‘I am exploring how goth intersects with my Blackness.’
Bianca Xunise is a Black goth and describes herself as “unapologetically hood.” An artist from the Southside of Chicago, her work is incredibly diverse, exploring anti-blackness, the reappropriation of problematic personas like Josephine Baker, beauty, gender, and of course, her love of goth icons. She was awarded the coveted 2017 Ignatz award for Promising New Talent for her comic Say Her Name, which took aim at the silence surrounding Black women killed by police violence.
My first exposure to Xunise’s work was at Pitchfork Music Festival 2017 in Union Park. I was looking through the book vendor area, when a print of Poly Styrene—the Somali-English frontwoman for the ‘70s jazz punk band X-ray Spex—caught my eye.
X-ray Spex was a band from that era that actually had a member of color, and seeing her iconic lyric, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think, oh bondage up yours!” memorialized in Bianca’s art warmed my heart.
I bought the print right then and there and continued to follow her work.
From her meticulously chosen outfits—made up of leather harnesses, berets, and ’70s-inspired high-waisted pants—to her unrelenting love of The Craft, and her penchant for singing along to songs by the Damned or David Bowie, Xunise is part and parcel of a very Chicago Goth experience.
As a Chicago transplant, Bianca Xunise seems to be an all knowing insider of the city. I was lucky enough to meet up with her recently to talk about nightlife in Chicago, her unique experience as a Black goth and comic, and the political importance of going out and dancing.
How do you identify your taste in music? I ask because I tend to use the words “new wave,” “post-punk” and “goth” interchangeably.
I use those terms interchangeably too and I feel like a lot of times people misunderstand what I mean by goth. When I say goth, they’re probably like, ‘oh she likes Evanescence and new goth from like the mid 2000s or early 2000s.’ But when I say goth I mean something older—bands like Batcave and Darkwave, The Cure and Siouxsie Sioux and stuff like that.
Sometimes I use the Pitchfork video to inform people. It’s been really helpful…
That video was really helpful! Again, cause I feel like people misunderstand what it means and in our modern society with the internet and everything else, all cultures have begun to be kind of melted into one. A good example of this would be like Lil Uzi [Vert]. He like does trap rap, but he’s also sort of goth and sort of emo at the same time—it all blends together. And say if you’re like 15, 16, 17 and if you think Lil Uzi’s goth, then what you understand as goth is not going to be where it actually came from. You’re gonna have a whole new understanding of what you think goth is.
Often, as far as they want to go is Evanescence or Avril Lavigne, but you gotta keep going further and further back. I just started listening to some older goth music like Virgin Prunes—that’s from the ‘70s—so I am exploring how goth intersects with my Blackness and listening to bands like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Why did you start drawing about these experiences with the goth subculture? I saw one of your comics—Saturday at the Goth Club—where it’s just a little ‘slice of life’ comic where you’re just at the club and you have poison written on your shirt?
One of the reasons is I was just trying to find something to write about. A lot of my work is political. But when I first started out as a comics artist, much of my work was kind of simple—about everyday life—and I missed writing about those things. My work was getting so heavy.
I wanted to bring some more lightness to it. I thought it’d be fun to show people a window into this world—there’s a lot of misconceptions about it, ‘like what do you guys do all day, hang out under the highway underpasses and dance?!’ I think people don’t understand a lot of it is just a bunch of nerds hanging out ’cause we like the same music—we’re all pretty dorky.
What are your favorite goth clubs/nights in Chicago?
I go to Late Bar, which is a big one for me. I used to go to the old Neo when that was still open. RIP. Not everyone agrees with me on this, but I feel interested in what has been happening now, ‘cause I feel like everyone is splitting up and making new safe spaces—like a lot of things happening at Berlin now. And that would be more Wax Trax! [the industrial music label based in Chicago]. Exit is another place that does ‘80s music either on Thursdays or every other Saturday.
And then there’s the new Neo. That was really rough at first. People were very against it. Actually, one of the things I really like about “Deboneo” as they call it, is how queer it’s become. There’s been a lot more black and brown queer faces showing up there. So for me seeing the goth culture blend with the club kid culture and become this one safe space of, like, weirdos and queers and drag queens and awesomeness—that’s super important to me. That’s when it gets to the best place—when it’s come as you are. No matter how weird. This is a place for you. Let’s all dance to this old shitty song.
What about them makes them feel safe?
Not all the clubs have done this, but I know Late Bar made a statement that they’re a safe space—I think this happened maybe during the election last year. Or maybe even the year before when we heard that Trump was gonna be running. They released a press release and they said, ‘we want to be known as a safe space. This is not a space for discrimination.’ They definitely upped their security after that. There’s always people on the floor.
But I’ve seen it misunderstood as though they were being predatory—like, ‘there’s this man and why is he coming up and taking my drink away from me. Get away from me.’ But a lot of times when they do that, it’s cause they saw something put into your drink or something like that and they’re trying to make sure that you get home safe—they filter people out all day. And make sure that it stays a place that people can feel comfortable going to.The best place is when it’s 'come as you are. No matter how weird. This is a place for you. Let’s all dance to this old shitty song.' Click To Tweet
The people there are of every race and gender and you know it’s grown to be a really great thing. I’m not really sure where the crossroads is of different cultures come together, but I think it’s just about the music. A lot of it is being borrowed from each other. Like punk has always been influenced by like the ballroom scene and the ballroom scene in turn is influenced by punk, but it’s all counterculture.
The goth community is a blend of everything.
Also it’s no longer just old white dudes anymore. Brown kids want to be a part of it and you should be allowed to identify with multiple things—you may be into goth music and goth culture but you also may be really into feminism and witchcraft. You might be really into drag and you’re also really into punk rock—you can pick and choose whatever you want. You shouldn’t have to choose what you love. Take it all in and make a new culture out of it.
