Music

Punk Was Never Just for White Dudes

Underage rockers the Linda Lindas aren’t just punk rock’s future—they’re a throwback to its feminist origins.

A collage featuring the Linda Lindas and other L.A. punk bands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Epitaph Records/YouTube, George Rose/Getty Images, and Bill Cuevas/Wikipedia.

Punk may be having a moment—from the punk aesthetics of the new Disney movie Cruella to the grunge influences of Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album. And if you’ve spent time on social media over the past few weeks, you’ve likely run into a more surprising member of the punk scene: a band of girls who have taken the whole country by storm with just one viral video.

The half-Asian, half-Latinx punk band is made up of sisters Mila and Lucia, their cousin Eloise, and their close friend Bela (each of whom is between the ages of 10 and 16). Together, the Linda Lindas—named after a classic Japanese punk song by the Blue Hearts—have been steadily rising in popularity, playing dozens of shows throughout the city’s major punk venues—from Chinatown to East L.A.—and making a name for themselves in local community music scenes.

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Since forming in 2018, the girls have also played with several feminist punk legends, including riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (whom radio station KQED cites as a mentor for the band), and L.A.’s own “Violence Girl” Alice Bag of the Bags, a quintessential punk band that was instrumental in creating L.A.’s very first punk scenes, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the past year alone, the Linda Lindas have even had their music featured in two films: the Amy Poehler–directed Netflix movie Moxie, where they cameo as a local middle school group and cover “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill & “Big Mouth” by the Muffs, and The Claudia Kishi Club, a short Netflix documentary about the Baby-Sitters Club character, for which they wrote an original song.

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After a live performance of another original track, the punchy “Racist, Sexist Boy,” went viral  after it was posted on the Los Angeles Public Library’s Twitter account on May 20, the quartet suddenly landed both a new, larger fanbase and a record deal. The Linda Lindas signed to Epitaph Records, an independent punk record label known for signing prominent groups like Green Day, Bring Me the Horizon, Weezer, and L7.

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When Mila, 10, and Eloise, 13, wrote “Racist, Sexist Boy,” they were responding to an experience Mila had in school at the beginning of the pandemic: A boy came up to her and said that his dad had warned him to stay away from Chinese people. “After I told him I was Chinese, he backed away from me,” Mila explains in the viral video, where the band performs the song at an AAPI heritage month celebration event held in a library in L.A..

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“I actually talked to Mila right after that incident she had with that little boy,” Bag, who has known the Linda Linda girls for a couple of years now, told Slate. “And she was telling me about it … and she was saying, ‘I’m gonna write song about it.’ ”

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“This [song] is about him and all the other racist, sexist boys in this world,” Eloise shouts at the start of the video. After a countdown from Mila, the drummer, the band breaks out into the sludgy, thumping track, with Eloise’s cutting vocals piercing through the empty library. In the tradition of the outspoken feminist punk bands that inspired them, the Linda Lindas’ “Racist, Sexist Boy” unabashedly calls out injustice amid crashing drums and power chords.

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The Los Angeles Public Library’s video of the band’s performance has since garnered more than 4 million views on the platform. Soon, other, even bigger names caught wind of the group and started spreading the love too. Tweeting a video of the Linda Lindas’ “Rebel Girl” and “Big Mouth” covers, Paramore’s Hayley Williams wrote, “The Linda Linda’s have been one of my fav new punk bands since about the time they came out of the womb.” Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello also took to Twitter to praise the Linda Lindas and call “Racist, Sexist Boy” the song of the day.

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“I think [their fearlessness] is very much in the tradition of some of the bands that came out of the Eastside in the early ’80s,” Betty Avila, the executive director of Self Help Graphics, a creative and mutual aid space dedicated to serving young people and people of color in East L.A., told Slate in a recent interview about the Linda Lindas’ seemingly sudden wave of success. Self Help’s space was also once the home of the Vex, an all-ages punk club and influential hub for young punk rockers of color, especially Latinx artists, since it opened in 1980; it closed in 1983. Avila has maintained the organization’s  connections to L.A.’s diverse punk scenes ever since. The punk culture at the Vex, built up by bands like Chicanx punk groups Los Illegals and the Zeros (nicknamed the “Mexican Ramones”), was widely influential and went on to attract a broader, more recognizable swath of artists: Prominent rock bands like Bad Religion (whose guitarist owns Epitaph), Meat Puppets, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers played the venue in the early ’80s.

