Oakland Rockers Copyslut Soundtrack the Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights

Eli Maliwan, Ray Zamora and Chatz (left to right) are Copyslut. They've played rallies and benefits, and published an educational zine. Now, Copyslut is working on their debut album.  (Nastia Voynovskaya)

In Copyslut’s new music video for “Makers Mark,” a club becomes a ritualistic space of magic and transcendence.

Behind mirrored doors, dancers demonstrate superhuman abilities on the pole, and lap dances cast spells for collective liberation. With people of many gender expressions and body types enthusiastically participating in the bacchanal, performers and audience members become indistinguishable from one another. The revelry takes them to heights of spiritual ecstasy, like a church service might on a Sunday morning—except in this case, they’re leaving covered in glitter.

“We’re really about pleasure being healing, and the radical possibilities of how pleasure and letting go of shame can do some of this deep, internal self-love work,” says lead singer Chatz during a recent interview at Airship Laboratories, a Richmond recording studio where Copyslut laid down tracks for their debut album, due out in early 2020.

“Makers Mark,” the latest single from the project, is a feminist reimagining of the legend of La Llorona, a character from Latin American folklore who drowns her children in a river after her husband leaves her. In Copyslut’s telling, La Llorona makes a complicated choice to protect her bloodline from energy-sucking vampires. An homage to guitarist Ray Zamora and art director Reiko Rasch's Mexican heritage, the band’s hard-rocking anthem communes with La Llorona like a spirit guide for those “strong enough to walk that edge,” or thrive despite experiencing marginalization in society.

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Living boldly and authentically, and claiming one’s sexuality as a source of power, are two big themes in Copyslut’s music, which the band members describe as their way of healing personal trauma and advocating for their communities. Chatz, whose soaring voice recalls Ann Wilson of Heart and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney, balances her life as a musician with sex work and activism. In Copyslut, those worlds frequently merge.

“I think it’s really cool how Chatz is bringing that sex work element into talking about really deep stuff,” says Zamora, describing the band’s vulnerable yet campy live shows, which combine elements of musical theater, sexuality and rock ’n’ roll. “It re-sensitizes everybody into their bodies and makes people more receptive to ideas, actually being able to take things in on a deep soul level.”

Chatz (left) and Ray Zamora of Copyslut.
Chatz (left) and Ray Zamora of Copyslut on set for the "Makers Mark" music video. (Kristen Wrzesniewski)

When and where Copyslut choose to play is often political. Last June, the band performed for sex workers and their allies at a rally at Oakland City Hall organized by Bay Area Worker Support (BAWS), a group that advocates for sex workers’ health and safety. BAWS mobilized following the controversial FOSTA/SESTA law of 2018, which—in an attempt to curb online child trafficking—shut down Backpage, Craigslist Personals and other websites where consenting, adult sex workers vetted clients, forcing some of them into much-more-dangerous outdoor work.

After speeches from former Oakland mayoral candidate Cat Brooks and activist Celeste Guap, Copyslut took the stage and performed “Right By You.” It was a particularly emotional moment for Chatz, who describes the song as a letter to her teenage self, who once upon a time was coming to terms with her queerness and contemplating leaving the Mormon church.

“I’m just seeing this sea of beautiful people in red and black and fishnets—and just the love—and singing songs I’ve written to heal my own internalized whorephobia,” says Chatz of playing at the rally. “I grew up very sheltered, and I experienced it as very brainwashed. So deconstructing some of that, and healing baby [me] ... and singing it to people like, ‘Oh my god, you’re healing your baby, your inner child.’ It was really, really magical.”

With all three band members identifying as queer or trans, a crucial part of Copyslut’s mission is illuminating the role sex workers have played in the LGBTQ liberation movement from the beginning. Martha P. Johnson, a prominent activist who emerged from the infamous Stonewall Uprising of 1969, for instance, supported her activism in the nascent gay rights movement through sex work.

“I’m transgender, so I feel like there’s a lot of intersectional issues with sex workers and the queer community and trans community,” says bassist Eli Maliwan, a jazz saxophone instructor by day.

Copyslut bassist Eli Maliwan (center) with lead singer Chatz (left) and guitarist Ray Zamora (far right) and dancers on set for the "Makers Mark" music video. Maliwan strums his bass, smiling, while dancers cheer him on.
Copyslut bassist Eli Maliwan (center) with lead singer Chatz (left) and guitarist Ray Zamora (far right) and dancers on set for the "Makers Mark" music video. (Kristen Wrzesniewski)

During this year’s Pride Month, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, Copyslut curated and headlined a Noise Pop show called Sex Work is Gay, which raised over $3,000 for Homeless Youth Alliance, Chatz says. One of the band’s more recent shows, last month at the historic Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, raised money for St. James Infirmary, an LGBTQ-inclusive healthcare nonprofit serving the sex worker community.

As sex work gains visibility in mainstream media thanks to the box office smash Hustlers and Emmy-winning TV series Pose, Copyslut is playing an important role in expanding the conversation. Chatz and author and educator Vanessa Carlisle co-edited the zine Don’t Hate My Heels: A Confrontation with Whorephobia in Which the Whores Win (with illustrations by Rasch, who also does the band's merch and album art). With personal stories from sex workers navigating higher education, the music industry and political organizing, the zine was a finalist in the Broken Pencil Zine Awards, which celebrate independent publishing.

Advocating for decriminalization of sex work rather than legalization, Don’t Hate My Heels is a must-read for anyone curious about how sex workers’ fight for dignity and safety fits into other social movements, including anarchism, labor and gender equality.

Those struggles aren’t as separate as people think, the zine explains, and Copyslut’s multifaceted work is all about illuminating the intersections.

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Copyslut performs with Wizard Apprentice, Louda and Blacker Face at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco on Nov. 12. Details here

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