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THE UNIVERSE IS LIT: The Bay Area’s New Black and Brown Punk Fest

Meet the organizers behind the California festival for and by the POC art/freak/music community

/ April 18, 2017

As I entered into interviewing the The Universe is Lit festival organizers, I thought damn, what is punk in 2017? Punk has been around for a long ass time now and its trunk has split many times creating varying degrees of whatever the roots had intended. I have days where I really can’t stand it and some days it saves my life. As a brown person I would, and do often, wonder what my place in punk is. After speaking with the festival organizers, I paused for a moment and felt blessed by all the brilliance they shared with me. The fest aims to “cast a spell” and highlight the weirdos who have always been here running shit. The organizers reminded me that we’ve been here and we are part of a legacy.

The Universe Is Lit is a new festival organized for and by the black and brown art/freak/music community in the San Francisco Bay. The festival organizers modeled the event on festivals whose goals for promoting visibility and combatting erasure run parallel to theirs such as Black and Brown Punk Show Collective, Not Enough Fest in Portland, OR and Think and Die Thinking in San Jose, CA. Politics are the undercurrent, but the waves above are all about throwing a party for yourself, celebrating our collective worth, and having a good time that makes our presence immutable. Inspired by the long legacy of black and brown artists creating in the margins, The Universe Is Lit encourages the destruction of gatekeepers and reminds us that there are no heroes, that, in the words of organizer Sharmi Basu, “we are all just creating that first moment for each other.”

As soon as we began the interview it quickly became so much more than just a Q+A about the festival, and more of a discussion around the roots of what punk means, support, visibility, and critiquing our approach to community and art. The interview itself became a prime example of how we inspire and support each other and how, with that support, we can create beautiful things and hold space that does enrich one another’s lives.

“It’s for the fire, it’s for the black freaks, for the POC freaks, for the ones who were told that they weren’t a part of this tradition that they actually started.” -Titania Kumeh

Poster for Universe is Lit Punk Festival, in Spark Mag

RICH GUTIERREZ Hey Whatsup!? Tell me who are the organizers of this festival and please tell me a bit about y’all.

JADE FAIR: Hi! I’m Jade. I play drums in a project called Earthbound. I am a painter, I make zines.

TITANIA KUMEH: I’m holding donuts. I’m an art model, I do performance art, I sing in a punk band called UGLY, I’m a journalist, a writer, a daughter, a friend, a housemate and a sometimes Lover, but mostly a Ho. I’m a Liberian Bahaman first-generation american reject.

SHARMI BASU: My name is Sharmi. I’m a Taurus sun Taurus moon with a leo rising and it’s all in my tenth house, well not the leo obviously, but my taurus sun and moon are in the tenth house with a Jupiter right on top of it. I am primarily an electronic musician. My projects include Beast Nest, Felidae, Gift Problem, Blankie, and a punk band called UGLY with the other organizers of this festival, Shawna and Titania. I guess I identify as an improviser. I host an intermittent improv workshop called Mara Performance Collective.

SHAWNA SCROGGINS: Hi I’m Shawna and I’m a musician. I’m from Arizona, but I been in the bay for ten years and I just like having fun playing music.

Are y’all the only organizers of the fest?

Sharmi: We’re the core organizers. But we have a plethora of volunteers who are also assisting in organizing the fest.

Aight, have any of you ever organized something like this before?

Jade: Yea, me and Titania are both newbies, but I’ve organized other stuff, just not a music festival before.

Shawna: I’ve never organized anything on this large of a scale, with like such a large reach and with so many other people involved. It’s 4 days, so that’s a first. But I have been a part of organizing things collectively. Like with the Bay Area Booking Collective, which was a really long time ago, but when we did things on that scale, as you know with Think and Die Thinking, it really changes things and it really brings people together in a way that I’m really looking forward to.

