Kathleen Hanna (born November 12, 1968) is an American singer, musician, artist, feminist activist, pioneer of the feminist punk riot grrrl movement, and punk zine writer. In the early-to-mid-1990s she was the lead singer of feminist punk band Bikini Kill, before fronting Le Tigre in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In 1998, Hanna released a lo-fi solo album under the name Julie Ruin and since 2010, has been working on a project called the Julie Ruin. A documentary film about Hanna was released in 2013 by director Sini Anderson, titled The Punk Singer, detailing Hanna's life and career, as well as revealing her years-long battle with Lyme disease. Hanna is married to Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys.
Life and career
1968–88: Early life
Hanna was born November 12, 1968, in Portland, Oregon. At age four, she moved with her family to Calverton, Maryland; as Hanna's father changed occupations, the family moved several more times. Hanna's parents divorced, and she returned to Portland where she graduated from Lincoln High School. Hanna first became interested in feminism around the age of nine, after her mother took her to a rally in Washington D.C. where feminist icon Gloria Steinem spoke. Though several years would pass before she became an outspoken feminist, with Hanna eventually referring to herself as a radical feminist, the event left an impression on her. In a 2000 interview with BUST magazine, Hanna recalled: "My mom was a housewife, and wasn't somebody that people would think of as a feminist, and when Ms. magazine came out we were incredibly inspired by it. I used to cut pictures out of it and make posters that said 'Girls can do anything', and stuff like that, and my mom was inspired to work at a basement of a church doing anti-domestic violence work. Then she took me to the Solidarity Day thing, and it was the first time I had ever been in a big crowd of women yelling, and it really made me want to do it forever."
In the 2006 documentary, Don't Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl (titled after a Bikini Kill song), Hanna elaborates on the effect feminism had on her in childhood, recalling that her interest grew when her mother checked out a copy of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique from the library. Yet Hanna and her mother's involvement in the women's rights movement had to be done quietly in the years before her parents' divorce, due to her father's disapproval. Hanna has also appeared in the documentary Who's Afraid of Kathy Acker?
When she was fifteen years old, Hanna had an abortion that she paid for with money she earned while working at McDonald's. After high school, she relocated from Portland to Olympia, Washington to attend The Evergreen State College in the late 1980s. During this time she began working as a stripper to pay her tuition. "If I couldn't read or write I wouldn't be in a band," Hanna recalled. "My parents didn't go to college. I felt lucky." Working with fellow Evergreen student and photographer Aaron Baush-Greene, she set up a photo exhibit featuring the pair's photography, which dealt, respectively, with sexism and AIDS. However, the school administrators took the photos down before they had the chance to be viewed, an act of censorship that prompted what Hanna refers to as her "first foray into activism": the creation of an independent feminist art gallery called Reko Muse with friends Heidi Arbogast and Tammy Rae Carland. The three women then formed a band called Amy Carter, which put on shows before the art exhibitions.
Hanna also began doing spoken word performances that addressed sexism and violence against women, issues with which she became concerned after volunteering for SafePlace, a domestic violence organization over the next two years. Eventually she abandoned spoken word in favor of music, being inspired by one of her favorite writers, countercultural icon Kathy Acker. Hanna recalled,
Acker asked me why writing was important to me, and I said, 'Because I felt like I'd never been listened to and I had a lot to say,' and she said, 'Then why are you doing spoken word—no one goes to spoken word shows! You should get in a band.'
In July 2015, Hanna and her band the Julie Ruin returned to Olympia to perform at a street party celebrating the opening of the new SafePlace Community Services Center.
1989–99: Bikini Kill
Later, Hanna started another band called Viva Knievel that toured the United States for two months before disbanding. Upon returning to Olympia, Hanna began collaborating with fellow Evergreen student and punk zinester Tobi Vail after seeing a performance of the Go Team (a band made up of Vail, Billy Karren, and Calvin Johnson) and recognizing Vail as the mastermind behind the fanzine Jigsaw, which Hanna greatly admired and loved. Bikini Kill soon became part of the seminal Olympia, Washington music scene of the early 1990s, which was characterized by political awareness, a strong artistic do-it-yourself ethic, and an emphasis on local collaboration and support. It meshed feminist ideals with the realities of Hanna's daily life. It was meant to inspire more women to join the male-dominated Punk rock scene of the early 1990s.
The band's first release for the Kill Rock Stars label was a self-titled EP produced by Ian MacKaye of Fugazi. Bikini Kill then toured the UK, recording a split LP with UK band Huggy Bear. This tour was filmed and the band was interviewed by Lucy Thane for her documentary, It Changed My Life: Bikini Kill In The UK. Upon returning to the U.S., the band began working with Joan Jett, who produced their single, "New Radio/Rebel Girl". After the release of this record, Hanna began co-writing some songs with Jett for her new album. At the same time Hanna produced several solo pieces for the Kill Rock Stars "Wordcore" series of recordings, including the 7" single "Rockstar" and the song "I Wish I Was Him" (a song written by Ben Lee and originally recorded by his band Noise Addict about alternative rock heartthrob Evan Dando) on the KRS compilation Rock Stars Kill. Hanna also appeared in the 1994 Sonic Youth video for "Bull in the Heather".
In 1991, the band spent a summer in Washington, D.C., where Hanna began collaborating with Allison Wolfe, Molly Neuman, and Jen Smith from the band Bratmobile on the zine Riot grrrl, which became a call to action for increased feminist activity and female involvement in the punk rock scene.
In a 2000 interview with Index Magazine, Hanna related:
We wanted to start a magazine, and Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman from the band Bratmobile had started a little fanzine called riot grrrl and we were writing little things for it. I'd always wanted to start a big magazine with really cool, smart writing in it, and I wanted to see if the other punk girls in D.C. that I was meeting were interested in that. So I called a meeting and found a space for it, and it just turned into this sort of consciousness-raising thing. I realized really quickly that a magazine wasn't the way to go. People wanted to be having shows, and teaching each other how to play music, and writing fanzines, so that started happening. It got some press attention, and girls in other places would be like "I wanna do that. I wanna start one of those."
The first two Bikini Kill EPs were released on CD as The C.D. Version of the First Two Records in 1993. The band released two more full-length albums, Pussy Whipped in 1994 and Reject All American in 1996, and in 1998, Kill Rock Stars released Bikini Kill: The Singles, a collection of the group's seven inch and compilation tracks. Bikini Kill broke up on friendly terms around April 1998. After the break-up of Bikini Kill, Hanna began working on a solo project called Julie Ruin. The project was created entirely in Hanna's bedroom using a $40 drum machine. One self-titled album was released under the Julie Ruin pseudonym, and was partially inspired by the work of feminist theorist Julia Kristeva.
Hanna said of the project:
Girls' bedrooms sometimes can be this space of real creativity. The problem is that these bedrooms are all cut off from each other. I wanted the Julie Ruin record to sound like a girl from her bedroom made this record but then didn't just throw it away or it wasn't just in her diary but she took it out and shared it with people.
While in Portland, Oregon, Hanna began working with friend and zine editor Johanna Fateman on a live show for Julie Ruin. The collaboration resulted in the two briefly forming a band called the Troublemakers, named after a G. B. Jones film, which ended when Fateman relocated to New York City to attend art school.
2000–present: Le Tigre, the Julie Ruin
Hanna joined Fateman on the East Coast, and with the addition of filmmaker Sadie Benning, they started another band called Le Tigre (French for Tiger). This band continued to pursue a more electronic style of music similar to the sampler-driven sound Hanna had begun to explore with Julie Ruin. Hanna refers to it as part of a Punk Feminist Electronic genre. The band recorded for the Mr. Lady Records label, its first recording being the self-titled Le Tigre, which included the singles "Hot Topic" and "Deceptacon." After the first record, Sadie Benning left the band to be replaced by JD Samson for the follow-up CD Feminist Sweepstakes. When Mr. Lady Records closed down, the group switched labels to Universal Records for the 2004 release of This Island. Le Tigre is currently on hiatus. Hanna left the band in 2005 due to personal health issues. She was later diagnosed with late stage Lyme disease. According to the Le Tigre website, during her time off from the band, Hanna has been volunteering as a band coach for the Willie Mae Rock and Roll Camp for Girls. She also taught an art class at NYU's grad school in the Fall 2007 semester and attended interior design classes.
In 2010, Hanna announced she was rebuilding her 1997 act Julie Ruin, turning it into a full band called "the Julie Ruin" with Kenny Mellman and Kathi Wilcox, and that they would be creating a new record. On November 20, Hanna DJed at the Museum of Modern Art, later joining the Raincoats on stage to cover the Slits' Vindictive. On December 11, at the Knitting Factory in New York City, the Julie Ruin played their first show. The group played Bikini Kill and Le Tigre songs and one new composition. From 2010 to 2013, director Sini Anderson worked on a documentary on Kathleen Hanna titled The Punk Singer, documenting her works from Bikini Kill to the Julie Ruin. It premiered at SXSW in 2013. In June 2013, Julie Ruin released its first single, "Oh Come On". An album, Run Fast was released in September 2013 with the band going on tour. The Julie Ruin cancelled the tour planned for May to September 2014 due to Hanna's Lyme disease condition deteriorating. She has since recovered and begun performing again. The Julie Ruin's second album, Hit Reset, was published on July 2016 by Hardly Art.
Activism and impact
Kathleen Hanna is well known for being an outspoken feminist. She helped launch third-wave feminism, as she helped create the riot grrrl punk movement in 1991. Looking for a way to present her new outlook on feminist ideas, she often found routes through art, fashion, spoken word poetry, and essays to express her concern for women. Through these media, she discussed issues of sexuality, abuse, and anger against what was not being done. After the formation of Bikini Kill in 1989, Hanna and her bandmates helped to publish different zines to discuss these issues further. The zines "cover[ed] strategies for safety in the mosh pit", "exploration of political ideas, and creating a collective for punk feminist women. The Bikini Kill Zine, which began in 1991, was born from this, along with the desire to present "feminist issues through a punk rock lens." By Issue Two, the Riot Grrrl Manifesto was born, urging women to redefine society's image of them, and to form a collective for women to freely discuss. In her definition of the Riot Grrrl Movement, Hanna states that it is a collective of women. While she never wanted or intended to become the spokeswoman for it, she hoped that it would foster a place for women to collaborate about issues that are relevant to them on local, national, and global levels.
At Bikini Kill concerts, Hanna would encourage and enforce that women were to move to the front of the stage to avoid harassment from male concert goers as part of her idea of "Revolution Girl Style Now." The "girls to the front" concept was symbolic in helping women feel comfortable at concerts and more welcome to participate. In a mostly male-dominated punk rock scene where shows often turned violent because of mosh pits, Hanna wanted to create a space for girls to be able to feel safe. Additionally, with a barrier of girls in the front rows, she too could feel safe and supported at her own shows where male hecklers were constantly present.
Her feminist contributions to punk music are also evident in her lyrics. In an interview with Nicole Brodeur from The Seattle Times, it is said that, "Hanna's lyrics were about girls who did and wore what they wanted, despite societal expectations." For years, punk culture was entirely focused on men and "the masculine." Hanna created a safe space for women and girls who were passionate about the genre, making it their own, while still maintaining the integrity of the music. In the same interview she says, "It doesn't mean you're not a feminist because you expose your legs." She zeroed in on the idea that women should have the ability to express themselves in any way they please, and her performances regularly reflected such themes. Bradeur comments, "Hanna exposed her breasts and rear-end with lust-killing bluntness; she wore a girlish ponytail and danced around with 'slut' written in lipstick across her midriff."
In 1991, Hanna performed with Bikini Kill, alongside Fugazi at the Pro-Choice Rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. before the Planned Parenthood v. Casey trial. She has been a major pro-choice advocate and was quoted saying, "It's about women not dying in back-alley abortions, but it's also about women saying: 'My life is worth it, too. I deserve to have control over my life and my health care.' Imagine if a man was told, 'You can't make the decision to have a vasectomy.'" At the 2011 Planned Parenthood "Stand Up for Women's Health" Rally Hanna cited the origin of her enduring support of the organization. At 19 years old, having acquired an infection while on tour, and in a bad way, she was "met with open arms" at a clinic.
Hanna contributed the piece "Gen X Survivor: From Riot Grrrl Rock Star to Feminist Artist" to the 2003 anthology Sisterhood Is Forever: The Women's Anthology for a New Millennium, edited by Robin Morgan. The riot grrrl genre, to which Hanna was central, has been credited as a historical site for the empowerment of women by such documentaries as The Punk Singer, which credits Hanna with having molded many tenets of third-wave feminism. However, Hanna has been criticized as trans-exclusionary, for having performed at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival in 2001 and 2005, which had a policy of exclusively allowing "womyn-born-womyn" into the event, and for refusing all requests to address the issue.
In 2009, the Fales Library at New York University created a Riot Grrrl Collection. This collection focuses on the early formation of the Riot Grrrl movement, and has a series of zines, art pieces, photography, video, music, journals, and more. Some of Hanna's solo work, along with zines that she has created with Bikini Kill, among other collaborators are also included. In a 2014 interview with Amy Middleton of Australian webzine Archer, Hanna stated that she supported marriage equality, and expressed praise for states passing laws for marriage equality. Hanna also noted that while on tour with Le Tigre, she met teenagers who had told her of starting LGBT groups and gay/straight alliances in their high schools; she said, "Hearing that made me feel so hopeful for the future". In the same interview, Hanna stated she was saddened by trans-exclusionary feminist movements, and appeared to support transfeminism.
In 2018, Hanna started "Tees 4 Togo", a project which sells t-shirts with drawings of Hanna's friends such as Kim Gordon, Patton Oswalt, Joan Jett, and Chuck D drawn by artists Sarah Larnach, Adee Roberson, and Hannah Lucy. 100% of the proceeds go to the non-profit Peace Sisters which helps fund local girls' school tuition costs in Dapaong, Togo. The cost of one $40 shirt funds an entire school year for a student.
Hanna has been involved with Adam Horovitz since 1997, and they have been married since 2006. Hanna suffered from Lyme disease for six years before it was correctly diagnosed. In May 2014, Hanna's Lyme disease condition had deteriorated, forcing her to enter a three-month course of treatment and cancel live performances with her band the Julie Ruin. In June 2015, tests revealed that she was Lyme-free.
In popular culture
- Hanna unintentionally came up with the name for Nirvana's 1991 breakthrough single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by writing "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on Kurt Cobain's wall. At the time, Cobain was unaware that Hanna was referring to a deodorant marketed specifically to young women, and thought that the phrase would anchor the song's theme.
- The NOFX song "Kill Rock Stars," from the album So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes, is written about Hanna, referencing her by name: "Kill the rockstars? How ironic, Kathleen. You've been crowned the newest queen." The song's title is a reference to independent label Kill Rock Stars.
- Performance artist and rapper Mykki Blanco featured Hanna on the track "A Moment with Kathleen" in her mixtape Gay Dog Food, in which she samples a recording from a moment after interacting with Kathleen.
- The song "Kathleen" by Pinhead Gunpowder is written about Hanna.
- She is a guest singer on the album American Idiot by Green Day as the character Whatsername on the track "Letterbomb."
