The Norwegian black metal band Taake has recently faced significant pushback after announcing a tour of the United States. Several chapters of the anti-fascist group Antifa accused Taake of using fascist imagery and anti-Islamic lyrics and demanded their shows be canceled. Venues in New York, Chicago, Salt Lake City, and more complied. The tour’s opening act King Dude dropped off citing “reasons out of my control” in a statement that went on to claim that “a King Dude concert must be welcoming to everyone.” (Which is pretty rich coming from a guy who has shared bills with other controversial artists, but sure, okay dude.)
Black metal bands clashing with Antifa is nothing new. Last year, a Marduk concert in Oakland was shut down after pressure from Antifa caused the venue to involve the police, and abroad, Antifa have shut down festivals in Quebec and gotten bands dropped from bills in Norway. This time, however, Antifa aren’t alone in making their voices heard. Rapper Talib Kweli canceled his upcoming concert at The Riot Room in Kansas City. “I find it appalling that the Riot Room refuses to apologize for booking this band,” said Kweli. “I wouldn’t feel safe bringing my team, family, and fans into a venue that is sympathetic to white nationalism.” The Riot Room subsequently cancelled the Taake concert. The situation eventually escalated to the point where Taake’s entire North American tour appears to be canceled, and Taake have issued a statement regarding the cancellation on their Facebook.
All of this hubbub stems from a concert in 2007 when Taake singer Hoest performed with a swastika painted on his chest. Hoest has since apologized multiple times, and in a recent statement has denied any racist intent, saying that the performance was “all about doing something extreme for the sake of it.” This isn’t out of character for Taake, who have also covered notorious shock rock artist GG Allin in the past — of course, given that the song they chose features liberal use of racial epithets, this doesn’t help Hoest’s case.
If we’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt and accept that he legitimately regrets the use of the swastika, then it’s only fair to presume that Taake knows why the image is shocking in the first place. It is not simply an extreme image, it is an image that is representative of an extreme worldview and real, historical extreme violence. If Hoest is not guilty of racism, he is certainly guilty of carelessness and foolishness for believing that he could invoke the extremity of Nazi imagery without evoking the history behind those images.
Not all uses of the swastika mean the same thing. Framing and cultural context matter. Mel Brooks lampooning fascist rallies in The Producers reads differently than the singer of a metal band wearing a swastika on his chest with the express purpose of shocking the audience. To draw a more relevant comparison, Taake’s use of a swastika is contextually different from say, Slayer’s invocation of the holocaust on “Angel of Death.” Slayer’s early work is less an advocation of violence than an unblinking depiction of it. By painting the horrors of concentration camps in such vivid detail, they implicitly point out how abhorrent this violence is. To believe that “Angel of Death” is pro-fascism, you’d also have to argue that “Silent Scream” is somehow pro-abortion, which, to Slayer’s detriment, seems unlikely.
Does this mean that Slayer’s use of this subject is beyond reproach? Of course not. The same goes for the late Lemmy Kilmister’s fascination with Luftwaffe regalia or Marilyn Manson’s casual use of racial slurs. It is easy to stand behind being shocking as an aesthetic choice if the ways in which you shock people have no real impact on your lived experience. For those that do have their skin in the game, so to speak, it is another story entirely. If you do something to be shocking, people might be shocked and respond accordingly. If you wear a symbol that invokes the desire to wipe entire races of people off the face of Earth, a member of one of those races, like say Talib Kweli, might not be willing to forgive you even 11 years later. Actions have consequences.
By the same token, apologies only mean something if the people you’re apologizing to accept them. Similarly, saying that you are not a racist does not mean your actions didn’t scan as such. If I punch you in the arm without intending to start a fight, whether or not I think of myself as violent person does not change the fact that I committed an act of violence, however small. Whether I meant it or not, violence happened, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if someone responds with violence in kind.
