Why Can’t Black Kids Play Heavy Metal?

The boys of Unlocking the Truth deserve the right to rock without having their blackness questioned.

Members of the band Unlocking the Truth: Alec Atkins, Jarad Dawkins and Malcolm Brickhouse (unlockingthetruthband.com)
Members of the band Unlocking the Truth: Alec Atkins, Jarad Dawkins and Malcolm Brickhouse (unlockingthetruthband.com)

(The Root) — It all started with a video of three young black boys head-banging in New York City’s Times Square, playing a musical genre that, for a number of people, is a rarity for people of color.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based sixth-graders have been performing together since 2007, the year they formed the first incarnation of their band, Tears of Blood. Realistically, it’s pretty impressive these days for any band to remain together for six years, but despite a 2012 mention in the Village Voice and videos posted on YouTube for almost a year, people really didn’t take notice of Unlocking the Truth until two months ago, when a video capturing the band’s raw performance in one of North America’s most heavily trafficked venues went viral.

Online commenters have swooned over the precocious tweens, marveling at their musical prowess and, most surprisingly, their musical preference: heavy metal. As a metal-music journalist and photographer, I think their music is impressive, and I would bet some serious cash that Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” was at least a partial influence. The breakdowns are tight — OK, a bit choppy — but they have that infectious metal groove down pat.

Fresh off an appearance on FX’s Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, the band recently made headlines in an interview with the Advant/Garde Diaries, when guitarist Malcolm Brickhouse and drummer Jarad Dawkins insinuated that they have caught some flak from their peers because of their musical preference. While you need to watch the video to get the full context of what they were saying, it’s clear their schoolmates prefer hip-hop over metal.

“You [usually] wouldn’t see kids like us picking out our own genre,” Jarad explains. Malcolm chooses to display his allegiance to the dark side by wearing black nail polish, a common thing among young metal and Goth fans. “Since I wear nail polish, and that’s not normal for boys to wear it … people bother me for it. At times it offends me, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Even though rock and roll has its roots in black music, and despite the fact that legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix (who also faced ire from black communities over his musical preference) inspired millions of men and women to get into hard rock, the members of Unlocking the Truth say that hip-hop, R&B and soul are still used by their peers as a barometer to gauge one’s cultural authenticity.

Many respondents to the Gawker news piece that sparked the discussion reacted to the term “bullied,” which within the past year has been a highly provocative term in the media. How dare anyone pick on these sweet little kids? My white metal colleagues remarked that unfortunately, they, too, had been picked on for their musical preference. “Bullying sucks,” commented journalist Kyle Harcott, who writes for the metal site Hellbound. “But it’s a rite of passage for fledgling metal-heads. A lot of us took our lumps at some point for not being into the same thing as every other kid.”