When I first heard about Laina Dawes’ book What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, I was excited. Not that I was fully expecting a “ripping the lid off” exposé on racism in the metal scene, mind you. Rather, I thought the notion of a book-length examination of a Black woman’s perspective from within the community would be fascinating. I mean, here’s a writer that holds a particularly unique perspective: being a minority member of a minority within a group that often proudly flies its “outsider” status flag for all to see. The metal community is, sadly, fairly homogenous in its makeup (lots of white dudes), and any effort to foster a more inclusive attitude and multicultural makeup within it is more than welcome. More than anything, the book’s concept spoke to what I want to do on this blog (and have done relatively little of, admittedly): discuss metal from a progressive place, and discuss social and political issues from a metal fan’s perspective. I couldn’t wait to review it.
And, for the most part, Dawes does an exemplary job. She reaches out to a number of musicians and writers, both well-known and obscure, and brings back any number of compelling insights into their experiences as part of the scene. Her personal stories about crossing color and gender lines are, in turns, fascinating and moving. Her discussion of the Black roots of rock music and women’s places within that history is important and vital to understanding the need for inclusiveness. And her comments on both the racism present in the scene (both on the fan and professional levels) and the prejudices faced within the Black community itself are eye-opening and demonstrate the need for open-mindedness to prevail on every side of the continuum.
My real problem with the book, though, is that it should be so much better than it is. And the problem, largely, isn’t with her writing, her ideas or anything she puts forth. It’s not a “content” issue. It’s a structural one. Firstly, the book could stand to be much longer than it is. Some concepts (like the Black roots of rock and the roles of Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie as female blues pioneers [though I’d stop short of calling Billie a blues singer—she’s a jazz vocalist if there ever was one]) tend to be glossed over for brevity’s sake. While the content she presents in these cases is valuable, a deeper discussion would be ever so much more beneficial.
Secondly, the book’s overall structure feels flawed. It begins with a relatively academic tone (the more personal in tone introduction aside). It lacks the passion that you want to believe that Dawes has for the music—and the passion that drives the music and drew her to it. Those opening chapters are largely built on other people’s quotes, telling of their own experiences and perspectives. It’s not until the fourth chapter (about a third of the way in), really, that we get to the nitty gritty of her story, and that’s the story advertised in the book’s title. Start out with the personal, and then bring in others’ voices. Grab us with your story. This is ostensibly about your life and liberation, and it’s that promise that brought me in.
Beyond that, there are some things that should have been caught in the editing phase that jarred me out of what should have been an immersive experience. I read the iTunes Books version on my iPad, and in this version at least, the introduction is repeated twice: once before the foreword by Skin of Skunk Anansie, and once after. The appendix “What Are You Doing Here?: The Survey” is repeated three times before the bibliography. It troubled me that the picture accompanying the introduction is identified as being of Sandra St. Victor from the Family Stand, while the image is clearly of Betty Davis, from the cover of her second album They Say I’m Different. (And the funny thing is that the name of that album would have served as a great sub-head to the introduction, given the book’s topic.)
The only thing, content-wise, that really bugged me in the entire book was a common thread in a few instances where she’s detailing her reactions to allegations of racism among certain metal musicians. She presents the story about Nachtmystium’s removal from the lineup of Atlanta’s Scion Rock Fest 2009 due to rumored associations with National Socialist Black Metal record labels. She doesn’t address the background or response in any depth (the band’s first demo was unofficially copied and mailed out as promotional CDs by Vinland Winds records without the band’s knowledge, and their first EP wound up being picked up along with a bunch of releases from various labels by an NSBM-related distributor, though the label they had signed with had no NSBM connections; Nachtmystium have since canceled tours with bands who espouse NS beliefs), but presents the idea that pulling support from the band based on rumor alone as if it were a reasonable reaction. (She also manages to lump paganism in with fascism and Nazism, which is unfortunate, but another story altogether.)
