‘Starting a Riot’ episode 5: Aerating the soil

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
July 6, 2023 1 p.m.
As a teenager, Brontez Purnell wrote to Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna. They framed the letter Hanna wrote back to them.

As a teenager, Brontez Purnell wrote to Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna. They framed the letter Hanna wrote back to them.

courtesy of Brontez Purnell


BIPOC and queer fans and musicians didn’t always feel welcomed by riot grrrl. But some managed to claim space in the movement anyway. We dig into what it was like for people who were “aerating the soil” of punk for the next generation, and why some efforts to make riot grrrl more inclusive failed.

Voices in this episode: Musicians Kaia Wilson, Corin Tucker and Tobi Vail, zine-maker and artist Ramdasha Bikceem, scholar and “Girls to the Front” author Sara Marcus, ethnomusicologist and author Laina Dawes, and writer, artist and musician Brontez Purnell

Our theme music is by Ray Aggs.

Special thanks to JT Griffith and our riot grrrl manifesto readers: Deena Barnwell, Jenn Chávez and Prakruti Bhatt.


Kaia Wilson: I don’t know, punk just I guess resonated because I felt like I was so different and it was the thing that I could see around me that was like the freak, the freak music like because I felt like a freak.

Fabi Reyna: Kaia Wilson grew up in a small Oregon town called Jasper. She was a teenager in the late 1980s.

Wilson: At that age like 13, 14, I was just starting to come out to myself, kind of, and my dog. I did come out to my dog.

Reyna: She says she didn’t really have any role models in her community…

Wilson: …and at some point once I did come out more publicly or whatever in my high school, I had definitely some targeted homophobia and weird things happen to me. I did not get physically assaulted but I got verbally assaulted and then I also got dead animals put on my windshield. Creepy stuff. Really creepy stuff.

Reyna: Through zines and the nearby college radio station, Wilson learned about riot grrrl bands and it wasn’t long before she started making music herself.

Wilson: When I was 17, I was in a band called A Dick Did, That is A-D-I-C-K-D-I-D. A Dick Did.

Reyna: (It was a band of all women.) She also began venturing out to the closest city – Eugene, Oregon. This was 1991 and Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman of Bratmobile were at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Wilson remembers meeting them at a party.

Wilson: I remember that they thought it was really cool that I was in high school and that I was gay and it didn’t make any sense to me at the time because I just felt kind of embarrassed that I was in high school. And then they said it was cool that I was in high school and gay and I was like, “Oh really? That’s cool, okay, I guess that’s cool.”

Reyna: Around the same time she met Allison and Molly, Kaia Wilson discovered the zine “Chainsaw.” It was made by a musician in Olympia named Donna Dresch.

Wilson: I think she was the first dyke that I was like, “That’s like me! That’s a person that makes total sense to me in all the ways.”

Reyna: While she was still in high school, Wilson became penpals with Donna Dresch. And eventually, they started a band together called Team Dresch. They were part of a movement known as Queercore, originally called Homocore. Queercore and riot grrrl both grew out of punk. And in many ways, they were aligned. But, Wilson says she never really felt at home at riot grrrl shows.

Wilson: And it’s not like riot grrrl was anti-queer, but it didn’t feel specifically queer in the way that I just, that’s what I needed at that time. The aesthetic was like maybe baby doll dresses and barrettes and stuff, which is wonderful, except that’s not my jam, and then it also, I think that like, the politics of it felt more, um, straight for a lack of better word.

Reyna: We’ve talked about the political activism of riot grrrl. People who were active in the movement spoke out about reproductive rights, sexual assault and safety for women within the punk scene. These were issues that Brown, Indigenous, People of Color and queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people had been living with on a heightened level long before they caught the attention of white women in riot grrrl. So, that created some complicated relationships. And in some ways that hasn’t changed. When I moved to Portland in 2010, I felt this paradox in the punk scene. From the outside, punk seems like a safe place to be different and to express that. And while going to punk shows in Portland felt that way to me in some ways, I actually found myself feeling more pissed off in other ways. I realized I was surrounded by straight, white kids who actually came from rich or at least comfortable families who just wanted to have somewhere and something to scream about.

I’m Fabi Reyna, founder of She Shreds Media and this is Starting a Riot

Queercore predates riot grrrl and, in some ways, the movements became intertwined. Team Dresch and Bikini Kill toured together.

Wilson: Everybody had a little different angles and stuff, but the same general desire towards fuckin’ up the white supremacist patriarchy. That was I think the desire by everybody.

Reyna: Sounds dope, but it’s really not that simple. In her book “Girls to the Front,” Sara Marcus writes about an “Unlearning Racism” workshop that was part of the first riot grrrl convention in the summer of 1992.

Marcus: It was actually a key moment in that first convention.