Sharmi: I have not organized something on this scale before, but I was part of organizing a festival in Davis, CA for a few years called Operation Restore Maximum Freedom, and did the Sacramento scene thing for a little bit also. But I haven’t done anything that is of this longevity, like a 4 day festival! I think something so specifically politicized is something that I haven’t done, so that’s really exciting. I’m working with people I both admire and love  and that is something I haven’t done before.

You said you’ve never worked on something specifically politicized. Is this fest intentionally politicized?

Sharmi: That’s how I consider it. It’s not necessarily the specific language we would all use, but I feel like it’s a politicized act to do anything that’s specifically attempting to empower black and brown people. Especially in our current era.

Jade: I also feel that it’s political, but not in the sense of hard politics with “this is our ten point political analysis.” It’s more political in the sense of like, we live our lives inside the matrix of power relations, you know? And we are thriving I think and want to make space to empower ourselves and other people to also thrive and maybe tear away at that power a little bit at the same time.

Shawna: I agree. There isn’t a specific vision, and just echoing that, everything we do is always political. You know, if it’s done with our heart and intention and in a web of self reflection then that is just political in and of itself. It just happens you know?

Yes, I totally agree. Sometimes I feel that everything we, black and brown folks do, is inherently politicized, but I wanted to know if it was intentional. I think making change or being political is not always contrary to fun.

Titania: It makes me think of that Audre Lorde quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Like you said, anything that black people and brown people do is going to be read as a politicized thing. People are going to insert whatever thing they want onto it. It’s like trying to be self expressive in the world that we live in, it’s a political thing, yea, yet at the same time we are trying to exist outside of those really harmful structures that don’t serve our interests like love, caring, doing things autonomously, talking about our feelings, and being self-reflective.

Jade: To add to what you’re saying Titania, our self expression is something that is also really commodifiable right now in the broader culture. At the same time, it’s like our thing and people can take it without being given the weight of the experiences of what produces all this powerful self-expression. I guess I feel like part of this is like a spell, if you don’t tell everyone exactly what you did. And you know, being intentional about how the gaze falls on us in our self expression is part of something we have talked about when organizing this festival. Things like who we invite to organize with us and where we promote the shows and stuff like that.

Shawna: In a way, it’s a reaction to the current era of being specifically politicized. I like to think, maybe in my own romantic view of the past, people before, just in the very nature, weren’t necessarily always speaking to that because it was reflected in everything that was happening. In our mission statement, we are trying to say that just because something is political doesn’t mean it’s not fun. But we really wanted to rep what we are for, what we believe in, what we envision, who and what we want to center, and we kept it about that.

The Universe is Lit festival poster, featuring Prince, in Spark Mag

Is the festival mostly music?

Jade: Naw, it’s not. There is also going to be an art component.

Shawna: But music is the main focus I would say.

Titania: There is also like an art part, a film part, and panel part.

I feel like I recognize each of you individually, the core organizers, as an addition or a current part of a legacy of artists in the bay area. So it’s really cool to see y’all organizing this to continue the legacy. Why is this fest is so important right now?

Titania: Well for me and my personal life, I am in a band for the first time in my life! With another black person and a brown person and it’s just like really important for me to honor that representation, on that happening in the past and that it’s still happening now. It feels significant to have space for black and brown punks, freaks, weirdos who don’t fit into corporate or super mainstream ideas of success and to like revere or worship them as being really successful or for being themselves. I feel like blackness has always been on fire, and we are especially on fire now and I’m here now. So as much as I can, if I can help be a part of an event that is going to honor that, it’s honoring myself.

Jade: The way the four of us approach participating in spaces that people are making music in as a community is important. By being in these spaces I feel really healed by people making music. It helps us see this as an opportunity for healing and art as an opportunity for healing. That is one of the things at the center of what we share as organizers.

Are all the artists and musicians participating from the bay?

Titania: People can come from out of town, but we are kind of centered around the DIY bands that are in the community here.

