Pussy Riot, performing at the Lodge Room in Los Angeles, California on December 12.
Pussy Riot has never played a gig in America before tonight. In the outside corridors of a mid-sized LA venue, the crowd exchanges tickets for an opportunity to not just watch Pussy Riot, but to be Pussy Riot. In the foyer, their own official T-shirt stand comes with a warning written in pencil on scrap paper. "This means c***" it reads, pointing at one shirt's logo. Elsewhere, independent feminist vendors unrelated to Pussy Riot sell 'PUSSY POWER' necklaces and representatives from the Democratic Socialists of America pass out free literature about LA's Housing and Homelessness Committee and the No Olympics LA campaign. The idea is that all gathered are part of this Russian proto-punk collective, now movement — a group who previously never identified as a regularly functioning band. Now they charge for gig attendance and release music that wouldn't sound out of place on a summertime playlist. The more people they can ambush with catchy choruses and forthright ideas, the merrier, it seems.
Upstairs, practically in the venue's attic, 28-year-old activist Nadya Tolokonnikova is alone. Tolokonnikova is the only current member of Pussy Riot who isn't anonymous, since hers was lost some time ago. The five other women — and one male DJ — who perform with her tonight must remain unnamed, ostensibly to safeguard their lives. All defer to Tolokonnikova at all times. "I can't speak for Nadya" is a phrase heard often when in her orbit. There is an air of autocracy hanging overhead that's can seem at odds with the group's messages of inclusivity, anarchy and freedom. Corroborating information about Pussy Riot's lineup changes and the logistics of their business can be challenging, too, when time with an always in-demand Tolokonnikova herself is so often limited. Her charm, however, is instantly gratifying and completely magnetizing.
"I don't think there's such a thing as America," she says, brown eyes steady, challenging every pre-conceived notion put to her. "It's a really diverse country. Same with Russia. When people say that Trump is meddling with Russia I want to go directly to the cemetery," she smiles. "Russia is not just Putin-Russia. I have new friends here; people who share our beliefs and who think that democracy should look different. Right now we're looking for more direct democracy. In America, I'm figuring out how the system works. We don't expect anything. We don't decide what people think. But we want to share our art and we want to listen."
Being on American soil
feels especially significant given the current climate — backstage, there's an added celebratory fervor, as news arrives of Roy Moore's upset loss
to Doug Jones in the Alabama Senate race. That community has been growing around the world since Pussy Riot's 2012 trial. The group originally rose to international notoriety when they
they undertook a guerrilla performance in a Moscow church in 2012 as a demonstration against Vladimir Putin.
Three of its members — Masha Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova — were imprisoned, for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."
Alyokhina served a two-year prison sentence with Tolokonnikova, and has since written a book
, Riot Days
, released earlier this year. Samutsevich received two years' probation. Once released, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina set up MediaZona, a self-described ACLU-style organization providing free legal services to Russian female prisoners who are mistreated in a manner Tolokonnikova witnessed during her two-year sentence. An unconfirmed portion of the earnings from Pussy Riot's gigs and worldwide crusade is funnelled back into the MediaZona. In theory, it's art turned into action. (It's unclear as to why Alyokhina no longer participates in Pussy Riot proper.)
The group's notoriety stateside has elevated them to modern rebel-hero status; Madonna campaigned for their amnesty by writing FREE PUSSY RIOT across her back and biceps, and President Obama expressed disappointment in their guilty verdicts. Tolokonnikova, however, is not here to thank Obama — or any state leader — for their support. In fact, she laughs at the suggestion of ever having a former ally in Obama. "I am an anarchist," she deadpans. An anarchist, however, who is flirting with mainstream pop.
Beneath Tolokonnikova's own backstage room, a pyjama party is taking place in the main dressing area. "You look lost," says one of the band's gaggle of Russian female managers. It's not a place where journalists typically hang. As one of the anonymous members irons a shirt, another is playing the role of temporary hairdresser, fixing a blue wig to another's head. A photographer snaps away, as three of them peer around a teeny mirror painting their mugs with black eyeliner. They talk curtly in Russian, aware they're being watched. They never acknowledge anyone but each other.
Five minutes ago, they were in soundcheck, carrying out the kind of fun, frolicsome choreography that '90s girl bands such as the Spice Girls and TLC were famous for. "Vagina gonna take the stage. Cause vagina's got a lot to say," sings Tolokonnikova in peejays. "Straight Outta Vagina" is just one of the songs Tolokonnikova wrote and produced, along with TV On The Radio's Dave Sitek, in L.A. During her time here over the past year, she's worked with Sitek and Grammy-nominated producer Ricky Reed, who is more accustomed to studio time with Kesha and Maroon 5. Supposedly, a full-length debut album of pop bangers is dropping next year, but Tolokonnikova is having none of that.
