If you think living on a island is a tropical, sunny breeze, please exit the #islandvibes hashtag on Instagram immediately. All those beautiful beachside backdrops will leave you tripping over tropes; yes, the scenery can be jaw-droppingly gorgeous, but you’re not getting the whole picture.
The reality of #islandlife is less picturesque: Islands are more likely to be impoverished, experience drastic income inequality, struggle with food security, and in some cases, they also endure the worst of natural disasters—complicating existing conditions and disrupting the tourism industry on which so many island economies rely, albeit to varying degrees.
These oppressions extend to U.S. islands, too. Statehood or territory status by no means makes the potential for these problems obsolete, but in fact can exacerbate them—like in the cases of Hawai’i and Puerto Rico.
Factoring in the effects of colonialism is inherent to understand the issues both archipelagos face. The displacement, depletion, or near destruction of indigenous cultures is a violent tragedy all its own, but with U.S. takeover also comes the privatization of lands, military occupation, tax breaks for wealthy individuals and multinational corporations, a drop in sustainable agriculture in favor of imports—all at the expense of the people. (There are grassroots movements to decolonize both islands.)
Understanding all this, it’s not a stretch to view DIY music scenes in Puerto Rico and Hawai’i as acts of resistance.
When you’re living in the most expensive U.S. city—Honolulu, where four rolls of toilet paper will cost you more than anywhere else in the world—buying a guitar may be a feat of finance. If you’ve recently survived a devastating category five hurricane, are enduring the aftermath without electricity, and haven’t been able to work for months, putting a show together might rightfully be the last thing on your to-do list. Even before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans were grappling with an 11.5 percent sales tax and an unemployment rate higher than 10 percent (officially 10.8 in November; for comparison, the U.S. stands at 4.1 percent).
These are just a few of the realities of actually living on island, of course, and they’re specific to Hawai’i and Puerto Rico. There are other influences involved with each, and you can’t sum up a culture or a society with stats alone; life is more complex than that. But context is consequential to learning about a music scene, understanding how it runs and why—and that will give you a clearer idea of where you, as a visiting band or artist, might fit in.
If you’re plotting a tour in 2018, consider venturing out to these islands. It’ll cost more than taking the van a few cities west, sure, but the trip can be more than a typical tour date. You won’t need a passport for either, at least.
Small and tight-knit, but not insular or uninviting, the independent scenes in Puerto Rico and Hawai’i run on DIY community ethos, encouraging solidarity and mutual aid. If your band is fueled by the same ideals, you can expect a warm welcome at both—and to make new connections with listeners and fellow musicians in a more personal, enlightening way than you would playing a big U.S. city.
Honolulu, O’ahu, Hawai’i
In small scenes, working together is especially crucial, and solidarity is a key force in Hawai’i DIY. Transience and a high cost of living combined limit its population and means: It’s not easy to sustain a band while holding multiple jobs, and imported instruments and gear are pricey. Rather than struggle solo or compete for audiences in an individualist way, independent bands, organizers, and venues support each other so that everyone thrives.
Rachel Heller’s story for Rookie last year detailed growing up on O’ahu, the third largest of the Hawaiian islands, and beamed a shining light on a thriving DIY culture, particularly of the punk, emo, pop-punk, and lo-fi indie variety. In the Chinatown area of Honolulu especially, the underground is elevated through Failed Orbit Records, once the label of local band Beaman and now an umbrella collective organizing hometown shows and bringing in outside acts. Transportation and other costs are offset by fundraisers, making it possible to fly in names like Peach Kelli Pop and Audacity from California and New Jersey’s Screaming Females—a scene-generated process that further cultivates a sense of community. (And while Failed Orbit announced a hiatus in November, we have no doubt the scene will be maintained, and continue growing, too.)
And the DIY realm extends to other genres, too. Ska, reggae, hardcore, metal, hip-hop, and electronic (see Audiophile Entertainment, Rave Rock, and Rise Up Electric) are all sturdily planted in and around the same network, sometimes even sharing lineups. They’re seemingly disparate sounds, but operating with the same DIY gusto in pushing the independent music forward, and that common effort can be unifying.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Before the fawning, a disclaimer: I live in San Juan, and I opened a venue here (Club 77) several years ago. I’m no longer a co-owner, though I remain very much a supporter of that spot and the rest of the local DIY scene, too.
The underground of San Juan is perpetually pulsing, and feels more critical than ever now in post-Hurricane Maria conditions. Immediately following the storm, a mainstay DIY venue, El Local, reopened with a 12-hour daily community kitchen that was a boon to scene bonds—it solidified established connections, and created new ones, too. Venues like Club 77 and La Respuesta have reopened in the past month or so, and they’re thriving—in the wake of it all, the trauma and the hardship and total disruption of the quotidian day-to-day, bands have emerged eager to play, and crowds are anxious for the catharsis of stellar live shows.
It’s important to note that the storm’s repercussions aggravated pre-existing difficulties; the island’s unemployment rate was already high, so economic strife was amplified by the island-wide power outage that left virtually every Puerto Rican worker without income. A mass exodus is already in full swing—and it’s forced out some of the scene’s key players.
But there’s a long history of independent music in Puerto Rico; it’s a scene that’s overcome countless hurdles. This category five storm was inarguably its most difficult blow, but communities are working in solidarity to bounce back. The recovery is still in progress across the island—and that includes the music scene.
Built in bulk by a steady boom of hardcore punk in the late ’80s through the ’90s, the punk scene is sustained today by the some of the same folks, plus bands of the later 2000s wave (Los Vigilantes, Ardillas) and a generous crop of emerging acts (Desahuciados, Sikotropicas). Dating back about as far, the hardcore and metal factions regularly converge these days, operating together on the same bills and through the same organizers, but they’re individually robust enough to stand alone, too.
Hip-hop, too, has continued to evolve from its strong start around the same era. La Respuesta’s Lunes Clasico, a longstanding weekly hip-hop, soul, and R&B party, is the heart to the genre’s sprawling veins that, like every other genre, showcases regularly in all DIY and indie friendly spaces. Reggae, dub, and ska acts are tried-and-true Puerto Rican indie players as well—and folk, alt-pop, experimental electronic, and heaps more styles.
It’s a unique landscape; the intertwining of seasoned acts with up-and-comers in a condensed environment makes for a fixed sense of burgeoning. There’s always something new and fresh to be found, but consistently great stalwarts are intrinsic to the whole.
Visits from outside acts aren’t uncommon, albeit not with the same regularity of a continental U.S. city. These shows are a mix of booking and venue-funded appearances and bands that make the trip on their own dime; the latter, no doubt, the scene could especially benefit from right now, as organizers and musicians are still steadying their footing post-storm.
Read more: Check out Puerto Rico Indie, the island’s premiere blog for independent and DIY sounds. (It’s exceptionally comprehensive, but in Spanish; use Google translate if necessary!)