Victoria Ruiz introduces the song “Callate” to an audience in New York with a call and response; she says, “This song is about learning how to say “no.” Because when you don’t learn how to say “no”, then you’ll only be left saying “yes”! When someone wants you to do something that you REALLY don’t wanna do, what do you say?!”
The crowd screams, “No!”
“When someone wants to use masculinity, racism, homophobia to try and get you to do something that you don’t wanna do, what do you say?!”
The crowd screams, “No!”
“And if you fucking want pizza with JUST cheese and someone tries to put something else on it, what do you say?!”
The crowd screams, “No!”
“That’s right New York, say ‘no’ to what you need to say ‘no’ to!”
Joey La Neve DeFrancesco (vocals, guitar) first met Victoria Ruiz (vocals) while working at the Renaissance hotel in Providence, RI, a hotel the two began protesting in 2011 because of the management’s unfair treatment of workers. DeFrancesco became an Internet sensation for quitting the hotel with his marching band, What Cheer? Brigade, as they played “Bubamara” and chanted “Joey quits!” through the hallways. The video was meant to bring attention to a long list of injustices against the hotel workers, including harsh working conditions, unfair wages, and anti-unionizing tactics by management. In other interviews, Joey also notes instances of tip theft, workers getting sick from cleaning chemicals, and sexual harassment.
With the addition of members Norlan Olivo (drums), Mary Regalado (bass), and Adrienne Berry (sax), Downtown Boys became the surging and explosive “bi bilingual political dance sax punk party” band we know them as today. They released their debut album “Full Communism” in 2015 “on a Wave of History,” in the words of DeFrancesco on the first track of the album. “Wave of History” acts as a manifesto for the album; the video for the song outlines a history of oppression in America and how this history continues to persist today. In a press release, Downtown Boys stated that as a band, they strive to combat “the prison-industrial complex, racism, queerphobia, capitalism, fascism, boredom, and all things people use to try to close our minds, eyes and hearts.”
Influenced and heightened by the year’s discourse on sociopolitical issues- including, notably, the Black Lives Matter movement-, “Full Communism” is impassioned. Hopping along heavy sax parts and steaming from Ruiz’s raging voice, their sound is intoxicating. In their live sets, Ruiz’s voice will go from Kathleen Hanna-like thundering shouts to Angela Davis-like rallying cries. Her chanting blazes against the sound of Norlan’s heart-pounding drumming that mimics picket line chanting. Downtown Boys and “Full Communism” are the incarnation of protest.
Before our interview, Victoria and I talked briefly about the experience of going to college. She majored in Architecture and Economics at a school in New York– which I later learned was Columbia. The members of Downtown Boys focus a lot of their interviews on issues they’re currently fighting for and want to bring attention to. They reference very little about their personal lives, but from these interviews, alongside the short conversation I had with Victoria, I learned that the band continues to fight for workers’ rights and affordable housing in Providence; Victoria currently works for Planned Parenthood after previously working as a caseworker; and Norlan just graduated from art school this past year. Norlan was the only person of color in his graduating class.
“Why is it that fear always wants us to go looking for more? So when people are brown, when people are smart, why hegemony wants us to go looking for this third thing?! Why is it that we never have enough with just what’s inside of us? Today, today, we must scream at the top of our lungs! That we are brown! We are smart! That third is only fear, push it away!”
Photos by Chelsea Wang
Here’s the transcript of our interview with Joey, MJ, Norlan, and Victoria at the Middle East before their set with Ursula, Shopping, and Gauche:
I read in old interviews that you guys have a lot of discussions on tour together about current events and political issues, and I was wondering if there was anything recent you wanted to bring attention to?
Joey: This van ride over here we were talking about the TPP. The Trans-Pacific Partnership which is supposedly a free trade deal that’s being negotiated to the United States along with other countries. Something like 6 out of 30 articles don’t actually have anything to do with trade; a lot of it is giving power to corporate interests to regulate regulations in countries. So a corporation can come in if they don’t like an environmental regulation a particular state or country is imposing and sue that government for, supposedly, fringing upon their business interests. There’s that, and there’s many other things wrong. It’s this extra government judicial system that is essentially going to be run by corporations through this “free-trade agreement”. And this is something that has already been ratified at a certain level, but congress still needs to pass this agreement. So there’s a big fight right now to try and get congress to not pass this agreement. And I dunno, that’s just one thing.
