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Interview with Joi Purvy

As those of us in the United States incite and observe a profound reckoning with the root and core issues at the heart of many of our institutions, it’s critical to interrogate how those issues have been reflected in punk and DIY.

MRR spoke to Joi Purvy (bassist in Crow Baby, co-founder of Thick Thigh Collective, and one of the filmmakers behind Beauty Standards) about roots and reparations in punk, navigating when it’s right to reclaim space versus take a backseat, and the other intricacies inherent in holding a marginalized identity in a community of outcasts.

MRR: What does punk mean to you?

Joi: Punk to me— [laughter]. Punk, to me, is going against the grain on a very fundamental level. For me, punk is just going upstream, going against the flow of things. It’s the antithesis of the American dream, whatever that means, of a very cookie-cutter lifestyle because that wasn’t put in place for everyone to succeed in.

So we create what works for us as individuals because, also with punk, it celebrates individuality. To me, that’s what it means. Just really stepping into your individualism and being able to come together as a bunch of individuals, but create community and solace within being outside of the status quo…. and that’s why I always say that women of color are inherently way more punk than white dudes.

MRR: So, going off of that, what would you say are the intersections between punk, blackness, and other issues? And, given that you entered this world when you were pretty young, how has that changed over time?

Joi: It was really interesting because when I was getting into punk, I was living in Portland, Oregon. So it was a very alienating choice for me to make at that time, but it just felt natural to me to gravitate toward that. I dealt with a lot of bullshit from white people because it’s Portland, and I’m one of like seven black people that live in the whole fucking state.

I also got a lot of shit from the other black kids at my school; it was very much, “Oh, you trying to be white.” Like, “You think you white.” All of that shit. And it’s just like, “Dog?” Bad Brains exists. Death exists. Sister Rosetta Tharpe fucking invented rock and roll. I’m one of those people that when I get into something, I need to know everything about it.

I just did my research. Because I knew that I was kind of treading in uncharted waters in my immediate community, in my family, with my friends, with everything.

So I just dove in headfirst. I also just wanted something that was my own because I grew up, especially with music, being heavily influenced by my parents and my older sister. Trying to figure out what I wanted, what I liked, that wasn’t what somebody else handed to me.

It was, I don’t know, middle school? When I heard Good Charlotte for the first time. [laughter] I was like, “This is sick.” I was super interested in just staying up hella late and watching MTV and seeing All Things Rock. Then Headbangers Ball on MTV2, seeing all of these crazy music videos. I also felt like I wanted to do something that I’ve never seen anybody else in my immediate life do. I was just like “this just seems like a good avenue for me to be able to just do some different shit, and be able to expand on doing things that people aren’t expecting a 14-year-old black girl to be doing.”

I’m like, “Yeah, I’m in my room fucking learning Green Day covers on my guitar and doing all kinds of weird shit.” I don’t know; it just was a way for me to express myself differently. To find a different kind of community where I knew that the general idea was for people that didn’t fit into whatever “in” was. Even then, you get into it, and there’s still the cliquey bullshit and all that shit that punk is not supposed to be about. But, I mean, it’s—

MRR: It always happens.

Joi: Yeah, it always happens. So, yeah, I was just doing dumb shit like going to shows by myself when I was 14. Dangerous, very bad. I realize now how fearless I was. Just fucking brave, dude.

MRR: Yeah! You were talking earlier about digging into history and seeing how with rock and punk that the foundation of that was black people. I have some specific questions about that, but do you want to talk about that a little bit more?

Joi: Yeah. I mean, it’s just funny just how whiteness coopts and it just muddies up the history. Look, a queer black woman invented rock and roll, period. Even that got swept under the rug of other black musicians that made it bigger than she did. She was out there traveling with her partner being openly gay as shit in the ’40s. That’s punk as fuck, and it just blows my mind that all of this information is in our palms and people just— they don’t want to know.

And then when we rightfully want to take up space in these spaces, we are met with resistance. Well, you know what? When black women trying to take up space anywhere, it’s always a fucking problem. That’s kind of the beauty of punk, the more resistance we’re met with, the harder we’re going to go. Tell me I can’t do it, I’m going to make sure I do it.

MRR: And then there’s always the other side of it where other black people will find it to be a white thing because they don’t know this part of our history.

Joi: Right. You could get push back from people inside the scene when it comes to trying to plant your space. And then your own people might be like, “Well, why are you even trying? Why are you fucking with white people?” My mom used to say, “You can’t win for losing.”

