book review: ‘what are you doing here? a black woman’s life and liberation in heavy metal’ by laina dawes

October 22, 2013

What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal by Laina Dawes explores the myths, realities, and perspectives of the African American community’s response to heavy metal music and the black women who love it. The book begins with a forward written by Skin of the heavy metal band Skunk Anasie. She discusses her Jamaican heritage and growing up listening to reggae music.

Review by Jamie Broadnax, AFROPUNK Contributor *

Her penchant for rock music started as she came into her own and she felt a surge of energy strike her the moment she got her first taste of what rock music sounded like. For her, this brand of music felt liberating and cathartic. She felt like she could fully express herself and literally be in her own skin without the notion of conformity and feeling a need to belong to a specific group, but rather she was her own individual. This forward is the motif for what the book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal is all about. Laina Dawes herself born and raised in Canada, was adopted into a white family who accepted her interest in heavy metal music. However, outside of her family not everyone was as receptive towards her musical tastes.

Dawes discusses the bitter vitriol from black friends who accused her of being ‘white’, simply because she liked bands such as AC/DC, The Clash, and The Violent Femmes. Dawes describes music was an emotional attachment for her and before the days of Internet and digital cable music channels, she purposefully sought out new musical content to satisfy her desire to listen to sounds that were pleasing to her and not sounds that everyone else was listening to. She went on to become a music journalist, which was an advantageous journey into the world of heavy metal music which has now led to her writing this very book. The book has a balanced mixture of her own personal biography, social commentary from other heavy metal black female artists, and political analysis about black culture from a historical perspective.

In the chapter, So You Think You’re White? the term ‘parochial blackness’ coined by Mashadi Matabane an author on black women guitarists, she suggests that black people who have cultural tastes outside of the black experience tend to question their own blackness. Matabane says, “That parochial blackness is dangerous as hell. It steals your joy.” The book elaborates on an important fact that stems from the idea of what culminates into parochial blackness. In the black community we fused into our own culture and traditions as a way to not only empower ourselves, but also as a means of survival. Dawes writes, black people banded together as powerless people during the civil rights era in mass demonstrations and boycotts to become a unified force for social and political change.” In other words, we as a community worked together as a collective to and our black identity is what gave us strength in the battle.

The book goes on to illustrate that there are still many African Americans who carry that to this day and feel that by somehow embracing cultures, music, styles, and even relationships outside of their community, somehow separates them from their blackness. There is a provocative chapter in the book that discusses the lingering stench of racism in the world of heavy metal. There still remains a small demographic of whites who are skinheads or nazi-enthusiasts who are avid fans of this genre of music. Dawes discusses her own personal racial encounters as well as the racial tirades against fellow black female patrons in various events. It’s an ugly truth for women of color who simply want to listen to the music and engage in an evening of entertainment. In the book, Dawes surveys black women who listen to heavy metal if they were to discover that an artist had racist views would they choose to still listen to that artist and although the majority said no, surprisingly there were some women who said that they still would continue to listen.

Dawes parallels this with hip hop music in the black community, and the fact that misogyny and racist rants also permeate into this musical genre. Yet many women who listen to lyrics that degrade them and strip women of their humanity choose to still support that artist and continue to listen to their brand of music. There is also an illustration of the disparity between white artists being accepted in musical genres popular among blacks as opposed to black artists being accepted in musical genres popular among whites. Blacks are more likely to accept a white artist like ‘Eminem’ in hip hop, than a black artist like ‘Tamar-kali’ in metal. Music companies support white artists, because they feel more capital can be raised by their performances than black artists, therefore they are eager to cosign on white artists crossing-over. The book also talks about the alternative rock scene and how artists like Fefe Dobson was able to break through the Canadian and American markets. However she was still tagged by music executives and studios as an R&B songstress.

Unfortunately, no other black female artist has received the kind of commercial success Fefe had in the alternative music scene. In Dawes’ book the artist is referred to as the chosen one. Then there are artists like Res (a personal favorite of mine) who blends rock and soul in her music. The problem for Res as an artist, who seeks to penetrate the arena of radio, is that her music is too white for black stations and too black for white stations. One of the quotes that struck me the most in this book was by Sandra St. Victor, a singer for The Family Stand. She discusses how several black female artists have to travel overseas to get better paid gigs and how there are more festivals that celebrate diversity in music.

She says, “I do believe we’re coming to a place where that’s changing. I do believe that more people are tired of being part of the herd. The black sheep will take over soon enough”.

Indeed that is exactly what I look forward to seeing soon among women of color.

You can follow Laina Dawes on Twitter HERE and purchase her book HERE

* Jamie Broadnax is the writer and creator of the niche blogsite for nerdy women of color called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has written for Madame Noire and is the VP of Digital for the online publishing hub the She Thrives Network.

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