Victoria: Fight the TPP. I think also with everything that’s going on with the murder of Korryn Gaines and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
Norlan: I feel like that’s something we always talk about and everyone should be talking about because it’s just ridiculous at this point how many people of color are dying at the hands of police. I was thinking the other day about how something that people don’t talk a lot about is… how used to the violence we are. Like, you think about the lady who was filming, literally filming, her husband shot, bleeding in a car. There is outrage when people die because of police brutality, but there’s a used-to-it feeling that’s kind of not talked about enough. People in these communities are used to violence and this country is used to violence. And I think we should be talking about, why was that lady so calm in her car? Because if you reverse the script and it was someone who was white, they would be going berserk in that car. You know, the script is totally changed. People are used to being oppressed and used to this violence that reigns down upon them. Like, how did we get to this point? We’re so used to people of color dying. We’re so used to this violence that so many people just write it off as just another killing. It’s kind of a crazy reality we’re in… and every time you see these kinds of murders, people are filming. And they’re not screaming. They’re not running. They’re just kind of filming. I think as humans, we’re programmed to like violence or to find it fascinating. But for people in these communities to be used to these things. They’ve been oppressed for so long. It’s just like a conversation that we just don’t talk about.
Victoria: In Korryn Gaines’ case, she had a standoff with the police in her apartment. Her baby, who was also shot, saw their mom get murdered by the police. There may be another update, but she was posting things on her Facebook during the standoff. And they were deleted by Facebook. That’s another thing that I think is interesting because people are like, “what do we do?” Because Facebook is so powerful, it can’t be our target because that’s how people are finding out about this. So like, you have to start thinking now of new tactics. During a time when a lot of people were organizing in factories, you could use the boycott or you could use a strike. But trying using that now? For me, it’s thinking now about tactics that could be useful today for organizing? Because ultimately, we can’t boycott Facebook. That’s how we’re finding out about all this stuff! In order to fight for this space for Korryn’s baby to ever get to even think about healing, it’s up to me and up to our community to think about, okay, what can I do? You know? People are so normalized to it. So many people of color are normalized to it. Like, when I talk about it to my family members, they’re not thinking about the language and the context the way The Movement is thinking about it. Because you hear about people getting shot all of the time. The police are just another gang. So, like, also thinking about how to make sure we think about the police as White America.
Norlan: I think it’s just time… I feel like there’s always a lot of people around in some of these incidents. If we were all here, and there was someone getting harassed by two cops and I saw it? My mentality would not be to record it at this point. My mentality is to try to get the police officer off. I feel like, it’s time to stop sitting around and watching these things happen. And if there’s like 10 of us, there’s no way they’re going to shoot us? We’ve just got to stop them, and stop these things from going on. We live in such a culture where we’re just recording a thing and letting a thing happen. And I know, that’s kind of a scary idea, you know? Because the police kill people when they’re doing nothing wrong. So of course, if you go and attack them while you’re trying to defend someone else? They’re going to act even more violent. But I dunno, it’s just kind of upsetting? When you’re watching it happen. And I just wonder, how did we get so fucked up? Like this shit is just so normalized. And we’re just so desensitized to watching someone get killed.
And so with these issues, and when you talk about and incorporate them in your music and art… you’ve talked about, in interviews, how it’s combative and angry and struggling, but it’s fighting for a sense of hope. And something to look forward to in the future. For you guys what do you see as that hope?
MJ: I mean, I feel like there are an infinite amount of possible futures that’s better than what we have now. A utopia where capitalism and white supremacy is dismantled, and anything can come out of that.
Joey: I don’t think we have any particular ideology saying that it’s going to look like this, this, and this. And I don’t know if doing that is that useful. There’s the slogan that everyone uses: “Another world is possible.” You know? It has to be. And you have to believe it is, otherwise, there isn’t that anger. Because you’re just accepting what is.
Being at a university, which is a huge privilege—and that in and of itself means a lot of students come from a bubble of privilege—, a lot of times students are new to these issues… Even when a person can experience and can see the structures of power at work in America, you don’t ever really learn about the statistics and the discourse and what terms like “white supremacy”, “institutionalized racism”, “hegemony” entail… But college can afford people to learn about these things. Do you have any words of guidance for college students coming from wherever they are to more open spaces where these kinds of things are being talked about?
