“The band with a saxophone that we have the most in common with is Bruce Springsteen,” Victoria Ruiz declared as Downtown Boys finished up their line-check. Her stream of consciousness unraveled from there, as she recalled seeing the Boss perform for an audience made up largely by middle-aged white people on his most recent tour. But Ruiz’s offhand comment wasn’t a critique so much as an effort to set up an argument. And the kernel of that argument was essentially: Springsteen’s depiction of the “American Experience” isn’t necessarily as singular or as patriotic as we might think. Saying that a punk band comprising young people of color sounds a lot like the Boss isn’t a wayward association at all; it’s a truth. Ruiz recalled Springsteen’s performance and asserted that he’s still championing the underdog, he’s still trying to write music about oppression. It’s been 16 years since Springsteen debuted “American Skin (41 Shots),” and the message behind that song is as significant now as it was when Amadou Diallo was gunned down by police in 1999. He’s always been a teacher, and Ruiz fancies herself one, too. “If you know Bruce, put in a good word for us,” she said.
A Downtown Boys show is as much of a dance party as it is a short lecture series. Every song they perform has a specific message grounding it, one that’s made all the more clear when Ruiz prefaces her acerbic singing with a brief call-to-arms. The band began their set with “Wave Of History,” a song about the police state from the early days of this country’s foundation until now. Ruiz jumped off of the stage almost immediately, confronting the audience head on as she thrashed through a crowd of photographers. From there they performed a series of songs off of last year’s Full Communism, including “100% Inheritance Tax” and their cover of Los Prisioneros’ “Poder Eligir,” a song that’s sung entirely in Spanish and boasts the line: “Las vidas no son bromas” (lives aren’t a joke). Hearing that song — which was originally written as an indictment of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet — was made all the more chilling when Ruiz prefaced it with a comment about Donald Trump’s bid for presidency.
That was just one of a wide variety of issues that Ruiz managed to touch on over the course of Downtown Boys’ 30-minute set. She criticized Texas’ oppressive abortion laws, comparing exhausting, ongoing court cases over reproductive health to an absurd tournament. “A contest should not determine the cost of your body,” she stated with the overt confidence of someone who knows exactly what they’re talking about and exactly why it matters. There are those who might not “get” Downtown Boys’ politicized, radical stage banter, either because they disagree with the message or they’re not quite sure how to contextualize that message at a place like SXSW. This is a festival that’s reamed time and again for being an overly branded, corporatized affair, which might make hearing critiques of varying systems of oppression seem trite or hypocritical in that environment. But as these so-called “celebrations of art” become “celebrations of Doritos” or whoever the hell is sponsoring some of the festival’s biggest stages this year, we need more bands like Downtown Boys to keep us grounded, to remind us what we can learn from a song if we give ourselves over to it. That was made all the more clear when the band closed with “Monstro,” a song that rides on the statement “SHE’S BROWN! SHE’S SMART!” which Ruiz shouts with an elevated, performative level of pride.
The most empowering moment of Downtown Boys’ set, however, arrived about midway through, when Ruiz looked out at the audience and said: “Darkness is not a synonym for grotesque.” She was talking about skin — the same brown “American Skin” that made the aforementioned Amadou Diallo a victim of police brutality so many years ago, before Black Lives Matter was at the forefront of political discourse. Ruiz walked through the audience and continued to deconstruct the word “darkness” as a loaded, nuanced term. It’s a stand-in for “unknown” or “unfamiliar,” and as Ruiz continued to pontificate, everyone who paid any attention to her opening monologue knew exactly what Downtown Boys would play next.
Legend has it that Springsteen wrote “Dancing In The Dark” in one night, after his manager John Landau made the nebulous critique that something was “missing” from the Born In The USA tracklist. Springsteen was annoyed. He’d been recording the album for years, and felt the overwhelming disaffection that weighs on you when you’ve been working on a masterpiece for far too long. “Dancing In The Dark” reflects that overwhelming disaffection, and it remains Springsteen’s highest-charting single to date. It’s a song about feeling a lack of agency, about waiting for your life to change and not knowing when or how that will happen. Downtown Boys’ rendition is a sped-up piece of rapid fire punk, but Ruiz managed to spit every word of it, joined by Joey L DeFrancesco when she hit that pivotal line: “Stay on the streets of this town/ And they’ll be carving you up alright/ They say you gotta stay hungry/ Hey baby I’m just about starving tonight.” The audience shouted along, too. The hunger that Springsteen wrote about in 1984 is the same hunger that Downtown Boys are working to satiate in 2016. You can’t start a fire without a spark, but for a lot of young people, this band just might be it.