Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna looks back in memoir 'Rebel Girl': NPR

“When I first played in Bikini Kill, I saw myself as a feminist performance artist who was in a punk band,” says Kathleen Hanna.

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“When I first played in Bikini Kill, I saw myself as a feminist performance artist who was in a punk band,” says Kathleen Hanna.

Rachel Bright/Ecco

Activist, musician and punk pioneer Kathleen Hanna has always been a force. With her band Bikini Kill, she pioneered the 'riot grrrl' movement in the 1990s, challenging the misogyny of both the punk scene and society as a whole.

“When I moved to Olympia, [Wash.]“There were all these kids making music and releasing records on small indie labels,” says Hanna. “And they kind of defined punk as a genre or a… loud, angry, aggressive sound, but as an idea. … that we don't have to wait for companies to tell us what good music, art or writing is. We can make it ourselves.”

And she did. Together with Tobi Vail, Billy Karren and Kathi Wilcox, Hanna formed the feminist punk band Bikini Kill. The band urged women and girls in the audience to go to the front of the stage, write political zines and talk openly about sexual violence. Encouraged by the music, fans came to Hanna to talk about their own experiences.

During the tour, Hanna and her bandmates faced abuse and disrespect from male fans and club employees. At one point, a sound man threatened to stab her while she was on tour with another of her bands, Le Tigre.

“This was our workplace, and every night there was a different bunch of threatened, angry men… treating us with such total disrespect,” she says. “One of the things I get by with is this sentence: 'In punk rock there is no HR.' “

In her new memoir Rebel girl, Hanna looks back on her youth and her experiences in the punk scene. She also writes about discovering that an undiagnosed case of Lyme disease was the reason she could no longer perform physically.

Since her diagnosis and treatment, Hanna has started performing again with Bikini Kill and her other bands, Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin. She says there's still a lot of anger in the shows, but there's also “so much more joy.”

“The songs really go from joy to sadness and very quickly. And I discover nuances in them that I didn't know were there,” she says. “It feels joyful to explore our anger in public.”

Interview highlights

Rebel Girl, by Kathleen Hanna
Rebel Girl, by Kathleen Hanna

In the early days of the riot grrrl feminist punk movement

[There were] girls in the riot grrrl meetings who were just crying because it was the first time they were in an all-female atmosphere, and they were like, “Wow, this feels really weird. I'm confused.” And then like, “Wait, why haven't I ever made this a priority before?” And just that feeling of a room changing. Just sitting at a crappy plastic Office Max table with a bunch of young women who have been relegated to the back of the room at punk shows for so long, and finally saying, “I've always wanted to start a band,” or “Hey, does anyone know how to play guitar? I would like to learn.” That's a great feeling. That really turns the room into this beautiful place full of possibilities.

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About writing the 1993 riot grrrl anthem, “Rebel Girl”

We wrote that in the basement of this house called The Embassy. It was a punk house, and punk houses often have names. And this one was called The Embassy because it was quite close to Embassy Row in DC. And I remember how sweaty it was and it was very small. And I'll always remember writing that song because it was one of those times where I wrote it while we were playing it. So they started coming up with the music, and as it got fuller, I started hearing the first few lines in my head and I just stepped up to the microphone, and then they just fell out. I took a step back and thought, okay, what's the chorus going to be? …And then I walked back to the microphone and I just sang and “Rebel girl, rebel girl, you are the queen of my world” came out. And it just happened. It felt like the scene of punk women that I hung out with and befriended actually wrote that song and I just picked it out of the air or something.

joanjettbikinikill wide ed61f729f30fd7890e9b85581c3640e127cff2e3

Hanna (fourth from left) poses with Joan Jett (center) and fellow Bikini Kill members Tobi Vail, Billy Karren and Kathi Wilcox in New York City in 1992.

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Hanna (fourth from left) poses with Joan Jett (center) and fellow Bikini Kill members Tobi Vail, Billy Karren and Kathi Wilcox in New York City in 1992.

Steve Eichner/Ecco

About how she turned her concerts into a safe place for women and girls

We did things like handing out lyrics sheets with the lyrics on them so that other girls and women would know that this is the lyrics and what the subject was, because often you couldn't understand what I was saying because of the crappy words. PAs I was singing through, and sometimes even talking between songs, you couldn't understand what I was saying. And so that was one way [we] gave them a souvenir to take home to read through and think about and what they might not agree with so they start their own bands or it encourages them to write their own poetry or their own to write zines.

We also had zines that dealt with many different political issues of the day that we sold at our shows. We preferred to have girls and women come to the front because a lot of the shows we played at the time were heterosexual, white cisgender men who had the upper hand and took up all the space in the room. And we very selfishly wanted to build the community so we could have more girl bands to play with. And how is that going to happen if they're all stuck in the back? …So I started inviting the girls forward. “Hey, do you guys want to come forward?” And then it became kind of a thing. … It was like, what if we decorated this room a little bit differently? What's going to happen? And what happened was that a lot of men were really angry and hated us. But it was also an interesting experiment.

On a drunken night with Kurt Cobain, when she graffitied a sentence that inspired the title Nirvana's first big hit

I grabbed a Sharpie marker and just wrote, “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit,” because Tobi and I [Vail] had been in a supermarket and saw this new deodorant [that said] “Smells like teenage spirit,” and we thought, that's hilarious. What does the teenage mind smell like? …Sharpie marker and poster board? It smells like Mod Podge? What does it smell like? So we were just messing around with that. So [it] was in my head. And when I was drunk, it just came out and I wrote ten other things on his wall – and he was a renter, so that was kind of a bad move on my part. Not very nice or attentive. And then he called me many, many months later and said, “Can I use that in a song?” I didn't even know it was going to be the title of a song. And I thought, “Yeah, sure, that's great.”

Thea Chaloner and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

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