Saturday, January 30, 2016

Phil Anselmo, Robb Flynn, and racism in metal

It was 1999, right at the apex of my love for extreme metal, when my friend Ryan and I went up to Fort Collins, CO, to see a festival of death metal bands both small and large called "Hatefest '99."

I've told the story jokingly over the years as my "break up with death metal" story; how we were crammed into a tiny bar that smelled like the ass-end of a wet dog, how every single shitty local band in Colorado seemed to be there but couldn't bother putting on anything other than sweatpants, how it was supposed to be fifteen bands in fifteen hours but we gave up around hour 10 when one of the shitty local bands got on stage and the lead singer proclaimed "This first song is about FUCKING! The SHIT! Of the DEAD!!!!!"

Makes for a good, funny story. The sad truth, though, is that I had checked out about an hour earlier when one of my absolute favorite local metal bands, Immortal Dominion, took to the stage and the floor completely cleared out. All the sweaty dudebros who had been moshing to terrible sub-Mortician death noise five minutes before evidently decided that this was their cue to go to the bar to get a drink. I saw the sneering looks on their faces as they did so and I immediately knew why.

The lead singer of Immortal Dominion was black.

Now maybe I'm reading more into what happened than is necessary, but I really don't think so. It's not like black musicians are unheard of in the metal world (see Living Colour, Bad Brains, Stuck Mojo, God Forbid,  etc.). And it's not like these musicians are never accepted, even in the extreme metal scene, just as a few women and even gay men have been accepted. But let's not kid ourselves; even in its most mainstream iterations, heavy metal tends to be the province of straight, hyper-masculine, regressive-minded white dudes.

Once we move into the extreme genres, this becomes even more true. Casual racism stops just being accepted and starts being celebrated. And rank homophobia is not even questioned. Gaahl, the former lead singer of black-metal band Gorgoroth (see the above link), is an example of some of the weird tensions you find at the margins — he's a gay man who performs in a genre often associated with neo-Nazism, and has himself said some reprehensible things about Jews and minorities. An imperfect hero at best.

Heavy metal has historically just not been a place all that friendly to progressive ideas.

This new flap about Phil Anselmo at Dimefest has brought all these issues to the forefront again, and has rocked me back on my heels and made me question how long I can stick as a fan. Here's the thing: I love Pantera. I love Down even more. Just as I love Emperor, whose original drummer was imprisoned for murdering a gay man. Just as I used to love W.A.S.P., whose guitarist moved to France to get away from all the black people.

Heavy metal is supposed to be in your face. It's supposed to be offensive. But does it have to be stupid, hateful, and boneheaded? Do these things automatically go hand in hand?

I used to say of course not.

Now I simply don't know.

These are things all liberal-minded metal fans need to be asking themselves right now. We don't like to talk about it because it's embarrassing. But frankly we should be embarrassed. How long are we going to put up with the racism, sexism and homophobia that have so long defined the scene and the music we love? How long are we going to keep shrugging our shoulders when a Phil Anselmo drunkenly spouts off about "white power" or a floor-full of fans turns their back and shuns a great band like Immortal Dominion? How long are we going to let the sneering beardo assholes shouting about "political correctness" drown the rest of us out? What are we supposed to do, if not give up on the music that, for most of us, is in our blood?

Here's what we do. We do what Robb Flynn of Machine Head did when he called out Anselmo in an 11-minute YouTube video. We do what MetalSucks did when they wrote an editorial denouncing Anselmo and all the fans (including me, including themselves) who have simply averted their eyes out of deference for his position in the metal world.

We stop making excuses. We stop pretending like it's not a big deal.

We start calling racist assholes exactly what they are. And we stop supporting them.

Flynn, MetalSucks, and all the other more progressive fans I've been seeing chime in on message boards and Facebook threads give me a lot of hope. And even Anselmo just apologized (disingenuous though it seems). There's finally some real pushback happening, which is exactly what the scene needs to stay alive.

But there's still a long, long way to go.

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