In 1994, iconic queercore band Tribe 8 played the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to the outrage of many festival goers. At that point, “Michfest,” the longest running women’s music festival, had largely catered to softer folk and pop tastes. Tribe 8 was a rollicking punk band full of genderqueer dykes. They brandished bondage gear and strap-ons and sang songs about fucking trans women and getting suffocated by tattooed breasts. Violent! Phallocentric! Objectifying! Misogynist! That’s how much of the audience reacted to their set. Tribe 8 responded: “Let’s talk it out.”
Over the course of Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary, we learn about what shaped Tribe 8’s aggressive, sexual, goofy punk—issues such as experiencing physical and sexual violence; exploring gender; struggling with racial identity; overcoming addiction; surviving as undocumented; and looking for happiness and self-actualization beyond heterocapitalist patriarchy. Life is heavy, but music helps the members find levity and joy. Eventually, Michfest attendees realize this, too, and accept their performances as opportunities for feminist inquiry. The documentary closes by saying they played the festival three more times before disbanding.
It’s worth noting that Michfest shuttered in 2015 for being an aggressively trans-exclusionary space, and since the movie, two of Tribe 8’s members have transitioned. I’m unsure if either of these facts influenced why Tribe 8 stopped performing at Michfest, but that tension reveals something about why their initial show was so controversial. It challenged the boundaries of acceptable gender and sexual expression in ways that made “like minds” uncomfortable. Rise Above proves so many contemporary discussions about these ideas aren’t new.
Ultimately, Michfest came around to accepting Tribe 8 as artists but failed at welcoming the people they sang about: sexual and gender rebels confronting an inhospitable world on their own terms—and laughing anyway. For that reason, Michfest is remembered with infamy. After watching Rise Above, you’ll only recall Tribe 8 as glorious trailblazers.