Reyna: Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna organized this two-hour workshop and recruited a Black woman from the DC Peace Center to lead it. We tried to track her down but weren’t able to find her. So we have to rely on Sara Marcus’s retelling of the event.

Marcus: Apparently, like some of the people in the workshop had a hard time with this. Some of the white girls in the workshop didn’t want to, you know, be made to “feel guilty for being white” or whatever kinds of things people say when they’re first confronted with the idea that, for all that they may feel disadvantaged in the world, they also are enjoying forms of unearned privilege.

Reyna: Marcus points out that riot grrrl was predominantly white. As we talked about in Episode 2, it grew out of largely white punk spaces in the Pacific Northwest and spread by word of mouth. It was also decentralized. While there were plenty of BIPOC folks involved, the movement wasn’t really set up to embrace diversity.

Marcus: The work of actually coming up with workable theories that can build multiracial movement spaces, it’s not obvious. It’s not just something that you decide you care about and then you get it right.

Reyna: Ramdasha Bikceem was at that 1992 convention. They got connected to riot grrrl in the early 90s through zines. And early on, they became one of the most visible Black riot grrrls.

Ramdasha Bikceem: Being Black, it’s a marginalized identity that’s put upon you. So you naturally have an affinity to punk. Like Black people are just naturally punk.

Reyna: We heard a lot from Bikceem in episode three. They created both a zine and a band called “Gunk” that played at the convention. Bikceem was 16 at the time and as a queer teenager, punk felt welcoming.

Bikceem: I mean, I just wasn’t trying to be pretty. I shaved my head. I wore punk clothes, baggy clothes. I wasn’t trying to be super sexy. That was my statement on my gender.

Reyna: The convention was mostly a positive experience for Bikceem. It was also the only time they attended a riot grrrl meeting.

Bikceem: It was uncomfortable for a lot of reasons, one being not that inclusive with other different marginalized identities. I don’t like the term “POC” so I don’t really use that word. There wasn’t a lot of people of the global majority there. I’ll say it like that.

Reyna: Bikceem felt like there was a big elephant in the room when it came to dealing with race and racism both at the convention and within riot grrrl as a movement.

Bikceem: I think white guilt is a problem and a lot of times people bypass actually dealing with their own racism by skirting it with white guilt, being like, “oh, you know, we’ll like we’ll include a Black person in it and then that’ll make it better,” being scared to speak up and to make mistakes. It’s like really digging deep into what it means to live in a world carrying white privilege because when they look at what that actually means, it’s very painful. And sometimes I feel like people don’t want to feel the pain. So, they say a bunch of lip service instead of actually looking into what that actually means in your day-to-day life: How are you enacting and enabling white supremacy?

Reyna: Coming up after a break, we hear from someone who was part of riot grrrl and tried to grapple with this in a song.

Heavens to Betsy “White Girl” song:

We should have talked about this

A long time ago

But I didn’t have to think about it

That’s what this song is about

Reyna: Heavens to Betsy released this song in 1994.

song continues:

White girl


I want to change the world

But I won’t change anything

Unless I change my racist self

Reyna: Heavens To Betsy’s “White Girl” brings up the kind of paradox I talked about earlier. And to me, the song shows that white women were being challenged to the point of self-reflection but we didn’t see the same level of community action that we saw for reproductive rights or gender-based violence. When we sat down to talk about riot grrrl, I asked Corin Tucker what she had in mind when she wrote that song.

Corin Tucker: There were multiple conversations going on in Olympia, and there were conversations about the exclusivity of feminism and white feminism. I felt like, at the time, there were other white girls and white women who are listening to our band, and I was like, well I think it’s important to use that space to have this conversation about race and have this conversation about looking at the world and understanding privilege a bit more.

Reyna: There were other attempts at including honest conversations about race and privilege in riot grrrl. But, reflecting on it 30 years later, it’s clear that Tucker feels like the movement fell short.

Tucker: I feel like there was a lot of space taken up by white women within riot grrrl that there were so many different ways that there could have been more of a reach out to inclusivity and women of color and making space for other voices that didn’t happen and I’m sad about that. And I think that today, like you said, that conversation is still going on, especially in arts and music and in terms of the music scene today, I think that, hopefully, there is more awareness about reaching out, about including more voices, about listening and thinking about your own background and your own privilege and how it relates to what other people might be going through.

Reyna: Struggling against sexism or even homophobia was unifying for riot grrrl.

Manifesto clip: 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.

Reyna: But even though that original manifesto also calls out racism, it was something many young, white women would have preferred to ignore. And there was a sense that, by centering gender, white riot grrrls didn’t have to deal with race or their own privilege.

Laina Dawes: There’s also an assumption that women will stick together, that women just have this affinity for equality and that’s not true and it never was, especially in my life.

