Laina Dawes is a metal fan. She likes distorted guitars, pounding drums and screeching banshee vocals. As a critic and concert photographer, her work has appeared in numerous music publications, both here in the United States and in her north country home of Canada, about which Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young have sung many a tune.
Dawes is also a woman of color, which has thrown some challenges her way in terms of being a metal fan. While we at The Z Review hate to generalize, any metal fan can tell you that people of color tend to encounter more than their fair share of side-eye in that particular subculture.
As if to underscore this particular point, Dawes wrote the book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal for Bazillion Points Books in 2012. The title isn’t just any old question – on the Amazon.com product page for her book, it’s characterized as “the knee-jerk question she’s heard a hundred times in the small clubs where her favorite bands play.”
The Z Review recently subjected Dawes to the withering “Five Questions” treatment.
TZR: What was your initial inspiration for writing “What Are You Doing Here”? Was it a particular incident or the aggregate effect of many incidents?
LD: The reason why I’ve been interested in this topic is that I’ve been a lifelong metal fan, and my formative years coincided with the 80s metal boom, and I was in my late teens during the Grunge era. I was going to shows in Toronto three or four times a week, and my friend and I — who wasn’t too much into the music — were always the only black people in the crowd.
I simply wondered why that was when we had the same access to the music as anyone else. Where there have never been a plethora of black women in the scene, I’ve also had a lifelong fascination with thinking about using the aggression and oftentimes darkness of the music as a form of expression for black women. Our bodies and our thoughts are constantly policied as being aggressive, so why not incorporate that into a musical culture that celebrates that aggression?
Previous to writing the book, I had worked as a freelance music journalist for several years and had published a few articles on the representation of black men and women in rock and heavy metal. I also helped organize a one-day symposium focused on the representation of black alternative and rock artists, and produced a radio documentary on black women in rock.
In 2007 I contributed an essay on Skunk Anansie for the anthology, Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs. My future publisher, Ian Christe, also contributed to the book and reached out to see if I would be interested in writing a book about black women in metal.
TZR: What has the response to the book been like? Any bizarre fan stories, or has the readership been more sane?
LD: The response has been a lot more positive than I ever expected. I’ve met several black metal, punk and hardcore musicians, and fans, and it’s been incredible to hear how the book made them feel less isolated and alone — which because of the societal emphasis placed on racialized music genres, is a major problem.
One of the greatest opportunities I’ve had is to do a substantial amount of public speaking and create communities in which black women fans and musicians can network. This fall, a conference I first organized in 2016 at The New School, Women CLAP BACK in Music and the Arts, will be taking place at Columbia University, where I’m a Ph.D. student in Ethnomusicology. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the book.
On the other hand, the resistance within both black communities and among white metal fans to discuss diversity within the metal scene has been tough. I’ve had people who have supported the book but are not willing to publicly criticize pervasive issues concerning racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny within the scene.
The resistance has come from people, specifically men, who were angry that I wrote that didn’t include them. Black men — and there are a lot more black male musicians than black women — felt ostracized, as there was a weird expectation that I should cater to their needs.
About a year ago, a white metal fan from my hometown in Ontario, Canada, decided to write a long and public post on Facebook denouncing the book, which included the usual trope that I shouldn’t be talking about race because he can’t relate, questioned the dozens of experiences of black fans within the book, and that I had alienated him. He also made “suggestions” about what to do in my next book — which of course, included white artists and less emphasis on race and black women.
I was livid, but the same sentiment had been previously shared by a small handful of reviews written by white male journalists who dismissed the book because they “couldn’t relate.” One of the most egregious offenses was when I attended a metal festival in Calgary and one of the journalists that criticized the book was there. He honestly thought that I would beat him up if we met in person, which suggests some deeply racialized stereotypes about how he thought I would react to any kind of criticism.
TZR: You’re originally from Canada. Have you found that metal fans there treat women of color differently at shows than they do in the United States, or is it basically the same?
LD: Good question! I’ve lived in the States for four years now, and I can say that at extreme metal concerts the crowd is more diverse here, but there are still not many African-Americans.
In Toronto, going to shows as a journalist and concert photographer, it was definitely worse. In hindsight, some of the stuff I went through to cover a show was insane. I don’t have any desire to ever see a show in Canada again. Overall the main issue is that in the States, people are willing to show their racist asses more freely and Canadians put more thought into how to fuck with you.
The overall issue right now is how external political tensions have permeated the scene, making issues of racial and religious exclusion more heightened. Canadians can hide behind the long-held notion that they are nicer than Americans, but social and political shifts in America always trickle down to how Canadians treat each other.
TZR: Why do you think it is that metal bands have become a lot less shy in recent years about showing off their more racist and fascist tendencies? That element always existed but it feels like it’s been really let off the leash lately.
LD: As I mentioned, I think intolerance has elevated with the social and political climate. Currently, Trump’s blatant bigotry serves as a dog-whistle that allows people to publicly express their own prejudices — and in some cases, violently. I interviewed Dallas Coyle from God Forbid right before Obama won the 2008 presidency and he noted that there was a heightened sense of tension.
He also wrote a column for Metal Sucks about the election. He wrangled with angry commenters, people who resented the possibility that the Commander-in-Chief would be from a demographic that they felt were inferior.
Right now, people are crying ‘Nazis’ and misinterpreting the definition to suit their own agendas, such as labeling those involved with Antifa-centric organizations as somehow hindering their enjoyment of alienating people based on their religious faith or ethnicity.
I have never been that concerned about a band member spouting nonsense – for me, I will never purchase an album from them again. My concern is the fans, who feel, sometimes falsely, that their favorite band holds the same intolerant views as they do. That is what causes issues of physical violence at shows, not necessarily because of the band onstage.
I’ve had a few young black men and women, and a couple of older lifers in the scene, who have recently expressed great fear in attending shows because the tensions are so high. They are afraid of being assaulted. I honestly am not too keen on it myself, and living in New York, I’ve missed a lot of great shows!
TZR: What are some current bands that you like, and who are your all-time favorites?
LD: Currently, I’m digging DeafKids, who are amazing. I’d love to see them play this summer with Neurosis, which are one of my all-time favorite bands. The new Corrosion of Conformity is great, and I am waiting for the new Pig Destroyer album, which will hopefully drop soon. I’m also waiting for the new Carcass, and for Sleep to come out with some new material.
All-time favorites are Judas Priest, Sabbath, Slayer, Converge, Ufomammut, YOB, and Dragged into Sunlight. I really love Indian, Abigail Williamsand Lord Mantis, and the latest Cobalt was fantastic. In terms of local New York City bands, I really dig Tombs, Krallice, Dysrhythmia, and Pyrron.