Seeing and hearing BLKVAPOR is the best way to fully understand the queer punk band’s mission and message.
“If you haven’t seen BLKVAPOR live, you really should. Especially if you are a queer person or a woman in the hardcore or punk scene,” vocalist/bassist Jamie “Proxy” Grace told me. “We work really hard to make our shows safe spaces for people and also just, like, fun and entertaining and really engaging.”
What would become BLKVAPOR first began to take shape on the campus of University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). “There are so many artists that come out of UMBC that nobody talks about,” vocalist/guitarist Kirby Bell noted, shouting out of one of the less-represented artistic incubators in the city.
Proxy and Bell started playing together in the summer of 2019. At first it was just Proxy and Bell trying to find a sound together. “Within the first three months that I started playing bass, I was like, ‘Kirby, you’re good at guitar! Come hang out,’” Proxy said.
Soon after, vocalist/guitarist Safra Tadesse joined. Those first sessions also included a lot of freestyle rapping. “It’s funny because we used to end up just rapping,” Bell said. “We would put down our guitars for most of practice and just make beats and rap.”
These exploratory origins are appropriate for a band whose name, the band explained, evokes something hard-to-grasp and diaphanous. So what does the name BLKVAPOR mean to the band?
“It doesn’t necessarily have a concrete meaning … We wanted something that carried Blackness as, like, the core of what we’re doing,” Proxy said. “It doesn’t really have a perfect explanation. But I think [the name] really gives the feel.”
“I’ve been thinking about how I identify with BLKVAPOR,” Tadesse said. “The meaning is also just, like, the spirit of Blackness and the spirit of trans-ness, and just how that expresses itself in many different ways and many different forms.”
The band is similarly searching when asked to describe its sound.
“Let’s start with rock and there’s a million different sub-genres…” Bell said.
“I think that BLKVAPOR is like classic rock that has none of the classic rock elements,” Proxy added.
“Classic rock, but we are kind of mocking classic rock,” Tadesse explained. “We’re definitely on the spectrum of no wave and noise rock.”
BLKVAPOR’s recent EP, VAPORISING, released earlier this year, is a three-song meditation on intentionality, community, care, love—and dread. On opener “DOOMSCROLL,” the group combines the rough edges of punk and noise with the soaring tenderness of indie rock. “It’s harder now for me to see the forest from the trees/ Build a palace in the sky and make it out of leaves/ My heart’s made out of bullets and I keep ‘em up my sleeve,” Bell sings. “Pull the trigger, fighting niggas like we’re enemies/ There is no end/ There is no end.”
That sense of hopelessness is answered by Tadesse’s chant of somewhat hopeful “and everything is gonna come back again,” acrobatic guitar, and a cascade of drums from Marci Ray. BLKVAPOR’s music is angsty, articulate, and adamant in its demands. “We definitely plant all of these seeds for people to initiate whatever revolution they need within their lives to make themselves happier,” Tadesse said.
BLKVAPOR are not the only ones in Baltimore using the influence of hardcore punk to plant the seeds of something new and necessary. Baltimore is a majority Black city with a storied DIY punk scene consisting of concertgoers and bands who are predominantly white. But bands such as BLKVAPOR, along with the wildly popular and unrelentingly positive Turnstile and others, chart new territory and reify the fact that Black folks are an indispensable part of punk—and frequently propel it into new territory.
This only makes sense: Punk spaces provide avenues for those who don’t fit into the mainstream, which naturally offers Black, Brown, and queer people a means of expression and escape. The radical sense of community in the hardcore punk scene is inherent in Black folks who live in this predominantly Black city and are part of its caring, rightfully angry community.
Play and joy and jubilation are just as important as rapture and rage in hardcore. It is a philosophy abundant at every Turnstile show. At Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club in May, Turnstile ignited the crowd, rusty from the ongoing pandemic and finally gathered to experience the joy of hardcore music and community. The kind of community I felt a part of at Turnstile’s D.C. show is what I’ve witnessed the band carry with them during their ascent, especially after the release of last year’s GLOW ON.
Virtually everybody right in front of the stage moved in synchronized waves that rose and crashed during the electric track such as “BLACKOUT.” And Turnstile’s lyrics are often introspective and tender: “Things are going to my head/ Are you going in a rut? And I believe in holding onto love/ But I’m afraid to/ And it’s been so long,” vocalist Brendan Yates sings on “MYSTERY.”
The band also stands out for its tendency to reach outside punk to make their sound bigger and brighter and more varied. R&B producer/singer Blood Orange appears on two tracks on GLOW ON, and their 2018 album Time & Space featured a 24-second neo-soul-tinged love song, “Bomb.” Alongside the sustained undulation of Daniel Fang’s percussion, key to Turnstile’s bouncing, excited sound is bassist Franz Lyons, who plays as though he is in a metal band and a funk band at the same time.
Just a few days before Turnstile played D.C., Philadelphia’s Soul Glo played Holy Frijoles. They are the band most comparable to Turnstile when it comes to manufacturing expressive, maximalist hardcore. On “Jump!! (Or Get Jumped!!!)((by the future)),” the single from their latest album, Diaspora Problems, vocalist Pierce Jordan shouts, “RIP Chynna, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Arbery,” mourning Philly model and rapper Chynna (who died of overdose), Breonna Taylor (extrajudicially killed by seven cops in her own home), and Ahmaud Arbery (shot and killed by a white, retired cop and his son while jogging).
Jordan follows it up with a hopeful, searching question: “What can activate the rage that we be harboring?” The music video for “Jump!!…” meanwhile, features the mostly Black band terrorizing its only white member, inverting and parodying the played-out question Black punks often get: “What’s it like to be the only white member of Soul Glo?”
