Creating Inclusive Alternative Spaces With Sister Duo ALT BLK ERA

Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Connor Pope

For the girlies and enbies especially, alternative gigs can feel like being new kid and trying to sit at the cool kids’ lunch table in an early 2000s coming-of-age film – daunting. They’re hyper-masculine environments where at any moment some ‘true fan’ might demand you name the last 12 albums released by the band whose tee you’re wearing, even though you’re only 16 and weren’t alive for the first six releases.

While ALT BLK ERA, comprised of sister duo Chaya (15) and Nairobi (19), believe metal gigs are actually “notoriously safe space(s)”, it doesn’t stop them from understanding that everyone might not always feel comfortable in an environment where smashing up against a 6ft tall bloke with a leather bondage aesthetic is the norm.

Sitting in the greenroom at Hare and Hounds before their first headline gig in Brum, Nairobi explains, “We’ve been to some metal gigs. It’s been fine, walking in obviously we’ll get a few looks. Some of the older metal heads are a bit like ‘What are you doing here?’ but no one’s ever said anything bad.”

The sisters are confident, and we all note we’ve been readily picked up by good Samaritans after falling in the pit, but it only takes one prestige metalhead with a sneering are-you-sure-you’re-at-the-right-gig look to feel like you’re the wrong kind of weird. Combine that with the raw physicality of mosh pits and it’s enough to send those less confident packing.

So, what are ALT BLK ERA doing to make sure all “misfits” can let loose and express their alternative energy?

“The fact that we are mixing genres as young black women, we find that we’ve started to have more alternative black people coming to our shows,” says Nairobi, “so that feels really special.

“It is safe because we all make sure it is and that’s just the community that it is.”

While you could argue the musical and cultural roots of metal/punk are Black – stemming originally from hard rock and garage rock respectively, thus blues – the punk movement has been historically and culturally whitewashed, and alternative music continues to be predominately white space.

Hence, it’s genuinely ‘special’ for ALT BLK ERA to be reclaiming a significant amount of physical and virtual alternative space.

Nairobi continues: “The fact that we’re mixing rap, electronic, metal, the dark pop vibes, we see people from all different communities and age groups who typically would not be in the same space.”

“Sometimes we’re looking down and we’re like this is amazing because you guys would never have met ever in your lifetime, but in this moment we’re all sharing music and we’re all happy.”

ALT BLK ERA’s ‘SOLAR’ more “high energy” tracks are typically kicked off by Nairobi’s and Chaya brings the more grounded ‘LUNAR’. But they always ended up being an authentic mix of both sisters.

“When we first decided to do music we were just making so many songs,” says Chaya.

“We needed an excuse to put out two songs with the same vibe,” Nairobi adds, laughing.

Chaya continues, “We realised it was a good idea, everyone’s got two sides to them, we’re putting music out for both sides rather than just one.”

“There’s some songs that Chaya will really like,” explains Nairobi, “and she’ll be like ‘we have to record this one, we have to do it, I really love this one’.”

“I’ll be like ‘I’m not really feeling it’, but then she’s so passionate about it that we won’t ignore each other’s feelings. Then, we add something,” finishes Chaya.

I wonder if it ever gets a bit rocky/heavy being sisters and working in high-pressure creative environments. But Nairobi adds: “I don’t think we really argue” and they both shake their heads.

Sam, ALT BLK ERA’s drummer chimes in: “When I’ve worked with you if you’ve both got a conflicting opinion you’ll at least give each other’s opinion a try.”

“To see what’s best,” say Nairobi and Chaya, speaking and nodding in sync.

Since the sisters are resolute about “honesty” and go back and forth until both of them are “passionate and in love with the music,” Nairobi says, “no one can really put a genre on our music,” some of it’s trap metal and other tracks are dark pop.

“We used to be quite fussed about it, asking people ‘What genre is this? Help, we don’t know what we’ve created.’ Now I’m just like it’s an alternative, period.

“Whatever it is, if you think it’s electronic, punk, rap, it’s alternative, it’s ALT BLK ERA.”

And if she’d had a mic, I’m sure Nairobi would’ve dropped it.

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