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‘Punk Has Always Been Black’: Vishinna Turner Creates Through Trauma

December 11, 2019
Written by
Stephanie Mendez
Photos by
Liz Cabrera, Vongeek, and Courtesy of the Artist

Bassist Vishinna Turner (Fatty Cakes and the Puff Pastries, Squid Ink) finds space in Fresno, CA and tackles deep identity issues through music.

Existing as a Black femme in a predominantly white town like Fresno, California might not be the easiest thing in the world, but Vishinna Turner of Fatty Cakes and the Puff Pastries has no problem doing it. Even more radical is that she makes music that explicitly calls out white supremacy and patriarchal ideology in this environment.

“We’ve struggled as Fatty Cakes to find space here,” says Turner of Fresno. “We’re in such a conservative town that people don’t digest us well. We’re loud, fat-bodied, queer, of color—we’re all the things that make people feel uncomfortable and want to turn us off.”

When Turner first started playing bass, she had no idea that her creative energy would manifest into something bigger and more meaningful. As a sophomore in high school, she was asked a random question from her father: If you could play any instrument in the world, what would you play? Turner thought about it briefly, responded with “bass,” and the conversation ended. She didn’t anticipate anything else.

“The next day I came home from school, and there was a bass sitting on the couch,” she says. “It was [my father’s] and his brother’s old bass, so it had actually been passed down between them two to me. It was a really old Rockwood Hohner bass, and I was excited.”

Photo by Vongeek

However, it wasn’t until Turner was out of high school that she committed to learning the bass. Inspired by grunge and riot grrrl, she went through a couple of projects before ultimately ending up in her present all-femme band, Fatty Cakes and the Puff Pastries, which plays a fun mix of pop melodies and punk. Turner is joined by Audrey Johnson (drums), Amber Fargano (lead vocals/electric ukulele), Staci McDowell (backing vocals/q chord), and Victoria Crow (backing vocals/glockenspiel). 

Fatty Cakes and the Puff Pastries is backed by iconic Bags vocalist Alice Bag, who helped fine-tune their sound and also produced their 2018 self-titled full-length debut. One of Turner’s favorite memories of this experience was Bags’ first visit to Fresno, when she bonded with the girls over Miss Piggy’s BBQ, which is owned by Turner’s mother. 

“When Alice came to Fresno, my mom made food for us. We ate barbecue with Alice Bag, it was the craziest thing in the world,” says Turner. “[Alice] is such an influential spirit in my life, so it was cool to have her and my mom—who is another influential spirit—come together.”

Fatty Cakes and the Puff Pastries flaunts a cute aesthetic with bubbly personalities, but one would be amiss to mistake this for a lack of substance—Fatty Cakes tackles deep identity issues in their music, and they have no qualms challenging problematic views. 

“Going out and screaming, ‘Fuck you and your neo-nazi friends’ in a conservative town is gonna make it so that a bunch of really scared white men are going to lash out at you,” Turner says. “But I feel like that’s the whole point of this, to make them feel uncomfortable in their skin, because they shouldn’t have space, and because we have this band that calls it out—that isn’t quiet about those things—we tend to get blacklisted, we tend to get lies spread about us so that we can be undermined.”

Photo by Liz Cabrera

Turner recalls one specific example that targeted her and Fatty Cakes drummer Audrey Johnson who is also Black: “Audrey and I both were being called tokens actually, we were also called an all-white feminist band for a long time, and it really erases us. It wouldn’t be the same without us, but no matter what, we have to be tokens, we have to be stripped of all of our stuff to be palatable.”

The obstacles Turner has faced as a musician in the Fresno scene are issues prominently rooted in anti-Blackness. She has especially had to fight against the “angry Black woman” narrative that comes with being outspoken or even just standing up for herself.

“As a Black woman, no matter how I handle the situation—whether I say something or not, whether I get angry or stay nice, whether I try to be quiet or outspoken—I get the bully tag. I’m scary, I’m big, I’m Nlack,” says Turner.

It took Turner a long time to embrace her identity while navigating Fresno’s white spaces, and to reach a place of empowerment. She credits her bass and music in helping her achieve this. “I had an outlet for creativity that was effortless for me—that literally became the reason why I have a voice,” she says. “It created space for me to talk about issues in my life, and created space for me to be fully queer, fully Black, and fully present in this world, because not having a voice can kill you. So that’s really what the bass has done for me, it has created this platform for healing and for expression.”

Squid Ink

This year, Turner decided to take her advocacy and music a step further with two new projects: Bruise Violet Collective and Squid Ink. The Bruise Violet Collective is made up of musicians, writers, and artists who organize events and safe spaces catering to marginalized identities. Squid Ink, on the other hand, is Turner’s new punk side project which features all Black women, including  Johnson.

“Audrey and I would look around and there was nobody that looked like us,” says Turner. “For so long, our community was built on having spaces that catered to white men in the punk scene…  and it’s so interesting because punk has always been Black, and Black folks have taken up that space since the beginning of punk, but we have never been pushed to the forefront, we haven’t had too much representation.”

The two women, along with fellow members Amber Williams and Janell Bowen, all hope to draw attention to this with their music and presence. “Our music is based around the Black experience, we talk about what it feels like growing up in Black communities… we get to talk about Black issues, issues that are never talked about in the scene, especially in the punk scene,” says Turner.

Additionally, the name of the band is meant to represent the type of Black power that the women are trying to harness. “When squid squirt black ink into the face of something that’s trying to harm them, that’s actually melanin,” says Turner. “They literally protect themselves with melanin, they protect themselves with their Blackness.”

Squid Ink is recording this year and will be playing the Punk Black Cali Fest II in Oakland this March. Fatty Cakes is planning a Pacific Northwest tour and will be in the studio next summer. As Turner prepares for new music with both projects, she aims to continue taking up space with aid from her most powerful tool: the bass.

“Everything we talked about in my life has flown in on this wonderful rhythm because of the bass… because I have the bass, because I have this community of awesome women. And because I get to create through trauma, I can heal this way,” she says.

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