Sometimes you just get a good feeling about people, and Zu Muzeyyen is one of those people for me. I first met them last summer when I emailed the address on the back of a fanzine I picked up at Ladyfest Philadelphia, called "Bros Fall Back". On the back it said, in bold capital letters, "POST-OPTIMISM," and underneath, "firstname.lastname@example.org".
Knowing this person was anti-everything, I figured they might not even be interested in writing back, let alone booking a show for my band. But I also felt compelled to write them, as "Bros Fall Back" was, and still is, perhaps the most necessary zine I can think of off the top of my head. It's not a manifesto, it's not some cheesy call to arms or a "new name" for a "new thing". When you start naming things, that's when you start selling things, and Bros Fall Back isn't selling anything. If anything, it seems more like an armed robbery against a bunch of things you're probably mad about, too, if you have any sense at all. If there was a fire and all the zines of the world were burning, (I'm not saying I know about ALL the zines, but) I think maybe I would save Bros Fall Back if I could only chose one. "Bros Fall Back" has recently been re-printed in a newly edited and expanded second edition. But I gotta say, the first edition was pretty sweet, and you can search "Bros Fall Back" right now on your computer and read the whole thing.
At first I was a little surprised when Zu wrote back. They actually seem to be, quite understandably, anti most-things, rather than anti-everything. Zu helps out with a number of things around their hometown of Philadelphia but quite honestly, I hope Zu is just in charge of some stuff soon. Their ideas below make a lot of sense to me.
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Katie: Tell me your name and where you live and what kinds of things you do in your everyday routine, what kinds of activities you're engaging in these days.
Zu: My name is Zubeyda Muzeyyen and I live on occupied Lenape land renamed Philadelphia. I've avoided routine for a couple years, it's allowed for more fluid and sincere engagement with some things [warning: vague] that I intentionally try to focus my energy on: friendship, creative expression, healing, negation, Islam, and combating alienation. These days I'm traveling a bit & doing stuff like tryna program club music and DJing, being a clown, doing rando gigs, hanging out with homies I don't get to see very often, taking advantage of the excess that Yuppieville, America creates and trying not to exacerbate the tension of oppressor vs. oppressed that lives everywhere I've ever traveled.
You book shows at Lava Space, right? Can you tell me a little about Lava and how you got involved over there?
Yeah! I'm "events coordinator" at Lava Space, which means I help facilitate all of the events (shows and otherwise) that happen but I book my own shows there also. I got involved at Lava shortly after I moved to west Philly in 2012. Unlike some other "anarchist" and show spaces it had the least bureaucracy, bros, or social capital-oriented hurdles to overcome to get involved. It's funny, I started doing shows there because it was the only space that was accessible to me and many months later, although I'm peripherally involved in a lot of stuff, it's still the only place that's accessible to me.
Lava is a collective that owns a building with a main 1st floor level common space equipped with a library, kitchen, and space for shows/dancefloor. The 2nd and 3rd floors are all office spaces of different rad organizations-- groups like the Young Broadcasters of America that makes their studio equipment available/cheap and the Human Rights Coalition, a prison abolition group.
I have a really complicated relationship with the space, as it should be. When I moved to Philly I got the vibe that it was this awkward place for white people to feel comfortable in a neighborhood that otherwise gives no fucks about that priority. There's a lot of history there.. Belmont is also called "the bottom" which is short for "the black bottom" which refers to how, since way back, wealthy white folks lived at "the top" and working class black folks lived at "the bottom" of the area. The way these words allude to a hierarchical structure isn't coincidental. At one point in the more recent history of The Bottom a LOT of folks were displaced on some eminent domain shit and peoples' homes were destroyed for the sake of marketable renewal.
I'd love for you to expand on a number of things you've already mentioned, maybe starting with the tension between oppressor and oppressed. This might be a big question or one that is hard to articulate, but do you feel like this is something you see played out every day in a number of different ways? Like can you tell me about ways this is happening in your daily life, even in small ways?
The tension between oppressor and oppressed is something that I can explain a little by talking even more about Lava. That dynamic is present in really big material ways and also in li'l micro-aggressions. For example, Lava is a community center where a lot of neighborhood folks hang out but it's also a space that is "less dangerous" or even appealing to white society, as opposed to the confrontational nature of the bottom's historically radical black history. That tension is super present in Lava, where white people and sometimes white "passing" people of color open the space up and invite in people who have no understanding of or investment in the neighborhood or surrounding community. It’s easy for those who historically are aligned with the oppressor to not notice the tension, or to mis-categorize it as something less scary to process. The tension exists in everything, from the weird way that mostly white people control the resource that is Lava (and thus get to decide who else has what degree of access to it) to smaller things like ignorant ass punks being rude to folks trying to hustle on the strip to the so-sad-its-almost-funny reality that hella folks that try to do shit at Lava have never even taken a walk around the block.