Antifa have received criticism for their protests, both from your garden-variety “free speech” black metal fans, and from more thoughtful critics like Neill Jameson for Decibel. Jameson argues that the group has far bigger fish to fry and that attacking “edgelords” like Hoest is likely to scare off people who could be sympathetic to their cause. Sure, shutting down Taake shows isn’t going to win over very many Taake fans, but in the reality show that is modern politics, Antifa are not here to make friends. In their eyes, anyone who would be upset at a canceled Taake concert isn’t someone they want on their side to begin with.
It’s more instructive to think of these protests as warning shots. To Antifa, if you play around with fascist imagery, you are a threat. Not only are Antifa trying to punish bands that use these images carelessly now, they are sending the message to any other band that might think about using those images in the future. This is what it will cost you.
However, Jameson does have a good point: given the more immediately pressing concerns of actual loud and proud fascists walking the streets in America, why are Antifa expending their energy here? I can speculate three reasons:
1. It is possible to care about and act on multiple issues at once. You can fire off tweets about Taake on the way to a counter-protest action.
2. To make it harder for sincere neo-Nazi types to get gigs and to deter them from trying to gain exposure.
3. They want to prevent the normalization and trivialization of fascist imagery.
If you give Nazis an inch, they’ll goosestep their way to a yard. According to Alexander Reid Ross, fascists have used the rallying cry of free expression as a way to weasel their way into music counterculture for decades. This isn’t just conjecture: a leaked copy of the Daily Stormer’s style guide makes reference to the power of seemingly innocent memes as a way to spread white supremacist ideology, and leaked emails between the architects of the alt-right specifically mention heavy metal as a subculture to target in recruitment. Even if Hoest is not racist, Antifa likely views his flippant use of the symbol as too dangerous to tolerate.
It is important to remain level-headed about this stuff. If a right-wing activist group were to demand that, say, Dawn Ray’d be taken off a bill and the venue complied, I would be bummed. But nothing about the venue’s behavior would be wrong. It is well within the rights of a venue to determine which artists they want to feature, and if they think having a band play isn’t worth the fuss, then canceling the show is a logical move. Any band, black metal or otherwise, does not get to have its cake and eat it too. Making provocative art or using charged imagery without preparing for businesses to cut ties with you indicates a lack of foresight.
There’s an overarching and important question of censorship: are Taake being censored, and if so, do they deserve to be? As someone who spends no small amount of time cutting sentences from Word documents and advising people to rework how they express themselves, I am pretty comfortable with the idea that some thoughts and images are not worth sharing with the world. Incomplete ideas and poorly justified choices are likely to do more harm than good. If appealing to common sense and decency is censorship, so be it. You’re free to talk shit, just be prepared to get hit.
Last year, former Invisible Oranges Editor-in-Chief Joseph Schafer wrote that Antifa’s protest of a Marduk concert in Oakland was a sign of the Balkanization of heavy music culture. With respect to my predecessor, I think there’s a more relevant historical analog in the aftermath of colonialism. In the late 19th Century, European nations vied for power in Africa and the Middle East by carving up the continent into colonies with no regard to the native inhabitants of the land they were dividing. As a result, formerly unrelated communities were stuck together in newly formed states. Unsurprisingly, this has not always worked out well.
In the digital age, music scenes and cultures are stuck with each other in a similar way. Twenty years ago, it may have been possible for a socially conscious rapper and a shock-rock black metal band to both play at the same venue without ever having any sense that the other existed. These days however, if you spend any serious time on the Internet, it is almost impossible not to catch wind of someone else’s business. Art that may have been intended for a very specific audience with a very specific contextual understanding runs the risk of being heard by a vastly different crowd. Art cannot choose its audience, no matter how hard it tries to ward off outsiders.
Metal is not a closed circle. Bad actors aren’t going to escape the purview of the rest of the world, which means that they shouldn’t go unaccounted for locally. This doesn’t mean that metal bands should shy away from making challenging art, just that in doing so they should exercise good judgement and careful consideration and not indulge in cheap shocks. This is as much as a discerning audience asks from an artist musically, that they think through their compositions to avoid cliches, bad passages, and lazy writing. Whether or not metal bands choose to take the political implications of their work seriously is up to them, of course. No one is obligated to do anything, but the stakes for recklessness and cheap extremism are clearer now than ever before.