.
Reyna: But instead of quietly exiting the scene, Mimi Thi Nguyen did something else. She started seeking out other people of color in punk, through word of mouth or through zines. She wrote to them and asked them to send in submissions for this compilation she was putting together. She called it Evolution of a Race Riot.
Nguyen: And I started just receiving in this kind of snowball effect these really intense, multi-page, handwritten letters from kids of color in the punk scene or in goth scenes or whatever that were just spilling their guts and their feelings and their fears and their anxieties and their worries and their anger. And so I was just getting these like, intense confessions and manifestos from all these punks of color from all over the place. And it really fortified my sense that I needed to do this. I needed to put this zine out, that we needed to have this conversation in punk about race and racism in our scene. And to create this kind of informal record of our presence in the scene and also to create a critique of those practices within the punk scene that made us absent.
Reyna: Nguyen put out two issues of “Evolution of a Race Riot,” and each zine was a thick volume of over 50 pages with dozens of contributions. These came from young people of color documenting their experiences in punk.
Nguyen: Some of the most powerful writing, I think, in the Race Riot zine came from a lot of women of color who were part of riot grrrl and had had their hearts broken by it, in the same way that I had my heart broken by punk at the time.
Reyna: These young women were disappointed with the way that race was talked about in riot grrrl, or not talked about at all.
Nguyen: I remember reading in a riot grrrl zine, you know, a bunch of anti-racist tips and I remember the tips included saying “hi” to people of color as you see them walking down the street and just, like, make more friends of color. And it was just so it was so weird. There was a way in which it felt like this kind of pursuit of intimacy with people of color was just so, I mean, honestly just creepy.
Reyna: This feels relatable. Often, white people will come up to me and say “hola” and “gracias.” In 2023, it seems like everyone knows they have to talk about race but, in these kinds of interactions, it still feels like something is being extracted from me.
Ramdasha Bikceem didn’t contribute to Mimi Thi Nguyen’s zine. But they ended up writing a lot about race in “Gunk,” even though they set out to write about skateboarding and music.
Bikceem: I always say this with talking about racism and white supremacy: it’s so boring to me. Honestly, it’s a very boring topic. I wish there was something else to talk about and I say that because there’s so many other things I’m interested in. But yeah, that was what I was living. So I was experiencing being a Black person in a white supremacist world and just trying to enjoy my life and then, just all the haters that don’t want you to be free and to be great.
Reyna: Both issues of Nguyen’s compilation zine are available online. And the physical copies live on as well.
Nguyen: Even now I still hear from people who are, you know, who tell me that they have a beat up copy of Race Riot that they got from their older brother’s girlfriend’s stash of zines that we’re in the attic or something, I mean, I just hear about it’s still circulating and still um functioning as a kind of touchstone for people and that is really humbling for me.
Bikceem: I feel like people are making zines again. That didn’t completely die out.
Reyna: It’s true. Zines never went away. There’s zinefests in cities around the world every year. And zines remain an integral part of punk. The Portland Zine Symposium has been going strong for more than 20 years.
Sarah Shay Mirk is a journalist, artist and prolific zine maker. They make physical zines. And also upload them to their website as PDFs, so that anyone can download and print them out themselves.
Sarah Shay Mirk: I publish all my zines under a creative commons license, which means anyone can print and distribute them for non-commercial purposes like teachers or activists. And I have this one scene that’s “how to make a zine” template. So it’s a little guide. It’s one page about how to make a zine. And people download it literally every day from all over the world. I just had someone download it today in Argentina who’s working in a library there. I have people in Texas who are librarians, people who are teaching teen classes in Wisconsin. Literally every day, somebody downloads it and is using it to make zines somewhere around the world.
Reyna: Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail has resisted attempts to create online archives of her zine, “Jigsaw.” For her, part of the beauty is that they capture a moment in time.
Vail: I think of fanzines as being kind of ephemeral. I don’t know that they should last forever. It’s cool to have a fanzine collection but it’s also cool to think of them like it’s like a message in a bottle and you throw it in the ocean and it goes out to somebody and then it’s gone.
Reyna: Vail says she wants to see more people making zines.
Vail: It’s not just a relic. Paper is not just a relic. It’s actually a realm where people can interact outside of corporate control and that is still valid and viable for cultural democracy. What cultural democracy is is it just means that you can make your own culture in your own community, you know whatever you want it to be, you don’t have to buy it at the store.
Reyna: Zines are very much the embodiment of that DIY spirit and a way of marking a specific time and place: I was here. My perspective matters. They can also be a tool for political and cultural organizing.
In the next episode… we’ll dig deeper into the activism that was central to riot grrrl.
Tobi Vail: What if we got those girls screaming in the audience to actually start a revolutionary subculture of young feminists and you know get them to all start bands?
Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe: So when I heard this music and connected to these lyrics and everything that I heard about that was going on, it felt like this wakeup call like, oh wait, we don’t have to accept this. We can fight this. Like, we can be angry.
Raquel Gutiérrez: I absorbed all of it and felt like that was part of my sort of political awakening.