After a five-year drought, transatlantic Amsterdam punks Kanipchen-Fit return with spartan sophomore LP Unfit For These Times Forever. The band spoke to OCC about the album’s primary catalyst: a nasty ordeal with New York law enforcement.
Kanipchen-Fit‘s melodic, soul-tinged punk rock matter-of-factly chronicles the shared personal experiences of Gloria Holwerda-Williams and Empee Holwerda, with stylistic flourishes from the likes of X-Ray Spex, Sonic Youth and TV On The Radio. Not so obviously, maybe, the music channels Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis, treading a deft equilibrium between the sanguine pipe dreams and the stark survivalism of the everyday.
Moreover, Holwerda and Williams prefer not to muck up their songs with fancy metaphors or oblique statements. Most of the songs contain literal sum ups of the couple’s world-weary observations. Fight, the opening song of Unfit For These Times Forever, is pretty much a word-for-word recap of their ordeal in New York.
By deliberately stripping their songs down, they somehow create this almost absurd hyperrealism. Take for instance the dust bowl blues-tainted Prison Channel, the opening song of debut LP Multibenefit. At one point the song laments the cruelties of a killer on death row. That’s where Kanipchen-Fit hits you with a hefty cliffhanger: Yet on the night they put him in the chair/They made us watch/Hardcore porn.
Holwerda: ‘I saw this documentary that explained when someone from death row is executed, they show pornography to keep the rest of the prison population in check. To pacify them, so they don’t riot. But Prison Channel has an element of dark humor in it, hopefully a little bit uplifting even. The song making a comment of something horrible, but also accepting the reality of it.’
When we meet outside of Amsterdam venue Studio K, Williams’s hand is wrapped in a cast: a sustained injury from a car accident about a week ago. In the song Residue she deadpans about a similar incident: I wore medical alert bracelet/but it flew off when I was hit by a car. Weirdly prophetic, to say the least.
“I saw this documentary that explained when someone from death row is executed, they show pornography to keep the rest of the prison population in check.”
Actually, so was the moment when Williams and Holwerda first met. Holwerda reached a cul de sac with alternative rockers Solbakken and decided it was best to move in with a friend from New York. ‘He bought a new house which was a piece of shit that needed a lot of work done,’ he recalls. ‘And he thought I could help him. So I went over for three months first, then for an additional three weeks.’
It was during those first three months when Holwerda first met Williams, a visual artist and poet, at his friend’s birthday party. ‘Our friend unknowingly set us up on a date that summer. He said: “You two are my best friends, I saw this movie… You guys would love it!” The movie is called Black Cat, White Cat. Well, that’s perfect,’ Gloria jests, reiterating the fact that Williams and Holwerda are a mixed couple. ‘We took that as a sign. The film was actually about marriage, which was weird because our friend didn’t really believe in marriage. It was interesting… And uhm… And well…’
She coyly glances at her husband. They briefly share a moment of awkward silence, as if simultaneously thinking about the same inside joke. Then, in a flash, they burst out in laughter together. Holwerda wryly concedes: ‘It was a great night, let’s just say that.’ After one last hurrah with Solbakken, he left The Netherlands to move in for good with Williams.
Holwerda, the Frisian-born musician has a typically Dutch demeanor: an even-keeled fellow with a warm glint in his eye. New York-native Gloria on the other hand, is an outgoing, jovial personality whose endearing habit of suddenly bursting into laughter often springs up during serious topics. Despite their vastly different demographic backgrounds, both Holwerdas complement each other perfectly.
A year after the two got married, Kanipchen-Fit came into fruition. According to Holwerda, it all happened very organically, in Amsterdam no less. ‘It was at an initiative called Wijsjes Uit Het Oosten of two friends of mine from Amsterdam. The initial concept was to see the performance artists in their own creative environment.’ The first time Holwerda and Williams participated, it was as separate artists: he would do a performance and Williams would exhibit her visual art. The second time, they went out on a limb to do an improvisational show.