Sharmi: Our community is large, not just here. I feel what we are trying to focus on when we talk about our community, isn’t just the bay area, but it also reaches to New York, Chicago, L.A., NOLA or even other countries. I feel the goal is to represent the big black and brown fam that we have in this weird experimental punk/artdom subversive scene. Its big, but ultimately like a family or something? Or people we want to be a part of our family.

Titania: Let’s ask Fishbone, Death, and Grace Jones to play! Sharmi tweeted at Grace Jones.

Titania: Shawna was like, we can’t afford those people and let’s keep this DIY and be on the same page about that shit. This is my first fest so it seems like, why not make it the loudest possible thing and make my wildest dreams come true and have like a star line up? But I know we gotta recognize that the stars surround us as well. There are all these people we know that are doing amazing things and there are people we don’t know yet who are doing amazing things on par with the big things. WE’RE WORTH IT TOO!

What does the fest need in terms of support – money or otherwise? What does support look like to you?

Sharmi: We def need, like real talk, financial support because we want to make sure that we’re helping out whoever is coming to play, so we need help with the basic logistical stuff like getting venues, making copies and make sure we are compensating people for their time and energy. For myself though, having recently dipped into – especially post-Ghostship – a very intensified care position that requires, not only a lot of emotional and material labor, but also a lot of financial resources. We definitely need volunteers and I know it’s also really helpful for people to be like, “Wow you guys are doing a lot, maybe I can hang out with you and take you to the spa or something?” I don’t know. This is just myself, but a bigger question of care and support that I think isn’t totally tied to the fest but that’s how I feel.

Jade: We definitely need a lot of volunteers! I feel like all of us in one form or another are like caretakers for people in our lives and for ourselves and for one another. So I think a lot about what it means when a group of 3 black women and a brown woman are extending ourselves so much and also how do we receive that back? Part of it for me is that something like the fest is a place where that kind of exchange is possible.

Sharmi: Come cook me breakfast!

Shawna: I’ll make you breakfast! I really wanted to maybe plant a seed. To show if it were a tree, there are all these branches and we are all working together to pull this off. So people showing up to volunteer meetings, signing up to do things. Even if people are just excited about the idea, they let this energy out. I don’t want to be paranoid, but one thing that did come up for me is that it feels really vulnerable to put on this fest. When you put yourself out there, there is a possibility that people will critique it, which is fine if it’s constructive feedback or if it’s coming from a place of kindness or investment. When we truly support one another we can do really amazing things and that’s kind of what this fest is about. Look what we can do when we have a vision and figure out the steps to make it happen. Supporting ourselves really is supporting each other to the highest vibration.

Organizers of The Universe Is Lit festival, in spark mag
The Universe is Lit Core Organizers: (L to R) Sharmi Basu, Jade Fair, Shawna Scroggins, Titania Kumeh

Yeah, I really like the recurring theme that by nurturing your community you are also nurturing yourself and vice versa.  Is there anything else about the fest that people should know?

Titania: It’s going to be lit. It’s going to be like that scene from the end of Empire Records. When they are all rolling up in their vans and hoopties and that raw music is playing. All of the varietals of freaks come from everywhere in order to play and experience joy and rapture with each other.

Shawna: Yeah, the difference is it will be like us, people like us. I like Empire Records, the difference is we are going to archive these images for now, so the future will be like, damn they’re hella cool.

Titania: WE ARE EMPIRE RECORDS!

Sharmi: It is really important to be like, yes we are building off of these legacies of people who have also been struggling to do their own thing for so long, people who do look like us. We are also a part of that legacy and we are continuing to pave the way for a new one. I am really trying to hold that.

Titania: This is EMPIRE RECORDS in TECHNICOLOR!

Shawna:This is our lives!

Titania: We are actually living it!

Sharmi: It’s like Avatar! As a punk festival!

Titania: It’s for the fire, it’s for the black freaks, for the POC freaks, for the ones who were told that they weren’t a part of this tradition that they actually started. Like our mission statement says, it’s embedded in our DNA. This is going to trigger some collective blood memories for people of stuff that they didn’t even know they were a part of. Something bigger. I’m just thinking of all the black kids in the suburbs of Orange County or any normal places.

