Why Can't Black Kids Play Heavy Metal?

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."


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.