Reyna: Laina Dawes is a music critic and ethnomusicologist.

Dawes: So, there was this like, ‘oh women women, women, yes, you’re a woman, I’m a woman, let’s go and do this woman thing.’ And realistically we all know that white women can just be as racist as white men. And white women can also be exclusionary.

Reyna: Dawes wrote a book that came out in 2013 called “What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal.” She was in her twenties when riot grrrl started, and she remembers going to see some of the bands when they came through Toronto.

Dawes: That’s where I felt uncomfortable because I felt like I was being judged and I was stared at because there was this weird understanding. I felt that it was a space for white women or non-Black women, I should say, because anti-Black racism is a whole different beast. So, if I was Asian, I might have had an easier time and maybe I wouldn’t have been stared at, but as a Black woman, it was almost like, ‘why are you here? This wasn’t for you.’

Reyna: As the title of her book suggests, Dawes was more into heavy metal than punk anyway, and she says that she also had trouble relating to what riot grrrls were singing about.

Dawes: Black women have always had to fight harder because we are dealing with misogyny and we’re dealing with racism and classism. How women are perceived in society at that time, and even to this day, there’s such a disconnect, and the experiences are so different that I think that why would I want to be emotionally involved in this musical scene and this cultural scene in this movement – this very important movement – when my experiences are just so opposite to what you’re singing about?

Reyna: Dawes says that race put up specific barriers for her when it came to embracing riot grrrl’s view of sexuality. Riot grrrl embraced the idea that someone could be both a sex worker and a feminist. And the movement was very sex positive in general.

Dawes: Yeah, I couldn’t relate because my experience as a woman was in some ways to strip away my femininity, but you’ve got your femininity, you’ve got your sexuality, you’ve got the freedom to be sexual in any way you want. It was different because we were policed within our own communities – ‘you can’t talk about sex. People are gonna think you’re a whore. They already think that we’re hyper-sexualized, you can’t say anything’ – because they’re afraid of what white people are going to think.

Reyna: So many of these reflections about race and privilege in the 90s feel eerily familiar. Living in Portland now, I have a really hard time when I hear people say that Black and Brown people don’t live here because that’s just not true. But we prioritize the lived experience of white privilege, white history, and under that perspective Black lives don’t exist until something like George Floyd’s murder forces us to acknowledge that.

Dawes: We live in a racist society that has segregated music genres based on race and identity, and because of that, there’s all these kind of machinations that happen, which make the pleasure and the enjoyment of listening to music, making music, writing about music just very complicated.

Reyna: Riot Grrrl simply was not set up to fight against racism. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t Black women in riot grrrl, but it means that white and Black riot grrrls experienced different versions of the movement. We’re going to take another quick break and then, we’ll hear more about that from a performance artist who is proud to call themselves a riot grrrl.

Reyna: I want to introduce you to someone many people told us we just had to talk to for this podcast.

Brontez Purnell: My name is Brontez Purnell. I am a writer, performance artist, dancer, musician, college loan defaulter, I’m a Black girl from Alabama.

Reyna: Brontez Purnell uses the pronouns he, she, they and auntie. When asked whether they agreed with Ramdasha Bikceem that there is something inherently punk about being Black, this is what they said:

Purnell: No. No. Absolutely not. Being in the complication of being a Black, gay male, especially from down south Black, gay men can be intensely conservative.

Reyna: Purnell discovered riot grrrl as a teenager growing up in the 90s, and formed a riot grrrl band called the Dirty Broads. In general, they felt like an outsider and, in some ways, they were overtly rejected by the community where they lived.

Purnell: I was sitting in class, drama class, and the teacher called gay people “a genetic mistake” and I remember being so hurt because I knew that I was gay, right? So I go home and I write a letter to Kathleen Hanna. And then a couple of weeks later, I remember coming home from choir competition in my choir gown, I get home and Kathleen Hanna had totally written me back, I still have the letter right here. Right here! (laughs)

Reyna: On our Zoom call, Purnell held up a framed copy of the letter from the Bikini Kill lead singer on pink paper. They read it out loud.

Purnell: “Sorry it took me so long to write back. Anyways, I am sending you my new band CD in hopes that the Dirty Broads will send me something, even just a practice tape or maybe I’ll get a zine sent to me at some point in trade … It’s so weird writing to someone you don’t know. I never know what to say. Oh well. I hope your senior year is going okay and it’s not too sucky. I personally hated high school, more in retrospect maybe than I did at the time. I’m not sure. And I’m really glad that since then things have just gotten better and better and better … The teacher you mentioned in your letter, the one who thinks his superior genes gives him the right to marry, have kids, etcetera, sounds like such a fucking idiot. It makes me so mad that someone who was supposed to be a quote unquote leader is allowed to get away with that kind of crap. Duh. It’s so cool that you stood up to him. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in the room … It’s too bad the world is so totally homophobic though that it makes it pretty hard to figure things out sometimes … anyway, I’ll stop blabbing on and on and I’ll tell you that your letter made my day and yes, you indeed look cute in the picture you sent. I hope you send me a zine or something … write me back. If you feel like it again, my apologies for taking so long to respond.”

