Falling in love with the music
The first album I ever purchased with my own money, earned via a tiny allowance that I was pretty certain my mother bullied my father into giving me, was a copy of “The Best of Black Sabbath” bought for $25 at my local Best Buy.
I was 13 years old, still dressing in the khaki shorts and awkwardly fitting t-shirts with open flannel overtop that my older sister had insisted was completely in style at the time.
The double-disc CD was recommended by a couple of friends who’d played me a few tracks by the band. I’d liked them: the guitar parts had an enjoyable groove and the vocals were wailing and fun. The front of the album was black-and-white as the Boris Karloff films I’d been growing to enjoy (one of which, the liner notes said, was the source of the band’s demonic-sounding name). It depicted a few coffins pressed into the ground like fingerprints in wet sand. No matter what, that album was clearly not going to be like my Eminem burned discs, or my gifted Green Day compilation.
Those songs changed my life. Black Sabbath was the first band I ever fell in love with. It was a music born from the desperation of working class Birmingham steel-workers, misfits who took a love of jazz and blues, the Beatles and Dennis Wheatley’s occult novels, and found a way 30 years later to tell the lonely son of some Colombian immigrants that he wasn’t so different. It was a music that said we all live in darkness, but that darkness could be embraced and made wonderful.
As I moved from Black Sabbath across the gamut of heavy music, I came to love other British bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Def Leppard. I dove into faster, more technical material like Metallica, and darker, angrier work like Marilyn Manson. I even enjoyed lighthearted Hair Metal like Poison and Mötley Crüe when I felt like it.
Buying these albums and watching documentary after documentary about these bands, I never thought much about the overwhelming whiteness of their line-ups. Sure, it was cool that Living Colour and King’s X had black members, but they weren’t favorites of mine. It was great that Poison had Juan Croucier (a Cuban-American) on bass and Rage Against the Machine had Zach de la Roche (half-Mexican) and Tom Morello (half-Kenyan), but I thought of that more as trivia than representation. All I cared about was the music.
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White Supremacy and my favorite band
Another favorite from this time was Pantera, a Texas band that was actually breaking up right around when I was discovering them. While I adored the incredibly powerful work of their guitarist, the late “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, my hook was the brutality of Phil Anselmo’s vocal. He screeched like a knife wound, growled like the nightmares that haunt the shadowed corners of a child’s bedroom. He was a man of size and power, strength and imposition.
He was a man I feared and respected, the same way many of us fear and respect bullies when we feel insecure about ourselves.
Politics in Heavy Metal has always been dicey. Few acts other than Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down were explicitly political. Most only went far enough to defend their own right to free expression when they came under threats of censorship for violent, sexist, Satanic, or rebellious lyrics. Occasionally, there’d be an anti-war message—Sabbath had a classic entitled “War Pigs” on their second album and Disturbed’s “10,000 Fists” was famously an indictment of the Bush administration and the Iraq War.
Pantera never waded much into the political. Songs like “Cowboys from Hell” and “Walk” just played with a general badass vibe, one of confidence and aggression—fight music.
A lyric I stumbled on that always puzzled me was in their “5 Minutes Alone.” It read:
I read your eyes, your mind was made up. You took me for a fool.
You used complexion of my skin for a counter racist tool.
You can’t burn me. I’ve spilled my guts out in the past.
Taken advantage of because you know where I’ve come, my past.
I never could figure out that line: Anselmo was white dude from New Orleans, of Irish, Danish, and French descent. The story behind the song was that it was about the father of a rude fan (whose race I have never been able to find any information on) that had been flipping them off at a show, and was subsequently attacked by the crowd after being called out. After a lawsuit, the kid’s father had requested five-minutes with Anselmo to “whup his ass.”
Fascinating story. Absolutely. Where does the skin-color line fit in though?
Around the time of this incident, he wore a t-shirt with a known white supremacy logo. He gave a speech white pride speech at a concert in 1995, the following year.
A video surfaced in January of 2016 of Anselmo doing Nazi salutes and screaming White Power at the end of a show. Now he apologized for that, admitting that he acted horribly and deserved the backlash he received for what he referred to as a bad joke.
Pantera famously appeared throughout their tenure with Confederate Flag logos emblazoned on their artwork, guitars, shirts, etc. In 2015 (seven months before this most recent fiasco), with the debate over the flag at its peak, Anselmo said in a Rolling Stone interview that he regretted his past associations with it.
An optimist might look at this data and see the portrait of a Southern racist slowly mending his ways, battling old inclinations and coming to a deeper understanding of race. Unfortunately, the culture that surrounds and bolsters Metal and its performers like Anselmo are often less optimistic and more selectively ignorant.
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What does it mean to be a person of color in heavy metal?
A dark secret of the Metal community is its willingness to look away from its own unbearable whiteness. The music is always what matters, they say. Bands with too many members of color inherently get signed less often and are under-promoted by the fan base. The rare breakthrough groups like Brazil’s Sepultura, while musically strong, often feel like token inclusions on charts and festivals that boast 30+ bands and handfuls of people of color. Those people of color are rarely ever encouraged or accepted when they write about cultural experiences.
When anyone’s addressed these issues, it’s been outsiders who’ve criticized us—more often than not, we’ve just gotten defensive about it. We’ve dismissed the critics, calling them “weak,” too concerned with political correctness. They’re too sensitive. They should man up. They shouldn’t take it so serious.
With this latest Anselmo debacle, we’re seeing some semblance of a backlash within the community. Robb Flynn of Machine Head released a lengthy video criticizing Anselmo’s racism and the fans who make excuses for it. Scott Ian of Anthrax, who was one of Anselmo’s childhood heroes, made a statement calling the actions “vile.”
Of course, the same dismissiveness has come up, but a few more within the community are speaking out. Finally, finally, I’m reading headlines where people in the scene are taking sides, and some are actually arguing that yes, in fact, people of color deserve to have some respect in these spaces.
I don’t go to Metal shows very often any more, partly because of my own discomfort at the overwhelmingly white, hetero-normative aggression I encounter there. Still, it’s meant so much to me personally to see this shift—this music literally saved my life.
My favorite Pantera song is called “I’m Broken.” It opens with the lyrics:
I wonder if we’ll smile in our coffins
while loved ones mourn the day,
the absence of our faces,
living, laughing, eyes awake.
Is this too much for them to take?
I think on that song in my darkest moments, when my depression or anxiety has driven me to the very worst thoughts, when I’ve considered the most damaging actions I could take against myself. In my rage, in my fear, in my sorrow, I’ve listened to this music, treated it as an outlet and a companion, an escape and a therapist. It’s stayed my hand in ways I’m still not entirely ready to talk about.
This song may have come from the mind of a shattered being, who might look upon my body and see something less than human. I can’t know that. I do know that it’s art that’s seen me through my own broken moments, and nothing’s more uplifting than seeing my heavy metal fan companions finally move towards a hint of light.
Do you struggle with how to affirm yourself and your identities, even though some of the entertainment you enjoy doesn’t align with your sense of self love? Check out our webinar 10 Tools for Radical Self Love for guidance and support.
(Feature Image: A black and white photo of a person with long dark hair, wearing a black t-shirt with writing on it. They are holding a microphone. Behind them is a drum set. Source: Robert Bejil)