interview with laina dawes, author of ‘what are you doing here? a black woman’s life and liberation in heavy metal’

November 12, 2013

Laina Dawes is a music critic, heavy metal enthusiast, and author of What Are You Doing Here: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. Laina took the time to speak with Jamie creator of Black Girl Nerds and contributor to AFROPUNK about her life of metal and the struggles of being a black girl loving this genre and embracing who she was and what she liked in spite of what everyone else was listening to.

Interview by Jamie Broadnax, AFROPUNK Contributor *

Q:  Hey Laina, tell the readers of AFROPUNK, how did you get started in the music industry and was it difficult in the beginning?

A:  I started off writing commentaries on black-centric issues in university, and at least one big feature on the reluctance of black people in the rock scene, and when I graduated I started writing for a couple of Toronto-based music sites on Hip-Hop and then later, on alternative music. I wrote for free for about three years just to get a portfolio together and get my writing skills up. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to meet a few people who took a chance on me and I have been able to obtain some great contacts. In some ways starting out not writing about metal, or even alternative rock was not that difficult as it wasn’t a stretch for a black woman to be writing about urban music. It got a lot more difficult when I started writing solely about metal in 2006-2007, as even though the majority of my writing was from home and I didn’t meet colleagues face-to-face, there was a fair amount of skepticism when I started shooting metal shows. People behind the barriers would and still do occasionally laugh at me, as they didn’t know why there was a black female photographer at a metal show. Some of the higher-ups in the metal scene have also had this shocked look on their face but for the most part, just showing up in some pretty sketchy places automatically gives you some street cred. Because my interests primarily lie within the extreme music scenes, I wouldn’t say that I am in the music industry, more like on the periphery of it, as people involved in mainstream music and its accompanying culture are really the ones who dictate music and movements that shape popular culture. I knew this journey was going to be hard, and it was, but knowing what I was getting myself into and being passionate about the music, lessened the blows.

Q: Is there a larger subculture than most of us would assume of black female heavy metal artists?

A: Yes and no. It was like pulling teeth to find young black women musicians when I first started writing this book, but there are quite a number of women whom I’ve found, or have contacted me since the book came out, which is exciting! So yes, more black women are doing their thing but because the music is not commonly read about or heard about in mainstream publications or websites, many people are surprised, as there is this thought that none exist. As technology has made accessing a myriad of different music and artists, I am pretty confident that there will be more black women getting into the scene in the next generation, as there are a lot of fans.

Q: How have your Black friends and your family reacted to your interest in heavy metal?

A: Like a lot of the interviewees I talked to for the book, when I was younger I hid and lied a lot about what I was into. I didn’t want to be rejected, as loving metal and having white, male metal head friends and being adopted into a white family made me an easy target for ‘white-washed’ comments. For my family it wasn’t an issue, as I’ve always been into metal. I come from a musical family so the appreciation for music in general was respected. Presently, the majority of my closest black friends have always been supportive, even though none of them like or understand the music. I still get sneers, eye-rolling and looks of disgust from black folks I’m introduced to, which is never pleasant and pitching stories to publications on black rock/metal/punk artists is still a struggle.

Q: You have mentioned in the past that heavy metal is a great way to express black women’s sexuality…can you please provide more insight on that?

