Rock against racism? Metal's varied response to Black Lives Matter

<span>Photograph: Alejandro Melendez/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Alejandro Melendez/AFP via Getty Images

There’s no point denying metal has a more complicated relationship with race than many of its adherents would like to admit, or confront. At its most stark, this is evident in the overt racism that has insinuated itself into black metal over the past 30 years, following the example of the openly racist Varg Vikernes of Mayhem and Burzum. There’s now even a genre identified as “national socialist black metal”.

And there’s the fact of how metal came to be. The founding fathers of metal in the late 60s and early 70s were still playing music derived from the blues (even Black Sabbath began as a blues rock band, and their drummer, Bill Ward, filled their records with jazz-inspired flourishes).

While researching a book about vintage metal, sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris and I discussed how the codification of metal a decade or so after Sabbath’s first record was in part a process of removing the blues, and thus the black musical origins of the genre, from its sound. That’s not a malign thing – as he pointed out, punk did much the same in its evolution out of the R&B-based pub rock – but it happened.

So it has been heartening to see so much of the metal world react to the Black Lives Matter protests not with a shrug, but with a recognition that sometimes the right thing to do is to speak. Kudos to Black Sabbath for printing T-shirts altering the logo from their Master of Reality album to read Black Lives Matter. Respect to Serj Tankian of System of a Down for taking a very clear stand: “Coordinate online and block every street everywhere and force the regime to resign. The time has come. Your time has come @realdonaldtrump.” Credit to all the metal bands coming together on Bandcamp to raise money for BLM with a benefit compilation.

Astonished appreciation, as well, to Axl Rose – whose lyrics for One in a Million are nakedly racist and offensive – for both the fact of Guns N’ Roses giving support to BLM on Instagram and for Rose’s unequivocal taking of sides against Donald Trump: “Lamestream media ISN’T doing everything within their power 2 foment hatred n’ anarchy, that’s U!” he tweeted. “As long as we get what Ur doing, that Ur FAKE NEWS n’ a truly bad, repulsive excuse 4 a person w/a sick agenda, we can work past U w/whatever it takes 2 a better, stronger future!!”

Metal is behind only hip-hop as a truly global music, with no colour bars in the rest of the world

While it would be nice to report these responses were universal, they’re not – even within the same band. John Dolmayan, System of a Down’s drummer, used Instagram to offer his support for Trump’s claim to be the greatest friend to minorities America has ever had, and has continued to continue on that tack, suggesting Democrats are “the true fascist, the true bigots hidden in plain sight from the same party who fought to maintain slavery, Jim Crow, non voting rights for women, and who are directly responsible for 70-plus million abortions, a large majority of whom were black. You don’t want free speech, you can’t handle free speech because you are cowards and need to be herded along with the rest of the sheep.” Sandra Araya, the wife of Slayer’s Tom Araya, has been posting racist memes to Instagram, and while the views of one person in a marriage should not be ascribed to another, Slayer’s own record on racial politics isn’t watertight given the controversy surrounding Angel of Death, their song about Josef Mengele.

Are the metal bands speaking out against racism risking alienating their fans? No, not really. Any artist has racist fans, sadly. It is true that if you look on social media, those posts will have some fans disagreeing with them, angrily. It’s true, too, that some people are just stupid, whether or not they’re racist – like the fan who tweeted to Tom Morello that he was a fan of Rage Against the Machine “until your political opinions come out. Music is my sanctuary and the last thing I want to hear is political bs when I’m listening to music. As far as I’m concerned you and Pink are completely done. Keep running your mouth and ruining your fan base.” That fan was roundly mocked, by Morello, and more or less everyone else who had ever actually listened to Rage.

Related: Himalayan headbangers: in the moshpit with the metalheads of Kathmandu

It’s possible assumptions get made about metal because in the west its fanbase is – and let’s not deny it – overwhelmingly white and male, and history tells us no one looks out for the interests of white men quite as thoroughly as white men. But metal is behind only hip-hop as a truly global music, with no colour bars in the rest of the world. I’ve been to Nepal and to India to talk to metal bands and fans, talking about what the music means, and to those people it means liberation, and justice (metal musicians in Nepal are currently raising money for those starving to death in the country, because Covid-19 has deprived them of their subsistence livelihoods).

Sabbath, Axl Rose and Serj Tankian are fulfilling the promise that those fans I met in Asia thought metal had made. They are supporting liberation. Any fan who has a problem with that has misunderstood metal.