"I don't know where this news about an album came from," she refutes, blaming online rumors, saying she has no intention of signing to Ricky Reed's imprint, Nice Life. "I don't want to sign to any label. I'm just collaborating with them. I'm not aware that we want to release a record. We're releasing one song after another when we feel like it's time." This is the only manner in which she can distribute music. "It's not a choice. I demand total freedom. I have one life and I don't want to let somebody decide what I should and shouldn't do." She describes Sitek and Reed as "friends" and her connection with them as almost haphazard, careful to avoid a narrative that she was seeking out producers capable of turning her into some pop phenomenon.
Regardless, the move into pop is a compelling one for such uncompromising anti-capitalists. Pop songs can be little Trojan horses, reeling you in with a hook, then feeding you thought-provoking, politicized messages. Tolokonnikova nods her head at the suggestion. "Beyonce was great at doing that," she says. "People bitched that when Beyonce wrote 'FEMINIST' on her stage we couldn't be feminists any more, but you want your activism to become mainstream. That's your goal. Then you can change the goal, you can go deeper."
Last year, Pussy Riot released a mixtape, xxx, followed this year by a "single" (during interview it is clear that any use of "industry" language such as 'album', 'EP' or 'single' is not welcomed by Tolokonnikova, who does not define her work in those terms and laughs awkwardly at their use). Titled "Police State," the single's music video, released November 8, stars Chloe Sevigny and its message attacks Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Produced by Reed, "Police State" is a celestial synthpop anthem; a sonic mixture of Sleigh Bells and Sylvan Esso, born from a collaboration with emerging songwriter Cara Salimando (who has worked with Kesha and Dua Lipa, among others), who says the experience of writing with Tolokonnikova was unlike anything she'd experienced.
"There's such a specific message behind the work," Salimando explains. Tolokonnikova came in with notebooks full of thoughts and poems that they'd comb through. "It's all very timely. In our session she mentioned that Donald Trump felt very much like Vladimir Putin. We're finally in a place as a country where we can empathise with Nadya. If Taylor Swift can put out a record and no one gives a shit, things are certainly changing in pop. What we were doing felt important. This was a chance to be a part of something that actually f****** matters."
In the main hall, the audience awaits with a curious and fervent anticipation. All agree that this feels important. European critics have described the show – a mix of performance art and music – as humorous. Some have felt provoked, others galvanized, even scared. This isn't just about assessing what new music from Pussy Riot sounds and looks like, it's about looking to Tolokonnikova for effective activism, wondering whether pop can be its most appropriate medium. "This is historic," says one bystander.
As a male DJ fires up the beats, Pussy Riot emerge from white body bags, their signature balaclavas pulled over their heads. Sirens screech, a searchlight combs the stage and the sound of a police officer declares: "Stand up, motherf*****s!" The set, which includes "Police State," forthcoming release "Nash Mir" (which translates to "the world is ours") and "Make America Great Again" teeters between the light electro-pop of tATu and the agitated rap of M.I.A.. During one song, the members pair off and simulate masturbatory sex with each other, like a group of insurgent Tove Los. Tolokonnikova's props include a pink bazooka gun and a jailer hat.
"I'm not a big fan of preaching, but if you want to learn something from Pussy Riot, it's that activism should be joyful," says Tolokonnikova backstage. "For young people, activism has felt like a boring job. That started to change with the Women's March — it's cool again." It's interesting that Tolokonnikova seems acutely aware that her foray into pop music comes at a time where the industry's biggest players are aligning their hookiest material with firebrand statements. When asked who she looks to for inspiration, however, Tolokonnikova is pure politics. She mentions the civil rights movement as the last great example of a unification of people in America.
"Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the second-wave feminists... they somehow found each other at the same events. Right now we're criticizing each other too much. We need more solidarity." She offers up the Russian protests "For Fair Elections" that began in December 2011 where communities have continuously accused Putin of rigging votes. For Tolokonnikova it's an example of the success that comes from different, previously disparate voices joining forces en masse. "Sometimes I can be on the same square with people even if I don't want to s*** on the same field as them — [if] we have the same goal we can act together. We've underestimated our power as people. Don't look for somebody to come and save us. You have to make a government s*** their pants."