The oppressor/oppressed dynamic is everywhere that domination exists... which is everywhere. There's an alienated tension in every interaction I ever have in any marketplace, whether it’s a bodega owned by "model minority" Middle Eastern folks or a bougie local vegan yuppie grass-fed whatever marketing scheme. Also, gender... am I right??
Sorry for being long winded. Like I said, I have really complicated relationships with...everything. Haha. I could talk about it forever. But Lava is a tight space, I care a lot about treating it well.
No don't apologize! This is exactly the kinda stuff I was hoping you'd want to talk about. Being aware of history and context presents greater challenges but, I would hope, ultimately finds us more equipped to better "use" our resources. I put "use" in quotes because it sounds more exploitive than what I'm trying to convey. (As a side note, this reminds me of the part in Bros Fall Back that suggests a future with more "valuable"* friendships, and the footnote to the asterisk just says *LOL. Because we don't really understand how to assign or convey the importance or meaning of a thing without translating it to a monetary scale of value-- I don't know if you wrote that essay or not, but I'm gonna ask you about Bros Fall Back in a bit, as long as you feel comfortable talking about it).
How do you try to keep Lava woven into the fabric of the neighborhood? Cause in my experience over there, that is a very inspiring thing about the space: as opposed to many other DIY spaces around the east coast and else where, Lava seems like it is relatively safe(r), accessible and useful for a pre-existing community and simultaneously inviting to newcomers.
I didn't write that particular essay but I edited it for the new version and can definitely talk about it, and Bros Fall Back in general. As far as using terms that refer to relationships to capital and money one thing that a friend turned me on to a while back was replacing the word "productive" with "generative." Total game changer.
I'm happy to hear all of the kind things you have to say about lil ol' Lava spizzy. I definitely shouldn't be given credit for Lava's relationship to the neighborhood. Lava has been around for years and there have been and are many people who's understanding and belonging to the local history and long standing relationships to neighbors have made it part of the community rather than a weird new institution of culture or whatever.
The way that I interact with Lava very much centers around what I described as not exacerbating the tension of oppressive dynamics but maybe some others would call "anti-oppression." I am not a black working class Philadelphian who has roots in the neighborhood, always being actively aware of and applying this understanding to interactions in real life is my starting point. I do come from a diasporic immigrant community of working class people of color in a nearby urban environment that in many ways (economically, socio-politically, demographically [is that a word?], whatever) is similar and has helped me interact with the community/culture/scene in a way that I like to think isn't totally fucked up or alienated and aspires to be sincere and long term. I've tried to have conversations with some people (punx, queers, Philly transplants) about these sort of things and I think there isn't a specific way to articulate how your daily actions can do something as impressive and abnormal as not contributing towards the legacy of colonialism and white supremacy. Some people just don't know how to act because they never really had to learn, you know? It's easy to practice "anti oppression" in the safe isolation of Activism because everything is all about direct actions and direct communication and rights and unity where as my experience in all realities besides that one tells me things are way more nuanced than that and deserve varying, unique response. Also, I just want to say that never calling or drawing the attention of the police is basic but important as fuck.
You're referencing the "safe isolation" of activism, I'm wondering if you've got some thoughts about traditional activism? I'd love to hear you define the safe isolation you're talking about, and maybe expound on breaking out of that. Like is "traditional" activism just kind of obsolete right now?
The safe isolation of Activism I'm talking about refers to the contrived way some activists interact with "justice" or, rather, injustice. I feel like a lot of activist scenes I've seen are really alienated and isolated from the real ways that people (including activists) are affected by the things they do work on. It can be a tactical thing - some people believe in the ideas of what maybe you're calling traditional activism (petitions, nonviolent demonstrations, marches/walks) and other times it's that people that get into activist culture are coming from a place wherein they interact with oppression through the institution of activism or academia and not through their experiences being oppressed people. Both sources bring people to a place that can be pretty safe and isolated from the way a lot of people are forced to interact with different oppressive power. Examples of this are activists choosing to get arrested for the sake of "the struggle" and many people of color and working class people having to struggle with the reality of being locked up or regularly harassed by the police; or middle class 2nd wave(y) feminists organizing in a way that materially impedes and culturally denies sex workers. The idea of activism in general feels pretty safe and isolated to me, it awards a politicized identity and credit to people that have access to those scenes/networks, spaces, lifestyles, etc. Safe, isolated activists can also act like the state sometimes; in instances of single mindedness and with a foundation in privilege. I've seen activists fuck over oppressed people who are deemed "criminal" and also get caught up in the marketing of social justice and support forces of gentrification, like local coffee shops and community gardening projects. Last, there's something to be said about the ways that a lot of activists strive for "unity" which often results in a really violent end result of cultural assimilation that erases things that aren't academic, white, legal in the US, and so on. That’s a very large statement. I can talk more about it if you want.
