Published Oct 14, 2013An icon in music and activism, Kathleen Hanna has led many a group of passionate people, from bands to communities of women. A cofounder of the '90s riot grrrl movement, Hanna's career has been built around the idea of forwarding feminism into each new generation. Shifting from gritty punk band Bikini Kill to choreographed electro-pop dance group Le Tigre, Hanna has been able to instil a strong political voice in everything she has put out. After a leave of absence from the music scene — Hanna was diagnosed with Lyme disease after years spent undiagnosed — she returns with (sort of) new band the Julie Ruin, a new album, and that same sense of vigour fans thrived off of for years. The punk singer is ready to share her voice again, and we're ready to listen.
1968 to 1986
Kathleen Hanna is born on November 12, 1968 in Portland, Oregon, but spends most of her childhood moving from coast to coast, mainly between Oregon and Maryland, to accommodate her father's changing career plans. While her father commutes to Washington, DC from Maryland for his job, Hanna begins to learn about feminism from her housewife mother. After being exposed to a new, liberal feminist publication called Ms. Magazine, both Hanna and her mother become fixated. "I used to cut pictures out of it and make posters that said 'Girls can do anything,' and stuff like that," Hanna would tell BUST magazine in 2000, adding that her mother was also inspired to do anti-domestic violence work out of church basements. Another influence Hanna cites is A Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, a book that she noticed her mother reading when she was young.
Soon after, Hanna's mother takes her to a Solidarity Day rally where feminist icon Gloria Steinem is speaking, which solidifies her interest in feminism. "It was the first time I had ever been in a big crowd of women yelling and it really made me want to do it forever," she'll tell BUST. Hanna also fondly remembers pins and t-shirts being handed out with the saying "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" on them. "I thought that was really cool," she'll comment in the 2006 documentary, Don't Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl.
The family returns to Portland in time for Hanna to begin high school, and her parents divorce. In her high school years, Hanna is consumed by music, marijuana and alcohol.
1987 to 1989
Hanna enrols in Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA where she studies photography, but is also interested in women's studies, though there aren't many courses offered. Being away from her family for the first time, Hanna supports herself financially by stripping. She'll recall this job to The Daily Beast in March 2013 as a "shitty job to make money for school," not a political or sex-positive choice.
Hanna is given an opportunity to put on her own photo exhibit with artist Aaron Bauch-Green; hers about sexism and his about AIDS. A few days after Hanna and Bauch-Green put up their photos, school administrators take the exhibit down due to its controversial subject matter. To combat this display of censorship, Hanna rallies a group of female students and opens her own art gallery, "in response to the school's lack of suitable art space," she writes in her biography on Le Tigre's website.
The gallery, which was called Reko Muse, hosts a number of art exhibits, as well as concerts that feature some of Olympia's local talent, including Nirvana, the Go Team and Fitz of Depression. Hanna and two of Reko Muse's founders, Heidi Arbogast and Tammy Rae Carland, form a punk band called Amy Carter (named after President Jimmy Carter's daughter). In an interview with Kerosene Kelly's zine, Thorn, in 1994, Carland will explain the idea behind the band name, saying, "Girls and women are trained to idolize people of the opposite sex. It's important for us to have female heroes because it broadens our perspective of power." Hanna goes on to start another band around this time, Viva Knievel. She goes on her first extensive tour, trekking across North America for two months.
1990 to 1992
When Hanna returns from her tour with Amy Carter and Viva Knievel, she recruits three people to form another new band. Initially a fan of her fanzine, Jigsaw, Hanna befriends musician Tobi Vail and with friend Kathi Wilcox, they begin working on a zine called Bikini Kill. During this time, an entire feminist movement is starting up in Olympia. Hanna, Vail, and musicians Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman (both of punk band Bratmobile) start a new zine called Riot Grrrl, which derived from an issue of Vail's Jigsaw zine that read, "Revolution Grrrl Style Now." (This is one of many theories on the origins of the phrase "riot grrrl.")
In the second issue of Bikini Kill, a "riot grrrl manifesto" is published, a constitution for women everywhere to seize control, pursue things they want to do regardless of social judgement and rebel against sexist standards set by a predominantly white male scene.