Williams: ‘That was funny, because musically we were HORRIBLE together at first!’ Empee: ‘I just brought acoustic guitar along, so I didn’t know what to expect. Once we started performing, there was all this crazy stuff going on.’ Once again the two burst out in bright laughter. ‘He hadn’t seen me perform yet!,’ Williams chortles. ‘It was great!’ Holwerda: ‘A lot of people said, you should go and do this more often!’
In fact, Williams has. Many times. In the early nineties, she was a member of the Pussy Poets, a five-woman ensemble of poets who derive from different backgrounds. Gloria: ‘It was a very interesting time for poetry in New York. The Nuyorican has always been the place for the mainstays. In those days it was open to any new person to come up and read. You could stay there for hours and hours. We would hang there till two or three o’ clock in the morning. Some of the Pussy Poets-members I met as I began to do poetry, and other I met through this producer-guy who said: “Hey you gals are cool… Why don’t we make you a group called the Pussy Poets?” At the time, I was the only one who was against it.’
The Pussy Poets weren’t exactly thespians who dignifiedly enunciate from a piece of paper, mind you. These women, all from different backgrounds, each coped with some form of childhood trauma. Their poetry slams had more in common with unruly punk rock performances, inflicting visceral emotional catharsis on the audiences, in an empowering way. Williams: ‘The spirit of the beat poets and people like Gil Scott Heron, we all heard of that history when we were kids. So that was coming back. It also inspired the revival of older poetry groups. Like one of Empee’s favorite groups…’
Holwerda: ‘The Last Poets. And Saul Williams. Some hip-hop artists were performing on the scene there too, like Dead Prez.’ Williams: ‘The scene became this huge mixture of all these group poets that have been there earlier. But now suddenly there was this new movement where they could step back in and school us.’ So what motivated Williams to join that movement in the first place?
For one, she was already pretty well-acquainted with hardship. An abusive childhood prompted Williams to become self-reliant in her salad days, surviving in the densely populated subdivisions of Spanish Harlem. Williams and her sister found a guardian in her alcoholic stepsister, a poignant personal story she narrates in the bone-chilling, wistful Vodka Rescue Team, a cut from Multibenefit.
The lyric is simply heartbreaking: And there was a time you were the rescuer of two/And there is no way I could rescue you. Williams and her sister were not dealt a perfect hand, but they saw value in the cards they did have. It’s haunting once you notice how this coincides with the album artwork for Unfit For These Times Forever. The cover features a buoy made of playing cards. ‘It’s part of a series of objects made from playing cards created by Gloria. Obviously, if you tossed this at somebody drowning, it wouldn’t work too well,’ Holwerda quips.
The playing cards can symbolize many things: hope, fate, chance. The buoy coincides with the image of a ship in the clouds that pops out like in one of those children’s books when you open the CD-packaging. ‘That piece is called Housing and Urban Development (HUD),’ Williams reveals. ‘I once lived in the New York area with the highest density of public housing, Spanish Harlem. Friends and family still live there. And that’s a very interesting development story for all the real estate people. But for us, you see, the districts were all these little islands separate from one another. Each was very much an enclosed world: you would enter them, you enter. And when you leave them you LEAVE them. The aspect of how the city presents conditions under which these people live, that’s not the choice of these people. It’s more like: this is what’s available.’
Williams and Holwerda had been living in New York together from 2005 to 2010. The disparity of conditions between certain subdivisions in the city stunned them both. ‘Especially seeing how this actually affected the mentality of people there,’ Gloria laments. ‘The children, how they lived. But also how the city treated them. They had less actual public services. We lived in Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue up on the East side. But you could tell the difference between the care in that area to the facilities just around the corner, as far as public services go.’
When asked about their stressful run-in with the New York Police Department, Holwerda and Williams are initially timid. ‘I’ll give you the short version,’ Empee tells us. ‘Gloria was arrested on some bullshit thing in our own apartment building. That was very scary, and we had to settle it in court for over a year.’ Gloria was about to be sentenced for a maximum two years in prison, simply because she happened to be living at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Gloria: ‘Empee had to actually stand in front of me to defend me. They were so shocked to see a white guy standing in the hallway, that it gave him a moment to get in front of me. He told them: she’s not resisting. Because they were trying to beat me and break my arm. It’s ridiculous.’ Empee: ‘It happens every day. The cops arrived at our place to make an arrest. They didn’t care who it was.’