A: What led me to talk about that in the book were the images I saw of black female rock artists, and how they moved onstage. They were beautiful and sexy, but more importantly they were totally in control of their bodies. In comparison to Hip-Hop, or even artists like Beyonce and Rhianna where there is this feeling that their appearance is contrived, as though they are dressed to appease the male audience, black rock, hardcore, metal and punk women artists, especially younger women like Tamar-Kali, who has deep roots in the hardcore scene, MiliiA from Judas Priestess and Straight Line Stitch’s Alexis Brown and Yvonne Ducksworth, a legendary German punk singer, clearly show their individuality through their clothing and their dress. And they are free to do what they want onstage, as there is no one telling them what is ‘acceptable’ or what images are going to sell records. As a middle-aged woman, Skin from Skunk Anansie, Sandra St. Victor from The Family Stand and women like Nonya Hendryx and Betty Davis, who was really a unique individual, enraptured me. More importantly, the metal, hardcore and punk scenes are all about individuality, where women musicians do not have to dress to appease anyone but themselves. There is more emphasis on the music than the image, and I think that these women musicians have a better opportunity to show a different side to black women’s beauty and sexuality than the hyper-sexed and negative racialized sexual stereotypes that exist in popular culture. Plus, Diamond Rowe is the lead guitarist for the metal band Tetrarch, and she is in an incredibly powerful position, playing powerful music. If she isn’t already, she will be an inspiration to a lot of young black girls who want to play guitar.

Q: Tell us about the book ‘What Are You Doing Here?’ and how does this book affect the lives of Black women.

A: The book is partly my story of being a black woman into extreme metal, but more importantly it is about black women fans, musicians and industry workers telling their stories in the metal, hardcore and punk scenes. The main idea behind is to encourage black women to get into the aggressive music scenes, either as a listener, a musician or an industry worker (publicist, manager, writer / journalist, photographer, etc. If they are drawn to punk or hardcore, fine. For me, I’m a metalhead, so while the other genres are discussed, metal music and the scene is the primary focus of the book. I argue that while it is not easy being involved in a primarily white and male scene, the music has served as a way of liberation and freedom for not only myself but for the women featured in the book. Why? For the same reasons that white guys are drawn to it: The power, the aggression, the ability to rage and vent and let out some of the rage that as black women in Western society we are told we have to suppress so people would consider us ‘aggressive’ or angry. In my experience, and in the experiences of black women I know and have known, their friends and families did not want to hear about their emotion, their pain, depression or even instances of physical or sexual abuse. These women and I turned to music to vent our frustrations about our lives, and it made us more powerful as we channel our rage through a healthy outlet, instead of doing harm to ourselves.

Q: Do you think there is a double-standard for Blacks embracing White music compared to that of Whites that embrace Black music? If so, why?

A: I think there is a double standard, but there is a more expansive history on the co-optation of black culture, period, by non-blacks that has always been accepted. From the blues era, Jazz, rock n’ roll to soul, funk, soul and hip-hop. Black-centric music is also perceived as an integral part of the contributions of African-Americans to American popular culture, and is a source of black cultural identity. So if you listen to ‘black’ music, it sends the signal that you are aware and proud of your culture. Even though rock music originated from African-American musicians, it was co-opted by whites so long ago, that a lot of black folks feel that if blacks listen to rock and it’s sub-cultures, such as metal, punk and hardcore, we are ashamed of our race and would rather hang out with white people. The book is just as critical towards black communities who reject people because of their music / cultural preferences just as much as it is critical against white folks who don’t want us there, either.

Q: Who are some heavy metal artists we should be on the look out for?

A: Look out for Tetrarach, who has an EP coming out this year. Straight Line Stich is going to be out on tour. If you are in NYC or even close, please check out Dormitory Effect,Tamar-Kali, who frequently has live dates around town, and Judas Priestess. There is also a band from Brooklyn called Dust Angel, or head over to Afropunk for a collection of punk bands with both black male and female members.

Q: What message do you have for our readers who are interested in becoming the next heavy metal rocker?

A: Read Chapter 7 of my book! I interviewed a number of musicians and industry people and asked them to provide some advice to women who were thinking of getting involved. Basically, it can be done. It’s not easy, you are not going to make a lot of money, but if you are passionate about performing and passionate about the scene, you will enrich yourself anyway. I do advise young women who want to go to a metal or punk show to join some Facebook groups – there are a few that are specifically geared towards black folks into rock, metal and punk music, and make some allies. Go with friends and you will have a better time!

You can follow Laina Dawes on Twitter 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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