Political Activism In Music: Jokes For Feelings

Jokes for feelings had humble beginnings in 2006 but soon became a synergized magnet. Led by Band Frontman, Lead Guitarist, and Vocalist Josh Raphael from Palm Springs, California, the Bay Area ska band has been 17 years in the making with roots in Southern California pop-punk. Satirical, upbeat, transformative, and vibey good times music embodies the saying, “If life gives you lemons, then make lemonade.” With albums like “We Don’t Need Your Label Anyways” and “Kill Your Ego Split” speak to overcoming a musician’s everyday misfortunes, relationships, and economic struggles with a smile.  

“We just write about what’s going on in our lives, we do add a lot of comedy and make some jokes, but it’s also a reflection of how we felt about getting older, not fitting in, or in my case, being sick. There was a time when I got very sick, lasting years. I couldn’t play music, run, or do any activities. I had to get treatment, so I wrote uplifting songs that I felt would make me happy. In the beginning, we would make fun of things happening in the scene, the bands deemed as cool took themselves so seriously, and we were nobodies, so we decided to be funny and honest and start our own scene,” said Josh Raphael.

After posting a Craigslist ad, Drummer Antonio Acosta, aka Tony Two-Tone, joined the band’s ranks, a former Chabot College Student and San Francisco Art Academy graduate from San Leandro, California. Growing up in the 1980s breakdance era, the man is a fan of spinning vinyl, Latin ska, reggae, pop, funk, and Latin jazz. He would go on to support elevating the band to new heights and many other bands in the ska scene down the road, which many still hold in very high regard.  

Jokes For Feelings has had a myriad of members collaborate with the group over the years. Experimenting with members, sometimes a musician could play with the band for only a month or stay for years. Their first live show in 2006 at Blake’s in Berkeley was primarily packed with Coast Guard. One of the original members, Josh Vanskike, who played in the band for the first couple of years, wrote a good number of songs before leaving, was enlisted, and brought the majority of his unit from Alameda to the show. “Unfortunately, he shipped out a lot sometimes for up to a year, and eventually, he just couldn’t do it anymore,” said Josh Raphael. While other early years members like Misty and Sean are just names in the backdrop of what has become, at times, a local all-star lineup of guest musicians over the years.        

In 2009 Bassist, Keyboardist and Violinist Billy Raphael joined the band just as they were touring Southern California. The regular tour route then was LA, Riverside, San Diego, and Palm Springs. Billy Raphael, also a Bay Area transplant from Palm Springs, brought not only his previous band experience and history but previously written unproduced tracks, which Jokes For Feelings released with the addition of a music video, “Vitamin Girl.” Written by Billy, the song is about a routine nightlife experience he would have, “I used to go clubbing a lot in San Diego, and I would hear techno groups playing until four in the morning, and I wanted to write a song about that,” said Billy.    

Billy’s arrival coincided with the band’s transition from pop-punk to ska which Tony largely influenced, “It was fairly easy to transition over because we played in ska bands growing up. Ska is more mellow to play, and pop-punk is a little harder, in my opinion, because you have to play it fast and clear, compared to just jamming and having some fun when you play ska,” said Josh Raphael. Ska originating from Jamaica and Afro-Caribbean music is the forerunner to reggae with youthful punk rock vibes, horn sections, and saxophones. 

The band expanded, taking on three new horn players, and became entwined as a support pillar within the local Bay Area ska scene, standing behind causes, playing charity events, and finding a home at the famous 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley founded by Tim Yohannan who is also the founder of punk rock magazine “Maximum Rocknroll and Music Enthusiast.” The schedule became playing “Pride Runs” in San Francisco, events supporting unity, medical fundraisers, and Gilman benefits. The band began to ignite the Latin ska scene, even performing their songs in Spanish. Simultaneously, members like Josh Raphael took lessons in Peruvian jazz and folk, infusing what he learned into the band to produce a new sound with a Latin jazz influence and even a little gypsy punk combined with ska punk.

There are strong values and principles among some bands playing in the Bay Area who believe in freedom, human rights, anti-discrimination, and anti-racism, just to name a few. With venues that wholeheartedly support these values so much that you can’t even perform there if you don’t uphold these views, this is a requirement within the Gilman community. A volunteer collective with solid connections in Bay Area social justice movements, you will not be playing any music on the Gilman stage if you disregard these core principles.

Tony Two-Tone added a new element to the band, and that’s booking in what was to become “Gilman Ska Night.” This night grew in popularity until LA was a regular departure point for bands heading to the Gilman, reaching across the United States and beyond. Pulling bands from Oregon to Mexico, all looking to participate in the ska nights. At this time, Tony worked with pioneers in the local scene like Jeff Armstrong, who has long roots at the Gilman in the punk and ska scene, and brother to Tim Armstrong of the famous punk band “Rancid,” along with band members with explosive energy and controversial performances like Mike Avilez of “Oppressed Logic.”

The Gilman has always been a destination for all ages, especially the youth, which has led famous names like Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day to donate to the venue. “When I first started, there weren’t as many bookers or a lot of help, and it was a struggle. That’s why we built up shows and brought a lot of new people, but, unfortunately, the kids around at that time weren’t inclined to help, and there were a lot of problems,” said Tony.

Between Jeff, Tony, and Josh, the first “Gilman Ska compilation” was released, giving away up to five hundred free CDs, with Vol. 2 soon-to-follow spotlighting bands like “Sarcasm,” ”Day Labor,” and “Shark Punch.”  The collaboration runs deep with Jokes For Feelings, as many musicians have played in the band. Some of these players were former Chabot Students like Angela Perez, who played horns and did backup vocals. Micheal Booker, another Chabot student, played saxophone and did backup vocals. The team-ups and support for other local ska bands, like “The Skunkadelics,” was well-known and thoroughly enjoyed by many, with members like former Chabot student Sean Funcheon, James Shane, David Marroquin Jr., and Jon Gonzales. Tony Two-Tone was even known to hand out free CDs at the Chabot campus to students.  

The most recent album for Jokes For Feelings was released in 2018, and since then, the crew has gotten busy with life. Tony has since left booking, but musicians and fans will remember Gilman Ska Nights for years to come. He is now a new father, increasingly busy, and joined by Josh and Billy, who are also fathers. They have since reunited for regularly scheduled practice sessions, which brings with it a level of excitement to return to just making good and fun music that people can enjoy.


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