Festival Review: Break Free Fest, Philadelphia’s Hardcore Festival For and By People of Color, is Back on the Scene

If you Google “Philadelphia hardcore scene” or “Philly punk history,” you’ll find stories and archives often describing the City of Brotherly Love as “sandwiched” between New York City and D.C. This suggests Philly’s significance is somehow lesser than the two in the scope of punk and hardcore history. This is largely untrue

Break Free Fest pays homage to Philly’s past and solidifies the city’s role in the present as the vanguard safe space for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous punk and hardcore, and surely will wedge its way into history as another legendary space in Philly’s underground scene.

Scout Cartagena is the rambunctious organizer and big brain behind Break Free Fest. They are originally from Baltimore but moved to Philadelphia after finishing chemotherapy, primarily to finish their degree in art and art education. “From Patsy Cline to Slayer to Lil Kim, I grew up listening to tons of different music. I credit punk for helping me discover my self-expression.” That discovery led to them creating Break Free Fest after their first year living in Philly. 

“I had grown up being one of the only Black kids at punk, screamo, or metal shows, and a lot of times I was made to feel like the outsider in a room full of people who considered themselves outsiders,” Cartagena says. “I wanted to connect to a community I was repeatedly told didn’t exist. I wanted to see a room full of people of color slamming into each other and picking each other off the floor. I wanted us on the mic.” They were tired of the mansplaining and gatekeeping of revolutionary principles often tied in with punk, so Cartagena and their old roommate made a plan. They began to reach out to their community, and the pieces started falling together serendipitously. 

The first Break Free Fest was in 2016, and Cartagena has since organized four festivals in total. Upon announcing their 2020 lineup, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, forcing them to cancel the festival. Cartagena describes being in the middle of their senior thesis as the world shut down and the feelings of hopelessness that followed.

“COVID hurt us bad… we couldn’t imagine getting together in a room full of people with bands from all over the country during the first year of a global pandemic.” However, with the money they had reserved for 2020’s show, they decided to lean into mutual aid and gave what was left to people of color who were most impacted by the pandemic. “With the BLM protest summer and Trump in office, it was just important to take care of ourselves and the community.” 

Then, the second year of COVID came around, bringing with it the same uncertainty. Cartagena says, “We were still all unsure of what was going to happen and were just trying to stay afloat, so we decided to put it off another year. That one really hurt because I just wanted us all to be together again.” 

After two years of uncertainty, especially in nightlife, arts, and culture, this year’s Break Free Fest felt different. From Ukie Club’s kitschy chandeliers and bisexual lighting to a sold-out show at PhilaMOCA, a space that once was a showroom for mausoleums and tombstones, Philly became the backdrop for a two-day hardcore banquet.

The 2022 lineup included bands from previous years like Amygdala bringing hardcore punk from San Antonio and Listless, the six-piece hardcore revenge band from Richmond, along with newcomers Barrio Slam, a Xicano hardcore punk band from Pomona, Playytime, Atlanta’s hardcore heavy hitters, Move’s freedom dreams straight out of Boston, and HARDCOREBAE, a horrorcore-inspired solo act from Brooklyn, to name a few. Other bands came in from all across the U.S., representing the Bay, New York City, Baltimore, and the state of Massachusetts. 

The political undertones and responses to today’s social issues could be felt across the lineup and its vendors. From anti-colonial “free Palestine” merch, live self-defense classes courtesy of Boxing As A Form of Resistance, and even a guest appearance and talk with Mike Africa Jr., Break Free Fest embodied revolutionary praxis. 

Cartagena mentioned that this year’s fest had the most out-of-town bands, the first in Break Free’s history. “Honestly, I just reached out to bands I had been following and seen friends post on social media. A lot of emails, DMs, texts later, we were able to grab bands that could fill in at the last minute,” they listed. 

It was also the first time Cartagena coordinated the fest alone in the midst of finals and college graduation. 

“In the past, I’ve had friends helping me from afar, but life came up. Also, I had to change the dates from May to June because of graduation, but June is a way busier month for music. I found myself competing with bands getting back into touring, taking breaks, traveling, and work. Getting bands from far out proved hard as well.” In Break Free’s true DIY fashion, Cartagena crowdfunded in order to help bands travel.

The charisma, unending style, energy, and undeniable stage presence from all the bands was evident on showgoers’ faces despite the body aches a heavy two-day lineup brings. And the reviews are in.

Attendee Jonny Edge calls it a night to remember. “Break Free Fest was by far one of the best shows I’ve been to in a long time. Being surrounded by so many like-minded people was great. The inclusivity felt was unlike any other.” 

Chef Jennifer Zavala, who catered a delicious set of meals on day one (from tamales to cheesesteaks, of course), said, “…literally one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in music in a while, and I’m old and I’ve been around.” 

Photographer Arturo Zarate expressed his wish that more spaces like Break Free Fest were available. “Where was this shit when I was 15? I would’ve killed to see another Chicano in the pit with me. But now that I know that those spaces exist, I feel so empowered!”

And that’s the point. The beauty of Break Free Fest is in its community. Cartagena admires how straight to the point the people are when asked about what they want the world to know about the punk and hardcore scene in Philly and the Northeast.

“If things aren’t good enough, if we feel conflict, if we don’t fuck with something, we say what we feel head-on. I feel like our scene fits that, too. We’re raw and in-your-face, but we’re also ready to fight for those we care about. You know when someone falls in the pit and people rush to help them up? Or if someone is tying their shoes, and someone makes sure no one falls over them? That’s how I feel about it. Yeah, there are some dickheads out there, but the roots of this shit is about being there for each other. Sometimes we forget that, but after every Fest, I remember how strong that is. I’ll fight for those who’ll fight for me.”

Photos by Gene Barclay. Words by Shaira Chaer.

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