It bums me out because it’s just like, “You are the one with a very narrow worldview. And if you, I don’t know, would just read a little bit.” Not even a lot. There’s not even tons of reading to do. Just read a tiny bit. You would just know that this shit is— being black is so expansive, and we are capable of doing so many things. White supremacy and capitalism has tried to pigeonhole us to being one specific kind of way. And it’s like, “No. you literally will catch me twerking to System of a Down, and you’re going to like it.” And it’s what makes me happy.

MRR: So there’s this act of trying to reclaim space and make space for other people of color, but what happens when you’re maybe the first or only person of color? How do you find a line that’s between, “Okay, I’m the only one here and I’m going to make the space.” Versus, “I’m the only one here because I’m the token apparently?” How do you define which one is actually happening?

Joi: You can tell by the way people treat you. That’s the biggest thing, using discernment and really trusting your gut. But the way the people around you treat you is very, very telling of what kind of situation you’re in. Because I’ve been in both, right? I’ve been in both situations where I’m like, “Oh, I’m stepping into this space and I’m the only person of color here.” Or like, “I’m the only woman around.” Especially with punk, it’s still such a fucking boy’s club. But it’s definitely the way people talk to you and you can tell if people respect you or not based off of—

MRR: If they’re okay with you taking that space or if they’re like, “Please don’t bring more of those people.” You’re the only one.

Joi: If they leave you alone and you can just occupy that space or if they’re trying to be like, “Well, you know? Diversity points… just you only though.”

Also, when you’re in that tokenized space, I’ve found that one of the biggest tell-tales is when people aggressively quiz you about the thing that you’re into.

They want to make sure you’ve earned your place in that scene or at that event or wherever you keep showing up to. Because once you show up once, people turn their heads, you probably get largely ignored because people also love to act like they don’t see black people.

I once read this really interesting piece about how invisible black women are. How we’re so very hypervisible but completely invisible at the same time. Especially because I’m short, I’m 5’2″ and a half, right? So I’ve definitely been in spaces where people just straight up don’t see me. And I’m like, “Bro—” Especially at shows, I was going to do a photo series of people standing directly in front of me at shows.

Before COVID, I had this dream of opening a venue space.

MRR: I was going to ask you if you’ve ever been to a DIY space that was started by or primarily run by a person of color. I don’t think I have. And I’m like, “Why is that? Is it because we lack generational wealth, usually?” I actually don’t know the answer.

Joi: I mean I feel like that’s a big part of it. It’s just like us not having the resources. Also maybe—I can’t think of any—I’m sure there are some, somewhere, maybe.

MRR: They have to be out there, but not common.

Joi: Even in the most inclusive DIY spaces, it’s always run by a white person.

MRR: Which means that we’re at the mercy of them including us.

Joi: Right. And they’re like, “No. We’re including you too in this fucking thing that you fucking started.”

MRR: So, that connects with this next point. What do you think, thinking about the concept of reparations, what do you think that can look like in something like punk? Or does it even make sense in this context?

Joi: I think that things like what we’re doing right now are important. Taking existing platforms and amplifying black people and people of color that are in the scene, it’s time to— I guess it’s starting to change where the spotlight lands. You know what I mean? But we’re standing on top of a fucking trash heap at this point. So the way I feel about all of it is it’s time to rebuild. And I’m unsure of what that looks like in a punk space because it’s— the thing about punk is that it’s always kind of deconstructed. Nothing about it is shiny and new. You know what I mean?

MRR: So much about punk is about history. That’s why so many punks become librarians and teachers. I think that’s why it’s always graffitied over and deconstructed, like glued back together.

Joi: But also there’s this thing in the punk scene that isn’t— that is a thing that I see a lot with white dudes specifically that they literally just get to play with it for a while. And then when it’s time for them to go be their cis white privileged man self, they just get to throw on a tie and it’s over with.

A lot of people aren’t afforded that same luxury. I know somebody whose dad was in a punk band until he was 30 and then he went and became a brain surgeon.

Which is fucking incredible. But it’s also some shit that only white guys get to do.

MRR: Yeah. It’s like it can be a passing phase for them. Whereas I think a lot of people— I feel like people of color I know are lifers. They’re like, no, this is me.

