Tue. Nov 29th, 2022

IIn 2006, Osa Atoe took a pen and paper and began to write history. She decided to create a fanzine called Shotgun Seamstress with a simple manifesto: to support “black people who exist within predominantly white subcultures and encourage the creation of our own.” She went on to produce eight issues, and now those lovingly crafted pages have been compiled into an anthology celebrating her zine’s status as one of the most legendary subcultural documents of the 2000s alt-rock scene.

“I think it had to do with finding a genre that encourages participation,” Atoe reflects from his home in Florida. “My parents are Nigerian and my dad always had a big record collection, mostly pop and R&B. I was a teenager in the 90s so it was impossible not to know about grunge, but punk was the first genre that told me I could be in a band.”

Shotgun Seamstress was born out of a combination of circumstances. Atoe lived a semi-nomadic life, only after forming her own who’s who band, the New Bloods, and seeking an “escape from mainstream thinking”. Moving between Portland and Oakland, she discovered a new circle of queer, non-white peers: “Getting into a relationship with another black punk girl and having other black punk girls, I think it made it easier for me to speak up. I was able to make a zine for them.”

Osa Atoe: 'I still don't know how to do Photoshop.  It's more straightforward to cut, paste, join and glue.'
Osa Atoe: ‘Punk was the first genre that told me I could be in a band.’ Photo: Evelyn England SAGE Art Sarasota

Taking its name from Atoe’s mother’s playful criticism of her shabby sewing technique, Shotgun Seamstress began to thrive when the New Bloods went on tour. Atoe would interview stars of the local scene and sell zines at her band’s merch table. “We’d play a show in Detroit and I’d meet Mick Collins from the Gories; we would play a show in Berlin and talk to Vaginal Creme Davis – the queer artist who appears on the cover of the anthology,” she says. “Davis would tell me about Alvin Baltrop, a New York photographer, and I would interview him. Traveling and touring made the zine what it is.”

Atoe quickly realized that she could reach even more colorful punks if she distributed zines internationally through online forums, but she resisted full digitization. “I still don’t know how to do Photoshop,” he laughs. “At that time, LiveJournal was a big thing, and online blogs. I still think there’s a place for all of that, but it’s easier and more direct for me to cut, paste, splice and paste when I’m trying to be creative.”

Even in book form, the tactile, handcrafted spirit of Shotgun Seamstress comes through. Cut-and-pasted images, scribbled text and Sharpie’d mantras leap from the page, ready to ignite imaginations around the world. For Takaiya Reed, of Melbourne neoclassical doom band Divide and Dissolve, Shotgun Seamstress was life-changing: “I wouldn’t be where I am without Osa Atoa and her words.” Similarly, Rachel Aggs, a musician from Glasgow who plays in Trash Kit, Sacred Paws and Shopping, discovered zines in her late teens and it inspired her to start a music career she was too shy to admit she wanted.

“It was really formative for me to just say, ‘Fuck it, me need do this,’ says Aggs. “Osa’s visual style is so lush and fun. She’s from that OG riot grrrl spirit that just takes you somewhere else. Sometimes you need that reminder, when you’re the only brown person on the scene.”

The sense of joy that comes was intentional. Although Atoe was justifiably frustrated by the overwhelming whiteness of the scene, she intended from the outset of her zine not to make it a lesson in racial reparations. It featured interviews with everyone from seminal Detroit punk band Death to X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene, and essays, questions and answers, and love letters to punk show a commitment to defiant positivity.

Cover of the new anthology
Cover of the new anthology Photography: –

“If you only talk about how angry you are, white people stay at the center of the conversation,” she explains. “I think there was a little bit of anger in the first edition, but after that I just talk about black people and how great it is to be a black punk.” She laughs: “To this day, people are like ‘Shotgun Seamstress: a scathing critique of the white scene.’ I can’t fathom that they’re not at the center of this.”

In recent years, the vision that Atoe presented in Shotgun Seamstress has slowly begun to come to fruition. Bands in the mainstream and underground like Loathe, Soul Glo, Meet Me at the Altar and Divide and Dissolve prove that black punk can not only exist on its own terms, but also find a large, appreciative audience.

Atoe now works as a ceramist and considers the eighth edition of Shotgun Seamstress in 2015 to be her last. But she sticks to the principle of “never say never”. And it was the promise of a new generation of readers, along with the rarity of the original issues and the earlier compilation of six issues, that sparked the idea for the anthology. “I got a message from a 16-year-old saying, ‘I like your zine, but I’ve never been able to find copies of it,’” Atoe smiles. “Which made me feel like, ‘Oh, little kids still care about print.’ Now we follow each other on Instagram. Poly Styrene answered me; why shouldn’t I write to this girl?”

It is this sense of non-hierarchical interaction, she says, that sustains the scene. “People say punk is not welcome, but in my experience, all you have to do is participate. I got out of the way and just did something. That’s the magic of punk.”

Shotgun Seamstress: The Complete Zine Collection is published by Soft Skull on November 29th