‘All you have to do is participate’: how the Shotgun Seamstress zine made space for Black punks

As the DIY publication is collected in a new anthology, creator Osa Atoe and the musicians she inspired reflect on its defiant positivity

In 2006, Osa Atoe picked up pen and paper and began to write herself into history. She had decided to create a fanzine, titled Shotgun Seamstress, with a simple manifesto: to support “Black people who exist within predominantly white subcultures, and to encourage the creation of our own.” She went on to produce eight issues, and now those lovingly crafted pages have been compiled into an anthology that celebrates her zine’s status as one of the most iconic subcultural documents of the 00s alt-rock scene.

“I think it had to do with finding a genre that encourages participation,” reflects Atoe from her Florida home. “My parents are Nigerian, and my dad always had a big record collection, mostly pop and R&B. I was a teen in the 90s so it was impossible to not know about grunge, but punk was the first genre that told me that I could be in a band.”

Shotgun Seamstress was born out of circumstance. Atoe was living semi-nomadically, having just formed her “umpteenth” band, New Bloods, and she was looking for an “escape from mainstream thinking”. Moving between Portland and Oakland, she discovered a new circle of queer, non-white peers: “Getting into a relationship with another Black punk woman and having other Black punk friends, I think it made it easier for me to speak. I was able to make a zine for them.”

Osa Atoe: ‘I still don’t know how to do Photoshop. It’smore direct to cut, paste, staple and glue.’
Osa Atoe: ‘Punk was the first genre that told me I could be in a band.’ Photograph: Evelyn England SAGE Art Sarasota

Taking its name from a playful critique that Atoe’s mother had made of her ramshackle sewing technique, Shotgun Seamstress began to thrive when New Bloods went on tour. Atoe would interview stars of the local scene and sell the zine on her band’s merch table. “We would play a show in Detroit and I’d get to meet Mick Collins from the Gories; we’d play a show in Berlin and talk to Vaginal Creme Davis – the queer performer who appears on the anthology cover,” she says. “Davis would tell me about Alvin Baltrop, the New York photographer, and I’d interview him. Travelling and touring made the zine what it was.”

Atoe quickly realised she could reach even more punks of colour if she distributed the zine internationally via internet forums, but she resisted total digitisation. “I still don’t know how to do Photoshop,” she laughs. “At that time LiveJournal was a big thing, and online blogs. I still think there’s a place for all that but it’s easier and more direct for me to cut, paste, staple and glue when I’m trying to be creative.”

Even in book form, the tactile, hand-crafted spirit of Shotgun Seamstress comes through. Cut-and-spliced images, scribbled text and Sharpie’d mantras leap off the page, ready to ignite imaginations across the world. For Takaiya Reed, of Melbourne-based neoclassical doom band Divide and Dissolve, Shotgun Seamstress was a life changer: “I would not be where I am without Osa Atoe and her words.” Similarly Rachel Aggs, a Glasgow-based musician who plays in Trash Kit, Sacred Paws and Shopping, discovered the zine in her late teens, and it galvanised her to start the musical career she had been too shy to admit she wanted.

“It was really formative for me in just being like, ‘Fuck it, I need to do this,’” says Aggs. “Osa’s visual style is so lush and fun. She’s from that OG riot grrrl spirit that just takes you somewhere else. You need that reminder sometimes, when you’re the only brown person in your scene.”

The sense of joy that comes through was intentional. Although Atoe was justifiably frustrated with the scene’s overwhelming whiteness, she was intent from her zine’s outset that it would not be a lecture in racial reparations. It featured interviews with everyone from seminal Detroit punk band Death to X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene, and the essays, Q&As and love letters to punk all show a commitment to defiant positivity.

Cover of the new anthology
Cover of the new anthology Photograph: -

“If you’re only talking about how angry you are, white people stay at the centre of the conversation,” she explains. “I think there was a little bit of rage in issue one, but after that I’m just talking about Black people and how great it is to be a Black punk.” She laughs: “To this day, people are like, ‘Shotgun Seamstress: a raging critique of the white scene.’ They cannot get that they’re not at the centre of this.”

In recent years, the vision Atoe presented in Shotgun Seamstress has slowly started to materialise. Bands in the mainstream and underground such as Loathe, Soul Glo, Meet Me at the Altar and Divide and Dissolve are proving that Black punk can not only exist on its own terms but meet huge, appreciative audiences.

Atoe now works as a ceramicist and feels that the eighth issue of Shotgun Seamstress, from 2015, was her last. But she abides by a “never say never” principle. And it was the promise of a new generation of readers, along with the rarity of the original issues and an earlier six-issue compilation, that sparked the idea for the anthology. “I got a message from a 16-year-old saying, ‘I love your zine but I’ve never been able to find copies of it,’” Atoe smiles. “Which made me feel like: ‘Oh, young kids do still care about print.’ Now we follow each other on Instagram. Poly Styrene wrote me back; why wouldn’t I write to this girl?”

It’s this sense of non-hierarchical interaction, she says, that keeps the scene going. “People talk about punk not being welcoming but in my experience, all you have to do is participate. I got out of my own way and I just did something. That’s the magic of punk.”

• Shotgun Seamstress: The Complete Zine Collection is published by Soft Skull on 29 November


Jenessa Williams

The GuardianTramp

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