Joi: It’s like, a part of me. Whereas it’s like a phase for them to just kind of rough it and go be poor for fun. That’s the thing that pisses me off. Oh my God. So a lot of the reason why I moved out of Oakland was because I could not— and I was there in 2011, and I left in 2012 because I was there when Occupy was happening, right? So I couldn’t handle the— I called it poverty tourism, where you’re like, “Oh, I live in a squat. We don’t have running water.” But you’re riding in on your custom fixed gear bike. And your parents live in Sausalito. You know what I mean?

Where it’s just like it’s a costume. It’s like something that they get to just play around in, so they can find some kind of grit, so they can really apply that later when they go live their real life. You know what I mean? And that’s what I feel punk is for a lot of specifically cis white dudes. It’s like they get to just choose to rough it for a while. And then when they’re done, they’re like, “Okay, that was nice. Bye-bye neighborhood that I just fucking destroyed.” That’s fine.

MRR: So there’s been some conversation popping up lately where people are asking “Is it okay for anyone to be throwing shows in West Oakland?”

Joi: That was the biggest thing that was hard for me to reconcile because it was a lot of admitting to myself that I was complicit in the gentrification of the neighborhood that I lived in because I was like, “Yes. I am a black person living here, but this isn’t my city. And I’m definitely benefiting off of the gentrification of this neighborhood.”

It also was very hard for me because I don’t really have a hometown because I grew up in a ton of places. When people ask, “Where are you from?” It’s like, “Well, I was born in… my family’s from Philly.” I’m from generations of Philadelphians, but we moved out of Philly when I was a baby, and we lived overseas. We lived in Massachusetts. We lived in Oregon, and we moved to Torrance 2003. And then aside from the year I spent in Oakland, I mostly have been in LA. But even so, I’ve been I guess— stationed isn’t the word. But I guess the flag was planted here, right, because my parents live here. Whatever. But I still would never claim LA as mine.

MRR: That’s not where you’re from. That’s not where you were starting to grow.

Joi: I became an adult here, sure, because I moved here when I was 15. But I also already knew how to drive and shit. You know what I mean? It’s a different kind of growing that I did here.

MRR: Yeah. So much shapes you before the age of 15.

Joi: Right. So it was hard for me to be like, “Okay. Well, I’m not from here. So I shouldn’t be here.” But then I was like, “Well, I’m not from anywhere. So what am I supposed to do? How do I plant roots if I’m not from any community?” But I just knew in my heart that I just wasn’t doing the neighborhood any favors by being there. And I was just like, “Well, if I move out, then it’s going to be more white people that move in on the block.”

MRR: But you can’t control that. You can only control what you do and be accountable for what you do.

Joi: Yeah. And it just started to feel icky after a while. And I was just like, “I got to go home. I got to come back to my mom’s house because I can’t.” It just was not sitting right in my heart, watching the way my block specifically changed overnight. Dude, seeing people move out because you know they’ve been priced out of the neighborhood, I just couldn’t help but feel responsible on a level for that because it’s just like, “Oh. All of these young people in their 20s are getting houses in West Oakland because they can’t afford to live in SF and other parts. You can’t afford to live in Berkeley.”

MRR: It bums me out so much. I think about it so much. Why is Oakland punk so white when we’re in such a black city? Why?

I feel like most of the people of color I know in Oakland punk, including me, are not from here, which whatever on that piece. But why aren’t there more people who are from Oakland who are people of color who are in punk? Why aren’t they in it?

Joi: There’s a lot of gatekeeping and with the way the white people act. In Oakland with the punk scene, I feel like they’re maybe just scared at the very base of it, because they are in an aggressively black city. Oakland’s where Black Panthers came from, so I feel like they very much clung to the whitewashing of punk history.

MRR: So you left Oakland. You started Crow Baby after that, right?

Joi: Yeah, so basically, one day, me and my best friend, Caitlin, she and I were just drinking beers one afternoon, and she was like, “Dude, we both play music.” I’m a singer first. That’s where my soul is, right? And I started playing guitar when I was 14. She was just like, “Dude, we both play, why have we never jammed?”

We just went out to her garage, and she asked, “Do you ever play bass?” And I was like, “No, not really.” She was like, “Do you want to?” And I was like, “I could fuck around and play bass. Whatever.” And I just picked it up and I loved it. So, yeah, I didn’t start playing bass until we started Crow Baby.

MRR: I think the bass in Crow Baby is really good, so I’m surprised by that.

Joi: Thank you. I really appreciate that. It was a natural transition from guitar to bass for me, but it is definitely extremely different.

