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In between sips of Pabst Blue Ribbon and bites of Comet Ping Pong pizza, Kailasa Aqeel and Maya Renfro dance. Aqeel, of the Maryland-based band Black Folks Don’t Swim?, is about to perform, and she’s rolling her shoulders to take the edge off backstage. Renfro, of the all-female local supergroup The OSYX, joins her.
It’s a big night for The OSYX—it’s the band’s record release party. The official release of their debut album is Friday, Oct. 11, a week from this Friday night. But as acts throughout the night suggest, it’s not just about the band. It’s about the cause: “destroying the patriarchy,” per the tagline of the band’s record label. (The band recently started a record label under its nonprofit, This Could Go Boom!, to promote women, transgender, and non-binary musicians.)
To destroy the patriarchy, The OSYX strives to create a supportive community for nontraditional artists. That night, this required dancing and goofing around offstage. Black Folks Don’t Swim? opened and likely went over time, as they performed several songs during the encore. But they were encouraged by The OSYX, whose members were too busy jamming out with the audience to mind. The crowd lost it when The OSYX finally went on, around midnight. By the end of the 45-minute set, lead vocalist Erin Frisby was belting “Bad Omen” while standing on top of an amplifier.
“This is the first release of This Could Go Boom! It’s not a band, a record label—it’s a community and everyone here is a part of it. Thank you,” guitarist and backing vocalist Ara Casey said to concertgoers.
A diverse group of people gathered at Comet Ping Pong, from a mother with a compact camera to a 20-something with a septum piercing. The section of the local restaurant designated for ping pong turns into a music venue that can fit about 100 people. It looked to be at capacity.
It took two years for The OSYX to release its self-titled debut album. Esteemed producer Sylvia Massy heard the record and the band received word on Friday that she loved it.
“We started writing two years ago today,” Casey told City Paper before the show.
Casey and Frisby first conceived of a band with no cis men during J20 weekend, when Frisby held her own anti-inauguration music festival. “It wasn’t as complex as saying we didn’t want to play with guys as much as we wanted to create music with musicians with whom we shared a common perspective,” says Casey.
Then they recruited Selena Benally, because two singer-songwriters that play guitar wasn’t enough; they needed a third. The OSYX was a band of three guitarists until drummer Robzie Trulove and bassist Renfro joined the group. Cellist Hannah Sternberg sometimes plays with the band and is featured on the track “Scavengers.”
“I had never felt good about improvising because I always felt that I had to prove that I was competent,” says Frisby of her experience writing songs with men in other bands. “Freedom to explore and fail and get back up again in creative music making is vital. We wanted to create a nonhierarchical inspiring space to work on music with other women and it came together very naturally from our very first jam session.”
The OSYX understood early on that upending the music industry wouldn’t happen by merely existing as an all-female band, so this year, the group launched This Could Go Boom! To jumpstart TCGB, a nonprofit, The OSYX raised nearly $13,500 during an Indiegogo campaign. TCGB strives to uplift women and trans artists in various ways, including through monthly showcases at the Dew Drop Inn. The D.C. community is getting to know TCGB; the Washington Mystics even reached out for recommendations on national anthem singers.
The music industry, like most spaces, is dominated by cis men. Of the 600 most popular songs between 2012 and 2017, 22.4 percent of all performers were female, according to a recent University of Southern California study. The study also says 12.3 percent of songwriters and 2 percent of producers across 300 popular songs were female. The study did not mention trans or non-binary artists.
The OSYX’s debut album will be TCGB’s first record. “We are learning how to do this as we go,” says Benally. “We decided to experiment on ourselves before offering services to anyone else,” Frisby adds.
TCGB is more than a record label. The group will help nontraditional artists put albums together, and continue to offer workshops and community-outreach programming. For example, TCGB worked with War on Women’s Shawna Potter to develop a “Safer Scenes” workshop, which helps music and art scenes develop policies that are sensitive to people who have experienced gender-based violence. And starting Dec. 1, TCGB is hosting monthly jam sessions in collaboration with 7DrumCity. Additionally, TCGB is trying to buoy technical artists, like sound engineers.
“We also wanted to put together a directory of some kind in the event that someone wants to find a female who does these other things,” says Trulove. “It’s hard to find each other.” The audio technician for Friday night’s show was a woman named Mel.
The support The OSYX has received thus far is plentiful. And it comes from all over. Renfro cited the band’s supportive relationship with Dischord Records, an independent record label for punk music, as one example. “The people who began the D.C. punk scene are extremely happy to support us and happy to support young, non-binary gender queer bands because gender is over and also that is what punk is now,” says Renfro.
Collaborative culture across music scenes made D.C. the perfect hub to start this journey. The bands that opened Friday were a heavy rock band, The Meer, and a funky jazz band, Black Folks Don’t Swim? The OSYX would describe their own sound as classic, influenced by Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac. What unites the bands is a proud sense of DIY.
“We all do 10,000 other things,” says Benally. “We’ve been doing a solid job of catching each other when we are too tired to stand up anymore,” adds Trulove.
Right before the show, band members were printing merchandise shirts. Everyone in the band has day jobs or other side hustles, which makes finishing band tasks challenging. But it also proves useful. Benally is also a graphic designer, so she used the skills she learned from her day job to create The OSYX’s album art and website.
“The community has come together so much that we have a wealth of ideas and implementing them is hard because…even though we are all volunteer-run now, the ultimate goal is to be able to compensate people for their time,” says Casey.
The OSYX has a lot of ambition and thus a lot of goals to meet but they stay grounded.
“In some ways when you are underrepresented, just showing up and telling your story and being who you are and doing the art you want to make is in itself an act of rebellion,” Frisby says.
The OSYX will hold an acoustic performance and album listening party at 7DC Live Tuesday, Oct. 8.