In another chapter, she alludes to the infamous 1979 Elvis Costello “Ray Charles” incident in which Costello referred to Ray as a “blind, ignorant nigger” and to James Brown as a “jive-ass nigger.” Costello, who had been active at the time in the Rock Against Racism movement, was drunkenly and actively trying to piss off some of Stephen Stills’ bandmates who had kept pestering him in a hotel bar, and so he said the most offensive thing he could think of to them. It wound up being reported in People magazine. Was it a stupid thing to have said and done? Absolutely. Did it reflect his personal beliefs? Absolutely not. But Dawes doesn’t mention Costello’s RAR background, nor does she mention his lifelong regret at having said those words (which he would later say led to his never being able to speak to Ray Charles, someone he actually idolized, out of his own sense of shame).
Later, she relates a story about having posted a live review on her blog, in which she mentioned an unsubstantiated rumor about the racism of an unnamed member of an unnamed band. She mentioned that she would no longer consider buying that band’s material. The band’s camp figured it out, and threatened legal action if the blog post wasn’t removed. When she went to remove the post, she found a comment complaining about her posting of the rumor and the negative impact it could have on the career of the young band. Dawes’ reaction was to chastise the commenter for being “more pissed that it was actually brought up, rather than the actual accusation…Do not turn this around and try to make me the guilty party because you read something you didn’t like.”
Here’s the thing: If a blogger posts an unsubstantiated rumor, a reader has every right to be more upset about that rumor being spread than the fact that a rumor exists. Dawes attempts to justify this by saying “whether the story I heard was true or not, I was writing about my reaction to hearing allegations of a racist past,” and later stating “if the story wasn’t true, I could have sullied the band’s reputation, and I would have felt pretty awful about that.” That’s why it’s important to get to the truth. I mean, if I based all of my decisions on the unsubstantiated rumors that get circulated daily, my entire political philosophy would be based on which Presidential candidate got the endorsement of the Aliens from Outer Space and Bat Boy in the latest Weekly World News. It’s her right to choose what drives her own decision-making, but to come out and say, essentially, “someone told me this rumor, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’m not buying this jerk’s records any more” seems shallow. It feels like a knee-jerk reaction, which is what her writing aims to destroy: the knee-jerk reaction that a Black woman can’t be a passionate fan of heavy metal. And she tries to use this to make a point that she doesn’t think that any band’s reputation would be sullied by accusations of racism, because the majority-white male fan base isn’t directly affected by the allegations of racism. This is contradicted by the Nachtmystium story. They were kicked off a major festival because of allegations of White Power connections, and there are plenty of commenters on blogs like MetalSucks and Blabbermouth who’ve taken those accusations at face value and written the band off as “Nazis.” Yes, they’ve prospered since issuing their press release countering the Scion decision, but even reviews of their latest LP, Silencing Machine, have frequently invoked the “they’re not really racist” caveat in order to offset accusations of supporting a NSBM act.
And, ironically, she follows this up by making a glowing reference to Steve Albini as a “legendary producer,” when Albini has referred to racism and sexism as “the smallest of imaginary prejudices;” has more openly used racist, sexist and homophobic language to provoke people than Elvis Costello did in ’79; and is full of choice quotes like “I don’t give two splats of an old negro junkie’s vomit for your politico-philosophical treatises, kiddies.” I’m not claiming that Albini is himself racist, sexist or homophobic; just that he gets off the hook for having helped engineer some Rise from Ashes demo tracks, while the lifelong regret of Elvis Costello and the distancing actions of Nachtmystium get eyed with suspicion at best, and rumors that may or may not be true are good enough reason to distance oneself from a band.
I know, it might seem like this is the main focus of the book, based on how much space I’m devoting to a few scant passages from it. It’s not, trust me: it’s just that those portions that I see as possessing a logical inconsistency bug me, and made me want to argue with the text. But it says something about the effectiveness of her writing that I allowed this to get to me as much as it did. Racial and sexual prejudice are troubling subjects, and if a book about facing them manages to not piss anyone off, then that book is simply not worth reading. And despite my few problems with Dawes’ work, her book certainly is. It’s a discussion that more in the metal community should be a part of, and should be affected by. For anyone with the slightest interest in the interplay of race, sex and heavy metal music, it’s a must-read.
I only wish it had been structured differently. It would have been much more engaging up-front, where it matters.
What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal is available from Bazillion Points Books.