Alice Bag’s Punk Rock Connects Protest History To Trump Era
“I couldn’t slow down,” remembers singer, author, educator, and activist Alice Bag, reflecting on the days following her 2016 tour. “So I just started working on another record.”
In 2016, she teamed up with Don Giovanni for the release of her self-titled album, “Alice Bag.” It was technically her first proper solo release, despite having been part of legendary punk bands since the 1970s: first as lead singer and co-founder of the groundbreaking Los Angeles punk band The Bags, and then in Castration Squad, Cholita, and Las Tres.
Touring in promotion of the record was inspiring for Bag, but her bandmates—two grad students, one a professor—had academic responsibilities back in L.A. to tend to. She channeled her energy by writing “Blueprint,” her second full-length solo record, released in March.
As Bag was putting the album together, she was also having her garage converted into an apartment for her daughter. An architect drew up the blueprints, and when problems arose, she sat down with the contractor and revised the plan.
“Going through this process, I realized, so much of this is life,” says Bag. “These structures—whether it’s ourselves, or our communities, or our world—we’re active agents in all of them, and we should have some kind of plan that we look back on and say, ‘Is this going the way I thought it would? Am I where I thought I would be? Am I in a job that I hate? Is my government representing me or do I need to work to get rid of it?’”
“[Blueprint] started off with a simple construction project, but then it turned into this bigger idea of how we build our lives and our world.”
One of the first songs she wrote for the album was “Turn It Up.” At first, the song was meant to be called “Turn It Off,” a commentary on feeling too bombarded by negativity and frustration post-election, watching too much news, and feeling constantly drained. “I was so angry all the time,” Bag remembers.
“If you are constantly living with things that are negative, you start to feel like you are poisoning yourself. We create our surroundings.”
She adds, “You need to have a little bit of hope to be able to move forward. I started thinking not only about the government, but situations people get into where they’re obsessing over things that are wrong with their life.”
“It was going to be ‘Turn It Off’, turn off those negative voices. And then I thought, it should be ‘Turn It Up’, turn up the positive in your life.”
One of its most explicit protest songs on “Blueprint” is “77,” a song about the wage gap that features vocals from Allison Wolfe (of Bratmobile) and Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill).
“I make 77 cents on the dollar, it’s not fair, and it makes me wanna holler,” Bag sings.
The number 77 already held a lot of significance to her: “That’s the year I got into punk. That’s the year I found my voice. That’s the year I made my band.”
“For me, it was a year of liberation and creative freedom,” Bag says. “I realized we could do stuff with this creativity. It’s not just about having fun.
Bag adds, “That you could really help change things in the world. That all came from punk rock.”
When she was reminded of the statistic while reading an article, it felt particularly meaningful, thinking about how much changed that year—as well as how much had not changed.
Although the gap is now generally closer to 80, for women of color the average is much lower. “There are so many different things that go into that number. But it’s not about the number. It’s about the injustice.”
Collaborating with Wolfe and Hanna pushed her to sing the song harder. After they recorded their vocals, she re-recorded her own.
“I stepped up my game to keep up with Kathleen and Allison,” says Bag. “Collaborating makes me stronger. It makes me work harder.”
“White Justice,” another collaboration, features vocals from Martin Sorrondeguy of Los Crudos and Limp Wrist. The song is about the Chicano Moratorium anti-war march through the streets of East Los Angeles on August 29, 1970. The protest was in response to how disproportionate numbers of Chicano soldiers were drafted and sent to dangerous places to die.
Bag was there: “During the march, the riot squad came out and started launching tear gas at the participants. It just turned into this chaotic situation.” More than 150 were arrested and four were killed, including the journalist Rubén Salazar.
“The news outlets reported it as a riot,” Bag recalls. “They made it seem like we had taken to the streets causing trouble, when in fact that protest had been very peaceful. People were to meet at the park afterwards. There were young kids dancing. They had food vendors and speakers and music. It was never this angry, chaotic thing that they portrayed.”
Bag wrote the song in 2016 when her friend put together a tribute event to honor the overlooked women of the early Chicana movement. A group of songwriters participated in story circles and discussion groups, and they each chose a person or event to write about.
When Bag decided to write about the Chicano moratorium, one of those early Chicana movement organizers told her, “If you really want people to connect it to change, and not just to remember history, [you have to] connect it to the present day.”
“You have to see what went wrong back then and what’s going wrong now.”
On “White Justice,” Bag connects this piece of protest history to the way protests by people of color are still policed today.
“When a person of color tries to protest, suddenly it turns into something that has to be shut down with deadly force. As a society we don’t take the time to reflect on why people are upset and why people are asking for a change of policy,” Bag contends. ‘In my experience as a person of color, it seems that it’s just like, ‘shut them up by any means necessary,’ and if a few brown or black people die, it’s seen as what’s needed to maintain the status quo. So we’re sacrificed.”
“Gray smoke in ’70. I still choke when I stop to think. Our struggle then was here at home. And it’s still going on,” Bag sings. “You say justice is colorblind. But I know you’re lying. I know you’re lying. White justice doesn’t work for me.”
“I was thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Bag says. “We have to reflect on how the justice system is not working for people of color.”
Elsewhere on the eleven-song album, Bag draws from punk, rock, pop and soul to tackle themes that are personal, political, and laced with wisdom gleaned from decades of feminist punk organizing.
She uses song to pry into obfuscated history (“Etched Deep”), ageism (“See Cree Joven”), and materialism (“Sparkling Path”).
It is an essential listen for anyone following contemporary protest music, and an apt entryway into the world of an artist for who has long been speaking truth to power through song.
“I need to do it,” Bag declares. “I’m at an age where I know my power. I know that I have power over myself. And I know that I have power in my community. We have power together. We can make change. We can turn this ship around. It’s heading in the wrong direction, and we need to turn it around. And we can. We just need to keep working.”
“For me, the power of music is to create connections between people, and with the audience,” and “the members in the audience who connect to what I’m singing about are going to connect to each other. And then, lo and behold we have this community that’s on the same page, that wants to change the same things. We’re getting our thoughts cleared up and ready for action. So we’re energized and ready to go.”
Just like Bag was when she began writing “Blueprint.”
Listen to “White Justice” by Alice Bag: