"This music's not for you!": The troubled relationship between rock and race

Film editor Joe Holloran examines the role race plays in the complex world of hard rock and heavy metal.

Joe Holloran
22nd October 2019
Like many of you I enjoy music of all genres. Sadly not everybody has the luxury of loving music free from prejudice. Not all music is going to be loved by everyone, but everyone should be free to listen to what they please.

When one thinks of those who play and listen to rock and/or metal music, a very clear stereotype quickly forms in our minds. We imagine a white cis-male, probably socially awkward, over-weight and not the most attractive. While our higher brains know this is just a media-formed lazy form of collectivising a whole group of people, our instinctual lower-brains allow it to create the basis of how we first judge other people. In most cases these associations between fan stereotypes and music is basically harmless. But when it comes to metal, there is one group of fans for whom their very fandom is a cause of curiosity at best and ostracized at worst. I am talking about the ever growing black rock community.

Deborah Dyer AKA. 'Skin' has been the lead singer of the British alternative rock band since it formed in 1994.

Now, some of you may be wondering what authority do I have to talk about this issue as a straight, white-male. You are right, I have never been descriminated against for being who I am. But I have witnessed it. I love rock and metal and am a proud member of a mostly inclusive and wonderful community. However, there is a undeniable problem regarding race, gender and sexuality from some (I repeat , some) in our community. Metal music can be gruff and full of machismo. This unfortunately does draw in those who see the genre as an exclusive club for white guys only. Take for instance the backlash from some fans to William Duvall fronting the reformed Alice In Chains. Countless online forums and comments repeatedly criticise Duvall, some for simply not being Layne Staley, but others attacked the singer based soley on his race.

Alice In Chain's William DuVall performing live with the Grunge giants in 2010. Image:Wikicommons.

Black rock musicians face harsher criticism than their white counterparts from our community because they begin at a disadvantage. They are still seen by some as outsiders and thus have to fight a battle just to be accepted and judged on the quality of their music.

The idea that rock and metal is white people music is of course foolish given rock is rooted in the blues and soul music of the American south. The notion that rock and metal is a white boys game is exasperated by the media and the lack of black bands being played on radio, TV and featured in magazines. When black groups do break through. at first their skin colour is how the media defines them. It is sad that as our society becomes more and more diverse and accepting of all peoples, the rock community is lagging behind. For me rock and metal is about embracing the idea of the powerful individual, breaking free from all restraints placed on them and living life to the fullest. This path is open to everyone and hopefully as time passes more and more black rock musicians and fans will rise up and be able to enjoy this glorious form of music free from societal expectations.

Welsh rap-metal band Skindred formed in Newport back in 1998.

While there is still progress to be made in the community and society embracing black rockers and metal merchants it mustn't be forgotten that there are dozens of great black rock musicians around today, melting faces and blowing minds. These include - Skin (Skunk Anansie), Benji Webbe (Skindred), Tunde Adebimpe (TV On The Radio), Corey Glover (Living Colour), , Howard Jones (Killswitch Engage), Lenny Kravitz, Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine), Saul Williams, Ice-T (Body Count), Terrence Hobbs (Suffocation), Derrick Green (Sepultura), Lajon Witherspoon (Sevendust) the brilliant and underrated Tosin Abasi (Animals As Leaders) and many, many others.

If you are interested in this topic I highly recommend you track down the brilliant book 'What Are You Doing Here? A Black Women's Life & Liberation In Heavy Metal' by Liana Dawes. The book is a firsthand account of what it is like to be a black, female metal fan in a still white male dominated scene. It is eye-opening, infuriating at times but also optimistic that things are slowly changing. For the sake of the entire rock community, let's hope she is right.

Instrumental progressive metal band Animals As Leaders formed in Washington D.C. in 2007.
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