Coming in on a Wave of History: Downtown Boys at West Fest

Photo by Christopher Grady. 

Photo by Christopher Grady. 

I'd cried at shows before, but never in the way where your face crumples into ugliness —  never in the way I cried while watching Downtown Boys play last Saturday at Chicago's West Fest.

You could say it was the ugliness of whiteness breaching the surface as though literally called out by the Providence-based band and its activist strain of punk. Each of their songs is a storm raging against American society's injustices, and if you fail to make out the message over the raucous noise and the furious shouts of frontwoman Victoria Ruiz, the snarling spoken interludes should help to clarify things. To paraphrase guitarist Joey La Neve DeFrancesco during one of these interludes: "If you've felt comfortable today, and you're thinking, 'This band is so political,' think about the things that make you comfortable. They're political, too." This is a band that restores punk to its radicalism, never hesitating to point the finger straight in the face of a predominantly white audience.

In fact Ruiz, in the course of decrying the way that marginalized groups are pushed out of their neighborhoods as affluent white tenants move in, did point an accusatory finger at a (white) man leaning from the window of his (probably expensive) apartment overlooking the festival stage. Then I watched as this man nodded along to "100% Inheritance Tax", a song calling for the redistribution of wealth. Perhaps it's a testament to the efficacy of marrying activism to the arts and entertainment: people come to move around, bounce, dance, have a beer maybe, and forget the world (another word for entertainment is distraction); they leave mobilized.

They also dance. The songs are fun and catchy, even if their subject matter is dead serious. They go hard and fast, they shout and shred, with a saxophone in the mix keeping things melodious. I think theirs would make good running music, as work by Titus Andronicus and Perfect Pussy have done for me in the past—it's exhilarating, motivating—and at just twenty-three minutes in length, Full Communism, their 2015 debut full-length, is more of a sprint than a marathon. At the same time, the music video for "Wave of History" is the most educational one I've ever seen.

I don't need to say that last week was hard. In the aftermath of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, it was tempting to seek out a distraction, a forgetting. But the ability to do so is a privilege not afforded to all, and Downtown Boys didn't allow us that privilege. Ruiz took a moment to remind us that Black Lives Matter protesters were at that very moment taking over the Taste of Chicago festival downtown; I wondered if she and her bandmates wouldn't rather be there than here, playing a show; I wondered if I shouldn't rather be there than here, watching a show. Art should make us uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable with my whiteness; I found myself thinking, "I'm sorry I'm white," which is a cop-out, the kind of self-hate that edges on self-pity. "I'm sorry about whiteness, and I will work to make it better," I tried to think instead.

I felt uncomfortable with my position toward the front of the crowd as well, because as much as I love this band's music, I came to see that it's not really for me, or at least not chiefly. I am not its priority. The lyrics are bilingual; at one point during the set, Ruiz simultaneously interpreted DeFrancesco's remarks into Spanish. The show's most touching moment came at the end, when Ruiz descended from the stage toward the barrier (finally—you could tell that she wanted to get nearer to us all along, that the festival's setup impeded her confrontational style) and ceded her microphone to a young woman in the front row during the chorus of "Monstro". "She's brown! She's smart!" she screamed, appearing thrilled with the honor, and thrilled to be brown, and smart.

Downtown Boys deliver hope along with heft; they remind us not only of our responsibility to fight injustice, but also of our power to do so. We must take on the world; we must also love ourselves. This is what Ruiz left us with, introducing "Monstro" with guidance meant for everyone but especially for the dispossessed and discriminated-against: "Make sure that the fire inside you burns brighter than the fire outside you, but that you never set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm." I'll leave you with that.

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Check out one of Downtown Boys' upcoming shows:

7/23 - Denver, CO - Summit Music Hall
8/4 - Boston, MA - Middle East
8/24 - Washington, DC - Rock and Roll Hotel
8/27 - New York, NY - Afropunk Festival
9/8-9/10 - Raleigh, NC - Hopscotch Festival
9/17 - Asbury Park, NJ - The New Alternative Music Festival

Buy or stream Full Communism on Bandcamp.