Many women in the underground/DIY arts scene in Olympia contribute to the Riot Grrrl zine and soon, Hanna and others begin organizing meetings with groups of women to discuss creative projects, share zines and talk about women's issues together in a supportive environment. Because of the musical culture that tied many of these women together, many issues discussed pertain to the punk rock community and its hostility towards women. Other feminist bands associated with the movement include Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, Calamity Jane and Tattle Tale. Another important aspect to the riot grrrl movement is its zines and publications, mostly discussing taboo topics such as eating disorders, rape, domestic abuse and female empowerment. Hanna herself creates a number of zines. "Riot grrrl" communities begin to surface in cities around the world.
Later, guitarist Billy Karren of local band the Go Team joins and they form a radical feminist punk band named Bikini Kill after the zine. In 1991, they release a demo cassette, Revolution Girl Style Now! The following self-titled EP, produced by Ian MacKaye (Fugazi, Minor Threat), is released on independent record label Kill Rock Stars.
Hanna is also friends with alt-rock pioneer Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. In August 1990, Hanna and Cobain spend a drunken evening vandalising a "fake abortion clinic," as she writes on the walls of the Olympia building (Cobain wrote "God is gay"). The two go back to Cobain's apartment, where Hanna takes a Sharpie pen and writes all over his wall. "It was a rental, so it was really kind of lame that I did that," she'll joke at a 2010 concert event in New York City. After, Cobain calls Hanna up and asks for her permission to use something she wrote on his wall as a song lyric; she says yes. "I hung up and was like, 'How the fuck is he going to use 'Kurt smells like teen spirit' as a lyric?"
1993 to 1995
In 1993, Bikini Kill release their first full-length, Pussy Whipped. The album, brimming with DIY punk, reverb-drenched production that combines elements of hardcore and punk rock together, includes "Rebel Girl," still regarded as one of the most important tracks of the time. A feminist manifesto in itself, "Rebel Girl" is a revolutionary song that conveys the simple message of girls being cool, empowered and idolized. With a militant, marching drum beat and an unabashed crunchy guitar riff, Hanna screams, "That girl thinks she's the queen of the neighbourhood / I got news for you, she is!"
The band strive to convey feminist messages in their lyrics as well as their live shows. Hanna often dons provocative outfits: short skirts, bras or midriff-baring crop tops that reveal the word "SLUT" scrawled across her stomach. She also encourages women to come to the front of the stage, a taboo at the time because of its association with male-dominated pits. "She was like a superhero," Wilcox tells Exclaim! now, discussing the way Hanna would take it upon herself to remove men from the crowd. "If some guy was messing with girls in the audience, she would jump off the stage, grab him and drag him out the side door because nobody else was doing it. In a way it was like 'Yay!' but in another way, it was terrifying because she's not that big and once she jumps off, what's going to happen?"
Wilcox remembers the danger of playing shows in Bikini Kill, with men heckling or being violent towards them. During a specific pair of shows in Los Angeles, where they had a stand-in drummer due to illness, a number of skinhead punks begin shouting at Hanna, at one point yelling, "Girl power? Every power is bad power." Things escalate to a point where the skinheads throw a chain at Hanna's head. "I do feel a bit scarred from being in that band," Wilcox admits. "I mean, I love that band and I loved being in that band, but it was a hard band to be in. I was young and had no idea of how to deal with all that energy that people were throwing at us, both good and bad."
After a 1992 article in Newsweek, along with a number of other media outlets reporting on the rise of the riot grrrl movement, women involved were put under an increasing amount of scrutiny and a sense of misinterpretation and tension starts to build within the scene.
"By about 1994, the 'secret' was out and most of the women who had started the movement no longer identified as riot grrrls," author Lisa Darms writes in her 2013 zine anthology, The Riot Grrrl Collection. "Some had simply outgrown it; for some others, the inability of the movement to address privilege in a nuanced and effective way rendered it useless as a model for activism."
