Dialogs: Feminist Punk Kathleen Hanna at the Chicago Humanities Festival’s Illinois Tech Day

Kathleen Hanna, founding Riot Grrrl, Bikini Kill frontwoman and the person who told Kurt Cobain that he smelled like teen spirit, is currently on tour to promote her memoir Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk. Brooklyn-based Puja Patel, former editor-in-chief of Spin and Pitchfork (which owner Conde Nast just merged into GQ), moderated a discussion in front of an enthusiastic, sold-out crowd at Hermann Hall on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus.

Patel recalled seeing Hanna 20 years ago at DC’s 9:30 Club with another of her bands, Le Tigre, and both women waxed nostalgic about the apocalyptic joy associated with her many musical projects. “Being in front of a live crowd feels fucking amazing,” the enthusiastic and hilarious Hanna recalled.

Hanna was initially worried that people would think “ew, a trauma book” about her autobiography because some dark stories about assaults and her troubled relationship with her dad are included. “I wanted to be honest and vulnerable,” she said. “But I might have TMI’d the whole world.” But she did want to complete an entire book, not just a collection of essays. She looked at her diaries (“so fucking embarrassing”) as well as at her fashion drawings from the '90s, where the women depicted looked like “Charlie Brown with pigtails.” She also reviewed some favorite quotes from intersectional feminist bell hooks and activist Angela Davis. “I put my butt in the chair every day,” Hanna said, and wrote and edited, which felt good. She said she processed some painful times to make room for new memories.

She remembered how she originally entered the business. During a meeting with postmodernist American author Kathy Acker, Hanna asked how she could share her own voice. The writer advised to “start a band to get people to listen to you.” Hanna then said she “stepped out of the way and let it fall out.” Joan Jett, another Hanna hero, contacted her to say that she liked Bikini Kill, and later produced the band, plus played guitar and sang on BK’s The Singles album. That band also had a successful tour opening for mainstream girl group The Go-Go’s.

Kathleen Hanna in Bikini Kill @ North Shore Surf Club, Olympia, Washington, in August 1991. Photo by @charles.peterson.photographer

The early music-making days were a lot of “embracing chaos,” Hanna said, but also understanding the business. She learned to mix her music with Ian MacKaye, and wrote, printed and distributed a fanzine. She used her high school poetry and performance art ideas—kept in a Trapper Keeper—to write songs. She discovered how to compose rhythmically too, from a beat and not just from words. She was diligent, but “trying to be perfect is super boring,” Hanna said several times. “And we’re all going to die anyway.”

Hanna explained being at the vanguard of the Riot Grrrls movement, and their call to bring women figuratively and literally to the forefront of the often misogynist punk scene. The “girls to the front” chant invited women to the stage and demanded safety in the whirling mosh pits. But she’s distanced herself from that legacy as some female spaces have now become somewhat anti-trans women.

Some passionate fans asked intriguing audience questions, including “What would be in a Kathleen Hanna sandwich at the deli?” She thought that liverwurst on white bread with margarine would best encompass her overall ethos and humor, incorporating her many failures and successes. “Has your idea of community changed?” asked another rapt punker. Hanna said she feels somewhat kicked out of being a punk feminist, and now, as the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, she’s just “scared of all the fifth graders at my PTA meetings.”

“How do you start a band?” asked a fan. “Get two huge bags of money with the $ sign on them, just like in cartoons,” Hanna said. But she quickly followed up to assert that she’s not a fan of “trust fund kid music.” Finally, “What’s your favorite age?” “Right now,” she said.

Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill will perform in Chicago at the Salt Shed on August 30.

Check out upcoming Chicago Humanities Festival programs, including:

Projections on Panafrica on 6/1

Reggie Watts on 6/3

Hip-Hop is History with Questlove on 6/8

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.