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FUPU: the battle of LA

Their music flips off male-dominated power structures most of us operate under — and with their popularity spreading like wildfire right now, FUPU are a vital antidote to patriarchy blues

Taken from the winter issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

“FUPU is not entertainment. This is no gig. This is no act. This is about real people who are experiencing oppression, putting that to music,” says guitarist and singer Uhuru Moor of afropunk group Fuck U Pay Us. “If you can’t be aware of the situation with the four members of this band, then you’ll never be aware of black Americans, or black people internationally.”

On June 28, just 13 days after our chat in which the group excitedly imagined their first tour (and trip abroad) in the UK, FUPU were attacked in London. Their drummer, Tianna Nicole, was beaten in the streets by an intoxicated male – a white supremacist – after he and his girlfriend sexually harassed and attempted to rob the band in a London kebab shop. Nicole’s nose had been broken, and the band were forced to cancel the tour while she underwent surgery.

“I remember screaming for help and no one helping,” Moor would tell me in an email after the incident, which saw fans rally and crowdfund their return to Los Angeles. “It is evil that three spirits, three people minding their own business and causing no harm to other spirits or the planet, could be attacked for merely existing.”

In the UK, FUPU had been planning to bring their riveting, confrontational shows to a new audience. For a taste, one video of a live performance online shows Moor in a top made from yellow duct tape attached directly to her skin, ominously chanting, “Burn ye olde white male patriarchy, burn!” as bandmate Jasmine Nyende howls, pulling a fluorescent mesh veil over her face and body. Another shows Moor leaping dramatically into a swirling moshpit. Now, the violent incident they faced in London – as well as widespread, racially driven police brutality and discrimination in the US – adds more fire to the band’s message than ever.

Today, the band are on the patio of a restaurant in LA’s Mid-City neighbourhood. As we bake in the highest temperatures of the summer, the group share their experiences over the last year as black women forging space for themselves in a largely white male punk scene, and at more formal venues like the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). As she speaks, Moor, who wears a spiked collar, red fishnet stockings and Victorian steampunk goggles made for her by an artist in FUPU’s South Central community, is at war with the sound of street traffic.

FUPU’s journey began in mid-2016 when Moor, a rapper and performance artist with women’s liberationist collective SnatchPower, first picked up a guitar and decided, “I wanna yell some shit!” “I feel like with rap, I can’t be as rowdy as I want to be in my music,” she explains. “I still make punk rap, but it’s more chill. I like punk riffs, punk hooks... It’s a different style of music, but black people been doing all of it. I feel like it’s all my ancestors, it’s all my culture.”

“I grew up in Leimert Park, but I remember going to Circle Jerks shows and being very into punk music,” says Jasmine Nyende, in lulls amid the traffic din. A performance artist whose work has featured in prestigious galleries like LA’s Hammer Museum, she’s used to practising patience when it comes to having her voice drowned out. “(With punk) people have a little more freedom to say ‘no’, a little more freedom to say ‘fuck you’. That’s just the look.”

Meanwhile, drummer Tianna Nicole and bassist Ayotunde Osareme sit at the other end of the table, quiet and pensive. They ask if they can record the interview, too, and it’s apparent the band has concerns about being misrepresented.

They’ve already had their mission of getting reparations for African Americans, who Moor explains are still suffering from economic inequality rooted in slavery, swept under the rug several times by interviewers. Nonetheless, as the scheduled hour-long discussion ramps up to two, the members of FUPU also reveal themselves as nature lovers who like to putter around their community gardens, and chat about side-gigs ranging from performing burlesque to teaching kids about storytelling and art.

Given “the look” and narrative of the punk movement has been predominantly shaped by the contributions of white men, FUPU are here to remind us that punk is, in fact, very much a fixture of black culture. Comments made on one of the band’s first, and now-viral, band practice videos (so far the only FUPU tracks living on the web besides recordings of live shows) called for the band to “stop killing our culture” – our, in this context, presumably pertains to the white male who wrote it.

Meanwhile, FUPU focus on the present to illustrate why their art is important in the era of Trump, #BlackLivesMatter, and the LGBTQ rights movement. For Nicole, being a member of FUPU is a cathartic “learning experience”.

“There’s a great power in seeing people be who they are,” she says. “People telling their own stories, which is so important, rather than having them represented by someone who has no idea. Platforms are important. It’s strengthening to be a part of something where we all have the same beautiful mission and we’re trying to do it together.”

The band have an intense loyalty to their local community, incorporating wardrobes designed by other creatives who spearhead the area’s blossoming art movement. They cite gender-fluid LA fashion brand No Sesso (for whom Nyende recently modelled) as a favourite, and regularly work with organisations like Kaos Network and BlaQT Rising, a community for black, queer and trans people based in Leimert Park. The band’s interest in supporting art made by people of colour even extends to their name: FUPU is, in part, an homage to iconic 90s black sportswear brand FUBU (For Us, By Us), as well as a shout-out to Lil’ Kim’s “Gone Delirious” catchphrase: “Fuck you, pay me!”

Throughout each of their endeavours, FUPU’s members are committed to supporting the black cis female and transgender community in general. “I used to (work) in education policy in Florida, but I realised that if I wanted to make an actual change, then it would have to be on a micro-level,” says Osareme, who once interned at the office of her state senator. “That’s why I started to teach in school. I’m a storyteller, and my work is all about teaching children about the diaspora of the ancient Africans.”

Out of the classroom, Osareme and her bandmates educate showgoers through music; their lyrics are a no-frills exploration of micro-aggressions directed towards black women – like being asked by strangers if they can touch their hair – as well as the “spiritual, physical and psychological” war against people of colour, says Nyende. “I think black people just go day-by-day suppressing anger,” she adds. “You can get diseases from holding in emotions.” FUPU are working on the frontlines to engage and educate people, as well as empower others in their community to pick up instruments and scream their own truths. And, as they are performing a valuable service, Fuck U Pay Us demand compensation.

“You wanna rock out for an hour, but when it’s time to actually help us go to another place and spread that same message, your hands are tied, your pockets are clenched,” says Moor of her frustration with fans who praise the band for their fearlessness in expressing grievances about racism, but fail to show support beyond simply turning up for a show. There are small ways to be activists, Nyende explains, like offering a lift home after a late-night show: “A tangible way is to make sure we get home safely, and just make sure that people feel safe.”

In an effort to change the way people consume art, FUPU have made it their mission to raise awareness of how expensive it is for the band to, essentially, provide a service. The band seek financial assistance from fans, to help book and fund touring, like their Reparations Tour in Europe over the summer. When it comes time for FUPU to finally record an album – which they are aiming to do later this year, hopefully surrounded by nature – they will ask again.

“It’s just group economics, what we ask of our fans,” says Moor. “Asking people to help us is just asking people to help us spread the message – the same way political campaigns or revolutions are carried out.” “We can change the model,” adds Nyende. “We can change the ways artists are surviving.”

Hair Blake Erik at Statement Artists, make-up Gloria Noto at Art Department using Hourglass Cosmetics, photography assistants Sergiy Barchuk, Mark Underwood, styling assistants Shana Anderson, Annie Lavie, Breno Votto, production Ian Milan at D+V.