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Elsewhere, in neighborhoods like Hollywood and Chinatown, groups like the Alley Cats, who were fronted by Asian bassist and vocalist Dianne Chai, and the Bags—both of whom were known for their intense, powerhouse performances—were helping to further establish the scene as a space for nonmale or nonwhite leads. In Hollywood, bands would play venues like the Masque and the iconic Whisky a Go Go, and in Chinatown, punk rockers found some of the scene’s most influential venues in the form of Asian restaurants. Through the late ’70s and early ’80s, places like Hong Kong Café, where the Bags frequently played, and Madame Wong’s—where both the Bags and the Alley Cats were banned from due to their rambunctious audiences—became the fabric of a music scene whose legacy would eventually give way to the Linda Lindas’ own beginnings.

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The concerts held at places like the Vex and Hong Kong Café were hugely formative for L.A. punks, both as artists and fans. Even if these names may not strike you as familiar, many of those who remember these earlier days of punk agree that, in large part, it was people of color, immigrants, and otherwise marginalized communities who gave birth to L.A. punk. It was only in the early 1990s, as punk became increasingly mainstream and commodified thanks to huge bands like Green Day and the Offspring, that the genre earned its persisting reputation as it began to be categorized as predominantly white and male. Punk was no longer subverting the gendered, racialized power dynamics that the earliest punk bands in L.A. were trying to dismantle; its biggest, best-known bands were upholding them.

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“I want to make sure that people don’t paint the L.A. punk scene as being a white, male scene because it never was,” Bag said of L.A. punk’s origins. “It was always inclusive, and it was created by, not only open to, but created by women and queers and people of color.”

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When Alice Bag first met the Linda Lindas, she was performing an all-ages show in Chinatown as part of the Save Music in Chinatown concert series in 2018. Founded by Martin Wong, Eloise’s dad, the ongoing effort is made up of “all-ages DIY punk rock matinee fundraisers” dedicated to raising money for the music program at Castelar Elementary in Chinatown, where Eloise went to school. Heavily invested in the spirit of Chinatown’s expansive punk legacy, Wong would bring together artists from all across L.A. to play—from those who had been playing in Chinatown’s iconic punk venues from the beginning, like Alice Bag, to newcomers like his daughter’s band, the Linda Lindas.

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When Bag met her, Eloise was handing out handmade coupons to the show’s performers as a thank-you for their time. Rather than entitle them to drinks at the house bar like most performers playing small venues are used to, these tickets could be redeemed for cookies and hot chocolate. Bag found this endearing, and soon afterward, Bag was captivated when she saw Eloise and the rest of her band perform.

“I think they were just kind of feeling their way into playing shows, and then they got such a tremendous response because they were actually really good, even at their first show,” Bag recalled. “I feel totally connected to what they’re doing. I do feel like it’s the next generation of punk rock.”

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For Avila, who says she first heard about the band from Alice Bag around when the Linda Lindas were set to open up for Bikini Kill back in 2019, it’s songs like “Racist, Sexist Boy” that tie the Linda Lindas so directly to the punk tradition.

“They’re speaking to their own lived experience, and that’s why it’s resonating for so many people,” Avila said. “And I think that’s what punk is about, too.”

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Indeed, the punk bands of the ’70s and ’80s would often use their platforms in similar ways, whether it was Los Illegals singing about the deportation of frontman Willie Herón’s stepfather or Alice Bag singing about her personal strife in “Gluttony.”

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“Punk really caught on because it was … raw,” Bag said. “It was honest. It was unique. And it was an open door for people who hadn’t had role models before.”

In a May 25 interview with Pitchfork’s Cat Zhang about the band’s sudden national attention, Mila echoed this assessment: “We like [punk] because it’s anything you want it to be.”

What’s next for the Linda Lindas? The girls have said that they will be using this summer to prepare for future live shows. They’ll also write as much as possible for the follow-up to their debut, self-titled EP of originals that they released in December. And now that they have a venerated label in Epitaph behind them, the Linda Lindas are primed to take serious advantage of their growing success. On Thursday, they performed their first late-night show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!. They played, unsurprisingly, “Racist, Sexist Boy.”

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“I feel that the world is ready to support and hold up this band of rebellious, kind, empathetic, zero-tolerance-for-bullshit girls,” Avila said.

Bags added: “Punks are very excited about the Linda Lindas.”

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