Last weekend, I made the trip up to Leeds University, my alma mater, to see the Damnation Festival, held there annually in the student union. The festival highlights some of the best current metal bands, big and small, across a variety of genres. I had a great time seeing bands I already loved (Carcass, Cult of Luna, Slabdragger), and being wowed by groups I’d not yet listened to (The Ocean, Rosetta). But looking at the musicians and the fans, something uncomfortable stood out to me: the performers were overwhelmingly white and male. A couple of groups I saw featured men of colour, and only one featured a (white) female musician. Not one band I saw included any women of colour in their lineup*. And while there were women (and men) of colour in the audience, they were dwarfed by the number of white women, who in turn were outnumbered by white dudes.
Why is metal so dominated by white men, in terms of fan demographics, band lineups and popular imagination? I had been thinking about these issues for a while, but I doubt they would have been so central in my mind if I hadn’t been reading What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal on the train up to Leeds. Author Laina Dawes, a lifelong metal fan, wrote the book to talk about why this situation exists, but also to explain why she and other black women still love metal in spite of how it very often does not represent them. In doing so, she highlights a lot of important issues with insight and clarity.
The overwhelmingly white, male character of metal means music label bosses are unsure of how to manage and market black women in heavy bands, limiting their ability to potentially act as inspirations to a new generation. For example, Skunk Anansie frontwoman Skin, who also wrote the book’s foreword, relates how music industry players in the States referred her band to “urban music” division managers they had little common ground with, because they assumed based on her race that she was part of a hip-hop or R n B group. There’s also the fact that metal’s white, male domination is a deterrent in of itself to female fans of colour getting actively involved in their local scenes. Dawes interviews some black women metallers who perceive the genre’s fans as not being particularly bothered about race, but she also notes that “(s)ome of the women I talked to… were fearful of being at the receiving end of racial slurs or getting physically attacked, and of what their friends or family might think if they knew what music they listened to” (26). She gives examples from her own life and those of interviewees of receiving patronising treatment, and even racist abuse, from white metal fans. However isolated these incidents might be in the aggregate, they help create a sense that metal gigs are not safe places for black women, even those who enjoy the music itself.
This is compounded by the general resistance to and wariness of metal that Dawes documents within black communities. She describes a perception of the genre as “music for racists”, which is not helped by occasional outbursts from metal musicians that support this interpretation, and the adoption by some bands of symbols associated with Nazism or the American Confederacy**. There is also the issue of a concern among some black people with preserving a proscribed cultural ideal of “blackness”, that questions those who enjoy art and culture designated as white. Dawes relates how, as the adopted child of white parents, she faced criticism growing up for loving “white” music, and the assumption that this meant she was ashamed of her black heritage, or unduly influenced by the culture of her white family. As she says, “(a) black metalhead can be perceived not only as an affront to the past and present struggles black people have endured, but as a personal insult to those closest to them” (79).
If that sounds overly critical of black communities, it’s important to remember that this desire for a cohesive, unifying black identity is the result of the massive cultural dislocation and destruction inflicted upon black peoples by whites, first through the slave trade, and then through the lingering presence of racism, both personal and structural, up to the present day. The pressures of this existence led to a conservative trend among some black people, that posited the importance of proving racist stereotypes wrong by showing that people of colour could be more hard-working, God-fearing and respectable than whites were. This trend, commonly identified as respectability politics, strives to present a good image of black people, but only in terms of what a racist society deems good. It can lead, for example, to black metal fans being derided by their parents or peers for “letting their people down” by identifying with wild, primal music and therefore confirming stereotypes about all black people. The irony, which better commentators than myself have observed time and again, is that respectability politics themselves limit the boundaries of blackness as a result, and place the responsibility for ending racism on those affected by it rather than those perpetrating it***.
As Dawes shows, respectability politics have constrained black women in particular from engaging in sexually-charged music: blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and the heavy metal that later arose from these black-originated genres: “Rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and jazz albums were banned in many black homes. Many families felt that the music was unsuitable- that it was sacrilegious and conveyed messages that were too personal and too sexual. More importantly, the sexual desire, emotional woes and relationship issues that the female blues singers detailed in their lyrics signified a freedom from male oppression, which threatened the sanctity of the black nuclear household.” (67) Unfortunately, it is all too easy for marginalised men to seek the power denied them by structural racism in society, through complying with that society’s patriarchal norms, and oppressing women as a result.
