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Bikini Kill star and riot grrrl legend Kathleen Hanna: 'I was singing to my younger self on Bikini Kill's early songs'

After enduring teenage traumas, punk singer Kathleen Hanna found catharsis in activism and screaming out her feelings on stage with Bikini Kill

Kathleen Hanna

Kathleen Hanna. Image: Jason Frank Rothenberg

Kathleen Hanna is a singer and activist. For the past 30 years, she has been at the vanguard of a feminist punk movement. And the Bikini Kill singer’s new memoir is as direct as her music. In short, sharp chapters shot through with righteous fury, disarming honesty, wit and wisdom, she charts her 30-year music career as Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and Julie Ruin bandleader and riot grrrl scene pioneer, and guides us through a childhood, youth and young adulthood scarred by trauma that informs both her music and activism.

Hanna was born in Portland, Oregon, in November 1968. After moving to Olympia, Washington, to study photography in the late 1980s, she co-founded independent feminist art gallery Reko Muse, formed punk rock bands Amy Carter and Viva Knievel, and gave spoken word performances. In October 1990, Hanna formed Bikini Kill with punk zine writer, Tobi Vail, Billy Karren and Kathi Wilcox. The band headed up Olympia’s feminist riot grrrl movement and released records on local label Kill Rock Stars. Their debut LP, 1993’s Pussy Whipped, featured riot grrrl anthem Rebel Girl.

After Bikini Kill split, Hanna worked on lo-fi electronica solo project, The Julie Ruin, before forming electro punk band Le Tigre with Johanna Fateman and Sadie Benning. After two hit albums, Hanna left in 2005 due to illness – she was later diagnosed with Lyme disease, which she announced she was free of in 2015. Hanna has since restarted The Julie Ruin, released solo material, worked with director Sini Anderson on documentary The Punk Singer, and toured with Le Tigre and Bikini Kill.

As she launched Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk and prepared for Bikini Kill’s UK tour – starting June 12 at the Roudhouse in London –Hanna talked to The Big Issue about her life and career for our Letter to My Younger Self feature. “I basically wrote the whole book in preparation for this interview,” she joked. “The Big Issue is a big deal to me, so I had to prepare!”

What was I like at 16 – is slutty drug addict a good description? I was doing a lot of meth, getting pregnant and having abortions. And I’d stopped going to punk shows because I was sick of white guys spitting on me in the name of punk. When I look back, I was running away from a lot of things via drugs and alcohol. And that led me down some roads I wish I hadn’t gone down. I have addictive tendencies and was running away from a lot of violence. I was raped a bunch of times in high school – times that didn’t even make it into my book. 

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If I had to say something to my younger self, I’d say, remember when you were having fun with your friend Cindy doing musical theatre? So why are you doing meth now? Why are you always two inches away from getting arrested? I wouldn’t say be a better student. But I think I’d say you need to get help.

There weren’t a lot of trustworthy adults in my life. I had two school counsellors who sexually harassed me. So I’m not going to go to them and be like, oh, this guy raped me at a party or I’m having problems in my home life. I started to see the world through this perspective, that the world was dangerous and there was no safety and no one I could go to for help. And it makes sense, when you’re in that situation, to use drugs and alcohol as an escape. 

Early Bikini Kill gig in 1990
1990: Kathleen Hanna at one of Bikini Kill’s first-ever shows in Olympia, Washington. Image: Hannah Sternstein

Music was the positive form of escape I found. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be an artist. I would imitate people off the TV for my parents to make them laugh. And I was always singing or dancing in the basement. I just didn’t have the encouragement to see that as something I could do. 

Billie Jean King was a big hero of mine. I went to school when girls weren’t allowed to do physical activity at recess. We did square dancing or jump rope while boys would run track or play baseball until Billie Jean King helped pass this law called Title IX. It was the first time I connected the dots – this famous person standing up against what we then called chauvinism, the first time I saw one person could have a huge effect in the world. 

I have a lot of empathy for my younger self. And writing my memoir I was able to see patterns, like how I started drinking heavily the night after my dad said to me, “I wish you were dead.” The next morning, I filled my Thermos with rum and coke and drank it on the way to school. I could cry for that girl. My younger self went through so much and she still graduated from high school, got into college. She still went to school the next day and did that play and showed up for her friends.

For the first few Bikini Kill records I was taking words from poems I wrote in high school. So I would tell my younger self to always keep a journal. Write it down. I would not have had any resilience or made it through if I wasn’t journalling. When I finally got in a band, I used that writing to heal myself, to say, even when you were living under shitty circumstances, you were still writing poetry. On songs like Double Dare Ya – daring myself to stand up for myself and a lot of early Bikini Kill songs I was singing to my younger self, trying to write the song that was missing for me in high school. And there were a lot of missing songs.

