What's So Hard to Understand About a Black Woman Who Loves Heavy Metal?

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Laina Dawes never satisfyingly explains the origins of her musical tastes in What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, but then again, who ever can?

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Demography isn't cultural destiny. I may be a Jew, but that doesn't mean that I have to listen to klezmer. And in fact, my musical tastes encompass country, folk, gospel, soul, electronica, metal ... everything and anything. It's almost as if I'm an omnivorous white hipster—just like all those other Jews, from Alan Lomax to Paul Simon to Robert Zimmerman.

The point being that while ethnicity, race, and religion don't determine what you do, they are part of the narrative of your life. There is no algorithm by which people's history, class, or race turns them into who they are—but still, who you are is in part a result of your history, class and race. Untangling the self from its community and history can, therefore, be a maddening, impossible, fascinating, exhilarating task.

This kind of untangling is certainly the impetus for Laina Dawes in her recent book, What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. As the title suggests, Dawes has a compellingly idiosyncratic tale to tell about cultural identity and personal passion. A black Canadian woman, Dawes is obsessed with heavy metal—a genre, particularly in its more extreme manifestations, that is not known for its appeal to either women or blacks, much less both at the same time. Exploring why she finds this music compelling, then, seems like it might be a way to illuminate race, gender, and metal, as well as a way to help explain how we are and are not more than the sum of our cultural signifiers.

But Dawes can't quite sort it out. On the one hand, she insists that black women should be able to embrace metal as a way to "express their individuality." (19) But on the other, she claims that metal is appealing because it includes "universal emotions that everyone feels." (65) She argues that metal provides a "voice for the voiceless." (19) But she never attempts to explain why that's different from, say, hip-hop, or jazz, or any number of other musics attached to subcultures that, arguably, have been more voiceless than the white guys like me who listen to metal. Finally, Dawes insists adamantly that her love of metal is not about rejecting blackness, and particularly denies that her upbringing as the adopted child of a white family is linked to her passion for the music. (67) But she also suggests that metal is a way for her to reject "hyper-sexualized images of black women in hip-hop culture." (100) She even approvingly quotes Keidra Chaney, another black female metalhead, who says that the appeal of metal for her was that it "didn't reflect my life experiences or cultural identity in any tangible way." (70)

Part of Dawes's difficulty is precisely what makes her struggle interesting: the fact that there are few resources for talking about minority appreciation of majority culture.

Part of Dawes's understandable difficulty is precisely what makes her struggle interesting: the fact that there are few cultural resources for talking about minority appreciation of majority culture. If Wim Wenders wants to laud Cuban singers in Buena Vista Social Club, or Eric Clapton wants to demonstrate his love of the blues, there's a language to make sense of it: They can frame their passions in terms of authenticity, or cool, or appreciating and promoting groups that lack access to the mainstream. In contrast, as Dawes says, "When I discuss black women in the metal, hardcore, and punk scenes, the most common response from people who don't know me is a three-second pause, and then 'Huh?'"

It's a funny quip, not least because it points out just how arbitrary our assumptions are, not just about Dawes, but about folks like Wim Wenders and Eric Clapton too. Must every white man go to the same crossroads to watch the same marginalized someone sacrifice his soul on the same altar of real, real, realness? Couldn't we maybe, please, occasionally, do something else?

We could, of course—but it's more difficult than it looks. Certainly, Dawes finds it so. She namechecks a slew of bands, from Judas Priest (who she likes) to Burzum (who she doesn't) to Napalm Death, Pantera, and Testament and on and on. She talks about going to shows, about performance styles, and about what singers are wearing. She says that she likes the music because it's angry and aggressive. She wonders whether it's okay to like bands that have racist or sexist politics. But she never discusses the actual experience of listening to the music that her book is ostensibly about. What is it in Judas Priest's songs that speaks to her? For that matter, which Judas Priest songs speak to her? Does she dislike Burzum only because he's a racist asshole, or does atmospheric crusty black metal just not send her anywhere? And what connection is there between those two things, if any? We never find out.

If demographics aren't destiny, it's because there's something in us that isn't reducible to where we are born and how we are treated. That wavering ineffable bit, perhaps only imagined, is what art speaks to—and why we often feel that the music, or books, or art we love are the most real part of us. The fact that that most real part of us may be packaged for mass consumption, and the fact that it exists in its own cultural space shot through with class, race, gender, commerce and politics, deepens the mystery.

Dawes argues that freedom is "a mechanism to find what we need in music, emotionally and physically." Surely that's an impoverished definition. And yet, there is in fact some link between art and freedom. At times it's straightforward, as in the Civil Rights movements' use of the spirituals. At times it's surprising and unlikely, as when Richard Wright, locked in the Jim Crow south, discovered, of all things, the writing of H.L. Mencken.

That night in my rented room, while letting the hot water run over my can of pork and beans in the sink, I opened A Book of Prefaces and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words ... Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon? No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.

It's surely unfair to wish that Dawes could write about her unlikely cross-cultural passion with the grace and fire of Richard Wright. But I had hoped for at least some explanation of the power of her relationship with metal; some effort to understand how or why metal makes her who she is. Instead, at the heart of this book about loud music, there's an echoing silence. That silence is certainly more surprising, and more thoughtful, than, say, R. Crumb's umpteenth fetishization of the blues, or Ken Burns rattling on about the quintessential Americanness of whatever. But its reticence is also disappointing—and not very metal.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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