It’s hard to be a part of the queer community in today’s rapidly changing and gentrifying Seattle. Our islands of safety and community are growing increasingly smaller as we’re pushed out of our spaces by straighter, wealthier, and, frankly, more hostile groups of people.
You can’t help but think about that when listening to the latest single from Emma Lee Toyoda, “i don’t wanna play your show.” The song is raw and punk, like skinning your knee on the concrete floor of a basement house party mosh pit. And then getting up and moshing again anyway. It’s a departure from the more folksy, ethereal, indy sounds of their previous work.
“It was never an intentional thing,” says Toyoda, the transmasculine non-binary song writer and front person of their eponymous band, about their changing musical sound. “It was just kind of where I’ve been heading towards, and the music that I’m listening to, the shows I’m booking, and the shows that I’m going to, and the community that I’m finding on the road with touring the last couple of years.”
At first glance, Toyoda seems shy and quiet. You wouldn’t necessarily see the anger beneath the surface. “I’m kind of a quiet talker, so I’ll just lean forward a little bit” they admitted, while I was positioning my phone to record our interview. But when they describe the motivation behind the song, it makes perfect sense.
“The song was written originally about a house show I went to in Seattle,” they explain, “that had a sign that listed all these things like ‘No Islamophobia’ and ‘Black Lives Matter.’ But I feel like it was trying to list out everything, and in doing so it was failing miserably in capturing me and my friends, that were like: Ok, as an Asian-American and as a Jew, where do we stand on this list? We’re not a part of this list.”
I’ve seen the sign they’re referring to, often placed unironically in the yards of buildings that once affordably housed lower income residents, especially black people and other people of color, that now belong to wealthy white folks proudly proclaiming their love for diversity while still pushing that same diversity out of the neighborhood.
“It’s hard to figure out how I’m supposed to take up space,” Toyoda admits, “and where I’m allowed to take up space.”
There’s hardly a greater musical vehicle for that kind of angsty rage than punk. So much of the greatest punk music has been inspired by the need to tear apart the systems the benefit the people in power by holding down the masses.
“Punk has that urgency,” Toyoda says, nodding in agreement. “On this EP it’s all urgent. I feel like things need to said right now. I don’t want people to be comfortable listening to my music anymore.”
It’s not uncommon to look at the lineups of local music shows, including, or even especially queer shows, and wonder why the bands are still all cis, white people. For someone like Toyoda, attending, or playing shows in venues that haven’t made any space for you is always a risky move.
“People just say shit to you at shows,” they explain, “and not think anything of it. They treat you however they want and however they feel comfortable with the space that they take up. I’m done with it.”
This song is a genuine power move from an artist who has grown increasingly comfortable with the idea that they are not beholden to the powers that be for permission to simply exist as who they are.
“It’s nice to feel that confidence,” they say, “of turning down shows when I just don’t want to deal with that booker that said this thing to me before, or I had this experience with that venue. Yeah, I don’t want to play your show, and I don’t have to. It’s cool to be able to set those boundaries and really feel strength in that.”
Because when you see those lineups as an audience member, it’s not necessarily obvious that it’s the venue, the booker, or the producer who hasn’t down the work to reach out and bring in acts outside of the cis, hetero, patriarchal status quo. But to a queer artist of color, it’s all too familiar. For Toyoda, who’s had to deal plenty of these difficulties as a DIY musician and producer, enough is enough.
“My knee jerk reaction,” Toyoda says, “was to create a Facebook group with a bunch of Seattle’s marginalized genders and women of color in music, specifically the people that I played shows with or that I see playing shows, like Guayaba, Do Normaal, PSA, and La Fonda. Sure enough, they had their own stories about all these people that I had these experiences with. We’re able to be, like, wow, this is not an accident. This is a real pattern. It’s a real dynamic that so many musicians have to deal with in Seattle with these bigger venues that are gatekeeping.”
Toyoda sees the imperative of banding together (pun fully intended) as musicians who exist in the margins, to draw power from collective action. Dealing with the cis, hetero, patriarchal music industry, even on the local level of Seattle venues and bookers, is hard enough as it is without the added complication of not being cis, het, or white.
“It fucking sucks,” says Toyoda. “It’s the worst. But I know that it’s so much worse for other people also. For black women. I can’t imagine what they have to go through with these people that are treating me like shit. Black trans people, for sure.”
And that’s where the power of this song is most evident. It’s a genuine fuck you to the people who assume, wrongly, that because of who Toyoda is or what they look like, they must not really know what they’re doing. For anyone who’s found themselves under the thumb of the patriarchy, it’s a punk anthem worth moshing to.
Seattle fans can catch Toyoda, along with Naked Giants and Gypsy Temple this Friday, 3/22 at Neumos. Tickets are available online or at the Neumos box office in The Runaway.
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