On The Racism Problem In Black Metal
I recently had an incident that rather disturbed me, and for the first time in my short career as a critic I felt I’d made a real error in my research. It was an innocent error, and one I certainly wouldn’t blame myself, or anyone else for making. It did however bring up a lot of thoughts that I felt it was about time I properly addressed in an article.
So, here’s what happened: I submitted a review to the editor of one of the websites for which I write of a black metal band’s newest release, and in that article I referenced another more long-standing black metal band as a sonic comparison. The reference was possibly a bit careless as I hadn’t listened to or engaged with them in quite a few years, but I remembered their sound and I saw them releasing new music, getting decent press and playing gigs and festivals aplenty; they certainly didn’t flag to me as a band I should avoid. Unbeknownst to me however, this band had some known connections to nationalist right wing politics that had come to light a few years ago. So, when the review was published I noticed that the reference had been excluded, and it’s a sad state of affairs that I immediately knew why.
As someone who listens to, enjoys and even performs black metal, it’s something I have faced before. There are a number of bands whose music I once enjoyed, and who still get mass critical acclaim, that I will no longer listen to and I know I am not alone in this. My black metal band has even played shows with acts who have questionable lyrics and themes which I had not been privy to at the time.
Unbeknownst to me however, this band had some known connections to nationalist right wing politics…
It’s almost unavoidable in the scene, particularly at festivals, and it turns the exciting experience of discovering new music into a minefield that you have to tip-toe through, stringently deep-diving into the Metal Archives and Reddit threads every time you’re sent a new black metal band to review or be booked to play with. It also brings up a moral dilemma about how to approach responding to it. It’s frustrating and depressing, but worst of all, this can end up taking away from the reality of the harm these bands are doing.
I’m not going to spend too much time calling out this or that band; that’s not because I don’t think they should be called out, but because there are much better places that already do it far more comprehensively. I would urge everyone to check out some of these Reddit pages that are a genuinely good resource for information on ‘sketchy’ bands. I also want to make clear that when I talk about black metal, I am referring to the genre in a broad sense and not just the ‘trve cvlt’ style, because unfortunately these issues of racism branch out into all areas of the genre.
A little while ago Finn McKenty of the Punk Rock MBA hosted a video with Myke C-Town on this issue, and together they made a very good point: extreme metal, and especially black metal, however much it may try to be an abrasive and antagonistic scene that espouses to hate everyone equally, is actually a safe space for straight, white, cis-gendered males. For the most part, every other group of people is marginalised within the scene. That is simply a fact and sadly, for a genre which also prides itself on being against the norms of society, is quite a regressive and conservative way of being. I also believe the fact that so many black metal bands look and sound exactly the same is down to this active homogeny, though perhaps that isn’t something only restricted to black metal.
A lot of the bands who promote this aren’t out and out NSBM (National Socialist Black Metal), but rather bands who simply have connections to racist, anti-semitic, homophobic or misogynistic ideology or actions, and this is where the difficulties lie. It’s relatively easy to avoid straight up NSBM bands because they are generally quite outspoken and obvious about their themes, and even if the band name or album title doesn’t give it away, many of the bands collect together on specific NSBM labels.
why do people feel it’s OK to simply ignore these connections…
It might not be so easy though to read lyrics in another language and understand their racist overtones, or to know about a band’s racist themed side project, or that in their personal lives the members involve themselves in racist organisations. Unfortunately, there are so many examples of these hidden connections to nationalist right wing politics that almost every ‘big’ black metal band could probably be linked somehow, and even with smaller bands it’s often possible to find connections if you look deep enough.
So why do people feel it’s OK to simply ignore these connections? Is it because of the exacerbating task of being unable to trust any black metal band you hear? Is it because people genuinely believe in separating art from artist, no matter how extreme? Is it because the majority of black metal fans are OK with racist messages, or just want to be rebellious? I actually don’t think any of these answers are true, though inevitably there will be some minority these apply to. I actually think it comes down to what I’ll call ‘The Phil Anselmo Problem’. For black metal this could also be ‘The Varg Vikernes Problem’, but as I’ll explain Phil Anselmo is a broader example.
Phil Anselmo has repeatedly engaged in racist and white nationalist behaviours as far back as his time in Pantera. If you don’t know the full extent of his history in this beyond the ‘white wine’ incident a few years ago, then the guys at MetalSucks have written a pretty good outline of it. The reason I believe that he still gets a bye in so much of the metal world is that before his racist behaviour was particularly known about, Pantera were already one of the most influential and loved bands in metal.
Still to this day they are an entry band to so many before they are even at the stage of looking deeper into band histories, and it seems cruel to take that entry into heavy music away from people. Even the aforementioned Finn McKenty has a video about why he adores Pantera. So, despite his repeatedly racist behaviour, a lot of people will brush it off and still book his many bands on to shows, still give him airtime and print space, still support the many bands and artists who defend him and ultimately, still listen to and support his music.
Phil Anselmo has repeatedly engaged in racist and white nationalist behaviours…
Varg Vikernes is somewhat similar, though his support is much less and his racism far more extreme. His music was already so influential in the burgeoning black metal fandom before his revelations as a white nationalist that people find it tough not to keep listening to his music. It’s a tough thing to reconcile that the bands you adore and have inspired you are actually involved in social leanings which you find repulsive, but it’s important that we take a step back here and realise that the biggest issue isn’t that we, as fans, might have to disown a band we once loved.
The issue we need to always bring to the focus is that by propagating, or just accepting, white nationalism, racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, and all other kinds of discrimination, we are harming other metal fans, and if we want black metal to be a community solely based on musical and aesthetic tastes, then this has to stop.
It’s not about ‘cancelling’ a band, and although I might suggest to someone that they not support an artist like Burzum who is still actively pursuing a racist agenda, I wouldn’t tell anyone not to listen to Mayhem or Darkthrone because some of their members have made xenophobic or vile discriminatory statements way in the past. Musically those bands are of vital importance, and for the most part have disowned these ideas as youthful stupidity from a different time.
But we must fully accept that these bands and others, the originators of black metal as we know it, have made horrific statements, and been involved in awful actions. We must put the right wing elements of that history in context, but also ensure that we disavow it completely, instead of continuing to live in a past where discrimination like this was acceptable.
we must stop ourselves falling into the trap of justifying it with ideas such as ‘well they produce good music despite their views, and music is all that matters’…
As Mark Beaumont points out in this fantastic article for NME, when an artist you adore comes out with views you find abhorrent, the answer is to start looking to the newer bands which have been inspired by their music instead. Established acts like Dawn Ray’d, Panopticon and Zeal & Ardor can give us our fill of brilliantly inventive and very traditional black metal that also embraces new culturally diverse ideals. We should also look to acts who might not be as explicitly anti-fascist, but who push back against the straight, white cis-gendered male default purely through their existence.
Even if you simply want to enjoy the music without the politics, we must stop ourselves falling into the trap of justifying it with ideas such as ‘well they produce good music despite their views, and music is all that matters’ because, quite frankly, there are thousands of black metal bands that you could listen to instead, many of whom are well known, which don’t espouse right wing politics. There is simply no excuse anymore.
You don’t have to be fully into the anti-fascist black metal scene, and you don’t even need to engage a huge amount, but what we can no longer do is feign ignorance in the face of such issues. Only then will we begin to see genuine change in the black metal scene, and with that hopefully black metal, and even metal as a whole, can move forward and start truly becoming a community where only musical and aesthetic taste is important.
Scribed by: Will J