Bikini Kill are thrust into the spotlight as leaders of the movement. Hanna receives criticism from both the media and some of her fellow allies. "There was a lot of horizontal oppression," Hanna would say in the 2011 DVD tour documentary, Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour. In an old video clip from the '90s shown in this documentary, Hanna speaks to an audience about the media's treatment of riot grrrl members: "A lot of times, because of the media, people are forced to be reactionary," she said. "I find myself trying to be the opposite of the media perception and it's really fucked up because it fucks with your creativity, because you end up always having to answer questions that are based on lies or some shit. People are like, 'Why are there more women in bands?' and it's like, duh. I was being told by people in the mainstream media that I was a fat, retarded slut who didn't know what she was doing. And on the other hand, I felt really rejected from people in my scene because when we got media attention, we were sell-outs."
"She was really intense," Wilcox recalls, of being in a band with Hanna. "We were in our 20s and I feel like that was such a period of time where people are at their most intense, personality-wise. And you're just out of your teenage years, but there's a certain arrogance, which was perfect for that band, but not for communicating. So you could have a conversation about something, but it immediately went into the realm of extremely intense and lots of drama."
Bikini Kill's success leads the band to tour around the world, to Australia, Europe and Japan (Wilcox recalls the band attempting to come to Canada, but didn't have the proper paperwork and never attempted it again).
Bikini Kill release their last album, Reject All American, on April 5, 1996. In an essay for The Riot Grrrl Collection, Le Tigre's Johanna Fateman writes about a track on this last record. "Bikini Kill's final album, released in 1996 — the year the meteoric riot grrrl phenomenon seemed to have run its course […] the burst of anguish on 'Bloody Ice Cream' marked the end of an era. As riot grrrl chapters dispersed, and the militant youth movement receded in the public imagination, the short song reiterated the high stakes of girl revolution."
Due to pressure from the Riot Grrrl press and creative differences, Bikini Kill break up.
1997 to 1998
Hanna continues to make music, but strays away from the punk aesthetic and sound. Fascinated with electronic gear, Hanna writes and records an entire solo album in her Olympia apartment under a new moniker, Julie Ruin. Julie Ruin's self-titled album is released on August 11, 1998. The sound is very much in the same vein as the lo-fi stylings of her previous bands, but Hanna feels free to address other subject matter: police abuse, aerobics, and even crocheting alongside feminism. The most notable sound on the record is a basic, generic drum machine, which Hanna uses as a backdrop for her signature wail, but she also plays with her original love of spoken word (bordering on rapping) — something she had partaken of in the early '90s, before forming bands — on tracks like "I Wanna Know What Love Is."
Other members of Bikini Kill also go on to form other musical projects. Vail, Karren and Wilcox had already formed another band called the Frumpies in 1992, while still in Bikini Kill, with Bratmobile's Molly Neuman. They continue to tour into the early 2000s. Vail also starts a band called Spider and the Webs, Wilcox joins the Casual Dots and Karren plays in Ghost Mom.
1999 to 2000
Hanna becomes friends and starts working with artist Johanna Fateman in Portland, OR. Fateman first met Hanna after seeing a number of her old bands perform and Fateman gave Hanna one of her zines. The two quickly start to collaborate in a band called the Troublemakers, but that was put to an end when Fateman left for New York City to attend art school. Soon after, Hanna joins Fateman in New York and together with filmmaker Sadie Benning, they form Le Tigre, an electronic-based performance band. Originally, Hanna is looking to find players to help translate her Julie Ruin album to a live setting, but instead, they begin writing and performing new material, putting Julie Ruin on hold indefinitely.
Using a similar approach as Julie Ruin, Le Tigre's music also relies heavily on sample sounds and drum machines. They release their self-titled debut on October 26, 1999. "Deceptacon" becomes a signature dance-rock anthem with its buzzing riffs, shout-along handclap choruses and Hanna's always-confident voice screaming the intro, "Who took the bomp?" The album is filled with many other definitive tracks for the activist band, who pair socio-political lyrics regarding feminism and LGBT rights with party-rock electroclash songs.
2001 to 2005
Benning leaves Le Tigre after the band's first album, but is replaced by JD Samson, who had worked with them prior as a roadie and slideshow operator. Feminist Sweepstakes is released in October, 2001 and their last album, This Island, is released in October, 2004, via Universal Records, marking their major label debut. Hanna decides to put the band on hiatus and they perform their final show in New York City on September 18, 2005.
