Dana Reads… “What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal” by Laina Dawes

“I place the highest importance on staying connected with the truest part of myself and not moving away from my core being…”Skin of Skunk Anansie

Laina Dawes gives an honest account of black women in a predominantly white male scene through interviews, anecdotes and thorough research. In the process she finds not only herself, but helps others explore their core as well.

I had been meaning to read this book for eons. So, during one occasional Amazon run, I decided to pick it up and give Dawes a try. Apparently they ship to the second dimension… When the package came in the mail, I cast aside all other books for the prized novel. My heart leaped as soon as I saw the cover.

The front features Alexis Brown, headbang in motion. The words “What Are You Doing Here” mimic her swerving purple hair in aggressive blood letters. She holds the mic close, almost yelling the title herself. I quickly check out the back cover. Felony Melony of the Objex – star spangled hair, plaid miniskirt and all – contorts herself in a way that would make Reagan from the Exorcist jealous. Time to open up.

It is clear that metal is a way to express your rage, make a statement, shake your head like you’re having a seizure or all of the above. Many black women gravitate towards it as a means to fight off oppression, to shout at a society that stifles your voice. Laina Dawes spells out exactly why, how and what that entails in both the black community and predominantly white metal scene. A foreword by Skin serves as a story for the author to develop on. The ground breaking musician speaks of her personal struggles, surviving in the narrow music industry with square pegged Skunk Anansie and lessons learned. While Dawes could have focused on black people in metal as a whole, she wisely chooses to focus on some of the most underrepresented (for example, Skindred, Sepultura, Sevendust, Suffocation, Blasphemy, Body Count and even Metallica at some point all have or had black male members). It’s an easy, but captivating read. A couple of the references were new to me, and provided a bite of fresh info. She diligently pays homage to predecessors, going back to women in the blues era like Big Mama Thornton who defied traditional feminine stereotypes. Including a variety of established and emerging artists in addition to fans, Dawes fits story into history.

“There is this desire to keep things separate. I think that the overarching thing for Americans is this separation that people are so insistent on, because it really doesn’t exist.” – Maureen Mahon, associate professor in the New York University Department of Anthropology and author of Right to Rock: The Black Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race.

The author being Canadian, perspectives are predominantly American despite occasional international musicians – notably Skin. In one segment, Europe is described as a haven for alternative African American musicians. In the past, cities such as Paris have been described as a safe place for writers and artists to freely flourish without racial constraints. This is only true to a certain extent. France, in keeping with the previous example, has a dense population of Carribean people. It is culturally similar to Canada in that, as Laina Dawes put it, “you are considered truly black if you listen to music from the Carribean”.

“You have people on both sides of your life, your family life and your peers, telling you that you are not black enough because you listen to this music. So you do question yourself. What ends up happening is that you create for yourself an identity of what a black person shouldbe.” – Camille Atkinson.

The book effectively boils it down to one thing: shame. Which is in part due to the stereotyping of black women that persists in many mediums, from music to comics. It is stressed – although repetitively, perhaps to drive the point home – that not adhering to certain perceived notions of authenticity is worthy of exclusion from one’s own community. The idea of defining blackness is questioned frequently. What is truly black? Mostly, who gets to decide what is black and what is not?

She provides an inescapable distinction between black people in metal and Black Metal. Although the subgenre was briefly mentioned, I was hoping to hear more on navigating the nordic born scene beyond boycotting NSBM (National Socialist Black Metal) bands. When artists like Hoest sport swastikas at concerts, but maintain that they are against religion, not race, the concern is more on the crowd they attract rather than the band itself. She does, however, use Black Metal as an example to ponder on Racism & Response. Should you refuse to listen to a sound because the singer is bigoted? Or is their music a separate entity? Even in 2015, the race and gender divide in metal has yet to be fully bridged. It’s not so much about being yourself as it is being allowed to be yourself.

Overall, I wholeheartedly enjoyed this book. “What Are You Doing Here?” is an essential read for both book-smart punks and metal manics alike. The author voices the thoughts of many black women, fueling outsiders and enlightening insiders. Live and let live.

Find What Are You Doing Here? by Laina Dawes on Amazon. Follow Laina Dawes on Twitter and Facebook.

Further reading: A Black Woman Who Loves “White Folks” Music by Inda Lauryn – Sister Outsider Headbanger by Keidra Chaney. Visit here for regular posts on people of color in alternative music.

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