Feminist punk grows with help from festivals

The Syracuse feminist music scene has expanded in recent years due to events like LadyFest and Feminist Friday, and riot grrrl band The Malvinas is helping build that community.

In a crowded dark basement that smells like patchouli oil, cigarette smoke and body odor, seven musicians that make up Syracuse riot grrrl band The Malvinas are setting up to perform at LadyFest 2016.

“What is that?” a crowd member says as the band tunes their instruments. “Does that guy just have a pipe with a string on it?”

"[Feminist punk] isn’t the thing Syracuse punk is most known for, but maybe it will be someday."
Cara Luddy

The referenced band member, Zeke Leonard, plucks the string, just once.

“Oh,” the man says. “Yep, that’s exactly what he has. That’s awesome.”

The Malvinas were one of five acts performing at LadyFest Syracuse this year, and the only band to have performed at every festival since its inception in 2014.

LadyFest has existed nationally for 16 years, but the Syracuse branch – which arose out of a need to give local women artists a spotlight, according to founder Meg Tamilio – is only in its third year.

“I felt like it was hard to find people that I had things in common with, like social justice, activism, the arts,” Tamilio said. “I wanted to start it to form a community, but also because I felt like the arts scene here in Syracuse was very male-dominated.”

Jessica Posner, lead singer of The Malvinas, said the Syracuse feminist music scene has expanded in recent years due to events like LadyFest and Feminist Friday, which she organized in October of last year.

“A lot of people come out and there’s really good energy – people want to be together,” she said. “There is a growing number of acts that are explicitly feminist and want to make communities together, and I’m among those people.”

While there aren’t as many feminist bands centered in Syracuse as New York City, for example, the ones that are here have a solid community, Tamilio said.

“The status of Syracuse’s feminist music scene is only a few bands, you know?” she said. “But they’re incredibly present. And it’s growing now – I feel like LadyFest kind of kicked it off. It’s giving bands that are feminist or queer or different identities a safe place to perform in.”

Cara Luddy, who designed the flyers for LadyFest and also plays keyboards in local feminist punk band Zooters, said the Syracuse punk scene wasn’t known for its warm reception towards women and minorities.

“Syracuse used to have a pretty bad reputation where the music scene was mostly male, and not the most welcoming environment for a lot of women,” she said. “It wasn’t good for many other people regardless of identity, either. I think it’s getting better now, I think LadyFest has kind of established Syracuse as a more progressive, socially aware city.”

While Luddy and Tamilio were promoting LadyFest at Urban Cinematheque, which hosted local organizations , a man approached their table.

“This guy was like, ‘Oh, so, LadyFest!’” Tamilio said. “Would that be, like, a good place where I could meet women? And we were both immediately like, ‘No!’”

“We told him he can come, I guess, but it’s not like that,” Luddy added. “It was so uncomfortable.”

Along with a sense of protection and togetherness, the key to the Syracuse feminist music scene’s low-key popularity, Posner said, is the lighthearted energy audiences enjoy while celebrating social justice at those performances.

“I think that the more that there is this kind of work – anti-racist, feminist, ecological, based in social justice – the stronger our community will become and the stronger our social fabric will be,” she said. “Also, it’s really fun. We need fun and stress relief; it’s also about mental health.”

The stresses of family life provide the need for those mental health breaks, Posner said. Of the seven Malvinas members, four have children, the youngest of which is 5 years old and the oldest of which is 25.

“One of the things I like to talk about is the fact that we’re working families,” she said. “We all have full-time jobs and more than half of the band has kids. What does it mean to be a band that has families?”

The Malvinas, whose members’ ages range from early 20s to late 40s, are inspired by the music of progressive ‘60s singer-songwriter Malvina Reynolds, Posner said. Reynolds, best known for her song “Little Boxes,” wrote songs dealing with issues such as racism, abortion and ecological activism.

Posner’s partner and fellow Malvinas member, Joanna Spitzner, runs Syrauke, a local ukelele group. They meet monthly to play their instruments, and as a result Spitzner began her research into Reynolds. Her interest in the songwriter and Posner’s desire to start a riotgrrl band were the initial sparks that led to The Malvinas’ formation.

Their songs range from slow, pulsing pleas to screaming, arrhythmic songs more emblematic of traditional early punk that urges the audience to thrash around in the name of feminism.

Tamilio said she had her eyes on The Malvinas before the first LadyFest took place.

“I’d seen them around a couple of times, and I knew that they were in the same vein as what I believe in,” she said. “They’re local and they’re about the same thing we’re trying to promote.”

Zooters is one of the newer feminist bands in Syracuse. The group has performed regularly since forming in 2015, and is trying to brand itself in the community, Luddy said.

“We’re really pushing our identity as a feminist punk band,” she said. “I mean, [feminist punk] isn’t the thing Syracuse punk is most known for, but maybe it will be someday. It exists; we do shows in our basement, there are tons of events you can go to.”

Though it might not be Syracuse’s biggest musical draw, music and art rooted in feminism is flourishing in Central New York, Posner said. The state’s progressive history with regards to women – in politics and indigenous culture – helps ground these bands and artists in the area.

“There’s a rich history of women’s rights here,” she said. “First-wave feminism has a strong hold in this region with Seneca Falls. And you’ve got the Haudenosaunee – they’re the foundation of not just democracy, but also matriarchal democracy. It’s not an accident that this exists here, you know?”

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