‘I cannot debate human rights’ | Interview with Shawna of War On Women

“Remember, ‘feminism’ isn’t a dirty word.”  These words rang loud and clear from the Skullcandy stage as War On Women’s set came to a close in the first hour of the Hartford, CT date of this year’s Vans Warped Tour. It was impossible to miss singer Shawna Potter’s powerful voice and the band’s contagious energy, even from across the grounds at Xfinity Theater.

The Baltimore-based thrash punks in War On Women have made their presence known on the tour this year. They ran workshops on making music more welcoming to people of all genders, sexualities, abilities, and other identities. They brought an organization called Safer Scenes to teach concertgoers how to be active bystanders and intervene when they see harassment or assault occur at a show, and partner with bands like Anti-Flag and Bad Cop / Bad Cop to spread their message. All of this on top of Potter’s blogs reflecting on their experience on the tour for VICE’s Noisey.

We sat down with Potter to talk about being a loud and proud feminist band on Warped Tour in a conglomeration of scenes dominated by men, punk’s role in politics, and–of course–pizza. 

The Daily Slice: First, could I have you introduce yourself with your name, what you do in War on Women, and the best place to get a slice of pizza in your hometown?

Shawna Potter: My name is Shawna I sing for a band called War on Women and my favorite place to get a slice in Baltimore is Pauly Gee’s. They are kind of new. They have one of those fancy giant clay ovens from Italy and they have a lot of amazing vegan options, like really good vegan cheese and, you know, more than just a margarita.

TDS: I caught the end of your set, and one thing that really stood out to me was that you end your set saying “feminism isn’t a dirty word.” Why did you decide to close your set with that message?

SP: Just to be clear to everyone, we’re not asking for women to dominate, but I think that’s where a lot of the confusion lies when you talk about feminism. It’s because if the only system you know is one where men do dominate, how could you envision anything else except a flip or reversal? The opposite of that is not women dominate everything, the opposite of that is actually everyone has know an equal share, equal say, equality. Not that there aren’t differences, but just that everyone has equal opportunity and isn’t discriminated against because of their differences. So I like to make that clear from here on these stages when we have a captive audience. Everyone’s waiting for Dance Gavin Dance or Memphis May Fire to start on the stage right next to us, and I just see this sea of people that are listening to me whether they want to or not. It’s just fun to say stuff like that just as a reminder in case they didn’t know.

TDS: Why do you think it’s important to spread that message on Warped?

SP: Kevin Lyman likes to say Warped Tour is like a microcosm for the rest of the world the rest of the country. And I believe that’s true, you know, a lot of different folks come to see a lot of different bands for a lot of different reasons. And so we’re all put here together. So. Any kind of sexism or misogyny that you might experience at Warped Tour is because we live in America in 2017. It just exists no matter where you go, it’s not exclusive to this place, you know? So in a way I’d like to think that hopefully there’s less with so many women and bands playing music. And this year’s lineup the audience would be just more receptive to women and rock. But I kind of forget your original question.

TDS: Do you think people at Warped Tour see “feminism” as a dirty word?

SP: Oh yeah. I think people do see it as a dirty word because in general, some folks in America see it as a dirty word. But the reason for that is because every time women actually make some sort of gain and society–like oh we get to vote, we get to drive, we’re not supposed to be discriminated against at work, we’re allowed to be pregnant and not lose our job–you know anytime anything super basic like that happens, there’s a huge pushback from men in charge who don’t want women around. So, they spread lies, they spread misinformation, they use scare tactics to make your average person afraid of what women being more involved in society might look like. So you’re being lied to. You know what I mean? If you are anti-feminism and you don’t get it and you think it’s terrible for the country, you’re being lied to by people who don’t care about you. Honestly feminism is absolutely for everyone and benefits everyone, and if you don’t know that, then there are people in power that are trying to take your money and scare you. And I guess it’s working.

TDS: Given the current political climate and the history of women in punk, what do you see as the role of War on Women’s music?

SP: When we started this band, we started it because we wish that there was already a band, an active band like this. We wanted to hear these songs and we couldn’t find them. And so we made them ourselves. Maybe not that it didn’t exist, but we couldn’t find it. So that’s on us, you know, it’s not to say that there wasn’t anyone around. So, what I hope is that it would be a rally cry for people that are you know wanting to protest, and see all the injustice going on against women and for folks. It’s also a validation of your feelings and your struggles. I hope our songs solidify what you’ve been thinking or feeling already. And it can just be fun, angry workout music too, and we need that just as much as the angry protest song. It can be both, you know? Get you a band that can do both.

