Does Metal Have A Problem With Race?
In light of the recent Phil Anselmo controversy, we investigate whether our world really is as inclusive as it claims to be...
It’s an image that’s hard to forget once you’ve seen it. The cocky rock star at the front of the photograph gazes hard into the camera, right arm raised up and out in an unmistakable Nazi ‘Sieg Heil’ salute. To his right and slightly behind him, his bandmate replicates the posture. The serious look on his face is undercut by the finger raised to his top lip in an approximation of a Hitler-style toothbrush moustache, suggesting that, despite all other appearances, this is a joke.
But this isn’t Phil Anselmo at the Dimebash in January 2016. This is Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, joshing around in a backstage corridor sometime in the early 1990s and replicating the posturings of a man whose entire ethos was built around racial purity, as 6,000,000 people found out to their cost. Funny, right? Ha ha. For all its protestations of inclusivity, metal has often had a thorny relationship with race. Phil Anselmo’s recent antics – yelling the words ‘white power’ while issuing his own variation on the ‘Sieg Heil’ salute – is just the most recent example of a virulent strain of nastiness within metal that stretches back years. From the avowedly racist dogma of sections of the black metal scene, to Guns N’ Roses’ infamous 1988 song One In A Million, to the ongoing debate over the connotations of the Confederate flag sported by various Southern rock bands, metal has been guilty of, at best, thoughtlessness, and in rare cases, outright hatred towards non-white people or culture. And what bands do, fans follow.
“I was at a Kyuss Lives! show in 2012,” says Laina Dawes, a New York-based journalist and photographer whose book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Women’s Life And Liberation In Heavy Metal explores the scene’s relationship with race and gender. “I was walking through the crowd with my equipment and this guy jumped in front of me and got in my face and called me a ‘Fucking nigger’. I was in shock, and also I was embarrassed because everybody who was around stared at me like I was the one with the problem. I realised that if he had punched me, nobody would have done anything. There have been other shows where I’ve been threatened or I’ve had things thrown at me. There have been times when I’ve thought, ‘Why do I want to be part of this?’”
In the wake of Phil Anselmo’s bone-headed actions, it’s a question that’s more pertinent than ever – and one that white metal fans won’t ever be forced to ask. But it prompts another, even bigger question: does metal have a problem with race?