While my interest in heavy metal music is peripheral at best, I’m incredibly fascinated by one of the great incongruities of music subcultures: how can an outcast group, formed on the margins, manage to marginalize people?
Much has been made of Riot Grrl, formed as a response to hyper-macho punk scenes, but Girlschool and Lita Ford, aside, metal has never really had its own ladies’ auxiliary, so to speak. Compounded with the fact that metal, of course has an overwhelmingly white fanbase, black women have certainly never had much of a visible presence in the scene.
Laina Dawes is a black music journalist from a small city in Ontario, and the author of What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. Adopted by a white Canadian family, and raised in a fairly monochromatic town, her musical tastes developed initially around pop radio. As she was exposed to the heavy metal bands favored by boys in her neighborhood, she quickly became a life-long fan.
Laina talks at length about her issues with the scene. Aside from a general lack of diversity, no subculture is immune to explicit racism or sexism. When there were women at shows, there was an expectation of a certain type of sexpot hesherette. When Dawes wasn’t the only black girl at a show, she often felt the palpable subtext of female competitiveness heightened, belying the comradely atmosphere she sought out in metal in the first place.
She portrays the scene unflinchingly, despite her connection to it. Black fans and artists were sometimes subject to racism from white fans and artists, alike. When actress (and part-time metal singer) Jada Pinkett-Smith got on the Ozzfest bill with her band, fans noted a sudden volley of unselfconscious racist diatribe, the likes of which hadn’t been overt in shows past. Dawes compellingly compares the presence of black women in metal to the election of Obama: while it may be progress, it still exacerbates the nastiest of reactionary tendencies.
Ultimately, however, Dawes is writing about her love of heavy metal, and the community she seeks to foster within the scene:
I was dying to find other black female metal fans who were equally passionate about their ethnicity and their metal. I was always proud to be a black girl, but I struggled with people perceiving me as not being black enough. I traveled to as many concerts I could afford, and I collected albums, concert t-shirts, and metal buttons. I encouraged others to use the music to create personal freedom, to get them to acknowledge their feelings of anger and aggression. There was a lot of rage around me, and I knew that it could be channeled into the positive energy that I found through metal.”
What Are You Doing Here? isn’t an academic study, just a memoir of how one music fan navigated a scene, and an interesting look at how it feels to be an outsider in a culture already on the outside.