Sexual Politics 

Portland Rockers Sound off on Pussy Riot

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THE BEST THING about this past week has been everyone saying "pussy" all the time.

Everyone, except, of course, the Russian judge who sentenced three members of art-music group Pussy Riot to prison on Friday, August 17, and managed to avoid the p-word while expounding on "hooliganism," "homosexual propaganda," and "feminism" (as in: "The court does find a religious hatred motive in the actions of the defendants by way of them being feminists who consider men and women to be equal").

Various Russian smart people have noted that Pussy Riot's conviction is not as big a deal in Russia as it is in the West. That's because their punk-rock-girls-to-the-front cause is not very popular in Russia (where only seven percent of women identify as feminists) and also because the boundaries-pushing group draws the foundation of its aesthetics and tactics from American and European movements like Northwest-grown riot grrrl.

So part of what's actually been exciting is how three Russian ladies with short skirts and balaclavas have brought that inspirational power back around to its source—their 40-second anti-Vladimir Putin performance inside a cathedral sparking pussy-talkin' conversation worldwide. I talked with several Portland musicians about what the whole spectacle says about rock 'n' roll.

"These are women who are in jail right now for expressing their anger, and we teach girls that if you're angry, there's probably a reason," says Beth Wooten, director of Portland's Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls. Wooten (who, by the way, was once in an awesome-sounding all-girl band called "Make Me") notes that Pussy Riot's name makes the trial a tricky topic to bring up with her camp's young musicians but that the ladies' music makes their message universal. "Using pop music is such an easy way to communicate. It's clear that you're speaking for yourself and against greater oppression. Even if I don't speak Russian, I can recognize that pretty quickly. It has reminded us how to protest—I haven't seen a band like this in 20 years."

Portland artist Nadia Buyse took a break from teaching vocals at the ladies' rock camp on Friday to talk about a Pussy Riot-inspired festival called Free the World Fest that she's helping organize in Russia's neighboring Georgia this fall. The conviction hit Buyse hard, as she just returned from touring Eastern Europe with her band, Dubai.

"We are traveling across the world to say this isn't right," says Buyse. "What they're doing is something we do all the time in Portland—we say whatever we want to, we dress however we want to. I should fight for people who don't have that protection. Any of us could go to a different place and this exact same thing would happen to us."

That feeling of both gratitude and fury was echoed by Rachel Rhymes, owner of North Killingsworth's Record Room, which hosted one of Friday's local Pussy Riot solidarity-protest events.

"We feel like our rights are compromised, but there's so many people to whom even crazier things are happening," says Rhymes. "In one way for musicians, it goes to show that you can be heard."

But while Pussy Riot's awesome performance is putting fire in our American bellies, it's not clear whether the band's outrage and ours will actually make a difference in Russia. I called up Ukraine-born musician Alina Simone about the issue (she now lives in Brooklyn) and she hopes that the message getting through to Russians may not be the same one we're taking to heart.

"Russians are so unfamiliar with this whole milieu of performance artists and punk rockers, to them it just seems really strange and crazy," says Simone. "What I do hope is that it will bring attention to the regime's habit of throwing opposition activists in jail."

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