With support from friends and family, Gloria was able to keep the court system at arm’s length longer than most African-American citizens would. ‘Most African-Americans in my position don’t get out of the system,’ she explains. ‘They are part of the grease that keeps the system going. We always say that Americans are so full of their own propaganda. Most of the stories on contemporary TV have been about what? Cops, lawyers, judges. The cops are usually right, the criminals are usually wrong.’ And justice is served.
“Most African-Americans in my position don’t get out of the system. They are part of the grease that keeps the system going.”
Fortunately, Williams got help from an attorney. Not just any attorney, by the way. Michael W. Warren is a high profile New York civil rights lawyer who took on much-covered cases like The Central Park Five. He also represented Tupac Shakur during the rapper’s infamous 1994 sexual abuse and weapons possession trial.
Williams: ‘Mr. Warren was our beacon of hope. How could we not move on after all he did to get me out of trouble? To make sure the cops weren’t able to beat me up and take me away. Which they could if they really wanted to. I’m an intelligent black woman who does not speak in a way many of the cops would like me to speak. For the NYPD, that’s enough to beat you up.’ Holwerda: ‘And the rest they’ll just make up. Resisting arrest, disorderly conduct.’ As a former victim of police brutality himself, Warren’s first piece of advice to Williams was simple: leave New York NOW. Not just till things blow over. But FOREVER.
‘Luckily I still had my apartment in East-Amsterdam rented out,’ Empee recalls. ‘So it worked out. We just made the trip back to America a few times for these court hearings.’ Flying back and forth from Amsterdam to New York was tedious. But nothing compared one particular hearing, where things almost went completely awry, according to Gloria.
‘Mr. Warren put his body on the line for me, to keep me from being beaten up again. When the judge said the hearing was over, he told everybody to stay in the courtroom and sit down. Usually you are told to stand up. All the cops have been coming in, lining up and putting on their gloves.’ As Gloria tells this, her husband’s hand clenches hers affectionately. ‘They were ready to beat the shit out of me. As soon as that happened… I flipped out! I said: are you fucking kidding me? Mr. Warren looked straight at me and said: Gloria, you gotta get up and get out of here now!’
“Mr. Warren put his body on the line for me, to keep me from being beaten up again.”
And so they did. Back in Amsterdam, the Holwerdas still had some fallout to deal with: a heap of paperwork and a new design for their lives. Gloria realizes after five years things aren’t exactly idyllic over here either: ‘I think it’s fucked up. And it’s smaller. The colonial history, it’s horrors, retribution, education, consideration of contemporary related issues in The Netherlands and in Europe have not been dealt with properly by the powers that be. Because they ARE the powers that be.’
‘I used to think, as far as police matters go: Well, at least Holland isn’t so violent,’ Holwerda adds. ‘Lately though, you hear about that kid Mitchell being beaten in The Hague. And all this racist profiling crap spilling over with rapper Typhoon, just because he’s a black guy in a car. One of the first things we did when we came back was to attend a meeting at this place called Delicatessen, organized by Quinsy Gario, who was not well known of back then. He has since become known as the most vocal Dutch protester against the Zwarte Piet-tradition.’
Once more, the perfect hand hasn’t been dealt to Williams and Holwerda. But that’s no reason to stop playing. Because one man told them to make the right move at the right time. And, ultimately, because they have each other. After the interview Gloria hands me her one card. It depicts her dressed as Saint Nicholas with the cheeky description: “The Sint you want: performance, songs, dance, sweets, laughs and presents.” Assuredly, her spirit hasn’t been broken. But, for all that, the battle has yet to be won.
Holwerda: ‘It’s one of the main reasons why we wanted to finish this album, so we could send one back to Mr. Warren. He fought for us till the last moment we were in that courtroom. And he kept stressing to Gloria: don’t let this fuck you up so bad that you don’t want to do music and art anymore.’
Williams: ‘We’re doing it, man… We’re DOING it, you know?’