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)

In the book, Los Angeles-based metal journalist Sameerah Blue says that as a kid, she hid her record collection under her bed not because of her parents — who, like the families of Brickhouse and Dawkins, were supportive of her music preference — but to avoid being ostracized and called “wannabe white girl” when her black friends came to her house.

Black radio stations and record companies have been reluctant to take on black hard-rock and metal artists. In What Are You Doing Here? a number of female musicians discuss the negative experiences they have had in trying to promote their music. Metal singer MilitiA Vox voices the frustration she has had in getting the legitimacy she deserves as a musician. “There definitely is a tension between black folks and rock. People try to test me, ask me what I listen to and question how much I know.”

In the foreword of What Are You Doing Here? Skin, vocalist for the United Kingdom’s alternative-punk rock band Skunk Anansie, expresses the surprise she felt when she found her band’s record in the R&B section in a New York record store. Other female musicians I interviewed were told by record labels that they were going to be too hard to market because record buyers would be confused to see a black female face on the cover of a metal record.

Most important, the generation in which Unlocking the Truth is being raised gives them access to a larger world. Unlike the ’80s, the era in which I came of age, the Internet and the plethora of radio and video stations provide immediate access to myriad musical genres. It is common sense that the band members are going to be influenced by music and have friends and interests outside of what is dictated to them based on cultural background. So what’s the big deal?

But don’t feel too sorry for these kids. As Malcolm says in the video interview, “I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. I want to do my own thing.” They are too smart, savvy and talented to let others’ opinions deter them from their path. It’s the rest of us who have to catch up.

Laina Dawes is a music journalist, photographer and the author of What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. She also runs the blog Writing Is Fighting.