Victoria: I’ve thought about this a lot. Because I got to go to college and graduate, which is a huge privilege. A lot of the reason why people end up in a private university in the richest country in the world is because you have been sheltered and you do have some kind of privilege. To even end up in college, like, my mom went to a state school. She, still, was able to do it because there was someone telling her to do it. Or there was the librarian that helped her. And then that same thing happened with me! Like, she helped me, and then it, therefore, became some sort of inheritance essentially. And especially, for really rich people who will be able to graduate with no student debt. That should be something that we all have? People try and make you think that if you somehow have this formal education, it gets you closer to freedom. It’s like, you most likely have that because you’ve gotten the privileges of the power structures that are actually keeping us all away from freedom. So I think, really realizing the only reason we’re even able to be in that situation is because of some type of power and privilege. Because right now someone else is not in that situation. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be going to college. We should be doing that! It’s just realizing what that means. For me, it just makes me really grateful. I’m really glad. I have no shame that the only reason I know who Audre Lorde or Bell Hooks is or whoever… isn’t because of my family, directly. It is because of that college. But then again realizing, I only got that because of the family and inheritance! It’s just realizing all of that. And then trying to figure out who you yourself are. Whether you’re that young chicana woman trying to make it or that white person with a ton of entitlement and privilege, whoever you are! Just realize it.
Norlan: I was totally going to say that. Just always be proud of where you come from. I graduated from Mass Art recently, and I was the only boy of color in my year. And I don’t have a lot of money, like I’m in debt right now. And I only really went because I wanted to learn certain things, but I really only went because I wanted to break the stigma that I wasn’t supposed to go to college. You know, there are all those things written for our destiny as people of color. You know, I’m supposed to go to jail or end up dead by 25. I’m supposed to not go to college. All these things. So, I think, for me, being a part of this band and going to college was a way to sort of break out of that stigma. Well, I don’t have the money, necessarily. But I’m gonna go, and I’m gonna be the first in my family to finish. I’m going to be the only boy of color in this year. So for me, I could’ve seen it as “Man, there are a lot of white people here” but I chose to see it as “I’m proud to be a person of color this year. And I’m proud, I’m forcing these people to talk about these issues of race.” Because that was what my work was about. Like Victoria was saying, no matter how you get there, be proud and grateful that you’re there. And make the most out of that opportunity. Because I think that sometimes, I know in hip-hop anyway, that it’s sort of frowned upon to go to college. Or it makes you somehow less of a threat or less of a person. So it’s interesting how going to college can either bring up your clout or bring down your clout. I think that either way, I think it’s a privilege. Either way, make the most out of it and be proud of who you are. No matter you go.
On that note, do you guys have any must-read books?
Norlan: Definitely something by Junot. Either Drown or…
MJ: …How You Lose Her
Joey: A book that’s really good, especially if you live here, in New England. It’s called Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. It’s about how all of these wealthy families and a lot of the colleges and corporations up here, like J.P. Morgan and Lehman Brothers and Brown University, are grounded, not metaphorically, to slavery. But, very literally, got their start as slave traders or as investors in slave trading enterprises. I think it’s a very good, very clear explanation on how inheritance and White Supremacy functions in a very direction, material way. I think a lot of people here in the north, like, white people think they’re nice, white liberals that had nothing to do with that history, which is, of course, nonsense. I think that’s a really good exposé of that history.
MJ: I think anything by Octavia Butler is gonna be great. Anything by Bell Hooks is gonna be great. I have a Junot book with me. I have a Collected Poetry of Adrienne Rich. I have White Girls by Hilton Als that I’m in the middle of. Those are all good books.
Norlan: There’s also this book called Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun. It’s by Geoffrey Canada. And it’s, like, a personal history on how violence evolved in working class area. Geoffrey Canada grew up in Brooklyn, and he talks about how he was growing up and he was in a gang, people used to fight a lot. And how that evolved and people got bats and stuff. And then how that evolved to people getting stabbed. And how eventually, he runs into somebody who has a gun. And how that kind of changes his whole perspective on how people argue in these gangs. It’s a cool history of how violence evolved in these neighborhoods, but it’s a personal take. Like, he talks about his experience.
Victoria: Citizen by Claudia Rankine.
Norlan: I stole my copy from some white person’s house.
Victoria: That’s what I was thinking! Yeah! When you said that title, I was like…
Norlan: I saw it. I heard something about NPR saying this book was good, and I was like, I’m stealing it.
Victoria: Yeah, I remember!