Interview: Downtown Boys

By Lauren Moquin 



Downtown Boys’ formation derives from a deep compassion. Founding members, stuff Victoria Ruiz and Joey DeFrancesco met while protesting the unfair labor practices at their workplace, vcialis 40mg The Renaissance Hotel in Providence, viagra 40mg R.I. When they decided to come together as a band, the spirit of activism came naturally. Everything they make presents itself as an offering of newfound understanding and strength to hold hope in a future of equality. The band’s latest single, “Monstro”, is nothing short of a glorious rally cry, chanting, “She’s brown, She’s smart!” As Ruiz and DeFrancesco prepare to release the full album, Full Communism (out May 4th on Don Giovanni Records), they took the time to talk about some of the inspiration behind their new songs and the state of workers’ rights in New England.


Allston Pudding: Full Communism, how did it come about and what exactly do you want people to take away from the title?


Victoria Ruiz: We’re a very political band and we like to use opportunities where people are going to have to listen to us or going to have to read something by us, to make people think against the status quo of racism and capitalism. Full Communism has a lot of hope in it with this idea that someday we will be free from the oppression of the status quo, and that’s going to happen under this ideal full liberation, Full Communism. It’s kind of a funny thing because there’s The Cold War and people hate communists, they hate communism, so it’s kind of a joke. People are going to have to write it and say it. We saw an album title as an opportunity to make a political statement.


Joey DeFrancesco: We definitely want something that’s going to ruffle some feathers in some sense. Like Victoria said, we want something that is hopeful  because I think, even in the activist community right now, there’s a lot of dimness in the present moment. We want something that’s going to convey some sense of hope for a utopian future, even if it’s impossible in our lifetimes to fully achieve. That utopian idea in mind is important, but the actual word “utopia” has become kind of meaningless, so we have something that is a little more hard-hitting than that.


AP: This has been a particularly crazy year in this country. After the court ruling in Ferguson, I was actually very curious as to what your response would be. What was your direct reaction to the ruling?


VR: The non-indictment decision came out as we were finalizing a lot of the new record and we were trying to think about ways to make the record a piece of propaganda, as far as the insert, the cover, and the music itself. We wanted to reach full propaganda level for everything. It was really interesting because amongst our band members, we were trying to decide ‘do we want to use a quote from Ferguson?’ or ‘do we want the insert to directly relate to Ferguson?’ We don’t want to romanticize or fetishize any civil rights leaders or Malcolm X or anyone like that because when they were alive and actually doing it, it probably wasn’t as glorious and beautiful as Tumblr wants it to be. It probably sucked; they were constantly coming in and out of prison, hunger strike, receiving death threats, and everything. We definitely didn’t want to take it back to something like that, but our direct reaction was ‘Wow, this moment is purely coming out of history. This moment isn’t anything unique to the status quo; it’s exactly what the status quo has created. It’s literally the next step to white supremacy. So how do we add and escalate our tactic as artists when our moment is so brutal? It’s just so terrible right now, so how do we say something about that and make it a cry for people to stand up and join in the movement that’s around us?’


AP: Are there any specific lyrics off of ‘Full Communism’ that you are proud of?


JD: The lyrics on our single, “Monstro” are very important. We put a big introduction on that song, so it’s going to be longer on the record to point directly to the struggle of that present moment that we were just talking about. The first song on the record is called “Wave of History”. It’s one that we have been playing live for a year now, but hasn’t been released. That song is also about the same idea. The present moment is essential and crucial, but it’s not unique and is coming out of this very long history of oppression and struggle in this country and around the world.  It’s important to remember a place within that context, our responsibility and duty to continue to be struggling and continuing to try to win.


AP: Your live show is a pretty powerful experience. Have you seen a crowd reaction to your new songs that is unlike anything at your previous live shows?


VR: I think that we make everything pretty black and white. We don’t want you to just like our music for the music’s sake. If you’re going to like this, we kind of force you to listen to what we’re saying. It’s interesting for me to see it because I’ve never been in a band or anything, so as far as our lyrics and politics, it’s juts so interesting to see the development. We’re at the point where people pick a side. People who love us, LOVE us, they look to us for information. People who don’t like us, REALLY don’t like us and they just think we’re crazy and weird. We don’t want to alienate people and I don’t think we’re alienating people, I think what we’re doing is really making people think about where they stand. I really do think that by playing more or getting interviewed, it creates context for our music. I do see a lot of people holding onto the context that we’re creating and I think that’s really, really special.


AP: Did you ever picture yourself in a band before Downtown Boys?


