Philadelphia’s Break Free Fest is a sanctuary for punk diversity

Racetraitor and Mass Arrest head up Break Free, a festival designed to celebrate diversity in underground music.

Philadelphia’s Break Free Fest is a sanctuary for punk diversity
Farrah Skeiky

“We’re together in our struggle, but we’re also together in our celebration,” declares Mass Arrest vocalist Boo Boo, kicking off the last set of Break Free Fest. It's apparent that the same thought is dawning on many people at the same time: this weekend may have originally been about anger and retaliation, but tonight the room is ruled by joy.

Now in its third year, Break Free Fest is a punk festival by and for punks of color in West Philadelphia. It’s a space for punks who are black, brown, indigenous, Asian, and LGBTQ+ to show up as multifaceted humans and partake in a community that shares their experiences. For many, it’s the first time they have played or attended a festival made up primarily of people who look like them. Punks who have been playing music for decades wish aloud that they had seen a festival like this when they were younger. If you’ve been looking for a weekend created to love yourself, enjoy new bands, dance to Reggaeton and Prince between sets, and have a portion of your ticket donated to organizations like Juntos: welcome.

The lineup is as diverse in sound as it is in appearance: pop-punkers Choked Up get toes tapping just before San Antonio’s Amygdala shake the room with furious grindcore. Maryland supergroup Truth Cult rock, and No Man can scream. Listless, a blackened metallic hardcore sextet boasting two singers, induce twerking in the pit. And that makes Soul Glo’s Throw Some D’s opening cover a perfect segue.

Hardcore rippers like Provoke not only exist alongside noise group 700 Bliss (a project of Moor Mother and DJ Haram), but celebrate sharing a bill with them, showing up to dance when they take over the floor. This should speak not just to the strength of this festival, but to the versatility of the artists who continue to break molds and inspire more to do the same.

A lot of work goes into a celebration like this one, especially when there are few like it. Break Free exists because organizers refused to wait for someone else to create their version of it, and because the bands didn’t wait for someone else to pass them the mic. Friendships start here, new bands are born here, and action is sparked.

When the crowd leaves the room, they take with them an excitement and urgency to keep the celebration going -- but they will assuredly come back next year, in grinning defiance, with new ways to celebrate.

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