Sac LadyFest revives ’90s-era feminist activism with two nights of politics and local music
Riot on, grrrl
It started in 2013 with a shared love for decades-old feminist punk.
Chavez D’Augustine had asked new acquaintance Sunny Kenngott for a ride home from the Sacramento LGBT Center. In the car, the pair quickly bonded over the music spinning in Kengott’s player.
“’Oh, hey, you like 1995 Bikini Kill, too?’” Kenngott remembers D’Augustine asking. “We instantly became friends.”
Fast-forward to August 2014: D’Augustine had just bought his own car, and he and Kenngott were giving it a spin, cruising the back roads of Sacramento. The topic of riot grrrl music came up again and eventually turned to LadyFest, the community-based, nonprofit music-activism feminist festival that first launched in Olympia, Wash., in 2000. Over the years, several cities followed suit: Amsterdam and Berlin. Albuquerque and Miami. New Orleans, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, the latter of which Kenngott had attended. As they talked, a realization dawned.
“We were like, ’Why has Sacramento never had its own LadyFest?’” D’Augustine says. “We thought, ’We should do it. We should start it.’”
Sac LadyFest, featuring two nights of music, is scheduled to take place July 17 and 18 at Cafe Colonial.
In many ways Sac LadyFest was a natural fit for D’Augustine’s and Kenngott’s strengths and talents. D’Augustine recruited local musician Leticia Garcia to help with the lineup. Kenngott is a longtime activist. A former Peace Corp volunteer, she regularly works with Take Back the Night and by day is a grant writer for the Girl Scouts. The pair also recruited activist Keyko Torres-Oki, whom they’d seen emcee at a Take Back the Night event.
The initial concept for Sac LadyFest started big. They held weekly meetings for which they took minutes. They recruited volunteers and talked about how there would be bands and art exhibits, feminist speakers and workshops on topics such as queer politics and ending violence against women.
Eventually, however, the focus narrowed. Time was limited and resources few.
“We had to scale it back and be more realistic,” D’Augustine says.
It was a matter of both practicality and philosophy, Torres-Oki adds.
“We wanted to do something smaller right, rather than do something bigger and have it go wrong,” she says. “We wanted to show this as feminism in action and then grow from there. We wanted to set our seeds down and grow up instead of take root without a strong foundation.”
While there are already plans to expand the scope of next year’s LadyFest and, hopefully, host smaller events and meetups throughout the year, the inaugural event will feature just a few interactive events as well as a tarot reader.
Mostly though, the organizers have zeroed in on the music. The lineup, which includes Butch vs. Femme as well as emcee Century Got Bars, folk singer Jenn Rogar, pop band Monster Treasure and slowcore punk band Night Children, includes acts that feature at least one woman. All bands but one are local.
Music, after all, has always been riot grrrl’s main conduit for change. The underground feminist movement can be traced back to the early '90s music scenes in Washington, D.C., and the Pacific Northwest with acts such as Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile and Sleater-Kinney merging punk, pop and folk with a new wave of feminism that addressed, among other topics, sexuality, sexual assault, domestic abuse and racism.
Although the Sac LadyFest organizers are too young to have experienced riot grrrl’s original incarnation, they say the movement still had impact, reaching through the years to shape their political and social beliefs.
Kenngott, 31, remembers being 14 and discovering Hillary Carlip’s 1995 collection Girl Power, which featured stories across the spectrum of feminist voices. With its essays and excerpts from various zines, it also introduced the El Camino High School student to the DIY zine network and, in turn, motivated her own activism.
Torres-Oki’s path followed politics to the music. The San Diego teen organized for immigrants workers’ rights in high school. It wasn’t until she moved to Sacramento to study English at Sacramento State, however, that she discovered riot grrrl’s history and music.
D’Augustine, 27, was a Dixon high school student when the drummer in his band gave his sister a Bikini Kill record. D’Augustine listened and from there was hooked.
Garcia, 33, discovered riot grrrl while playing in her first band when she was 23.
“I didn’t really have anyone to play music for me,” she says of her youth.
It’s been more than 25 years since riot grrrl’s launch and 15 years since the first LadyFest. A lot has changed in that time. While the term “riot grrrl” may be, in some ways, a quaint relic of the '90s, its lasting impact on feminism has been profound.
“Well, for starters, Miley Cyrus identifies as a feminist,” D’Augustine says.
Beyonce, too, Torres-Oki adds.
They’re not being glib. If anything it’s getting easier to trace the line from early underground musicians such as Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna to some of today’s biggest pop stars. It’s even rumored that Hanna and Cyrus may collaborate on album—this after the former Hannah Montana star Instagrammed photos of the “Suck My Left One” singer.
“Pop culture is embracing it in a way that I don’t think it’s been embraced before,” Torres-Oki says. “Before, to be described yourself as a feminist artist was putting yourself in a small niche, it was off-putting to other people. Now it gets conversations started.”
There’s more inclusivity, too. Or at least the effort to make it less white, less straight, less any one thing and more of everything.
This ethos applies to LadyFest.
“LadyFest is so many voices, so many genres,” Torres-Oki says. “We have a wide range of voices from spoken-word artists who are male and female, black and white, young and old, queer and genderqueer. Everyone is different but we’re all under the same roof because we have that same fundamental belief.”