‘This is the most exciting moment I’ve experienced’: the artists changing the face of metal

Dannii Leivers
·7-min read

Metal likes to think of itself as a family, a safe haven built on inclusivity. Everyone is welcome in the pit. Yet, historically, metal has also been a hostile space for women, people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community. Look below the line on articles published on any big metal website and you’ll find comments riddled with homophobia and transphobia. In 2019, an article published by Metal Hammer, titled “Metal’s most interesting voices are all female – and it’s about time”, attracted thousands of misogynistic comments. Meanwhile, white supremacy has been an inescapable presence in black metal since the scene was born in the 1980s. And few in the industry will forget Down and ex-Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo bellowing “white power” and Sieg Heiling on stage in 2016.

Recently, however, things have started to change. Bands from all corners of metal are creating ferocious music that offers new perspectives on discrimination, race, gender and sexuality.

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“I feel like this is the most exciting time I have experienced in rock and metal in a long time,” says the Kerrang Radio presenter Sophie K, who founded the podcast On Wednesdays We Wear Black (OWWWB) in order to “create a space that felt safe for people who aren’t normally represented” in alt-culture. Alongside co-presenters Metal Hammer journalist and TikTok personality Yasmine Summan and radio presenter and musician Alyx Holcombe, she delivers the kind of frank and hilarious conversations that happen between female and non-binary metal fans behind closed doors.

“It’s always been this idea in alternative [music] that [it] is a white thing,” says Summan. “In beauty, in music, in the culture. It’s always been that way and no one’s questioned it until now.”

The first episode of OWWWB entered Apple’s music podcast chart at No 2, with thousands of downloads across 11 countries. Sophie says the trio receive daily messages, “some confessional, some really deep, telling us how people are feeling seen. I keep thinking about the people who said Yasmine’s honesty has helped them feel more comfortable being non-binary.”

Alongside OWWWB, platforms such as Hell Bent for Metal, a podcast for LGBTQ+ metal fans co-hosted by the metal journalist Tom Dare, online communities like Alt Together, and fanzines such as Blkgrlswurld and Tear It Down are elevating unheard voices. “If mainstream magazines are not touching on these issues or putting diverse people on the covers then I should be the person to do that,” says Simone Barton, who founded Tear It Down to showcase artists of colour. “I should make the representation for myself.”

Within metal, fans are now actively seeking out bands who are pushing boundaries and have something to say. Who Are the Girls?, the frenetic 2020 debut from Nova Twins, delivers on both counts. Serving an eye-popping blend of gnarly bass, hip-hop and glam-infused punk and buzzsaw riffs, their lyrics – such as on the stomping Bullet – tackle everything from misogyny to racial microaggressions (“I’m that girl you couldn’t get and now you hate me for it / I’m not asking for it / Don’t you ever touch my hair unless you’re paid to cut it”).

“We’re not shying away from talking about things that are difficult to talk about, that’s our role,” says guitarist and vocalist Amy Love, who says that the band have a responsibility “to make sure that the people that are following us know what we represent, what we stand for and that we have their back”.

The duo are driven to open metal up to new audiences. In November 2020, they wrote an open letter to the Mobo awards, calling on it to add a rock/alternative category to its 2021 show: “This is more than just a category, it’s a message to all young black people to let them know that they can do and be anything that they choose.” (Mobo tweeted them back, writing: “The Mobo Awards Judging Panel have actually discussed this and we will continue to review potential category expansions for future Award ceremonies.”)

“As black women, society will tell you that you belong in R&B and hip-hop,” says Love. “We’re open to music, we’re both mixed. I’ve got an Iranian mum, my dad’s Nigerian and I was born in Britain, so I’ve been exposed to so many different cultures and music there’s no box for us to be in.”

Another musician using her growing platform to introduce a new generation of would-be players to metal is Diamond Rowe. The lead guitarist of rising nu-metal band Tetrarch, Rowe is the first African-American female metal guitarist to receive major press coverage in the US. She sees herself as a gateway artist, persuading those who wouldn’t usually consider the genre to give it a chance. “You don’t see any African-American chicks shredding on stage,” she says. “But I have to ask myself: is it because they don’t feel comfortable or are they just not interested?”

However, she is now seeing the tide turn. These days, she receives hundreds of messages from people saying things like: “‘I didn’t know there was anyone in the mainstream who looks like me.’ They see me get up on stage with the band and they’re like: ‘I got to check this out.’”

Similarly, heavy LGBTQ+ artists are more visible than ever. Last year, we saw excellent releases from the non-binary doom duo Vile Creature, and industrial-laced, Zambia-born trans rapper Backxwash. Louisiana sludge band Thou, who have discussed #MeToo, sexuality and gender in their music, released May Our Chambers Be Full, a collaboration with Emma Ruth Rundle. Already this year, we have been gifted Mirrors, the deliriously savage 2021 debut from grindcore band Pupil Slicer, which touches on transgender healthcare rights among other things. And last month, metallic hardcore veterans Life of Agony released the excellent documentary The Sound of Scars, which charts the band’s early days in the macho New York scene and sees vocalist Mina Caputo talk about her experiences as a trans woman.

If some of the most exciting music of the moment is being created by queer artists, there is no escaping the fact that there’s a long way to go. “I’d like to think there’s more diversity in music, more diversity in the minds of the people that are making the music,” reasons Caputo, although she notes that even years after she came out as transgender in 2011, she still receives transphobic abuse on social media.

“I’ve declined a lot of interviewers that wanted to talk about how the metal community is so pro-trans and pro-gay. It’s like: shut the fuck up!” she says. “I can name about 20 radio DJs that used to love Life of Agony and play us all the time on their metal shows that don’t play us any more.” Is heavy music moving in the right direction? Caputo is sceptical. “I think the answer to your question is a big maybe,” she replies. “A big-ass maybe in capital letters. That question could be asked 20 years from now and we still won’t know.”

Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests were a galvanising moment for heavy music. A group of hardcore bands, including Knocked Loose and Year of the Knife, came together to release merch raising funds for BLM, while other metal artists teamed up for a compilation to raise funds for BLM-affiliated organisations, with many more speaking out on social media. Yet, at this stage, it is hard to say whether the protests have led to transformative change in the music industry.

“What has changed is people like me can go into a company and go: ‘Where’s the representation? I don’t feel this is good enough,’” says Sophie K. “And we can question things.” For Summan, change needs to be more than a tokenistic gesture. “I have concern of what’s going to happen in the next five years. Are these bands [still] going to be uplifted? Are these record labels going to hold out on their promises?”

Both agree, however, that we may at least be on the right track: important conversations have started, which is the only way to create a metal scene that’s homogenous. “For me growing up and being a fan of heavy music, there’s a change in the times,” says Summan. “It feels different; it feels like there’s a new gust of wind and a new gust of life in heavy music and it’s here to stay.”