The band’s speed and constant, changing ideas remind me the most of free jazz, of Alice Coltrane, and of Betty Davis and Grace Jones: A breakdown and re-configuration of rock and roll, linking the Black past to the Black present. Even Soul Glo’s name is Black, a reference to the advertisements for Jheri curl activator in Coming To America.
When I watched the crowd at Soul Glo’s show in Hampden, knowing the lyrics were so racially trenchant and politically radical, I tried not to think too much about whether white concertgoers were reciting things they had no business reciting and lost myself in the music and the moment instead.
Soul Glo, a Black hardcore band from Philly, during a pandemic, performed in Baltimore in a Mexican restaurant to a crowd of people dripping sweat. They transported the audience to a place where they had the freedom to mosh and thrash and sing and gyrate. Like many punk shows, this show was a space free from judgment. It is an unique, unforgettable experience, being able to eat nachos and drink a frozen margarita before raging in the other room for a few hours. Holy Frijoles’ emergence as a punk institution is remarkable.
Stephen Peniston, whose band ATM (Automated Terror Machine) opened for Soul Glo, booked the band at Holy Frijoles. He knew Soul Glo through mutual friends, and when they were setting up their tour, Soul Glo reached out to Stephen.
“It was truly grassroots, I guess, in every sense that it could be,” Peniston said.
And because he has been on all sides of it, he knows how fragile a moment in a scene can be. When ATM began its set, Peniston told the Holy Frijoles crowd, “enjoy being in this space, because we might not be able to do this in a couple of years.” With many familiar DIY spaces and venues not surviving the pandemic and the constant press of gentrification, opportunities to gather in these spaces becomes inevitably impossible. I used to go to parties and shows in the Copycat Building. That has become an impossibility.
Peniston described his role in the scene as a jack of all trades. “I’ve been on all sides of it, from recording records to labels to setting up tours, like everything, even down to like artwork and whatnot,” he said.
James Spooner, co-founder of the Afropunk Festival and the director of the 2003 documentary of the same name, told me that a resurgence of Black punk and hardcore and heightened visibility is rewarding.
“It’s great to see that. It inspires me and makes me feel like the work that I did in the early 2000s with Afropunk has made an impact, you know? To the degree that some kids now might not even know about it. Because it’s been several generations,” he said.
Spooner’s recent graphic novel, The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere, documents his coming-of-age as a Black kid in the hardcore scene in California. Without Spooner’s work, without the existence of Afropunk, I might not be attending these shows today. Afropunk created space for alternative Black folks to congregate and celebrate their creativity.
“It’s obviously important to me to be able to go to spaces that highlight Black and Brown people in the community,” Spooner said. “I’ve always wanted those spaces so I’ve worked on creating them. I’m 46, I’m just trying to create a better space for, like, my 13-year-old who is just getting into the scene now.”
BLKVAPOR’S DIY Spirit.
Back in June, BLKVAPOR booked and organized a two-week tour across the country. The group hitched a trailer to Bell’s car and played shows in Philadelphia, Chicago, Richmond, and five other cities. They titled the tour Pride ‘22. They did it because they wanted to and knew that they’d have to do it themselves.
It was “very much the DIY spirit,” Proxy said.
“We want to uplift other people, especially using our music and our presence as a form of taking action and standing up,” Tadesse said. “And as a form of protest—to get people to feel inspired to do the most tiniest things that can make their lives better, or a really big and radical thing,”
The raucous band is also a respite for Proxy, who has been doing LGBTQIA activism and advocacy work for seven years. “For me, I feel like in political spaces I kind of have to be buttoned up and, like, the most respectable example of a Black trans woman in order to get the things that I want accomplished,” Proxy said. “So I feel like BLKVAPOR is really like a space where I can let go of that justified rage and showcase other angrier sides of myself.”
Proxy described where BLKVAPOR exists within the scene: A group that has located and claimed their power, taking the space that is rightfully theirs to create and exist in.
“We are not moving backward at all with nightlife spaces, or arts and culture spaces at all. Even if it feels like things are kind of backsliding, we refuse to take those backward steps,” Proxy said. “There’s not going to be scenes that are just composed of white people saying nothing and doing nothing. It’s not going to exist anymore. And we’re fighting to kill and eradicate that. Absolutely.”
Baltimore’s punk scene in 2022 feels something like Black lightning in a bottle. A rare, natural occurrence. It’s about feeling. It’s music that allows you to forget yourself—and also find yourself. It is about catharsis for these bands. It definitely is a catharsis for me.
The familial and communal elements of the hardcore scene in Baltimore remind me most of this city’s house music scene. There’s a tremendous amount of care, respect, and love for everybody there. At Soul Glo’s Holy Frijoles show, a crowd surfer was injured. The music stopped, and people parted to make way for him to be taken out to an ambulance. He remarked that he didn’t have insurance, and folks at the show began offering to send him money to help with the inevitable medical bills. During the Turnstile show at Clifton Park last year, someone fell while in the pit. Turnstile leader singer Yates stopped the show to check and make sure they were alright. Yates addressed the crowd—who remained respectfully silent—and told everyone to make sure that they all took care of each other.
For BLKVAPOR, figuring out how to forge something entirely new is the point, no matter how difficult it can be.
“I love how there will be zero opportunities for us,” Bell said. “And then we can make one out of thin air. Like, we had no opportunity to tour and we made it. If there’s somewhere we want to play, I feel like we can make that happen.”
Soul Glo plays Zika Farm on Aug. 13 with Show Me The Body. BLKVAPOR performs at Current Space on Aug. 20 with Who Saved Who. Turnstile is currently touring the world.