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Jamming with Jenna, Round #4: My Battle with Black Metal

jamming with jenna

In this column, IO Staff Writer Jenna DePasquale connects heavy metal with the world at large.

Like many of those in their early-to-mid 20s, I caught the tail-end of the supremacy of record stores, Fuse, and MTV. Much of my cultivation and subsequent musical taste was reared, however, by Internet culture — before memes and trolls even had formal names that carry their own meta-associations, their irreverent comedic qualities slated me for a life taken with a grain of salt. Such is the method through which I learned of black metal — specifically, the raising of Gaahl’s wine glass under the caption “satan.”

As I discussed in my debut column adjudicating black metal documentaries, this virally memed scene from Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey brought the former Gorgoroth frontman into mainstream metal conversation. It also highlighted the extent to which the heavy subject matter of traditional black metal should not be taken at face-value for the sake of our collective sanity. After giving the documentary a watch, I fell down the hole of other black metal deep-dives; as a certified loner at the time, I felt empowered by the tenant of acting out of one’s own self-will. I also enjoyed a degree of escapism provided in the lore of icy ancient forests and searing holy sites. Nevertheless, I retained the ability to separate fantasy from reality, acknowledging how the subgenre occasionally borderlines on being a farce. I certainly did not go as far as to make any larger political connections to what was being professed.

As my knowledge of black metal expanded, my tastes began to shift. I developed an affinity for obscure depressive suicidal black metal and funeral doom outfits that trumped the traditional, d-beat-fused greats of the 1990s. The emotive stylistic differences and gravely human subject matter allowed me to enjoy music without putting on any airs. Nevertheless, I continued to proclaim myself as a fan of black metal more generally, as the laymen tends to become confused when you try to explain a niche-of-a-niche under an umbrella as polarizing as metal. Further, I continued to cover black metal bands of all sizes and styles across different journalistic outlets — it turned out that I was clinging to the just-world hypothesis more than I had thought.

A few bad apples were turning the whole pie increasingly rotten.

Of course, I knew that there was always going to be a Varg Vikernes — an individual who not only overzealously adopted black metal tenants but also hate-filled sociopolitical ideology. Where I went wrong was thinking that he was no more than the butt of a meme. The reality is that there are plenty more like Vikernes out there: they may not share the same murderous tendencies or sizable YouTube platform, but by acting more covertly and randomly, they become arguably more insidious as they walk among us with little stigma. As topics of social inequality began to increasingly dominate mainstream blogs, it seemed as though the metal community reached a point where we were finally ready to talk about it on a large scale: black metal has a white supremacy problem.

While acknowledging this issue may be stating the obvious, metal fans who joined the memed music scene in their teenage years might still need to have their naivete shaken. How could the free-willed goat even run in the pack of ideological white supremacists? How could this creature dream of marching with the sheep who carried out the deaths of six million people? These are questions we could speculate about for days; unfortunately, dismantling the logistical inconsistencies of claiming to be a warrior of both black metal and the Aryan Nation will not be productive. Those that have been radicalized do not bend to reasonable arguments, a lesson I learned the hard way. The reality is that this metal movement was hijacked by a proportion of its practitioners, and once we started talking about it, we knew we needed to figure out how we were going to handle it.

In the journalistic realm, the dominant proposal was editorial sanitation. MetalSucks even went as far as to publish an official proclamation stating that if you say any Nazi shit, you get hit with the no-post list. At the knee-jerk level, there is definitely something utterly satisfying in clicking delete (literally or figuratively) on a friend or figure who proves to be toxic; I still had my concerns about whether this was the most effective form of activism, though. I feared that those on the far-right might flip the script by claiming that it was the anti-racists who were advocating for censorship of the press. I did not want to give these motherfuckers any fuel to fire the claim that anti-racists are in fact the bad guys in this situation.

So I valiantly, but ultimately futilely, tried to develop an alternative way. In an effort to use my white privilege for good, I wanted to march onto the turf of black metal artists who cannot seem to keep their arms down. I was not scared of them, and, at the risk of sounding arrogant, they seemed eager to talk to me because I was a “good woman” (as Vikernes would say). Forming connections organically through social media networking, I would use signs of white supremacy as a chance to spur a conversation about why they believe what they do. As you may guess, it was an exercise that proved extraordinarily frustrating. Every inch gained came with many miles lost. No reasonable individual can internalize the supremacy of one race over another, particularly when considering that there is more genetic variation between different kinds of fruit flies. Communicating with such people, if ever, requires alternative tactics.

The confrontation route became even more challenging as my internal dominoes continued to fall. Whenever I seemed to write a glowing review of a black metal band rising from the depths of the underground, a concerning tweet or an unsavory Instagram post would surface. Shortly after I began writing for Invisible Oranges in 2017, I had a lengthy interview of a one-man atmospheric black metal artist due to go to press when I got an e-mail from our then-editor. After noticing that the musician’s artwork incorporated suspect-looking symbols, the team dug way back, discovering posts from the artist’s blog expressing hate towards various marginalized groups. The piece was pulled, and ultimately, I was content with this course of action. After unknowingly co-signing this artist on numerous occasions in album lists written for another website in the year prior, I no longer wished to have my name associated with his in any way.

Instances like these have become increasingly normal over the past few months, knocking the wind out of me with every unfortunate discovery. Last December, I hastily withdrew from a premiere offer after another staff writer tipped me off about the label’s white supremacist leanings. Just recently, I had a whole black metal write-up go live just to be yanked after its distributing label tweeted some of the vilest racial sentiment that I have seen from the metal community. The camel’s back has been broken: taking steps toward de-radicalization for all these figures would be a full-time job, and I feel ill even seeing their names in my search histories. I have lost the drive to pursue this battle, and maybe it was not even my place to wield some white savior complex by speaking on behalf of others. When it comes to my future coverage of black metal, an extensive vetting process will need to be carried out unless it is performed by someone for whom I can personally vouch.

It is often argued that “canceled culture” is unfair because people are allowed to make mistakes, even when they have a large platform. The problem is that we are not talking about when an individual speaks out of sheer ignorance, incorrectly labeling a painting Chinese when it was in fact of Japanese origin, for instance. In such a case, it is probable that the person did not mean anything derogatory by the mistake. With black metal, on the other hand, we are talking about those who actively and consciously advocate for the supremacy of one race above all others — and for that, they deserve to be put on mute. In its execution, the aforementioned proclamation by MetalSucks has also proved nuanced: instead of solely pushing someone particularly insidious into the margins, attention is brought to their behavior without indulging them in ultimately fruitless direct debate.

So, I am placing my gun down on black metal’s game of white supremacist roulette. As I step away from this topic for a good while, I offer these finals thoughts: making sure metal fans of all backgrounds are safe should be a priority, not a radical notion. Leaving behind those who make claims of a genetically-based racial hierarchy should be considered a route we can all agree upon, not an act of flagrant censorship. Perhaps most importantly of all, the emergence of political discussion and self-policing are inherent in all scenes and not just tools wielded solely by one side or the other. Contrary to what the far-right might claim, though, it is the detachment from state censorship that allows for an autonomously governed metal community, and that community’s message is now clearer than ever.

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