At a stoplight on a northbound number six bus, the driver–a 30ish African-American man–leaned back:
“Watchu listening to?”
I spared a glance out the window at people along Michigan Avenue enjoying a sunny, Sunday afternoon, self-consciously touched my ear buds and told the truth:
“Eric Clapton!” The bus driver crowed, bemused. Snort. “Haven’t you ever heard of [insert laundry list of appropriately black musicians and music here]?”
I love music and every memory in my life has its own eclectic mix tape. My life score features genres from American roots music to zydeco, but it is a little more White Stripes than Barry White. Two things I know to be true: A whining, sinuous guitar will make me tingle like Chris Matthews’ leg. And, as a black woman, I’ll inevitably get shit for my shivers.
Music journalist and race blogger Laina Dawes understands. In her soon-to-be-released book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, Dawes “questions herself, her headbanging heroes, and dozens of black punk, metal, and hard rock fans to answer the knee-jerk question she’s heard a hundred times in the small clubs where her favorite bands play.”
So, You Think You’re White?
White acts have long mined the work of black performers for inspiration. And hip-hop’s juggernaut status has even more to do with suburban, white kids than inner-city black ones. Dawes points out that white music lovers could always “head to Harlem or over to the local juke joint” to enjoy music traditionally created and performed by African-Americans. Meanwhile, black folks crossing the racial divide, embracing music forms traditionally seen as white (even those that owe their existence to black music), remains taboo — and not just due to pressure from outside of the black community.
I can’t count the number of times over the years that my musical tastes have caused my black card to be pulled. And I don’t even get down with hardcore rock. Dawes says the push back that rock-loving blacks get from within the African-American community can be attributed to the “fragility and history of black cultural identity.” It is hard to be black, even in these allegedly post-racial times, and Dawes notes that there is a lot of resentment toward African-Americans who appear to be rejecting their race and culture, and distancing themselves from the community, in favor of an easier route — even if that “easy route” is just loving the same music as white folks do.
In her book, Dawes shares the story of Pisso, a black female fan of the punk subgenre, Oi!. In Berlin after college, Pisso joined the skinhead scene — an involvement that is not, by the way, synonymous with white power or Nazism. But her family found her musical choices at odds with her West Indian heritage, as well as other norms of race, gender, and sexuality.
“A big part of West Indian culture is to present yourself in a nice way: always clean, nice clothes. When I switched from punk to being a skinhead, my mom definitely noticed when I shaved my head. I had gone over to a friend’s house and to do it, and when I got home, she freaked out. She was very upset, like I had shaved her hair. She was also worried for years that I might be a lesbian. I was really tomboyish, wearing boys’ clothes and playing sports, so [my] cutting off my hair probably just cemented all of those fears she had.
“With my dad, it was definitely more of a problem,” she adds. “He actually stopped talking to me from the time I was fifteen until I was like, 20-something. He eventually told me that he didn’t like that I was into that ‘punk stuff.’”
Race matters add complication to what should be joyous. In What Are You Doing Here?, Mashadi Matabane of Emory University, who is writing a cultural history of black women electric guitarists in U.S. popular music and maintains the blog Steely Dames, says:
“When I was a kid I loved New Kids on the Block. Everybody had something to say about it—my grandfather, my mother, the kids at school—all of them were always clear that I was not the right kind of black girl. No matter what I did, it wasn’t enough. That parochial blackness is as dangerous as hell … It steals your joy.
“It’s something that infects our minds and our decision-making process, because it forces you to always think, ‘What are they thinking about me now?’ If someone asks you a question, like, ‘What kind of music are you writing about?’ or ‘What concert you are going to?’ before you even answer you are processing the expected response — ‘What are people going to say?’
“You have practiced the response, practiced talking about it to beat them to the punch. It’s this extra layer that hovers over us and has the potential to cut off what it really means to be black.”
What are you doing here?
Make no mistake. It is not just the African-American community that is uncomfortable with black people embracing alternative music genres. Said one interviewee, “I once dated a white guy who grew up in a black neighborhood and was trying to be ‘down,’ and he yelled at me for listening to Led Zeppelin: ‘Don’t you listen to any black music? Why do you listen to that white music for?’ — the funniest thing I ever heard.”
Live shows are a crucial part of the metal scene, and many black metalheads avoid concerts, for both their peace of mind and safety. Dawes says that reception by mostly white music fans depends on the band, the venue, and the city. “People may not give you a second look or they may say not very nice things to make you feel uncomfortable. I wouldn’t go to a metal show in Boston, but Chicago has a great scene. There are a lot of black women into metal in Chicago.”
More millennial black, female fans of punk, metal, and hard rock — a generation with greater access to multiracial groups of friends — are recognizing their right to enjoy the music they love, in the spaces where it is played. But too many still feel the need to keep the rock love on the low, just as they did 30 years ago. Dawes says, “I spoke to a lot of black kids who said, ‘Yeah, I’m really into metal, but don’t tell anybody. I can’t be interviewed and I don’t go to shows, because I’m afraid of being beaten up.
“There is still the fear of rejection.”
Black metal and punk performers also often lack support within the music industry — in black spaces and white. Dawes tells the story of a black hardcore band who grabbed the interest of a record label, until the group showed up for a meeting and was decidedly browner that their demo led execs to believe. They were sent home.
“We just can’t market you.”
So, why bother?
All music lovers gravitate toward sound that moves both their asses and their souls. Rock speaks to Dawes and the women interviewed in her book (including Skin of Skunk Anansie — see video above). Some of these women, many of whom are members of the hip-hop and MTV generations, also enjoy traditionally black forms of music, but there is something special to them about metal, punk, and hard rock — something liberating that speaks directly to their womanhood and blackness, and the oppressions inherent in both. Says Dawes, “The live show is such a fantastic place to feel alive, to express your anger and to feel all those things that black women are asked to repress. We aren’t supposed to be angry and loud or aggressive. [Hardcore] rock shows are where I feel free to release my frustration.”
When the author was younger, she says, she missed sharing this release with her black, female friends, who were disinterested in her favored genres. She wrote What Are You Doing Here?, in part, to find other women who understand this feeling, to lend support to the lone black rock chicks and provide them an opportunity to roar.
“I wanted people to know that these musical genres are diverse. There should be no gender and color barriers to music.”
Many black, female fans find liberation from racialized and gendered stereotypes in the raging, screeching, and grinding of hardcore music and spaces.
“Society allows white guys to utilize this music to get their aggressions out, act like He-Man and go crazy. The same benefits they get out of the music, black women not only get, but need even more. Black women need spaces in society where we can be free and express our individuality and be who we want to be.”