TDS: What kinds of challenges do you face as you try to make these systematic changes to the scene from the inside?

SP: What I see a lot in general, not just here, is people want to believe the best in others and I think that’s really beautiful. But, when we do that at the expense of victims and people that have been harassed, they’re not the problem. We don’t want to rock the boat. We just want the problem to go away. But, unfortunately, that does a real disservice to victims of gender-based violence or racial violence. And when you do something like that, it shows everyone around you that you cannot be trusted because what if they’re going to go through something, next right? I see you mishandling that situation, so I won’t be able to trust you when I’m in that situation. And at some point it’s going to happen because I’m a woman and statistics say I’m going to be harassed or groped or raped. It’s hard to show people that harassment and violence exist when they are not prone to experiencing it themselves. But maybe no one that they’re close to is telling them these stories about this because, again, maybe they don’t trust them to handle it appropriately. So you have to start actually believing. What I want for everyone, no matter where we’re playing, is to start actually believing victims and asking how you can assist them in instead of brushing it all under the rug like this is not a conversation that you can have. There’s not a two sided dialogue or “let’s have a little debate.” I cannot debate human rights, I’m not willing to do that. It’s not up for debate. I need them, and I need your help to retain them or at least get a little justice if they’re violated.

TDS: Can you tell me a bit about your partnership with Safer Scenes this summer?

SP: That was the band’s idea to bring someone along that would specifically address harassment or violence at shows. And not just raising awareness, but to tell people how they can be an active bystander, how you can as an audience member intervene and interrupt harassment or violence when you see it, whether it’s at Warped Tour or when you go home to another show, or whether it’s a basement or club or whatever. You know, these are really good life skills honestly. So, we knew that we couldn’t run it ourselves because we’d be too busy playing and I have to save my voice. I get a little chatty if I’m being honest, so it’s a bad idea for me to be at a table yelling all day over loud bands. So we needed people to help us out so we got some really cool activists to run it for us during the summer, Kira and Autumn, and they both have experience either in this world or with specifically training festivals to be safer spaces. You can’t prevent people from being assholes. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about addressing a situation properly when it happens, which means sometimes you get to get to interrupt it as it’s happening or sometimes you just have to support the victim after the fact. And so if anyone visits Safer Scenes’ booth, they’re going to learn a lot of cool stuff and how to get involved and what to do what to do when you see your friends, family, strangers, whatever that are being harassed because that’s not cool. That’s not punk. Trump should be harassed, not small queer kids that came to the show.

TDS: Switching gears a bit, whose sets are you watching while you’re out on the tour this year?

SP: I love Barb Wire Dolls. They always get in the crowd and have a lot of fun with them, and that’s a beautiful thing. Volumes is playing behind us and they fucking rule. And I’m enjoying seeing new bands too. Jule Vera, she’s growing on me. I feel like every time I walk by that stage she’s playing and her music started to grow on me and it’s actually really lovely break in the day from people yelling. Myself included, no judgment if you’re a yelling person. So yeah that’s been kind of interesting to get turned on to her a little bit.

TDS: Did you pick the brains of any other bands before heading out on tour?

SP: I had friends that have done it and they certainly gave me a heads up and let me know how it works. But you still can’t know what it’s like until you get here like that just how grueling it is and how intense it can be.

TDS: What kind of advice did you get?

SP: You’re going to wake up early, you’re going to go to bed late, you’re going to be working all day, you’re going to be dragging merch across a field, so you need a good cart with big wheels. You know, stuff like that, like some real basic shit, and I needed to know that. And then, you know, just getting a handle of the schedule every day and the fact that it changes every day, you just kind of have to be open to that. You can’t let it stress you out. The uncertainty of what’s going to happen the next day, you just take it as it comes, and I think it’s kind of a zen way to live.

TDS: What are your plans after Warped Tour is over?

SP: We’re going to we’re going to finish a new record and then put it out next year. And that’s what we’re concentrating on.

TDS: Any tours we should keep an eye out for?

SP: No because we want to just finish the record and chill. This is a big enough tour for us that we’re we’re happy to go back home, go to work, pay our rent, which we’re very concerned about. And then hopefully next year with a new record we’d be touring a lot on.

TDS: To bring this full circle, if War On Women was a pizza special, what would it be?

SP: Well, it has to be something that’s good for you, but everyone thinks they don’t like, and maybe a little spicy. It would definitely have protein because Brooks and I are vegan and we work out, so we’re always concerned about getting our protein. I’m not a pizza chef or whatever they’re called. I’ll let all of the people at home decide what that might be. A little spicy, some protein, and then some kind of veggie like green squash, or little bits of broccoli.

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