One of my earliest memories is lying in bed with my sister with the TV on, no older than 5 or 6, and watching Def Leppard and Poison videos on MTV. As little Black girls in the south, we didn’t have much exposure to rock music, and I remember being mesmerized by the big blond hair, the makeup, and the tight pants. Then we turned 11 years old and discovered Headbanger’s Ball, and the video for “November Rain” marked my point of no return.
Ever since then, I have pretty much loved rock ‘n roll. My bedroom, the music in my car, and the company I keep are all a testament to my dedication to this particular musical artform. I only buy purses that will fit either an entire six-pack or a fifth of booze in them. I taught myself to drink whisky straight with no chaser and I am not afraid of a fistfight, though I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly stoked on the idea of getting into one.
I’ve been going to punk and heavy metal shows for almost fifteen years now, but you wouldn’t know that by everyone else’s reactions to me. Basically – if I’m somewhere where people don’t know me – everyone stares when I walk in. Without fail. After they get their eyeful they typically move on, and I know it’s common for people to look hard at people they don’t recognize, but why stare so hard and so long at me? My thought is that it’s a fair bit of sheer amazement at a splash of color in an otherwise white-only space, and also (seeing as how I don’t really wear “the uniform” anymore) a few thoughts of, “What is SHE doing here?”
Now the staring isn’t so horrible, but what really gets under my skin is well-meant but still hurtful tokenizing. When I first moved to DC in 2007, I was inundated with invitations to join feminist collectives and attend menstruating-wimmin-only crafting events. In fairness, the punk scene in DC is so politicized that I can’t even remember the last time I went to a party there that wasn’t a benefit for sex workers or someone’s top surgery, so I suppose that all of the invites are to be expected. It still stings when someone wants you to fight for their cause before ever trying to get to know you. Then of course there are the people that want to do “Black things” with you, like go see a blues musician or eat at Soul Vegetarian Cafe or watch Good Hair. They want me to teach them how to make greens or cornbread or neck bones or mac-n-cheese.
Now I’m not talking about my real friends – people who have been able to approach me within this hyper-political scene and not make me feel like a trophy, people who respect my opinion and understand that it’s okay for me not to see things in the way that most punks see them because I’m not like most punks. I love going to see blues or eating soul food or watching documentaries with my real friends – it’s the people that never talk to me until something “black” is happening that I find distasteful. The truth is that most white punks have respect for people of color and practice humility when in their spaces, but there’s a small percentage of “crusaders” out there who wanna save the world and know exactly how, and if you don’t fall in line with their worldview then you’re clearly not down for the cause. These are the buttholes who smash up mom-and-pop stores instead of corporate spaces during riots. These are the trust fund kids that move into crappy neighborhoods and then scream “Walgreens gentrified our street!” when the locals move out. These are also the people who look at communities of color with the notion that we are simpletons that must be saved.
DIY punk is different from heavy metal only because DIY is much more politicized, so when I moved into a house with a graffiti artist and members of a metal band I breathed a sigh of relief. Now I can just drink my beer and watch horrible movies and not worry about being thrust to the front just because I’m Black.
Those things were true, but it was complicated in ways I had not expected. I didn’t experience any of the tokenizing that I felt in the DIY community, but on the other hand I noticed that the scene in general had a shocking disregard for politics. I have met some of the smartest and most awesome people through heavy metal, in both DC and Baltimore, but (like DIY punk) there’s always a part of the community that makes me wanna sit on a fucking knife. Mainly in the case of National Socialist Black Metal, or NSBM.
“National Socialist” means the same thing today as it meant in 1930s Germany, and certain friends of mine either didn’t understand why I didn’t care for bands like Burzum and Mayhem – two black metal bands that have racists and neo-Nazis for members. One of my roommates had actually bought a Burzum album from an NSBM record label, and he tried to reason it away by saying “I had no idea at the time,” which would have worked for me if he hadn’t been so well-versed in the life and times of Varg Vikernes, the racist and convicted murderer who is the sole member of Burzum. My roommates swore up and down that they weren’t racists, and I believe them, but their behavior was a prime example of the apathy and personal irresponsibility that lies at the heart of what heavy metal is in it’s essence – a big boy’s club. And a white one, at that.
The 2008 election was a nightmare for me because no one could understand why I was so excited about Obama running and winning. Punks and metalheads are supposed to hate politics and hate politicians and want to kill them all, right? No one could understand the joy I felt at his achievement and how this was a huge stepping stone for African Americans, if only as a way for our children to see him and believe that they could achieve anything in this country. I was usually told something like, “Racism is pretty much over in America,” or “It’s time to move on from that topic,” which is a naïve idea at best. I felt like people didn’t want to be able to see my view, that the anger that punks and metalheads hold couldn’t let them just be happy for Black America, a community that most punks claim to respect and support.
Black people and other persons of color have never been a fixture in punk or metal, save for icons like Bad Brains, early Sepultura, or Jean Beauvoir, and that’s only like 7 people. That’s too small of a sampling to have had that strong of an impact, though both Bad Brains and Sepultura both present political and cultural themes in their music. Perhaps if there wore more of us then there’d be more awareness on the part of white punks, but until then, I’d love to see more ethnic musicians in the punk and metal scenes present these themes in their music – especially in heavy metal.
Perhaps I’m being a hypocrite because I never appreciated the gentle shoves I got from punks to make myself visible as a black punk, but then again I wasn’t a “personality,” I didn’t make records, people didn’t listen to what I had to say. I don’t have a fanbase to be responsible for – but other musicians of color do, and there’s nothing wrong with using that power.