The Unsung: Mia Zapata revolutionised the Seattle grunge scene until her life was cut short

Every week in The Unsung, Leonie Cooper shines a light on forgotten female artists from a century of music. This week, it's the turn of Mia Zapata, whose life and long-unsolved murder tells a story that’s tragically all-too-familiar.

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On the night of July 6, 1993, Mia Zapata went to Seattle’s Comet Tavern to spend the night with friends and kick back over a few drinks. She’d been in the city for four years, moving there with her band after finishing college in Ohio. The Comet was a regular drinking spot for members of the city’s bustling music scene and Seattle in the early 1990s was world-famous. Bristling with talent and riding high on its reputation as grunge’s ground zero, it was the birthplace of the sound which bands like Hole, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam had made global. Mia was a vital cog in the underground scene and frontwoman of The Gits, a punky rabble who in 1992 released their debut album, ‘Frenching The Bully’, a clattering hardcore howl with intriguing jazzy breakdowns and moments of bleak intensity, all pulled together by Mia’s strident vocal. 

Tracks like the propulsive ‘Another Shot Of Whiskey’ and ‘Here’s To Your Fuck’ were heavy but deeply melodic and the record’s 12 tracks housed powerful messages surrounding self-doubt, sexual assault, independence and autonomy. By the summer of 1993, the band were working on a follow-up, ‘Enter: The Conquering Chicken’. The night that Mia went to the Comet, The Gits had almost finished recording and were planning a huge US and European tour.

Saying her goodbyes at midnight, Mia left the bar and went to visit her boyfriend, who had been rehearsing with his band a block away. He wasn’t about, but another friend in the same building was and they hung out until 2 am, at which point Mia decided to go back to her apartment. She’d never make it. At 3.20 am her body would be found on a nearby street. Mia has been beaten, raped and murdered. All she was doing was trying to walk home.  

Mia’s wake was attended by a thousand people, there were candlelit vigils, an album recorded with Joan Jett – who also wrote the Mia Zapata tribute song ‘Go Home’ with Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna – and a women’s self-defence organisation called Home Alive set up in her name. Yet the police were unable to find the killer. Seattle’s biggest bands raised money to hire a private investigator, but still there were no leads. 

In 1998 – five years after her killing – the Seattle Times published a piece about the lack of justice and explained how Mia’s death had signalled the end of Seattle’s time in the sun, striking fear amongst the city’s women, who knew the killer was still out there. Daniel House, the owner of The Gits’ label C/Z Records, was stark when describing the impact of Mia’s murder. “It was innocence lost,” he said. “The brutal way she was killed changed the fabric of the community. We could no longer proceed with the same openness. Having that person still walking around – maybe he’s the guy at the bar, maybe he’s someone at your own party – that changes the way you look at the world. People haven’t recovered from it.” There were no arrests. No suspects. 

It would be a decade until Mia’s killer was found. Despite a report of indecent exposure within just two weeks of her murder, Jesus Mezquia was only brought to justice after his DNA was added into the national system following an arrest for burglary and domestic abuse thousands of miles away in Florida. His DNA matched that found on bite wounds on Mia’s body and an arrest was made. Convicted in 2004, Mezquia was sentenced to 36 years in prison, but history continues to repeat itself across oceans, decades and generations.

Hear Mia Zapata’s influence in:

Skinny Girl Diet

The Distillers

7 Year Bitch

READ MORE: The Unsung is a weekly series. Get to know the stories of more musical heroes.

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