Shawna: We’ve always been there being freaks. There was a time where I felt so freaky and weird that I was black and like skateboarded, went to a lot of shows and stuff in high school in the 90’s. I know it’s really cheesey but, I went to a Fishbone concert once and they fucking smoked a blunt with me and my cousin and they were like, “You guys are brave! To be black and weird and be at a punk show”.

Sharmi: The history of all this shit is based in communities of color, every genre of music! Through a history of resistance.

Jade: It’s wild to be thinking of these things while i’m in New Orleans being around Congo Square, which was like one of the only places where African descended people could like gather and play drums in public and commune over music in this way that was totally like punk as fuck! For me it’s important to think about resistance and what that looks like and decolonizing our approach to music. I think it’s important to have that be a part of punk or this fest. If punk is representative of how we are approaching it.

Shawna: That is totally my train of thought: that it’s going to be great because we are focused on inclusivity and accessibility. People will feel ownership of their punk in certain ways. I didn’t start playing music till I was 27 and just being exposed to different lifestyles and ways of being. When we do it on a larger scale then that opens to much more people and I do believe that punk music and being a freak is one of the best things in my life and I’m really excited to not be elitist or like “you don’t know this or that” I want to be like, “You can figure shit out. It’s not something that ends when you are young, it’s all our lives.”

Titania: First band at age 32, this black bitch here. Rich! What was the name of that performer in Texas we saw? Cheeky La shae?

Poster for The Universe is Lit Festival, in Spark Mag

Yea, Cheeky!

Titania: She was like, “punk music is black music! Rock music is black music! Country Music is black music!”  And people were like nawww, but then Cheeky was doing karaoke to Black Sabbath and it was amazing! It’s not even about reclaiming its about like reveling in what’s already been ours.

Shawna: And we’ve all been doing this for so long!

Jade: REPARATIONS! PUT THAT SHIT IN THE INTERVIEW!

Shawna: When we are at the center, it’s lit. It’s not about commodifying or capitalizing, we are really centering ourselves right now. I was like, some people might feel outed by that, but I was like no, if they are truly down they’re going to be fucking happy because everything is going to be way more fun.

Jade: Titania, do you remember when we watched the fucking Kathleen Hanna documentary the Punk Singer? And they had those early archival tapes of her in Olympia in 1990 and there was just like those black women in head wraps sitting on the edge of the circle looking like. I feel like this is finally, the two black girls at the punk show with the headwraps are centered, they are what the fest is about.

Shawna: Who were those girls? I wanna talk to them.

Jade: Let’s find those girls!

Sharmi: If you’re out there, we are looking for you!

Titania: This brings up a lot of good feelings because I feel like a lot of us were those girls. Like some of the only black girls in our schools growing up. Weird black girls that were ostracized. We are learning about what’s in us and what’s been in us!

Owning punk as yours! I feel similarly. There was a time where I was like, oh wow all punk is white and I was like why am I here? And without realizing I recentered it around white people and totally erased myself from the equation. I was like oh fuck, if I’m here it doesn’t mean it’s all white.

Titania: You are not a unicorn Rich! You are part of a lineage!

Shawna: I love the fuckin bay area. Even this network of black and brown people we’ve created. And we all link up and I’m grateful for that.

Sharmi: I wasn’t always, but was always. People have always found each other. There are a lot of histories that we don’t know of.

Jade: Let them know you’re here!

Sharmi: When I was booking shows in Davis as a young shy freaky blah blah blah just doing this thing and not even knowing how race and gender were affecting my experiences for a really long time, and I saw American Splits at the festival I was helping organize. I remember seeing Georgie from American Splits and thinking ‘oh my god! Women of color can do this crazy cool weird thing’ and that was the first thing telling me that, wow, I can do this too. Georgie is now one of my best friends at this point, but that was like legacy for me! I feel like we are all just creating that first moment for each other.

Support the fest by donating on their website.