Reyna: Kathleen Hanna’s letter had a profound effect on young Brontez Purnell.

Purnell: Let me tell you something. So many faggots have like all their teenage like women that they worship were these like far away stars. The divas that I worshipped, I got to talk to. Changed the whole scope of my life. It was real motherfucking magic.

Reyna: They were also discovering queercore zines and music through the Kill Rock Stars catalog. For Purnell, being a queer, Black punk meant embracing contradictions.

Purnell: I think when you don’t really sit anywhere comfortably you can sit anywhere comfortably. Do you see what I’m saying? And there are ways in which I don’t know like moving to Chattanooga Tennessee like sitting in a room full of like these crazy, dirty, white boys playing guitar all the time – it makes no sense – but there are ways in which I was safer there than around a group of rural, Black, southern Christians.

Reyna: Purnell proudly identifies as a riot grrrl. They said that feeling at home in the movement was what helped them find their people when they left the South for the Bay Area.

Purnell: I understand that a bunch of straight white girls heard “Rebel Girl” and ran with it, but at the end of the day, riot grrrl as a house was specifically made for me. No one can take that away. When you look at the genesis points of riot grrrls, this is who it was intended for. I am definitely one of the childs that it was intended for.

Reyna: Purnell said something we heard from a lot of people: They’re not sure it would have been possible to make a more diverse and inclusive version of riot grrrl in the 90s.

Purnell: I definitely think that desegregation in America is proving to be more of 100-year period than a one stop shop. And so even finding a core group of Black women that would necessarily walk into like these spaces of mostly white women, probably just was not, I just don’t think it was there.

Reyna: I want to be clear about something. I am a brown, light-skinned woman who will never understand the social implications and nuances of what being Black in the United States is like. My experience is different just simply based on the fact that in most of the world, having lighter skin means having more privilege. And more access. But I’m here, hosting this podcast, because being Brown and Black means being segregated, and being segregated means being isolated in a way that makes it harder to find your identity. What I can relate to is this exact feeling of looking into a room that you are told includes you, seeing not one body that looks or represents you, and walking away.

Purnell: As a child of the 90s, I put on so many blinders to be able to walk into a lot of those spaces. I mean I had access to a lot of freedom too, there was a lot of cool shit, but I mean it took a kind of a spiritual muscle to be Black and walk into those spaces.

Reyna: Of course, Purnell wasn’t a complete anomaly.

Purnell: There were so many queer, Black punks actually that I met there were just like these kind of oasises for me. We didn’t know it at the time but we were aerating the soil for the next generation. There are Black kids who are 22 who came up with Afropunk who just believed like the whole world has operated this way the whole time. I have a really funny time explaining to them the way it actually was.

Reyna: Purnell has kept in touch with their riot grrrl heroes. They are going on tour with Bikini Kill this year.

Purnell: Teenage dreams do come true. I mean if I really think about what goal I’ve ever had. Opening up for Bikini Kill was really the only one that’s the only reason I’ve ever played music. So after that I think I can retire.

Reyna: That’s the thing about riot grrrl – it’s not all in the past. Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail wants to focus on what happens next.

Tobi Vail: I think the danger of focusing on what happened in the very early nineties, in the riot grrrl like conventions and the zines and stuff like that and the activist protest network, I think it’s really important to look at that history, but I don’t want to just get stuck there because I think that was just a beginning point for a lot of people, right? I don’t think that’s an ending point.

Reyna: In my almost 20 years of knowing riot grrrl I feel like I’ve gone through three stages of a relationship. First an infatuation and admiration that helped me grow as a person when I needed it the most. Then, I started questioning and wondering if this was really for me, do I even see myself in it? Eventually I let go of what it could or should have been, and let the teachings from that relationship help shape what I’m becoming and want to build next. Flawed as it was, riot grrrl was the beginning of so many amazing things. And these conversations are ongoing.

In the next episode, we’ll talk about the legacy left by riot grrrl and who is carrying on the ethos of the movement and making it their own.

Eloise Wong: We’re not trying to be riot grrrl or be one particular thing, you know, we just want to be a band that has fun and makes music and makes something that feels important to us.

Jasmine Nyende: I would say that like what riot grrrl really represents is this way that you don’t ever have to be afraid of the music that you can make and or be afraid to change it up, switch it up and find new avenues of expression.

Tobi Vail: Yes, everyone was talking about riot grrrl, but no one was actually starting a riot.