2006 to 2010
Hanna disappears from the music scene; she volunteers as a band coach at the Willie Mae Rock Camp For Girls, marries long-time boyfriend Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys in 2006, and teaches an art class at New York University in 2007. With little explanation behind Le Tigre's hiatus, Fateman and Samson begin a production team called MEN, which transforms into a full-fledged band. Fateman also opens a hair salon in New York's West Village called Seagull. Hanna, Fateman and Samson reunite to write and produce songs for pop star Christina Aguilera's 2010 album, Bionic, including "My Girls," which features Canadian artist Peaches. Fateman and Samson also co-write Cobra Starship's 2011 song, "Schwick."
2010 to 2013
For six years, Hanna suffers from a mysterious illness that leaves her weak and often unable to move or speak much. Late in 2010, she is finally diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease. Hanna first clues in to her illness while watching a documentary called Under Our Skin about the disease with Wilcox. "I watched it with her and she was like, 'That's me,'" Wilcox explains. "She pointed at this woman who was in it, having constant seizures and these strange mannerisms like twitching her head, and she said that nobody sees that, but that was her. I had no idea that it was like that at all." Director Sini Anderson tackles the revealing story of Hanna's illness in her 2013 documentary, The Punk Singer. In the film, we see the singer struggle with symptoms while under the care of Horovitz.
Around this time, Hanna fears that she will never return to music again — "I thought Le Tigre was it," she told Stereogum in August 2013 — and donates a file cabinet full of riot grrrl zines, letters and journals to New York University's Fales Library archive. She also takes on new hobbies like gardening, which is one of the only activities she could handle physically. She eventually begins two years of intensive therapy and, in this time, she decides to revisit her old project the Julie Ruin.
"I think she always wanted to put together a band to play that solo record," Wilcox says. This time, Hanna enlists Wilcox, Sara Landeau, drummer Carmine Covelli and Kenny Mellman (Kiki & Herb) to form the new incarnation of the project.
"Kathleen had invited me to go to The Runaways movie premiere," Wilcox says. "We were trying to make our way to the box office, on the red carpet where Joan Jett and Kristen Stewart were, and she just turned to me as we were running across and said, 'Do you think you'd ever want to be in a band with me again?' and I was absolutely taken aback, but said yeah."
Together, they take their time writing and recording new material for their debut album, Run Fast, while accommodating to Hanna's health. She cancels often, but the band, of course, puts her health above all priorities. Run Fast picks up from Julie Ruin, combining bright synth sounds with simple, live instruments to create a melting pot of Hanna's past influences. Drawing elements from punk, pop and dance music, this album encompasses a similarly uplifting exterior as her last band, but reveals new, more honest and deep songwriting from Hanna, who speaks out about her illness and recovery in these songs, among other topics. The Julie Ruin is a return to form for the singer that benefits both music fans and Hanna herself. "I lied when I said I was done, I knew I wasn't done," she says in The Punk Singer. "Singing is my life and I have to do it or I'll go totally bananas."
Essential Kathleen Hanna
Pussy Whipped (Kill Rock Stars, 1993)
Bikini Kill's first official full-length was an unabashed, raw selection of songs that conveyed a sense of urgency and revolt against issues of sexism. Its lo-fi production and collision of stomping beats and brash punk riffs highlighted the band's DIY aesthetic, providing a platform for Hanna's bold statements.
Julie Ruin (Kill Rock Stars, 1998)
Hanna's only true solo project, Julie Ruin was a work of minimal bedroom electro-punk. This album has been the jumping point for two of Hanna's future bands, Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin. Its bare production — just a ticking drum machine and Hanna's echoing voice — sets the ground for Le Tigre's electronic-based melodies and begins to show off Hanna's songwriting skills beyond feminist anthems.
Feminist Sweepstakes (Mr. Lady, 2001)
The electro-pop trio's second album is the debut of Le Tigre's new line-up, featuring new member JD Samson. This becomes the band's definitive line-up, with Samson's LGBT politics influencing more of the band's lyrics, alongside Hanna's continuing feminist messages. Feminist Sweepstakes furthers Le Tigre's already established sound of frantic drum machine beats, live synths and rallying shout-along choruses, all utilized to create some of Hanna's most dynamic live performances.