Pussy Riot and Rrrrevolution

2820453801_bcfff9ee70_oby Jenae Armstrong

Performance has always been a way to express thoughts and feelings of the human condition. Pussy Riot, an all-female Russian punk rock band was arrested for performing “A Punk Prayer” on the public stage of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012. Protesting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies and his connection with the Russian Orthodox Church. With songs like “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away”, Riot, who was defined by Reuters as “the avant-garde of a disenchanted generation looking for creative ways to show dissatisfaction with Putin’s 12-year dominance of politics,” voice their opposition and dissatisfaction with discriminatory government policies toward women, education, health care, and LGBT rights. Pussy Riot has had a huge impact in Russia, but its musical origins date back further than one might expect. Feminist punk emerged during the American Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s. This DIY (do it yourself) movement expressed political activism through Zines (self-made magazines) concerned with gender awareness, as well as music and art. The music confronted topics such as violence against women, sexuality and female empowerment. Riot Girls, led by bands like Bikini Kill, thrived on both the West and East coasts of America, in the Pacific-Northwest and Washington, D.C. The Riot Grrrl movement of the 90s is living on through Pussy Riot whose twist on this political and social movement incorporates a significant degree of performance art.

“What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse and a non-standard female image,” said Pussy Riot in a statement to The St. Petersburg Times. “The difference is that Bikini Kill performed at specific music venues, while we hold unsanctioned concerts. On the whole, Riot Grrrl was closely linked to Western cultural institutions, whose equivalents don’t exist in Russia.” The leading group of the Riot Grrrl movement was Bikini Kill, who according to the book Popular Music and Human Rights “articulated a discourse of human rights within punk rock that placed gender issues at the forefront, again using punk to articulate a response to local issues and problems.” It was at about this time that third-wave feminism emerged, which was dedicated to the voices of all women, as opposed to the first and second waves of feminism which included predominantly middle- and upper-class white women. The third-wave incorporates a broader demographic to reflect the diversity of women as a whole: young, old and of diverse experiences and ethnicities. Originating in Olympia, Washington, Bikini Kill performed live shows that encouraged women to attend, particularly because punk is a traditionally a male-dominated genre. Having opened for acts like Nirvana and Joan Jett, this all-female band has been an inspiration for many subsequent bands including Hole (Courtney Love), Le Tigre, Sleater Kinney and Gossip. Their lyrics in the famous song Rebel Girl promote female empowerment.

“That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood, She’s got the hottest trike in town. That girl she holds her head up so high, I think I want to be her best friend, yeah…Rebel girl…you are the queen of my world.” Queen of the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hannah, is known for her brilliant maneuver of writing “Kurt Smells like Teen Spirit” in Sharpie on Cobain’s wall, thus inspiring the name of Nirvana’s seminal track, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, according to Michael Azerrad’s biography, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. In the United States, the Riot Grrrl movement did not have to resort to breaking the law to be heard, but in Russia the situation is different. For their performances, such as at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the band took over public space and brought the movement to their own country. In an interview with the BBC News, Pussy Riot members claimed that only illegal actions can bring media attention. According to The St. Petersburg Times, the group is united by feminism, anti-authoritarianism and opposition to Putin. In n+1 Magazine’s article “Pussy Riot Closing Statements,“ Tolokonnikova explains that “This is a trial of the entire political system of the Russian Federation, which, to its great misfortune, enjoys quoting its own cruelty toward the individual, its indifference toward human honor and dignity, repeating all of the worst moments of Russian history.”

Following their performance in the cathedral, three of the group’s members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Ekaterina Samutcevich were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility. According to Rolling Stone, Tolokonnikova stated in court, “Our goal was political protest in artistic form. There was no hate, not a drop.” Local followers expressed their support outside of the courtroom and many well-known musicians and performers such as Sting, Yoko Ono and Red Hot Chili Peppers called for their release. Alyokhina stated, “I thought the church loved all its children, but it seems the church loves only those children who love Putin.”

The women have been serving in a penal colony for the last two years, where Tolokonnikova describes the conditions similar to “slave labor,” in which they had to work up to 16 hours per day, and many prisoners were beaten for not completing their work, however Tolokonnikova was spared abuse. President Putin implemented an amnesty law two months before their expected release, which permitted Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova to go home to their families. Upon her release, Tolokonnikova, the unofficial front woman, explained her skepticism of the Russian government’s implementation of the amnesty law so soon before the beginning of the Olympic Games in Sochi, and called on western governments to abstain from participating. Musicians across the world have shown their solidarity, and several chapters such as Pussy Riot Olympia emerged and created videos and music to express their backing of the band’s music and actions, and Bikini Kill drummer, Tobi Vail, created a solidarity track to show support for the Pussy Riot movement.

The issues brought up by punk feminism may lessen by encouraging public discourse and dialogue on these issues. Kathleen Hanna wrote in Pitchfork Magazine that “Everyone is always asking me, ‘How do we restart Riot Grrrl? And I’m like, ‘Don’t.’ Who wants to restart something that’s 20 years old? Start your own fucking thing.” On her blog KathleenHanna.com she proposes that “people all over the world started their own performance groups, bands, art collectives” and called them different names like Pussy Riot Athens, Paris, etc. “Who knows this could be the start of a whole new thing, a whole new motivating source for a globally connected unapologetic punk feminist art and music scene. A catalyst, no matter what it gets called. Anything is possible, if anything, this band has reminded us of that.”

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