The Downtown Boys, a band from Providence, R.I., has been classified as making punk music, and surely, there are punk elements to their tunes. But they’re also something wholly different — a new kind of punk for the ages.
Singer Victoria Ruiz, bassist Mary Regalado, drummer Joey Doubek, guitarist Joey DeFrancesco and sax player Joe DeGeorge are musicians, but some of them are also activists. They participate in grassroots groups and run a magazine called Spark that’s affiliated with Demand Progress. They create songs that touch on topics of the moment, like communism, the current presidential administration, family separation and racial profiling. Ruiz sings in both English and Spanish.
The fact that the lead vocalist of the band is a woman of color is special, the band says, especially since punk music has historically been dominated by white, male musicians. But Ruiz points out that punk bands of color have always existed; they simply haven’t received the same kind of recognition.
“Music has never only belonged to white people. They often just occupy the narrative, causing people of the diaspora who have always been there to be erased,” she says at their recent Panorama performance in New York. “It feels like we’re fighting that erasure.”
For their latest record, “Cost of Living,” Downtown Boys linked with post-hardcore band Fugazi’s frontman Guy Picciotto, who helped produce the album. DeFrancesco says he found out Picciotto, who was somewhat of a hero to him already, had an incredible ear.
“There’s the technical aspect, but there’s also the producer talent of making the band feel good enough to complete the task, and to do it well,” DeFrancesco says. “To have the broader validation of working with someone like him is big, but even when you’re just doing takes, a person who’s worked at that level being able to give insight as we’re creating a work of art is extraordinarily valuable.”
In their song “A Wall,” Ruiz sings, “a wall is just a wall.” Although the listener is tempted to infer that this is a direct reference to President Trump’s border wall, DeFrancesco insists it goes deeper than that.
“That line is from an Assata Shakur poem,” he says. “I think it’s fine if people read it [as being about the border wall], because that’s an issue that needs to be talked about and thought about and felt about. But I think we’re also talking about any wall dividing people, either geographically or socially or internally, as well.”
Is punk heading toward a culture of paying homage to communities of color, encouraging political action instead of anarchy and opening itself up to — gasp — a band performing at a music festival? Maybe. We’ll be listening.
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