Downtown Boys: Let the Punk Revolutionists Write History

It is rare that a band and a record comes along that is so deeply and foundationally personal that it requires writing about in the first person. Perhaps require is too strong a word—inspire would be more apt. Providence, Rhode Island’s Downtown Boys are that band—and their latest record, Cost of Living, is that album for me, as it is (I can imagine) for many minority-identifying peoples, especially for those of Latinx backgrounds. They are a uniquely radical band whose politics are all but reactionary—they exist because they have something to say, and they recognize their limitations within that structure.

And their successes are undeniable: Downtown Boys have, in a short about of time, received immense critical acclaim from publications of all readership (hard to forget Rolling Stone dubbing them “America’s Most Exciting Punk Band” only a few short years ago, when they first made their appearance outside DIY art communities). Cost of Living is the band making the jump from small New Jersey punk imprint Don Giovanni Records to one of the world’s largest indie record labels, the famed Sub Pop. For those unfamiliar, it’s the very label that launched Nirvana and countless others’ careers in the fruitful rock 1990s. But because ROAR is a platform for social justice, for honest and open conversation through the impossibly crucial lens of intersectional feminism, one I hope—and we all hope, lest you stop reading this—will become a form of normalcy, describing Downtown Boys begins with personal vignettes. I have many, and I also have a favorite.

In August 2015, I did what many Northeasterners do in the last months of summer: I escaped to Los Angeles for a bit, to avoid humidity where the heat is hot. I escaped to do work and to visit a new and close friend, but it was a self-indulgent journey nonetheless. His name is Rogelio Hernandez, an East LA./Boyle Heights native who has spent most of his time in the last few years trying to diversify the L.A. indie rock scene. He fell in love with the music but felt isolated by its whiteness, its exclusivity to the Latinx, brown and black folk who built and made marvelous his city. The result was East Second, his booking name, the street he grew up, and on (now) rare occasion, where he throws shows in his backyard. This particular August, Downtown Boys were in town for a festival and made their way to his tiny home for a largely unannounced after-hours show. Because it was after a festival, I brought a friend who normally would never be exposed to this particular realm of DIY punk—Latinx, bilingual, pure, and political. There weren’t voices using a platform to talk about all the voices that require representation at this backyard gig, as is the modern fault of punk shows; it was representation in real time. My friend was moved, and wrote it was one of his favorite concerts of the year for the N.Y. Times. A small community worked to inspire the newspaper of record, and did so because of the band playing. It doesn’t hurt that they were an act whose name was at the tip of everyone’s tongue as an exciting music to follow, but it speaks to their immediacy: you see Downtown Boys, and you become a part of something.

It seems impossible to dissect Downtown Boys without discussing their live performance. They are a band of multiple identities of multiple genders and sexual orientations and races and classes and backgrounds, a true diversity that makes the very act of looking at them feel resonant, revolutionary—simply because it is real, because it looks like my experiences and your experiences. There is a song from their debut LP called “Monstro” where frontwoman Victoria Ruiz screams, repeating: “She’s brown! She’s smart!” in the chorus and every time I witness in a physical space, I cry. Not only because she is brown and smart (Ruiz identifies as Chicana and much of her presence as the face and co-lyricist of the band leads her to explore her history and the history of this nation with a keen and critical eye), but because it highlights how often “brown” and “smart” are not viewed in relation to one another, or if they are, it’s presented as some rarity. My mother is brown and she is smart, but an ESL-accent had white others questioning her intelligence throughout my childhood. In Trump’s America, it feels more frequent. Ruiz wasn’t considering a hopeless future (or current present) in writing it, but the words feel especially resonant in 2017.

“Monstro” is the precursor to the lead single from Downtown Boys’ Cost of Living, a track I believe is the best on the record: “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas).” For non-Latinx/non-Spanish speakers, “pendejas” is a more profane version of “dummy” or “stupid,” instituted typically by a parent or older authority figure when you goof up or do something idiotic. At least, that’s it’s intended meaning and how it is often instituted for men. For women, it’s a bit different and is certainly gendered. By essentially shouting “We’re elegant/intelligent, we’re not dumb,” Ruiz is subverting a narrative unkind and destructive towards people of color and women of color (it’s worth noting the “a” ending makes it distinctly female. You’d call a man “pendejo.”).

The entire record is littered with moments like these. It opens with the ferocious “A Wall,” Ruiz repeating “A wall is a wall / A wall is just a wall,” long before the current commander-in-chief’s failed promise of institutionalized racism, well, failed. For Ruiz and D-Boys, she was speaking of the walls that already exist, and how a hopeful and bright future is possible. It’s easy to grow tired and weary of the world we live in, but more often than not, there’s art around to help us make sense of it all. Downtown Boys are that kind of artist—they are a punk band founded on accessibility, who look like you and me, who truly believe no one is free until everyone is. The music might not be for everyone, but the message should be. They’re learning, and we’re very lucky to have been invited along for the ride.

Maria Sherman is a music and culture writer living in Philadelphia. She’s a contributing editor at the Talkhouse and contributes regularly to places like Rolling Stone, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, MTV, Billboard and more. She most recently held the title of Senior Correspondent at Fuse Media and before that, worked to build BuzzFeed’s music vertical.

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