VR: I ALWAYS wanted to be in a band! When I was younger, it was a dream. I mean, I always had cool friends and stuff, but I was never close to musicians. I was 23 when I met Joey and at 24 I joined the band.


AP: You guys met at the Renaissance Hotel in Providence, but how did the idea of the band come about?


JD: We were working on political organizing at the hotel for a while before the band began. We were working to better the conditions of the hotel and organize a union because they were treating us like shit and continue to do so. The band came out of a lot of that organizing. A lot of the songs from the early days were written in that hotel and just from working on that project, we were seeing art and music as a direct outpouring for that type of work.


AP: Through your work in Providence, have your found that New England could use more attention to workers’ rights?


VR: Actually, I moved from California to Providence, and people from California are usually like, ‘What the hell are you doing moving to New England? What’s over there?’ which is so crazy because after living here for five years I think, ‘Why wouldn’t you move here?’ There’s so much going on!


I think that part of making worker’s right’s an issue is remembering that the worker is the identity of every single person in the United States, so we have to constantly think about the role of the workers. When I think about a police officer, I don’t see that person as a worker; I see them as someone who is protecting the power of The State. Every time I hear about someone working at a hotel, or a firefighter or a teacher or a janitor, it’s thinking about their identity as a worker and what that means to everything that’s happening around them. Of course, they’re going to pit one department of a hotel against another department, and use race as a tool in doing that, making it harder for workers to come together. In New England, that’s super important to think about because Rhode Island had a huge influx of slaves during the slave trade and so many people came to Rhode Island from different countries, like French Canadian workers. Now, with the role of mass incarceration of the worker, it’s really creepy. As of last year, 1 in 28 black men in Rhode Island were either in parole, probation, or in prison. Think about if you were to just walk around Providence and see 60 black men, you would just know that you just walked by someone who has the criminal justice system literally determining their lives.


New England’s workers’ rights are important because of all of the intersections of history. We’re dealing with so many different issues and one of the ways to really connect them all is to think of the role of the worker.


JD: It is increasingly important to be organized with these labor campaigns wherever you are because these companies are faceless and they are everywhere, so if you want to organize at the Renaissance in Providence, it would be best to organize at all of the other hotels that the company owns. I think that is important to recognize worker’s rights here because people in New England are in the illusion that everyone is more progressive or more liberal and in reality it’s a lie. Rhode Island has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and the minimum wage for tipped employees is still $2.89 an hour, which is much lower than most of the country. In reality we’re really not that much more progressive than the rest of the country, as far as labor issues, and we need to recognize that.


AP: When you started organizing protests, did you find that you were bringing attention to workers’ issues to people who were otherwise unaware?


JD: It’s hard to say, but within all organizations, how power works is that it often convinces people that they are better off than they actually are. You’re told, ‘at least you have a job’ or ‘at least you’re not a server or a dishwasher’, and I think that’s how capitalism has always worked to divide workers. It’s how capitalism uses racism; they’re selling the white workers with ‘at least you’re not a slave’ or ‘at least you’re not black’. Inevitably, people absorb that narrative within their own jobs, so it’s important for us to realize that we can do a lot better than this and someone else is benefitting from us not doing better than we could be doing.


VR: In hotels, a lot of housekeepers are from different countries and they usually come to the United States because of policies that this country has passed in their country that have forced people to migrate. When you’re talking to them about organizing a housekeeping department or organizing to change immigration policy, you’re also talking to someone who has had that struggle their entire life. This isn’t everyone, I’m mostly talking about workers who are also immigrants, but struggle is inherent to a lot of peoples’ identities. This is why it’s important to put workers’ struggles in the context of other struggles.


Another example is if you’re talking to a single mom who is fighting for their kid to have decent schooling or decent after school programs, you’re speaking to a woman who is living with these other struggles because she doesn’t have the nuclear family to back her up. It’s been interesting to learn that the worker’s struggle is part of the whole struggle; it’s part of who these people are.


AP: Looking forward to ‘Full Communism’ and your next batch of shows, what do you hope for people to receive from your live show?


JD: At the show, I want people who sometimes don’t feel physically comfortable in those social spaces, to feel at home and comfortable enough to have fun and have a cathartic experience. I want them to not only have this experience during the show, but to go home with the energy and hope to continue the struggle.


VR: Yes, and walking away recognizing their own power and the power that we wish to take away from certain forces that exist right now in the status quo.


Mark your calendars for May 9th, when Downtown Boys perform at Make Shift Boston.