- Revolution Girl Style Now! self-released cassette (1991)
- Bikini Kill (EP) on Kill Rock Stars (1991)
- Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah split LP with Huggy Bear on Catcall Records in the UK, Kill Rock Stars in the US (1993)
- Pussy Whipped on Kill Rock Stars (1993)
- The C.D. Version of the First Two Records, compilation (1994)
- Reject All American on Kill Rock Stars (1996)
- The Singles (1998)
- "New Radio/Rebel Girl" 7" single on Kill Rock Stars (1993)
- "The Anti-Pleasure Dissertation" 7" Single on Kill Rock Stars (1994)
- "I Like Fucking" / "I Hate Danger" 7" single on Kill Rock Stars (1995)
- "Feels Blind" on Kill Rock Stars LP/CD (1991)
- "Candy" on Throw: The Yoyo Studio Compilation, Yoyo Records (1991)
- "Daddy's Lil' Girl" on Give Me Back LP, Ebullition Records (1991)
- "Suck My Left One" on There's A Dyke In The Pit, Outpunk Records (1992)
- Julie Ruin on Kill Rock Stars (1997)
The Julie Ruin
Singles and EPs
- "Hot Topic" (1999)
- From the Desk of Mr. Lady EP (2001)
- Remix (2003)
- "New Kicks (2004)
- "TKO" (2004)
- "After Dark" (2005)
- "This Island Remixes Volume 1" EP, Chicks on Speed Records (2005)
- "This Island Remixes Volume 2" EP, Chicks on Speed Records (2005)
- "Standing in the Way of Control" 12" split EP with the Gossip on Kill Rock Stars (2006)
- "Boy Poison", 7", Ultrasound Records, 1990
- "Suture", 7", Decomposition/Dischord, 1992
- Real Fiction, LP, Kill Rock Stars, 1995
Solo and guest appearances
- Rock Star / Mean (Wordcore Volume 1) as Kathleen Hanna and Slim Moon, Kill Rock Stars (1991)
- Play Pretty for Baby, the Nation of Ulysses; includes backing vocals by Hanna (1992)
- Rock Stars Kill, includes Hanna's "I Wish I Was Him", Various Artists, Kill Rock Stars, (1994)
- Ball-Hog or Tugboat? LP/CD "Heartbeat", Mike Watt, (1995)
- Home Alive, The Art of Self Defense, Epic, includes "Go Home", written and performed with Joan Jett and Evil Stig, (1996)
- "60 second wipe out" Atari Teenage Riot; Hanna featured on lead vocals on song 'No Success' (1999)
- Featuring ... , Internal External, LP, K Records (2000)
- "Playgroup" Playgroup; Hanna featured on lead vocals on the song 'Bring It On' (2001)
- Realistes, Comet Gain; Hanna featured on track "Ripped-Up Suit", (2002)
- "Wordy Rappinghood" Chicks on Speed; features Hanna on vocals, (2003)
- "Kiss on the Lips" from the album 'Naked' from Joan Jett is a duet with Hanna, (2004)
- American Idiot, Green Day, the song "Letterbomb" begins with vocals by Hanna as Whatsername, (2004)
- Sinner, Joan Jett; Hanna contributes to the songs "Five", "Watersign", "Baby Blue" and "Tube Talkin" (2007)
- "Hey Hey My My Yo Yo" Junior Senior; Hanna featured on the song 'Dance, Chance, Romance', (2007)
- "Eating Makeup" by Seth Bogart features vocals provided by Hanna, (2016)
- P.O.S - "Sleepdrone/Superposition" from "Chill, dummy" (2017)
- Azerrad, Michael (2001). Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-47199-8. OCLC 49040415.
- Buckley, Peter (November 20, 2003). The Rough Guide to Rock (3rd revised ed.). Rough Guides. ISBN 1-84353-105-4. OCLC 890370405.
- Robbins, Ira; Wolk, Douglas (1997), The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock, New York: Fireside, ISBN 0-684-81437-4