“The promoter came in and told us a bomb threat had been called in.” Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna lays bare the violence, abuse and misogyny directed at her fearless feminist punk band in brutally honest memoir Rebel Girl

Bikini Kill vocalist Kathleen Hanna shares her truth in raw, unflinching and unforgettable memoir Rebel Girl

Rebel Girl
(Image: © William Collins)

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There's a cute moment in Rebel Girl, where Kathleen Hanna recalls the day that her now-husband, Adam 'Ad Rock' Horovitz, visited her apartment in Tacoma, Washington for the first time. The two musicians had met in January 1996 when their respective bands, Bikini Kill and Beastie Boys, toured Australia together as part of the Summersault festival package, and Hanna was so taken by "the sexiest boy in the world" - married, at the time, to actress Ione Skye - that upon her return to the US, she purchased a poster of the Beastie Boys in a Sam Goody record store at the local mall, purely so that she could look at Horovitz's face and, she admits, kiss her crush's "gorgeous pouty mouth." When the rapper visits her home and discovers the poster in her closet, Hanna, trying to play things cool, tells him that she purchased it as a gift for a cousin, and was hoping that Horovitz might autograph it.

"What's wrong with my mouth?" Horovitz asks, looking at the poster.

'I'd made out with the poster so much that his mouth was all fucked up', Hanna candidly admits in her memoir. 'Some of the coloring was gone, and it was all wavy.'

The singer reveals that she attempted to style her way out of the question by saying that she must have spilled water on the poster.

"Only on my mouth?" Horovitz says, the "ear to ear" smile on his face indicating to Hanna that she has been busted, even if Horovitz has the good manners not to push his line of enquiry any further. 

This sweet little anecdote is worth highlighting in Hanna's 322-page autobiography, because it's a vanishingly rare example of a man behaving decently to her. Depressingly, it's likely that many women reading the singer's unflinching recollections of her abusive father, misogynist boyfriends, violent sexual assaults, near-constant micro-aggressions, stalkers and rapists, will be less shocked than male readers, but the sheer weight of these collected testimonies is horrifying and enraging. Inspired by Babes In Toyland, a life-changing Fugazi gig in Seattle, and feminist magazine Bitch, Hanna forms the thrillingly confrontational Bikini Kill in Olympia, Washington as a platform to speak her truth, advocate for survivors, and call out abusers, and unwittingly (and somewhat unwillingly) becomes the de facto 'face' of the early '90s Riot Grrrrl punk movement. But with this elevated profile comes a whole new set of challenges, betrayals and abuse.

Famously, it was Hanna who inspired the title of Nirvana's game-changing debut single for Geffen, when, after a drunken night out with Kurt Cobain, she scrawled the words 'Kurt smells like Teen Spirit' with a Sharpie on the bedroom wall of the rented apartment Nirvana's frontman shared with the band's new drummer Dave Grohl: the graffiti was a reference to a new deodorant brand Hanna and Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail had spotted in a local supermarket, the jokey implication being that Cobain, who was dating Vail, now shared the same scent as his girlfriend. In a more just world, Bikini Kill would be infinitely more significant than this footnote in rock history, because at their best, the quartet were one of the most electrifying and essential bands of the '90s. On Saturday, April 4, 1992, Bikini Kill opened a Rock For Choice benefit show for Fugazi and L7 in Washington DC which Hanna remembers as  "one of the best shows of my life": This writer was in the audience that night, and remembers Bikini Kill's performance as utterly compelling, Hanna an absolutely magnetic presence at centre stage, with those in attendance hanging on her every word. On the back cover of Rebel Girl, Hanna states that singing gave her "a career I was once too damaged to enjoy but now find thrilling", and it's a great shame that Bikini Kill's ascent was met with so much hostility and naked hatred, and that Hanna didn't get more moments to treasure, for she, and her band, deserved better.

With that said, she has recollections that make for spine-tingling reading three decades on. In the spring of 1993, the band came to the UK for the first time to play a co-headline tour with Brighton's Huggy Bear, and found themselves trailed around the country by tabloid paparazzi. One newspaper printed a photo of Hanna and Vail with the caption, 'Don't hate us because we're fat and retarded.' Later that week, as the tour stopped at TJ's in Newport, Wales, Hanna recalls looking into the venue pre-show and seeing men picking fights with girls in the crowd, screaming the words "Cunt feminists" into their faces. "I was pretty sure that this was the night we were going to get the shit kicked out of us," she writes. "Then the promoter came in and told us a bomb threat had been called in."

"We'd started talking about canceling for safety reasons when we heard girls' voices chanting something quietly. It got louder and louder, and eventually we realized the girls in the audience were singing the chorus of Rebel Girl to drown out the assholes who were fucking with them... These girls built a wall between themselves and the fuckheads with their voices."

It's a powerful, striking image. And yet, for Bikini Kill, the joy of such moments was too often outweighed by negative memories. On the page that follows Hanna's recollections of that gig, she writes, "My dream of an inclusive punk scene was crumbling. Riot Grrrl had become like a hydra monster - super complicated, at times beautiful, but also potentially destructive." Reading this would be more dispiriting if one was unaware that the reformed Bikini Kill are finally now getting their flowers: next month, the band will return to the UK to play venues six, seven or eight times bigger than those they were playing with Huggy Bear. Hanna's post-Bikini Kill band Le Tigre also reformed last year, playing shows with The Linda Lindas, a band who've covered Bikini Kill's Rebel Girl in the past, in support. The revolution Hanna fought for is still very much alive, and her enlightening, empowering and unforgettable memoir offers no end of reminders as to exactly why it remains so necessary and important.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.