Is “Whiteness” a Problem in Metal?

In a recent article, Kim Kelly, one of the bottom-feeding writers for the sewage pipe known as VICE, decided to, as usual, artificially inject some ridiculous political babble. Her comments arose in an interview with an African American musician who is combining some black metal sounds with American “slave” music. It’s obviously not an actual metal release, but rather an experiment for this musician, who admits came up with the idea thanks to a suggestion from 4Chan. It’s definitely not my cup of tea, but if it’s the kind of thing that gets you going, more power to you.

I took issue with the fact that, at one point, Kelly praises this musician by saying:

It’s pretty subversive that you’re approaching it this way, because black metal itself can be such a white, backward-facing genre.”

Besides the fact that this line seems to have been added in post, since it mysteriously features a different format than the rest of the text, I take issue with her words. This is, of course, not the first time this character decides to pull this kind of stunt. Back in 2014, for example, she wrote how there is a “long-held view of heavy metal and hardcore as members-only clubs for straight white cis men;” as I reported back then, her response to my request for any sort of source for the comment was “it’s literally not an opinion, it’s a fact.” In other words, “it is like this, because I say so.”

Kelly’s words epitomize the self-flagellating view of many white, privileged, hip writers, who always try to go out of their way to apologize for their ethnicity. It’s a painful show, as it highlights how their whole shtick is basically feigning moral outrage over things they will never personally experience. Of course, if the facts are not in accordance with the source of their moral outrage, that’s a problem for the facts, not for their message.

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“Let me tell you about the African-American experience…” (Photo)

The use of “white” as a deriding term to refer to heavy metal is, in my view, quite stupid. This is especially so when we consider that, whether VICE writers and their ilk like it, heavy metal did start amidst white people. In Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture, the first and arguably most important academic book on heavy metal, Deena Weinstein (2000, p. 66-67) explains how heavy metal started among working-class white people in England, and that American blacks (the people Kelly seems to worship in a condescending 21st century version of the “noble savage” trope) did not participate in it for a number of reasons. Among these reasons, first, merely geographical factors, and, second  “self-segregation” of African American themselves, following the murder of MLK and the entrenchment of African Americans in their own culture (criticizing those who broke ranks and sounded “too white”). It did not help, of course, that in the 60s and 70s a working-class, all-white fanbase was not an attractive place for blacks to mingle in. The situation did obviously change, and by the 1980’s Hispanics and blacks were actively participating in the creation and performance of heavy metal. As a person who grew up in South America, I can attest to this, as my heavy metal youth did not resemble a Hitlerjugend rally, nor did any of the many concerts I attended.

How VICE journalists imagine heavy metal concerts look like
How VICE journalists imagine heavy metal concerts.

This is hardly a divisive issue, as there is a clear academic consensus in regards to where and with whom did heavy metal start. Since I’m sure the likes of Kim Kelly are aware of this (or, at least, they should) it always surprises me when they decide to simply do away with history and look down on heavy metal (a genre they supposedly like) and use its ethnic origins as a negative.

The problem is that this behaviour reeks of hypocrisy, as it unfairly targets heavy metal for being “white,” while failing to use the same kind of logic to attack any other genre of music that happens to appeal to a certain ethnic group more than others. As far as we can tell, nobody out there is criticizing Argentina’s grip on Tango, or the fact that Azerbaijani people are disproportionately represented among Ashik performers. For some reason, we never seem to get the same outrage and calls for diversity in those cases; in fact, any attempt to include white people among traditionally non-white genres of music is met with downright hatred. In the eyes of commentators like those employed by VICE, it then becomes an issue of cultural appropriation. In those cases, diversity becomes a problem.

Even in academic circles, the presence of white people in traditionally non-white stages is a source for concern. In Color-Blind Ideology and the Cultural Appropriation of Hip-Hop, for example, the author makes the case that by removing the inherent ethnic elements from hip-hop, when it is adopted by whites, it makes the music “color-blind” and destroys its true purpose (p.646).

“[C]olor-blind eyes interpret racialized cultural symbols in ways undermining their racially coded character, reducing race to little more than an “innocuous cultural signifier,” allowing whites to use culture to experience a felt similarity with people of color. Indeed it has been firmly established that whites tend to be color-blind to their own racial privilege, but the question of how individuals struggle to manage the demands of color-blindness in the midst of participating in a cultural movement in which race is salient, such as hip-hop, is less well understood. How do individuals simultaneously insist on color-blindness and endorse a cultural form which is unambiguously and explicitly racial?

If whites stay out of non-white culture, they are being racists; if they take part in it, they are appropriating it. On the flipside, if non-whites keep their own art free of white people, it’s self preservation, and if they partake in traditionally white forms of expression, they’re simply moving forward. For the likes of VICE and certain circles of academia, white people are in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. No matter what they do, they’re always one step away from flogging someone. It doesn’t matter that heavy metal often speaks to the shared experience of certain people (early black metal to the repressed Scandinavian society of the second half of the 20th century, traditional heavy metal to disenfranchised working class kids, etc.) it is inherently evil, unless we stomp that shit out.

Of course, Noisey has me covered, in regards to my questions. In fact, another of their bottom-feeding reporters explains, in an amazing non-sequitur, why it is not the same to complain about the accusations of cultural appropriation.

You think it doesn’t matter because how dare anyone tell you that you can’t do this, that or the other just because of your race. Oh my god, do you not taste the irony in that statement? It’s overpowering! To complain that you’re not allowed to twerk while white, when there are black people literally being shot dead for jaywalking (while black), listening to music (while black) and knocking on doors (while black) amongst other transgressions that come under the umbrella of “existing (while black)” the sheer audacity of your affronted indignity is almost to be applauded in nervous confusion.

It’s outrage journalism, pure and simple. Just like the 80’s had reporters running to cover the threat of Satanism always lurking around the corner and the 90’s were all about how kids were having sex and doing drugs all the time, this generation is all about the undercover racist hiding in our midst. It’s a time when a big chunk of your life is expected to be spent in constant contrition, apologizing for things you didn’t do, for thoughts you didn’t have, and for behaviors you’ve never exhibited. We get to have our 2 minutes of hate every day, trying to find what white people are up to now. Truly, war is peace, freedom is slavery.

References:

RODRÍGUEZ, Jason, “Color-Blind Ideology and the Cultural Appropriation of Hip-Hop,” 2006, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35, 645
HARRISON, Michael Leigh, “Factory Music: How the Industrial Geography and Working-Class Environment of Post-War Birmingham Fostered the Birth of Heavy Metal,” Journal of Social History, Volume 44, Nº 1, pp.145-158
WEINSTEIN, Deena, “Heavy Metal: The Music and its Culture,” Da Capo Press, 2000

 

Cover photo by  Ingun Mæhlum, used under fair use.