When Bearcat — née Kerrie Ann Murphy, a DJ and producer from London — performed at the Brooklyn music festival Afropunk on Aug. 26, peers and members of the media kept asking her how her background in punk music influenced the tunes she mixes and makes today. The detail that she’d been a singer in a punk band called Ebony Bones came to light earlier this summer, and since then, the public has slapped a “punk” label on her; perhaps in efforts to make Bearcat more digestible or easier to understand.
But for Bearcat, punk isn’t simply a genre of music or even a style of dress. It’s a mind-set, and a way of life that she, as a femme, queer woman of color, embodies in her everyday existence.
“There’s something punk about being black and facing the world,” she says from inside her hotel room in lower Manhattan, where she’s lying in bed, swallowed up by a pile of white pillows. “I feel like black people are inherently punk, just by surviving.”
Bearcat knows a thing or two about survival. Growing up, her mother — who is Caucasian — and father — who is black — split up, and her mom subsequently married a man who Bearcat refers to as “a white supremacist.”
“It just led to a whole bunch of complications for me,” she says matter-of-factly. One of those complications, which she explains shaped her life up until this point, was the few years when she was homeless. From ages 16 to 18, Bearcat didn’t have stable housing, and sometimes found herself sleeping on the streets. But then she met a friend who welcomed her into the band Ebony Bones, and she was able to find a place to stay. At that time, Bearcat worked as a makeup artist, and didn’t reveal to many people that she was interested in making music or even that she could sing.
“It was such a leap, and that experience was bittersweet,” she says. “It was affirming because it gave me the sense that you can do anything you want to do. Before that, being on stage was a thing of my imagination. But life is crazy.
“I went from being homeless to playing Glastonbury.”
In the past year, Bearcat has clocked two gigs at the Guggenheim, a performance at the Panorama music festival and a show at Pioneer Works with Sun Ra Arkestra, and shows no signs of slowing. Although the 31-year-old is based in West Philadelphia, she’s been traveling all summer, and is essentially living out of a suitcase. She says she’s “literally a bag lady” as she scrambles to pick up her belongings in time for an afternoon checkout. She takes stock of her stuff: a shoulder bag with the word “Discwoman” (the booking agency and collective that she’s part of) on the front; a suitcase with lime-green piping that matches the lime-green, button-down shirt she’s wearing, and a checkered, plastic, zip-up bag that holds the pink outfit she wore to Afropunk. Martin Tordby, the stylist for fashion brand Chromat, created the Afropunk look for her and also styled her on this particular day.
Bearcat works closely with Chromat, a company that she describes as “a family.” She DJs the brand’s fashion shows and scored the soundtrack for the 2016 documentary “Chromat: Body Electric,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Chromat is known to deliver messages of body positivity and the need for diversity in the fashion industry through casting for its shows. Bearcat says these ideals align with the messages she sends through her music, which she says is inherently political.
“I never say I’m a political artist, but I am put in that category because of who I am and the things I talk about,” she says. “But my work speaks for itself.
“You have someone like Diplo, right?” she adds, referring to the DJ and producer. “He takes the kind of sound that my peers and I are playing and once he creates it, it’s mainstream. It takes a white man to be celebrated for that. Meanwhile, people of color who are actually making this music are not even seen. We’re doing the work so we can be seen. And as much as I want people to come to shows and have a great time, let their hair down — the politics of this can’t be avoided. On that level, what I do is political. I’m there, letting people know there’s more than f—ing Diplo to this sound.”
Although the subject matter she discusses might come across as harsh, in person, Bearcat is kind and friendly. She makes conversation easily — asking questions as a reporter would — and offers something to drink to her guests. She explains that she’s a Gemini, which allows her to see both sides of every argument, and she does this while speaking in a stream-of-consciousness style. Her main goal for the upcoming months is to release a full EP consisting of the music she’s made herself and has been sitting on for almost 10 years.
“I feel like I’m getting close to letting people hear my sound and what I want to do rather than hiding behind DJ decks,” she says, noting her style spans ragga, Afrofuturistic, industrial, noise, African, Latin American and Caribbean music.
It wouldn’t do her justice to simply label her as “punk” — she’s a lot more than that.
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