It’s like, everyone else is kind of shitty, so like why be shitty here?
So your impression of goths and the goth community is pretty positive?
Yeah, I think that’s one of the reasons why I find goths to be pretty nice—they’re so used to everybody else treating them poorly. That’s how I felt about the older goths who set up the bar. They’ve always been kind of kind to me, which I’ve always kind of been a little nervous coming into the scene as a black woman who is used to—especially in like my comics world—white guys pushing back when they see me come and take up space. But in the goth community I see, ‘You’re weird. I’m weird!’ That’s all that matters.
I actually drew a comic about how the goth community is one of the few that I feel I’ve been able to be a part of and the first thing people don’t register about me is that I’m black. In every other space that I take up people think as soon as they see me—Black woman. And then with that they have all these other ideas about me in their head about black women and who they are.
But when I enter a space like Late Bar or Exit or Neo—I don’t feel like people see that right away, they just see somebody that’s just like them and they accept me.
That’s beautiful. Have you had any negative and racist experiences in the scene?
Oh yeah. I have racist experiences everywhere.
I think you mentioned an incident at a Nine Inch Nails show…
I was at a Nine Inch Nails show—actually this was before Nine Inch Nails—it was New Order. I was at New Order and this woman grabbed my hair because I was dancing—as you would—to New Order and apparently my hair touched her face and as I was bouncing or whatever and it brushed her face. So she dug her hand into my scalp and tried to rip my hair out. She grabbed my hair and said, ‘I grabbed your hair because I didn’t like it!’ That was her reasoning.
It was really upsetting and frustrating, but I don’t really attribute that to the community as much as being at a concert. I’ve always had pretty bad experiences at festivals and concerts in general. I’ve gotten into a few fist fights at concerts. It kind of goes hand-in-hand for me there.In my comics world, white guys pushing back when they see me come and take up space. But in the goth community I see, ‘You’re weird. I’m weird!’ That’s all that matters. Click To Tweet
You try to reason with it and then you realize that racism is the only reason that’s going to work here. I wasn’t the only person there. It wasn’t just me being rambunctious in a group of people sitting quietly on the ground. It was me and bunch of other white dudes that were all dancing. But I’m the one that she decided to attack. I confronted her about that and when I called her out, the dudes that I was dancing with were like no need to call her that. [A racist]. That was really frustrating. And then what was weird was that the two dudes she was with ended up apologizing to my boyfriend and I was like, why isn’t anyone apologizing to me.
But it hasn’t gotten to the point where it’s made me feel unsafe—I also know the punk and goth community have done a lot to combat racism and fascism. I don’t feel like the first person I’m going to meet [in those spaces] is going to be a racist.You try to reason with something that happened and then you realize that racism is the only reason that’s going to work here. Click To Tweet
I was working on a piece on if you want to check it out, about Rock Against Racism. A lot of the bands that I like—the Clash, X-Ray Spex and stuff—they did what they could do in the ‘70s to try to combat racism.
Going back to going out and goth nights as safe spaces. I’m going to reference your tweets. “I’ve been trying to figure out the point in society where we deemed going out and dancing a sinful thing to do.” I was hoping you could elaborate on this perspective. Why do you think it’s looked down upon and why is it so special and important that you are able to go out and dance? People obviously shit on it, right? Like, ‘you’re just going out and you’re drinking!,’ but to you it’s important. What is it that makes it important, in terms of your identity and your interests?
I definitely got a lot of feedback on that tweet and people brought some stuff up to me that I hadn’t considered before—especially us being a country founded on puritan beliefs and how that’s still affects American society—even in terms of our movies where it’s OK to show violence, but it’s bad to show sex.
We like to market things as sinful and I think that’s where it’s confusing to me—how is it sinful to have community and feel uplifted by this community and feel safe? Where is the sin in that? The drinking part is not super important—you can add or remove alcohol. Yes that exists there, but I also have friends who are sober and still go out to the goth club because it’s not about the drinking. It’s about being around your friends. It’s a chosen family. It’s a family you only want to be around so long and then you want to go back home.
I know I’ve mentioned this a few times but there’s so much happening in the world. I’ve noticed that I’ve gone dancing more this year probably than any other year because I just need that place, a place to not have to hear about Donald Trump, and not have to uplift all the hate that’s going on.
Every time I go to Late Bar they always play this song, “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing.” It’s a place be around people who are gonna give you love. Every time I’m there people ask me, ‘how are your comics? What’s going on in your life? How’s this art show going?’ We know each other enough to know what’s going on in our families and stuff like that. It’s never like a place of hate.How is it 'sinful' to have community and feel uplifted by this community and feel safe? Click To Tweet
I’ve gone to normie clubs that everybody else goes to and I can see why people hate them. I feel like it’s a different experience. When you add “club” to something then people have this idea that’s it’s going to be this bump and grind, overly sexual, predatory space. In fact, I was at the Owl last Saturday and I was there for half an hour and I think I got groped like 8-10 times just from walking back and forth. Someone put their hands on my butt; they put their hands on my shoulder and tried to put their hands in the curve of my side. And I was like, I don’t want to be here.
Most dudes that I’ve dealt with at the goth club ask permission to dance with you or they have the nice Catholic school space between each other—where it’s just enough room for the holy spirit.
It’s good exercise too. I think everybody needs a space to be able to turn their brain off and just exhale. It saddens me that I try to explain this to my parents and they think I’m out living this life of sin when I’m really just sitting around with a bunch of nerdy people and we’re talking about Stranger Things.
What songs are a must for a perfect new wave night?