All of that said, I know a bunch of people who identify with being an activist or radical who are not about what I've described above. I like to always voice my critiques first but all love no shade. Many people find meaningful friends, community and those relationships and the ways they're made stronger are very valuable to, you know, staying strong in a horrifying reality. I don't personally care about the tactics of traditional activism (I feel a little like I've been personally burned by them), but I don't want to say that I particularly believe that the way, say, radical musicians interact with injustice through making creative media and spaces is better or worse. I think the categories of effective/good and ineffective/bad tactics are obsolete. I'm interested in being around people that are on similar pages as me and that want to interact with each other in not-shitty ways for the sake of holding space for our grief and expanding way beyond in a subversive way... but that's just me.
I do want to follow up on what you said about activists/people in general striving for "unity" and exacerbating or creating violence/erasure/assimilation. I wonder a lot about vague ideas of "community" and whether or not its just a silly utopian "dream" at this point, do you think striving for "community" or "unity" is just sort of obsolete or too idealistic at this point? Should we all just be focusing on staying safe and cleaning up the mess the world already is?
Recently I was talking to a friend about this and they told me they've been intentionally using the word "scene" instead of "community" when appropriate. Lots of folks are slippin' up and talking about a large, generic scene of people as if they're close to all of them. I'm not sure, I don't think its necessary to abandon the term "community" and all that people want out of it but I do think that, first, community does not have to be bound by unity and, second, that community is much deeper than just having something in common with someone, for example sharing an identity with others. Not saying that identity can't warrant a meaningful sense of community and real bond between peoples, just saying it's not always like that.
I think unity is a silly utopian dream in the really awful dystopian nightmare kinda way. I'm making hella disclaimers but for real -- people and groups can definitely be "unified" and not fucked up and all mutually benefit from it. Unity as it's been spread through many Activist movements and american ~alternative cultures~ has been and is a fucked up justification for systematically privileged people to have access and claim belonging to cultures that desire to be insular or at least to prioritize a degree of cultural preservation. Unity also invalidates internal critique and closes up space for important power and material based conflicts. Side note, punx love to say "fuck unity" because hippies vs punx 4 ever but they also love to be chumps/apologists and claim entitlement to continue to be involved in the music scene.
Talk to me about Bros Fall Back. How did it come together, where did it come from, have you also noticed how significantly it seems to have impacted such a wide range of people? Like, I know people who aren't really into zine or punk culture who know about Bros Fall Back at this point.
"Bros Fall Back" started as a phrase I would put on show flyers to ward away people who weren't ok with being criticized for taking up too much space. It came up as an alternative to the phrase "girls to the front." The zine is the writing of many people (the new edition is featuring 6 different content writers) that, at this point, lots of different people and groups have distro'd.
By the way, right now I'm working on a fundraiser for my friends' legal defense fund. It's a long story wherein a bro snitch is bringing her to court. If anyone wants to support and also get a copy of the new edition of Bros Fall Back (redone by negatecity) holla at the bigcartel: http://brosfallback.bigcartel.com/product/destroy-the-scene-bros-fall-back
The idea, for me, came from a desire to disrupt the peace of the abusive music scene and promote something that'd put people in a position where they'd have to choose whether they defend shitty culture or critique it. It’s really cool that it has spread a lot... Having "political" zines as part of your scene is cool because it serves as a reference point for where people stand, you know? Engaging people on the subjects is cool, seeing how people respond to words/events is useful. One thing about BFB is folks put energy into writing straightforward pieces. I was into this because fuck academia and subcultures centering around inaccessible theory. But also the straightforwardness contributed to it becoming so relatable and popular, I think. People should definitely take the zine/phrase and do whatever they want with it in their scene... as long as it’s upping the conflict, femmes, and connections.