But yeah, we started playing, and I just found a different kind of love for live music. Going to shows and all that shit growing up, I don’t know, I never envisioned myself being on the other side of that. I don’t know, it just something that just kind of fell in our laps, and then we were just playing shows all the time for a few years.

Then our guitarist, Delaney, got into grad school in England. She went to Cambridge for a year. Our original plan was, “Okay, you’re going to go to school for a year. You’re going to come back; we’re going to keep playing shows. We’re going to continue to do the thing.”

But then I had moved three times by the time she came back. You don’t take into account how much life changes. It just wasn’t a thing that we were able just to pick back up, which is a bummer. But we all still love each other very much, and we still talk and all of that.

It ignited a different kind of spark and a different love for live music and for punk music. It changed my perspective on what music meant to me. There’s something very special about seeing your creative baby impact other people.

People still bring it up. It’s amazing. Right before Crow Baby went on hiatus, Caitlin, our other bestie, Lindsey and I started Thick Thigh Collective. So we were making zines, and we did some merch and the tote bags, T-shirts, and stuff like that to go with the zines. That was cool because we had a series called Stay Mad, and those were submission-based. That was fucking cool.

MRR: I love that.

Joi: We were trusted with other people’s art. It was very intimate and very vulnerable for all of us. It also gave me another perspective on how your art can impact people and how important it is for our voices. Because we were like “QPOC to the front. If you are a white dude, think twice before you submit anything to us.” During our call for submissions, we asked people to think about it and reflect and be like, “Is this the space that you feel like you need to take up?”

Which helped me a lot and helped me learn when to shut the hell up sometimes. Because I have that thought like, “Is this the space that is for me to take up?” I mean, as black women, “Yes, there’s lots of space that we need to take up.” But also there are some spaces where I need to take a backseat. I don’t need to have an opinion on everything.

MRR: I don’t know what it’s like to be trans. I don’t know what it’s like to be a refugee. I don’t know what it’s like to be Palestinian. There are so many spaces where I just need to step back.

Joi: Just doing Thick Thigh Collective helped me emotionally mature, because it was also me working with my two best friends, trying to balance friendship and a working relationship with them. Which is part of the reason why we ended it. We didn’t end it because something happened or we didn’t want to do it. We were like, “To preserve our friendship, we should stop doing this.” We kind of felt it growing beyond us. In a way that felt like it could potentially become toxic because we were kind of gaining a little traction, we were like, “We don’t want to get caught up in the clout because that’s not why we did that.” Once we chose to end it, I kind of hit a creative slump.

I also used to run a Facebook group for women of color with a bunch of other people, but I was one of the co-creators of the group. And one of the girls from the group, she hits me up one day like, “I’ve got this fucking idea. I want to make a short film. I want it to be a collection of short stories, like vignettes.” She’s like, “I would love for you to do it.” I was just like, “Well, I don’t know shit about film. I don’t know shit about directing. [laughter] I don’t know what to tell you”

She was like, “That’s the reason why I want you to be included,” and she’s like, “I don’t want film people.” She was like, “Because your story is going to be rawer. It’s going to be better because you’re not coming from a film background.”

So we did our short film Beauty Standards. It’s about women of color trying to navigate the euro-centric standard of beauty. So I did mine on hair because I feel like it’s going to be a fucking hot topic forever. What black women do with our hair is always going to be under the microscope. Because ghetto until proven fashionable [laughter]. Right? It was called “This Could Be You.” Then we had a screening in December, at Junior High in LA.

It was completely different than playing shows because you get up on stage, you play your songs, everybody claps, and then you leave. It’s different watching a movie you made on film on a big screen for the first time, with a bunch of people that have never seen it before that don’t know who you are, that are just seeing it for what it is.

We did the panel afterward, which also was fucking insane, realizing that people were really taking it in and thinking about my message and giving a shit about my art and giving a shit about what I had to say about it. Before COVID, it got shown at a film festival in Germany. There was going to be one in Korea, and a film festival in Mexico. There was a lot of international shit going on. Then COVID just derailed everything. But that was the most recent creative endeavor that I went on that turned out fucking amazing.

Last month, I did the Emo Night panel, which was fucking tight too. I just love talking about what it’s like to be black and punk because I feel like it’s a thing that needs to be talked about more when people talk about punk rock. People will act like we’re not here. And I say that with so much love.

