Looking back on her formative years performing in D.C.’s punk scene, Monica Richards singles out one critique from her male bandmates that she’s never forgotten: For her to fit in, she needed to sing like a man.
“I was really upset when I was told that,” she says. “ ‘Sing like a girl’ meant sing high, ‘sing like a boy’ meant shout it out hard.’ ”
And so Richards did shout hard during shows. Not for the sake of being accepted by her peers, but to prove that female musicians could rock just as fiercely onstage as their male counterparts. Richards is one of the many local figures highlighted in the 1988 book “Banned in DC,” which depicts the city’s punk rock scene from 1979 to 1985, when legendary bands such as Fugazi, Minor Threat and Bad Brains were just starting out playing small clubs and house venues.
To mark “Banned in DC’s” 30th anniversary, the Hirshhorn Museum is hosting a discussion and book signing on Thursday. The panel features co-authors Cynthia Connolly of Arlington and Leslie Clague (who now lives in Pittsburgh) and the Hirshhorn’s curator of media and performance art, Mark Beasley. Scattered throughout the book’s 184 glossy pages are hundreds of photos (many taken by Connolly and Clague), flyers and anecdotes that document a monumental time in D.C. history.
“I realized that people were going to move or disappear, and the stories were going to get lost,” Connolly says. “It was then that I decided to start working on ‘Banned in DC.’ ”
Connolly was born in Los Angeles and moved to D.C. with her family in 1981. While getting acquainted with the city’s music scene, she met fellow “Banned in DC” collaborators Clague and Sharon Cheslow. Starting in the fall of 1986, the three began gathering photos and other memorabilia for their project. (The seventh edition of their book, which will be available at the Hirshhorn bookstore, features an afterward by Connolly on how “Banned in DC” came to exist.)
While punk stages at the time featured mostly men, “Banned in DC” makes the point that the local music scene wasn’t completely dominated by dudes.
“There were so many women who were constructive and involved in the punk music scene,” Connolly says. “There were some who were in bands, but women were also doing all different kinds of things behind the scenes — making flyers, handing them out or selling things at shows.”
The trailblazing women included the members of Chalk Circle, one of the first all-female punk bands to emerge from D.C. (Cheslow was a member of the band). There was also Toni Young, a sharp African-American bassist who played with local stalwarts like Red C before passing away in the mid-’80s from pneumonia.
“If you look through the photos of [Toni] in the book, you could tell that she was just a brilliant and outspoken performer,” Connolly says. “She was one of those people who didn’t feel uncomfortable at any place that she was — she was totally herself.”
Richards, who’s also featured prominently throughout the book, fronted a number of D.C. bands in the ’80s such as Hate From Ignorance, Madhouse and Strange Boutique. While she did encounter sexism as a female vocalist, Richards says she also found a degree of acceptance in the punk community that was tough to come by anywhere else.
“When I started going to punk rock shows, I felt like I had found my tribe,” Richards says. “Kids who just didn’t belong anywhere, who questioned the system that they were growing up under — we weirdos found each other.”
Richards’ sentiment is summed up most succinctly through “Banned in DC’s” name. Though punk rockers initially didn’t get a whole lot of mainstream media support — as Connolly describes it, they were “essentially banned from their own city” — that didn’t stop them from building a flourishing community that would go on to gain international recognition.
“That was one of the reasons why I was in D.C. — I really wanted to be with people who were looking forward, not backward,” Connolly says. “Really just doing what they wanted to do, and not seeing any obstacles.”
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW; Thu., 7-9 p.m., free.