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Break Free Fest’s Scout Eleana on the Frustration That Inspired the Philly Event

Scout Eleana does organized chaos in a way that you know something significant is going to come through it all. You might not recognize what’s behind it, but that’s half the point. As the organizer of Break Free Fest, she brought together 25 bands from all over the map—comprised largely of people of color, women, and queer folks—to West Philadelphia last spring.

Break Free Fest II is coming up soon and, when Carlos welcomed me to do a piece on it, I wrangled Scout and asked her about her aspirations for the fest, and how she got here. It’s a thorny tale, but one that’s got “You should see the other guy!” carved all over it. 

Poster for Break Free Fest I, by Lyla Schlon

We met at the first Break Free Fest and from that and in getting a sense of how open you are about your mental health struggles and how you move through punk, art, school, and work, I was struck by how driven you are to push against and through a ton of obstacles at once while keeping creative endeavors going. I admire your ability to navigate through it all, and I know I’m not alone in that. Do you see yourself this way; as someone who’s pushing in multiple directions?

Whew. Yeah. I feel like in getting into art and music, the main goal here for me is community, and music without a sense of community can sometimes feel useless. I got into talking about mental health, gender, and sexuality through this, so knowing that there’s purpose helps me be ok with getting weird about all these things sometimes. But I need to give time to this and build communities and make it a purposeful place for other people. It’s worth it. 

How did you get into aggressive music and when did it intersect with gender, ethnicity, culture, and sexuality?

I always tell this story, but when I was younger, I went to this show and… (turns to her partner, Mike) What was that band? So, this NJ hardcore band…

Mike: Oh, E. Town.

[Laughs]

I remember someone started throwing around the N-word on stage. I was wearing this Fred Perry polo; very skin-looking and I felt this weird kind of pressure on me. I said to someone that it was messed up and all these eyes on me became aggressive attitudes. All of a sudden, I was thrown out of the bar and got into a scuffle. I’ve always had this aggressive energy. I’m one of eight kids and most of them were boys. On top of that, always traveling around the world, cuz my family were both in the Air Force, made me have to find myself through art, books… I was really into classical music… Then, one day, I was over a friend’s house and he starts playing Linkin Park, then Slipknot. Then, he gets to Madball. "I was like ‘What? Is? This?"

Kind Crew will be performing at Break Free Fest II.

It was the closest thing you could find to E. Town.

[Laughs] So, I was mad all the time and I started listening to a lot of Oi! because it had an aggressive energy to it, but it was also playful.

How old were you at that shitty E. Town show?

I was 16. When I was able to to sneak out of the house, I was going to shows, which weren’t always accessible because there was a strict curfew on the base.

Krimewatch’s Rhylli Ogiura is DJing Break Free Fest Sunday. (Photo: Wayne Ballard)

What about gender and sexuality issues? How did they enter the picture, since they don’t often get talked about in Oi!, streetpunk or E. Town lyrics? Oh, except on that E. Town/Team Dresch split 7”.

[Laughs] I grew up listening to all these angry, yelling white guys and trying to find a way for me. Once I became aware that very few women were listening to this stuff, it started feeling…weird. And, then I started hearing riot grill stuff and could see that riot grrrls were separate from the other stuff in hardcore that was going on. I missed that movement almost entirely cuz I was born in ’93! As far as being queer; being a femme, I just ignored it in me until I started getting called a ‘groupie’ and getting thrown out of shows for getting into fights while just trying to watch a band. 

You were assigned the role of a hanger-on, as opposed to someone who was there for the same reason?

Yeah, people quiz women all the time in those kinds of scenes, but imagine being a black woman who was awkward and going to shows by herself. People would be like, “Who brought you in here? Where’s your dad? Where’s your brother?”

Maduros will be performing at Break Free Fest II. (Photo: Cheryl Georgette)

You had accumulated all these experiences as a teenager, and by the time you found your people, it sounds like you already had a ton of frustration, alienation, and a sense of feeling unwelcome.

Yeah.

… even though you approached this from the same place- looking for energy and aggression and a place to fit.

Um hmm.

So, how did you first realize that there were other people of color who could relate?

In 8th grade, my friend Laura Croft put on Jada Pinkett Smith’s metal band [Wicked Wisdom]. I said, “Is this Jada from that Queen Latifah movie?" The men in the band were behind her and she was taking charge at a metal show. I had never seen that before. I found out about Latinx artists who were doing metal and told my friends, but they said, “Nah, we’re just gonna keep listening to Good Charlotte and Sublime."

Material Support will be performing at Break Free Fest II.

When you moved to the US, and you were trying to form an identity and figure out what you felt strongly about, did you have kids to bounce that stuff off of?

Not really, it was just me in my room. I’m really open and talkative, but when it came to exploring music and sexuality, I was on my own. I came out as queer pretty early in middle school, in Maryland. It was a predominately black school, and I got my ass beat a lot… got suspended a few times per year. I didn’t fit in with the black girls. They always wore these really cool apple bottom jeans and Baby Phat, crop tops and jewelry, and I wanted to just wear bangs and a bob, read Harry Potter, wear baggy sweaters… I wanted to be as quirky as Zooey Deschanel, but I was also, like, a mixed girl who didn’t know how to do her own hair. 

When did you move to Philadelphia?

About a year and a half ago.

You moved here a year and a half ago, and you put that fest on within 4-5 months from that?!

Yeah, Philly was the place to go to shows when I was in Maryland and when I moved here I was like, “Maaaan, all these shows are happening!” but every time I went to a hardcore show, people were really tough in a weird way. I didn’t know why they were acting that way; why they were so defensive and guarded. They were always clustering away.