I was always looking for an adult to stand up and say, hey, you matter. You are not a nothing. Having been one of three girls at punk shows, who were all treated like shit, I really was singing to me and my two wasted friends with fake IDs telling them, come to the front. You guys belong here. You’re welcome here. I wanted the music I wrote to welcome the younger me into all these rooms I’d felt excluded from. 

Being on stage allowed me to scream my frustrations. I was volunteering at a domestic violence, rape relief place in Olympia and singing allowed me to physically embody the stress and the pain I was witnessing. I’d experienced some things but I was also just a witness. It is important in crisis work to keep yourself out of it, to stay focused on the survivor. So I wrote songs about it then got on stage. Afterwards, women would tell me their stories – and I was prepared because I had been doing rape crisis calls. It was a circular thing. 

My younger self would have liked the lyrics to Rebel Girl, especially. Because she had some complex feelings about sexuality that she wasn’t able to express. I had a huge crush on one of my close friends in high school. And it wasn’t even an option to tell her. I don’t think school is a safe space for LGBT+ people right now. It definitely wasn’t in the 1980s. 

Kathleen Hanna at a screening of The Punk Singer in 2013
2013: Kathleen Hanna at a screening of documentary The Punk Singer. Image: Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images

I wanted there to be more girls and women in the scene. Because making music directed at a certain audience then singing it to straight white men feels stupid. And I wanted people to hang out with. We had to create that audience, but I don’t like having to do that. I don’t enjoy having to work 10 times harder. I was writing songs to fill up this hole in the universe.

Once I wrote those, I could write about other stuff. Feminist anti-racist artists don’t have to be pigeonholed – it’s really important that people tackling societal issues are also able to write a love song when they want. We’re not just these brave people kicking down doors. I don’t think of myself as brave, anyway. I think of myself as kind of obnoxious. Cute obnoxious, but obnoxious, you know? And I like that about myself, that I’m over the top and I’m a lot.  

Sometimes I yelled at the wrong people and was a bad ally. I made all kinds of mistakes. If you’ve been traumatised, you can be rageful and angry. You’re living in a bubble of self-pity and not realising, hey, a genocide is going on right now. Hey, I live in an extremely racist culture that I profit from being white. These are things I need to face and my trauma can’t be an excuse. I can take away all this time I’m spending avoiding my trauma and use it towards doing good things in the world, becoming a smarter person and a better community member.

Kathleen Hanna
2023: Kathleen Hanna performing on Le Tigre’s reunion tour. Image: Rachel Bright

If you come from toxicity and dysfunction and alcoholism in your family, the dysfunctional alcoholic you meet at a party is going to feel like your soulmate. So I went through a lot of fucking around with my ‘soul mates’ who made me feel like I was home, but also made me feel terrible about myself. But who you desire as a partner can totally change with time. I remember when I finally became attracted to good people who brought out the best in me and weren’t competing, trying to pull me down or threatened. I had a few relationships with people like that before I found my forever person. It was like, wait a minute, I’m actually super butterflies-in-stomach over this person who’s generous and kind and awesome, not the total nightmare asshole?  

When I was in my late 20s, my husband’s bandmate had a child and I spent a lot of time with her. I could think of nothing better than to hang out with this beautiful, funny, artistic, wonderful child and I had this realisation. Could I imagine saying she looked slutty or all these things men said to me as a young girl? It made me mourn my own childhood, because it shouldn’t have been like that. I was not as cute, smart or funny as her, but I was probably pretty adorable. And even if I wasn’t, I was a child and didn’t deserve that.  

I made the best move of my life by picking people who are fun, who I love, to be in bands with. You’re going to spend a lot of time with them, so I’d rather have somebody with a sense of humour than someone who plays guitar like Eric Clapton. Because Eric Clapton is a dick. Plus I don’t like his guitar playing. I’d also tell my younger self to find someone in your community who enjoys doing sound. Call them your tour manager. You will enjoy your shows 1,000 times more. 

I’ve survived an extreme amount of bullying – and there’s no HR in punk rock. You can’t call somebody to say you’re being harassed while doing your job. And if you’re dealing with that kind of shit, you might not hear the honest critique. ‘Why are your audiences always so white?’ ‘Why is your kind of feminism not intersectional and based mainly on your own white middle-class experiences?’ And these are valid criticisms I needed to educate myself on and become better. Because the valid criticism is a fucking gift. It’s someone caring about what you do enough to tell you the goddamn truth. 

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What would surprise young Kathleen the most? Probably that I have a kid [with husband, Beastie Boys’ Adam Horowitz]. I didn’t want to bring a child into my family and didn’t feel safe enough to do that until my early 40s. Also, I have a good relationship with my mom now. She lives down the street from me and at points in my life, I would be like, there’s no way in hell that’s gonna happen, you’re gonna be mad at her forever! But my kid has a wonderful grandma and grandpa who hang out with him. My younger self wouldn’t expect to be happy. Or alive. 

Rebel Girl by Kathleen Hanna

Bikini Kill are on tour from 12 June. Kathleen Hanna’s memoir Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk is out now (HarperCollins, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.


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