The Downtown Boys are Fueled by Anger and the Belief in Justice
The Downtown Boys are angry. Angry with the inherent systems of exclusion that continuously repress people of color, queer communities, women, the impoverished. Angry that those systems are mainstream. Angry that nothing is changing. But rather than letting that anger discourage and immobilize them, the Downtown Boys grab it by the horns and channel it into action.
Dripping with gritty saxophone bliss reminiscent of X-Ray Spex and driven by vocals grounded in the harshness of reality, the Providence, RI band’s raw bilingual punk commands attention. It provides an invigorating foundation for a discussion about the racist, homophobic, sexist, neoliberal and neocolonial systems that minorities must confront on a daily basis. Vocalist Victoria Ruiz doesn’t hold back, breathing life into this discussion with her booming screams. She paints a picture of a world where people of color are not tokenized and alienated, where capitalistic structures no longer suffocate artists out of their passions, where women have truly been freed from their patriarchal shackles. The Downtown Boys are angry and disillusioned, but by no means have they given up. They don’t want you to give up either.
MOLLY RAGAN: If there’s one thing you want to stick in people’s minds when they walk away from a show or walk away from listening to your debut LP, Full Communism, what would it be?
MARY REGALADO: I don’t know. The first thing that comes to mind is I want people to come away from our shows feeling like they are able to resist. Resistance. Perseverance.
VICTORIA RUIZ: I think resistance, trying to fight alienation. Alienation caused by a lot of those systems that you just mentioned, but racism, capitalism, the prison industrial complex, all create alienation and then that’s what’s able to fuel those systems. So it’s about breaking that alienation with what Mary just said, resistance.
How can people resist that alienation?
MR: By just surviving. Survival.
JOEY LA NEVE DEFRANCESCO: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any one thing. I think a lot of the time people get bogged down in this idea thinking, “Oh can we be doing this through music? Should we be doing this through another thing?” I think we need a diversity of tactics to build a better world. There’s no one thing we can say to do that will change the world for the better. We need to organize, yes. We need to do a whole multitude of things to do this, but like we were talking about, just surviving and doing something where we can believe in that better world, where we’re taking steps to create it.
I want to talk about Spark Mag, your online magazine that shines a spotlight on political art and organization. You were talking about using different tactics, and that is definitely it’s own platform for raising awareness of inclusive communities in the music world. How did that start? Do you see it evolving into something more?
JLND: It got started through our relationship with an organization called Demand Progress who are this really awesome national group fighting for basic civil rights against surveillance. It was founded by our friend David Segal and the late Aaron Schwartz who was driven to suicide by the criminal justice system in this country, for trying to democratize information. Demand Progress continues to try to do a lot of the work Aaron did but they wanted to create a more explicitly cultural platform. We know David pretty well so he came to us and said, “Do you want to help us make this cultural platform where we can highlight progressive artists and radical artists and give a voice and let people talk about politics in a way that’s not tokenizing and that’s not shallow?” Shallowness tends to come out when political art gets covered in the mainstream media. So that’s what it is right now. We’re going to keep growing it. We have limited resources right now, but we’re doing everything we can to get those voices and that work out there via Spark Mag.
So it’s a collective of writers who are interested in writing for you guys or it’s just friends? How do you get those stories?
VR: People pitch different stories. People come up or email us with different ideas. Or people will write us saying they’d like to write for Spark Mag and if there is an artist that we know of and that we think needs to be in Spark Mag, then we’ll connect people that way. We believe in paying all the writers, so everyone who’s ever done an interview has been paid. The artists who get interviewed are able to sell a song or a t-shirt or some type of their work in our online store. 10% of the sales go back to Demand Progress and 90% go to the artist, which is unheard of from any other digital platform that does both journalism and music sales. We’re always looking for more writers. As you’ve probably noticed, Spark Mag isn’t purely a punk mag. We cover the spectrum of political art.
JLND: Anyone should write, we’re always looking for writers!
