By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
In a well-worn midtown practice space, Mandy, a 17-year-old from the Bronx, is telling me about all the bands she's been in. "When I was little I had this groupit was just a bunch of girls hanging out and singing in front of the mirror," she says. "We were like, 'Oh yeah, we're gonna be so famous!' " Her friend Nina, 16 and newly from Brooklyn, laughs and adds: "I used to sing for my grandmother and my father, if that counts for anything. I used to stand up on top of my bed and pretend it was my stage."
We're at the theater complex Centerstage, a 21st Street and 6th Avenue space where 6figuresthe first real band either Mandy or Nina has been in, a band they share with four other girls their ageare getting ready for the second show of their short careers. The group's first gig was in late June at Greenpoint's Club Exit, opening for decidedly adult California postpunk all-female rockers Erase Errata; now, in two days, they'll play the basement of the Knitting Factory. Right now the girls are working hard on the elaborate girl-group arm swings and patty-cake hand percussion techniques they've planned for this show. Only three of the six figures are present, however, and the choreography calls for four. "Hey Voice guy," one yells. "Come stand here."
The show will celebrate the release of 6figures' first record, Press 'Play' for the Truth, and serve as the culmination of a long, strange experience that started back in February, a rite of passage they've now shared with a million other kids their age: forming a band. Unlike most of their peers, 6figures had help. The girls met through a program called viBe SongMakers, one of several workshops run by viBe, a local nonprofit and performing-arts education program.
"We wanted to create a safe space for teenage girls," says co-founder Chandra Thomas, a full-time professional actor who calls viBe her "full-time part-time." "Assault is rampant. We are giving them the tools to say yes and no and advocate for themselves and say what's going on in a space that's not censored. We believe we are trying to create better citizens."
And, in their spare time at least, create a band.
Rockers and rappers are forever starting young, whether it's this year's teenage thrasher quartet Be Your Own Pet (sample lyric: "We all have holes in our socks/And Bad Brains totally rocks") or rap's endless parade of "Lil'" MCs. But 6figures don't self-identify as rock or rap per se, though the girls' grown-up backing bandpianist Emily Manzo, guitarist Allie Alvarado, drummer Mindy Abovitzis drawn from the ranks of the Brooklyn noise-punk scene, and the 6figures girls rap on some tracks. Nina describes it as "everything. A little bit of everything." In that, they have far fewer peers. "I know a bunch of aspiring rockers," Nina says. "Everybody wants to be a rocker nowadays."
Their producer and teacher, Katie Eastburn, cites similarly uncategorizable stuff like the Langley School Project, a mid-'70s untrained Canadian kids choir that sang Bowie and the Beach Boys in their gymnasium while banging on triangles and gamelans. Another precedent might be ESG, a late-'70s quartet of ambitious, James Brownloving teenage sisters from the South Bronx who played a revolutionary, arted-up funk and got discovered after their mom drove them to a talent show. In 2003, three pre-prom New York City girls called Fannypack shaped their pastiche of Miami booty bass, New York rap and electro, and raw kid energy into a genuine hit, "Cameltoe."
Maybe even more than their predecessors, 6figures are as much of an idea as a band; their sound changes so radically from one song to another that what they sound like, more than anything, is young. Like everybody's first band. Typically one girl writes the song and sings/raps it while her bandmates sing backup, play hype women, or generally scramble around in support of their temporary frontperson. One upbeat number, "Addicted to Approval," sounds like a soulful take on "Addicted To Love"it's even as catchy. Another song, "Never Let You Go," sounds like early-'90s Whitney Houston: epic, apocalyptic r&b. With holes in it.
R&B is the girls' dominant idiom, and especially older soul: Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Mary Mary, Christina Aguilera, Boyz II Men. All six 6figures have terrific singing voices, but they're not pros. They're also probably more talkers than rappers, telling stories that only sometimes fall on the beat. On their slower numbers, the girls sound powerful: grown-up, strong, decisive. But they want to do everything at once, and it shows. Lyrics skew uncontrollably between young and old: "When I want to be alone/Everyone blows up my cell phone/But when I really need a hug/No one's there to show me love," laments "Theresa's Blues"; on one of Nina's songs, "My Little Brother," she tells the little guy, while her bandmates spin out old-fashioned doo-wops, "I'll be there/Just call me/Text me/E-mail me."
They rarely listen to the modern rap music their classmates adore and imitate. "I don't like a lot of rappers cause they're derogatory," Nina says, although sometimes she cheats. "It's like McDonald's. You know you're not supposed to eat it because it's bad for you, but you eat it anyway 'cause it's good! It's somethinga lot of rap songs are catchy, but you don't want to listen to it 'cause you know you shouldn't, because you know it's degrading."
Back to rehearsal. I am standing in front of a mirror flanked by red curtains while three girls turn elaborate circles around me. Most of the group doesn't think the band will continue to be a regular thing after the Knitting Factory show, and I'm wondering why anyone would care that some kids had started some other band that would come and go and be seen by only a few, and heard by only a fraction more. Why spend time and energy on this band, this quintessential first band, with all its quintessential lumps and awkwardness and impermanence? When there isn't even a clear audience for what they do?
A week later, I ask Eastburn the same questionshe answers that the experience can be empowering even if few people are around to see it. "As they're growing up, as they're graduating high school, and as they're deciding what to do, it's like, 'Man, we have so little time, and we have to fucking scramble and fucking work our asses off and fucking do nightmarish shit just to get by,'" she explains. "All I know is that the time I've learned how to ownto just notice things and write songs about it and not go out and see peoplethat's what I'm trying to get across. It's about validating that impulse."
She looks away. "This is yours. Own it."
The viBe organization will begin another round of programs in the fall. Interested girls should e-mail us@viBeTheater.org" for more information and an application.