Joe Biden will be performing at Break Free Fest II.

What’s your take on what they were being defensive about?

I don’t know. I would say hi to someone just to be nice, and they would just *stares stoically*. It felt like they were gatekeeping. When I lived in Texas, it was super punk with a lot of metalheads. In Philly, I was back in hardcore, which I thought I loved, but no one wanted to be fucking friendly. 

It seems like a lot of chaos; a lot of moving around; a lot of trying to find your way in all these different sub-genres in a really short period of time.

Ooohh, yeah.

Killer of Sheep will be performing at Break Free Fest II.

When you moved here, were you familiar with the bands you wanted to pull together for this fest? Minority Threat are from D.C.? Oh, Boston?

No, they’re from, uh, Detroit or… 

No shit, they’re from Michigan?!

I always forget. 

(They’re from Columbus, Ohio. Sorry, guys! -Ed.)

I went through the bands on this year’s fest, and noticed they were coming back.

A lot of people wanted to see them again, and they’re also really good dudes. They became family in such a short time [laughs].

Tell the people what happened during their set last year.

Oh yeeaah!! Well, they’re an all-black band and I was really pumped for them. They talk about a lot of things that mean a lot to me. I ripped off my wig while dancing cuz it was so good. Also, we were seeing these really young black kids hanging out front of The Rotunda, and they were like, “What’s that? That rock music?” and I was like, "Oohhhh, I know these kids. This is what I was like as a kid." I said, “You wanna come in? I got juice and cookies if you want.” They said, “Can we?!” So we gave them cookies, 5 of them, I think. Me and my friend Caro taught them how to circle pit. They were nervous at first, but people gave them the space immediately, and they just let loose. Made me cry a little bit. Before the set they asked, “What are they gonna do up there?” “They’re gonna yell and talk about things that mean something to them.” A kid said, “Really?!” It was amazing. I’ll never forget those kids and joining in with all of them… clomping around, overweight with my back hurting [laughs].

It was special as hell for you, and these kids were introduced to something that had content and a point of view. It seemed like they were really vibing off it. I think it was beyond just a weeeird experience for them.

[Laughs] Yeah! 

So, you managed to throw this fest pretty much as soon as you moved to the city, and it did well enough that you thought you’d lose your mind again. How’d it come together this year?

This year I had more help. Layla, Lyla and Rana from YallaPunk Fest, which is for Middle Eastern and North African folk. It’s really awesome. They have great speakers and such. I want to do this every year, but it’s really hard—especially while preparing for finals at the same time. It takes a lot out of me financially, emotionally, and physically to do this, but it was so rewarding last year, and now I have the Yalla girls. The bands have been so thankful, saying things like, “We’ve waited years for something like this!”

Rare Form will be performing their final set at Break Free Fest II.

This is what punk purports to be. If something doesn’t exist for you, you create it yourself.

Yeah. Every dude I’ve ever known in hardcore and punk when I was younger screamed about living in the suburbs and the government being shitty, or a cis story of a girl breaking their heart. That’s cool, but those are the first people to yell about how they’re about the politics of race, gender and ethnicity in punk. I don’t see it. I’d like to see more of these communities looking into what’s going on with local organizations that do the work with those who struggle with “the system” you scream about.

Hardcore kids like to consider themselves oppositional, iconoclastic, and all that, but most are cloistered off in their insular communities. I remember in the '90s, with Forbes, the singer of this D.C. band, Amalgamation, and James Spooner, who went by "Razzle" when he was squatting at ABC and later started Afropunk…  They were popular guys, but I couldn’t help but notice kids treating them as “exotic” or as accessories.

Overcompensating. I have this band MedusSsa playing, that gets shut out of their Texas scene all the time. Hardcore kids don’t want to hear about POC issues and sexual assault from a femme of color. 

MedusSsa have people from Amygdala who played last year’s fest, right? Incredible band.

Yep.

Amygdala (Photo: Robert Flores)

Philadelphia isn’t Idaho. The city’s half-black. The punk scene is more diverse here than in most cities, but do you see progress? Are the conversations getting richer, or no?

I honestly don’t know. I feel like Philly has this potential, but I personally haven’t see anything change in punk and hardcore. I see a lot more benefits for a dude who broke his arm and can’t work for a week than for community organizations in the neighborhoods you’re doing shows in. 

Poster for Break Free Fest II, by Renata Rojo

What would you like No Echo readers to know about Break Free Fest?

I want people to know that it’s for people of color who haven’t felt like they could be themselves at shows. People tell me all the time, “Maaaan, we’ve been intersectional!” but I don’t see us there, and I don’t see you talking about that. There’s been plenty of punk parties around here where a person of color walks in and someone grabs them and says, “What are you doing here?” They’ll say, “I know so-and-so,” and they won’t be  believed. The fact that we can’t always go to small events at punks’ houses because people assume we’re not supposed be there…

People can tell me all day that there are people of color in hardcore and punk, but until I start seeing the community book bands with people of color, we have to start making space. That’s what this fest is about… and to give back to the local community. I’m not from Philly, but I know damn well that organizations here in North Philly like The People’s Paper Co-Op appreciate when people support what they’re doing and do benefits. 

Minority Threat w/ Scout and the kids at Break Free Fest I.

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Break Free Fest II will go down on May 26 and 27 at The Rotunda (4014 Walnut St, Philadelphia). Tickets can be purchased here. If you can’t make it, check out these and other bands on the bill: 

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