Russia’s Pussy Riot makes a statement by making a scene at Outside Lands

Joy Diamond August 7, 2022Updated: August 8, 2022, 4:10 pm (Datebook.SFChronicle.com)

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova sings during the final day of Outside Lands.Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Nadya Tolokonnikova has always been one to proudly scream her social and political opinions — she’s not polite, and she’s not sorry, either. The 32-year-old founding member of Moscow feminist art and activism movement Pussy Riot regularly leads political demonstrations and once served more than a year in Russian prison for staging a protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Tolokonnikova has yet to be scared into silence, and she came to Outside Lands on its final day to make her voice heard in the Bay Area.

“Are you ready to riot?” she asked the crowd at the Panhandle stage on Sunday, Aug. 7, just a few days after a more intimate concert at the Independent just a few miles away from Golden Gate Park.

Highlights from Outside Lands 2022

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova performs during the final day of Outside Lands.Photo: Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

Tolokonnikova opened with Pussy Riot’s politically charged punk rock headbanger, “Police State,” provocatively lifting up her T-shirt — which read “Pussy” in Russian — as she sang. By the end of the  song, she took off the shirt, which sparked a wave of cheers. But the audience’s initial hoots and hollers quickly evolved into vehement screams of support when Tolokonnikova flipped the shirt over to reveal another message: “FREE BRITTNEY GRINER.”

The statement calls for the release of the American professional women’s basketball player who has recently been sentenced to nine years in Russian prison for carrying cartridges containing cannabis hash oil — for which she was legally prescribed in her home state of Arizona — in her luggage when entering the country to play in the Russian Premier League.

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova holds up a shirt calling for imprisoned basketball player Brittney Griner’s release.Photo: Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

And Tolokonnikova wasn’t finished.

Turning her attention to reproductive rights, Tolokonnikova momentarily stepped offstage to show a video of Pussy Riot members in colorful balaclavas protesting at the Texas state Capitol building. “We believe that every person with a womb has a f—ing right to decide what they want to do with their own body,” one member said in the film.

The singer then came back onstage to give a speech, encouraging fans to donate to abortion funds and take action to defend and fight for abortion rights.

“Congress can and should protect the right to access abortion in every state,” she said. “Criminalizing abortion doesn’t stop abortions, it just makes abortion less safe. If you’re a lawmaker and you’re guided by (the Bible), simply f—ing good luck. F— you.”

Tolokonnikova proceeded to open up about her own abortions. “I (got) two abortions, and I’m thrilled and happy I was able (get) them, because no one deserves to be an unwanted child. Vasectomy prevents abortion!”

On the same stage, Mill Valley-born Salem Ilese had made her own abortion rights statement during her solo set on Saturday, Aug. 6, changing lyrics to her hit song “Mad at Disney” to take aim at the U.S. Supreme Court: “I’m mad at SCOTUS, SCOTUS,” she sang. “They voted, voted our reproductive rights away.”

A backup dancer with Pussy Riot on the Panhandle Stage on the final day of Outside Lands.Photo: Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

Appropriately, Ilese returned to the Panhandle Stage to join Tolokonnikova for their song, “Princess Charming,” a feel-good anthem celebrating independent women. Earlier this year, Ilese and Pussy Riot collaborated to create a line of non-fungible tokens through which they raised $170,000 for the Center for Reproductive Rights.

A few songs later, a second surprise guest graced the stage: singer and rapper Boyfriend Together, Boyfriend and Pussy Riot performed their new single, “Dance With the Devil,” as they took turns dancing with two backup dancers wearing ski masks and lingerie.

After the pair ended their duet, Tolokonnikova made two final statements.

“The only thing political prisoners need is to not be forgotten,” she said, touching on her incarceration and activism. “This next one’s for Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian flag filled the screen behind Tolokonnikova as she called the audience members to join her in raising their fists for the Ukrainian national anthem. Then thousands in the crowd listened together in silence, a sea of supportive arms in the air.

  • Joy DiamondJoy Diamond is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: joy.diamond@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @itsjoydiamond
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