It’s important to note, though, that black musicians, including women such as Big Mama Thornton, were integral to the development of blues and early rock ‘n’ roll music. Without these (mostly uncredited) influences, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath would not have popularised hard rock and heavy metal. In spite of its current white domination and the resistance to it among some members of black communities, then, metal is black music, and black women have a right to perform and listen to it. Dawes expresses this perfectly when she answers the question in her book’s title with the chapter heading: “I’m Here Because We Started It!”
What happens, though, when you find yourself in an environment where people who look like you are few and far between? Dawes identifies this as “the ‘only one’ syndrome”: the situation of being one of only a few black (or black and female) fans in an audience. As she notes from personal experience, when more than one black woman attends a metal show, jealousy and suspicion can be the result: “I have felt the disheartening chill of making eye contact with the only other black girl at a metal show, and receiving a death glare in return” (96). Coincidentally, the blogger 113yearslater identified a similar dynamic, observed among female musicians rather than audiences, in a comment on one of my pieces about metal and patriarchy. (In this instance it was described as “a sort of Highlander ethic at work for women: There can only be one.“) If there’s one thing patriarchal systems are incredibly skilled at, it’s getting women to fight amongst each other, eager to prove themselves as the “only one” worth a place as “one of the guys” in a male-dominated setting. The alternative proposition, of finding solidarity with the other women in these settings and helping to increase women’s representation there, is not an easy one to imagine in a patriarchal society that champions competition and domination above all else. In a metal context, I’d argue that the genre’s ideological tendency towards individualistic iconoclasm makes this solidarity even more difficult.
Despite all the problems she identifies with metal’s treatment of women of colour, however, Dawes is ultimately still an enthusiastic fan, and is optimistic about the possibilities it offers as a genre for those women. One of her reasons for being so positive is close to my heart as well- the potential of music, including metal, to highlight political issues and give voice to the desires and concerns of marginalised people. She argues that “(m)usic is not only for enjoyment. We derive too much pleasure, pain and education from the music that we listen to every day to dismiss it as simply entertainment. For black populations in Western civilisation, music has provided a voice in times when their own were silenced” (61). Precisely because of its extreme nature, metal can effectively channel the rage and frustration of oppressed people and transform it into a powerful musical statement.
Dawes also highlights economic factors that mean excluding women of colour as metal fans will ultimately prove financially unsustainable for the music industry. A largely underground genre such as metal, with increasingly little mainstream chart exposure, relies on audiences willing to attend shows and buy merchandise: “(c)ommunities of metal fans are needed in order for the culture to survive and thrive, especially in an era with such an overbearing Top 40 pop music culture” (134). Perhaps more than other genres, fans of heavy music are willing to give this support to their favourite bands, but in an age of decreasing financial security even for bands on major labels, “(d)eterring any fan from participating in metal, hardcore and punk is simply not economically viable.” (135) Unfortunately, as Dawes notes, “the welcome mat is not always out for black women fans” (ibid), but if labels continue to fail to represent women of colour in the bands they add to their roster, it’ll be their own bottom line that suffers. If music industry bosses realise this, perhaps the ruthless logic of capitalism can provide the incentive to remedy metal’s stultifying lack of diversity.
Ultimately, What Are You Doing Here is hopeful for the future. It might be blindingly white at the moment, but black people created the roots of metal, and black women have always been there as fans and musicians. Despite the barriers of music industry conservatism, the reactionary tendencies of some white metalheads, and disapproval from their own communities, women of colour will break through and gain both representation and acceptance. I can’t express this any better than Dawes herself does: “one of the most satisfying things I realised after interviewing women for this book is that we all share the same attitude. Come hell or high water, none of us will ever back down from a fight.” (156)
** The number of patches and T-shirts I saw at Damnation that bore the logo of Burzum, the black metal/ambient project of convicted murderer and self-described racist Varg Vikernes, are one personal example I can think of that might lead a person to associate metal music and fans with racism.
*** A few examples of articles discussing respectability politics: “No Disrespect”, Tamara Winfrey Harris (http://bitchmagazine.org/article/no-disrespect); “Respectability Politics Won’t Save Us: On The Death of Jonathan Ferrell”, Mychal Denzel Smith (http://www.thenation.com/blog/176183/respectability-politics-wont-save-us-death-jonathan-ferrell); “I Hate Myself!”, Maurice Dolberry (http://alineinthesand.com/respectability-politics/); “Acting Right Around White Folks”, ReBecca Theodore-Vachon (http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/solomon-northrup-and-the-code-of-silence-the-respectability-politics-in-american-cinema-12-years-a-slave). I’m far from the most informed person on this subject; if any readers wish to address problems they have found in my explanation of it, please don’t hesitate to contact me.