MRR: Oh, same. I know exactly what you mean. For me, it’s not even angry. It’s just like, “This has to happen. This is just the way it should be. Everyone needs to be heard.”

Joi: If I didn’t love it so much, I wouldn’t be so passionate about it. That’s the thing that I think it’s maybe misconstrued sometimes because my loudness and my sometimes aggression and me talking my shit. Basically, it comes from a place of love because I love punk rock so much, and I love DIY so much. It’s just that I want better for the scene. I want better for everybody. I want this shit to be inclusive for real because how is it that I still feel like an outcast in a scene for outcasts.

MRR: Yup. Yeah. When someone was asking me the other day like, “Why do you even care about claiming space in this thing? Why don’t you just let this thing die?” And then I couldn’t answer, it’s like you’re asking a parent why they want their child.

Joi: They’re like, “Ah, your kid kind of sucks. So why do you even pay attention to it?”

MRR: Yeah. I’m just like, “I don’t know.” Like, “Well, yeah, the kid kind of sucks sometimes. And I fucking love them.” And like, “I think that kid can grow up to be all right.”

Joi: Yeah. And that’s how I feel about the DIY scene, and that’s how I feel about punk rock, and it’s just like— it seems like everything is crumbling, right? But it’s like, “You can’t—” it’s like death and transformation.

This system, this old structure, clearly was not sustainable. It was fucked up. It wasn’t working, and it undid itself. Now it’s time to come together as a community and pick up the pieces and make it better. We can’t do that without each other. Because especially COVID really put it in my face, that really the thing about punk and DIY space is that, at the end of the day, we don’t have anything except for community.

We don’t have shit except for each other and taking care of each other. In fact, that’s what DIY is. People don’t think about the actual labor that goes into doing it yourself, and how uncomfortable that gets, and how much the growth hurts. I can’t abandon the scene because it’s shitty sometimes. Everything’s shitty sometimes. But it’s like it—

MRR: It’s built up within a shitty system.

Joi: I fully, wholeheartedly, believe that we’re going to come out on the other side of this stronger and better and with a stronger sense of what community means because the way that people are being held accountable. And it’s just like we have to put as much emphasis on the word restorative as we do justice. The restorative part is where I’ve been putting a lot of my focus.

What does it look like to make sure the cycle doesn’t continue? That means putting these dudes, all of the perpetrators, they all need to be in therapy, right? [laughter] They need the people that are around them to step up… that’s what community is. We need to look out for each other.

And that even means these dudes that are out here just being fucking terrible; they need help, too, right? And it’s just like, “That’s—” it’s like, “Okay. We got these dudes out of the scene. Shunned. [laughter] So then we just leave them out by the wayside for them to, I don’t know, move to a different city and then continue to—”

MRR: Do it again.

Joi: “—do the same shit over and over again?” The people that are in their circles need to be holding them accountable, to fucking heal. To heal themselves, so they don’t continue to fucking traumatize other people. I’ve just been thinking about what the other side of that coin looks like. Of us being like, “Okay. We’ve got the problem, right? And we’ve pointed it out. Everybody knows about it. We’ve called the thing out. What do we do with the thing now?”

Because if you just remove it from the immediate space, okay, so they’ll still have free rein to go fuck something else up. So it’s like, “What is right?” It’s putting new systems in place to ensure that everyone is safe. That inclusivity is for real for real. I don’t know. I can’t ever abandon the scene fully.

MRR: When we’re allowed to leave our houses again, I’m so excited as to what that world looks like. But also what we’re building along the way, through our screens.

Do have any last words, anything that you didn’t get to say?

Joi: Shit. I mean—

MRR: An inspirational quote?

Joi: Like they do on Desus and Miro [laughter]? Honestly, I just want to say that I’ve got nothing but intense, extreme love for the scene and DIY, and it allowed me to change my worldview and change a lot of my perspectives. Punk rock helped radicalize me in a lot of ways.

Being in the scene and doing DIY shit allowed me the space to explore what that looked like to me because that individualism allows us to not receive things the same way that everybody else does, and it’s just like, “Okay. So I can take bits and pieces of what resonates with me, and then I can make it my own.” It doesn’t have to look any type of way, and that’s what’s so amazing to me. If I didn’t have such an intense love for this space, I wouldn’t be as vocal as I am about it, and I wouldn’t be calling shit out. I wouldn’t care because it’s hard for me to expend energy on shit that I don’t care about.