I know there are huge fashion, arts and general cultural scenes flourishing in Providence, where the band is based. How has that environment shaped your sound and your politics?
VR: It has shaped them so much. I moved to Providence going on 7 years ago and I immediately fell into the warehouse punk scene. I started going to shows my first week—I met Joey and started going to shows. The scene there, like the Lightning Bolt scene, is driven by white people. It’s driven by a lot of noise music. A lot of very good artists who are still active, a lot of people who aren’t in touring bands, who aren’t working really hard, like Brian Chippendale, have created sort of a crust and inheritance of white noise bros and that’s what we’re fighting in Providence. There is a new zenith of Latino, young people, younger than I am, artists. We used to have a show space, Spark City, which we got evicted from. By the time the show space ended, most of the people coming to the shows I didn’t know. Most of them were people of color and most of them were younger than I was, and I’m 29. So that’s what’s going on right now in Providence.
NORLAN OLIVO: Providence is cool. We’re one of these bands that are fighting the history of Providence as like a noise, primarily tall, white men scene. That whiteness and maleness exist in all realms, whether its in noise or punk in Providence, and I think that when Spark City closed down, there was a lot of backlash from that scene and those types of people. There were a lot of people talking about the space in a negative way. It’s interesting because you have these people who get on social media platforms and claim to support young people of color but then they didn’t really support this space, which was welcoming to primarily queer and young people of color. So it’s a hard battle because a lot of these people are really good artists and are really respected but at the same time you have to stick to your guns and be supportive of the communities you come from. I don’t know. But it’s a great city and it is very supportive of the music and the arts and it is a great hub for that stuff, it’s just a matter getting people on the same page. And you know, it could be worse—and it is worse, in a lot of other places—but that doesn’t mean we necessarily have to agree with it. Just because it can be worse doesn’t mean that it should be.
MR: I just moved to Providence like six months ago to join the band and yeah, I agree with Norlan. The cost of living is not ridiculous in Providence. It’s a place where I’ve been able to afford housing, afford food, make my art and not have to be worrying about paying rent, you know? I feel like the local government is supportive of the arts, and it’s such a small place where I feel like a lot of people like Joey and Victoria, my friends and people that live there actually have agency to change the laws there and it’s really cool and really unique.
ZAZIL DAVIS-VAZQUEZ: Is there a lot of involvement of local artists in politics too? You mentioned how local politics supports the arts, but is there a vice versa relationship too?
JLND: I don’t think local politics supports the arts very much. We have a supposedly progressive major who’s just pursued the same neoliberal policies as every other politician in every other city. He’s pursued policies of gentrification in certain areas, which accelerate evictions—for example Spark City got evicted. Providence promotes itself as the creative capital, that’s like that tagline, but in so many cases it’s not supporting actual artists living in the city. To give one concrete example, there was this young person of color who was making these beautiful tag murals on the sides of buildings saying the word “lonely”. He was getting into really beautiful places and beautiful abandoned buildings and writing “lonely” on them, addressing the ideas of gentrification and stuff. He was eventually caught and is facing tens of thousands of dollars in fines and jail time, and he’s just this 19-year-old kid. So it’s a situation where Providence is being marketed as the creative capitol when in reality they’re at war with anyone who’s making actually meaningful work and in a lot of cases they’re directly criminalizing artists. I think there are a lot of artists pushing back against that. Like Victoria talked about this younger crew and ourselves and some other bands as well who are trying to create a radical change. But we’re engaging with city politics to create something that’s actually pushing back against its neoliberal waves and is not just feeding into this shit that’s happening in the city with this creative capitol branding.
VR: And at a punk show you can actually announce a picket line or an action and young people of color from the punk show go to the picket line or to the rally. That’s just really special.
The Downtown Boys’ debut LP, Full Communism, is out now on Don Giovanni Records.
***This piece was originally written for KAMP Student Radio at the University of Arizona***