One of the interesting developments that arose during the research phase of writing What Are You Doing Here? (out now via Bazillion Points) was how many of the black men and women I interviewed or spoke with loved Pantera. While they might have not self-identified as a ‘metalhead’ they loved the band as the music had that sound: a bluesy groove that reminded them of the dusty vinyl records that their parents inherited from their parents, serving in some cases as a gateway into other bands and musical genres that incorporated the same southern sensibility.
Over the years I’ve tried and for the most part, failed in getting my friends into metal (a recent and not-so-wise example included playing “Buried With Leeches” from Dragged into Sunlight for my rocker homegirl who is taking drum lessons. The confused look she gave me was priceless). And I have to admit that because of their cultural background and based on the predilection to groove-oriented rhythms, I’ve felt that perhaps more Southern-bred, doomy / sludge bands might warm the cold, cockled hearts of my black non-metal loving bredren.
I would argue that while I also was a big Pantera fan, there are other bands that have more obvious comparisons to blues music: a more pronounced rhythm section including a muddled, down-tuned bass tone; the application of the blues chord progression, a simplification of music that concentrates more on emotional and a physical heaviness and less on technical proficiency and speed. And of course the more personalized (outside of the obvious drug references) lyrical content including harrowing stories about hard livin’ and lovin.’ As IO contributor Hank Shteamer has pointed out in his column, Heavy Metal Be-Bop, the musical techniques found in African-American-originated musical genres can often be found within metal music, and non-metal musicians can apply metal’s traditional sounds to their own.
However, another reason for the reluctance of my black brothers and sisters to temporarily veer into the dark side is the negative connotations that a lot of southern metal bands have of being not-so-racially tolerant. Even in writing this piece and looking for Weedeater’s sludgy version of “Gimme Back my Bullets” on YouTube led me to the original, live version by Lynyrd Skynyrd, who had a giant Confederate Flag backdrop, which is a firm part of their branding – along with a right wing-centric philosophy – but in 2012, at least one former member of the band reconsidered their love for the flag. I know that for some, any band that waves that flag during their live performances, especially post-2009, automatically gets the side-eye.
The confederate flag connotes an era that for some is a positive remembrance in their Southern background and in remembrance of the Civil War, and for others it is a not-so subtle reminder of a legacy filled with racial inequality and violence. Erika Kristen, an interviewee in What Are You Doing Here? and the co-founder of the metal website Fourteeng.net hung out with Dimebag Darrell shortly before his death. While cautiously observing the the large flag that he had placed in the backstage area after a show, he ended up one of the nicest musicians she had interviewed, assuaging any stories that she had previously heard about him.
Of more pressing concern for my friends is the crowd that gathers at these shows, which, from personal experience, tends to bring out the worst of humankind. While some artists, such as Down’s Phil Anslemo have taken great strides to remove themselves from previous racialized or misogynist comments, there are audience members whom still feel, such as the guys I saw wearing “White Pride” and “Klan Brotherhood” T-shirts (emblazoned with confederate flags) at a Down show, that perhaps Anselmo and/or his bandmates don’t fall that far from the tree. After that show I shared what I observed (including one of the most violent pits I’ve seen – ever) with a former good friend. She yelled at me for attending and at the time of this writing, hasn’t spoken to me in over three years. After being body slammed at a Weedeater show by a skinhead, the thought also crossed my mind as to why certain people gravitate to certain bands. Is the ‘Southern-ness’ of the music, or simply just a coincidence?
One of the comments I’ve received to the arrival of What Are You Doing Here? in bookstores surrounds a ‘tit’ for ‘tat’ argument. Well white people listen to hip-hop, so what is the big deal? If whites were so worried about racist lyrical content that made derogatory comments or insinuations that are similar to real-life discrimination, then perhaps a book about black women involved in extreme music forms would not be as relevant as it is. In a recent article published in The New Republic about white fans of rapper Chief Keef, (an article that explored the concept of a ‘violent’ rapper who received positive album reviews from white critics) the main difference in relation to the reaction by black critics towards white Chief Keef fans and those that liked the album, is this: because it is commonly perceived that when a black or minority rapper talks about gun violence or violence of any kind, it is usually targeted towards another black person, or someone who is from the same ethno-cultural community. So for white listeners, it isn’t about them, as we (in the article it is noted that black communities are often construed as being a monolithic entity in terms of behavioral traits) are too busy killing each other to be bothered killing y’all. Fans of this violent or ‘hardcore’ rap can live vicariously through the lyrical content or take pleasure of the beats, without worrying that the violence will spill over to their neighborhoods. The positive reviews signified a glaring disconnect that the critics had in how damaging this artist’s lyrics could be within black communities.
For black folks into predominantly white and male music scenes, when musicians share their negative personal views on race, or there are self-identified racists in the audience, based on historical and contemporary examples, there is more of a physical threat that is transmitted outside of the music, and/or outside of the venue. There have been real physical assaults, real threats of violence and real discrimination that impacts both our livelihood and our lives. As with many online discussions about racism and / or misogyny in music, especially within lyrical content or rumors about band members holding racist or misogynist views, there is no easy answer in your preference to support an artist or not – ultimately the decision lies in the listener.
The interesting thing about the bands that I personally love and would love to force on my black friends, such as Soilent Green, Weedeater, Bongzilla, Buzzoven, Sourvein, Hail! Hornet (essentially any band that includes Dave “Dixie” Collins), or non-Southern-bred sludge / stoner bands like Japan’s now defunct Greenmachine, Church of Misery, Kyuss, Fu Manchu, Electric Wizard, Dozer and Unida are steeped in black-centric music, often using blues, funk and groove-oriented soul as a starting template in the development of their own unique sound and outside of the occasional avocation of the legalization of marijuana, relatively apolitical.
So is it possible that one can hate the people who had a solid hand in the creation of their own music? It’s possible, as mentioned above, people like to pick and choose when they lump black communities as a monolithic entity. So I, as a bit of a loudmouth in the anti-racism department and one who is not down for financially supporting people that don’t respect my kind, will take a chance. I’m hoping that eventually, some of my friends will, too.
- Laina Dawes