I have had the honour of working with Laina Dawes at Exclaim! and Hellbound, where both of us contribute as writers (the multi-talented Laina also contributes photography). I have always been impressed by her strength and intelligence, as well as her willingness to tackle difficult subjects head on. She is the sort of person who never shies away from speaking her mind and speaking it truthfully, and I admire that deeply. I was absolutely thrilled when she agreed to be interviewed for “Girls Don’t Like Metal.” I hope you enjoy her gutsy and eloquent answers!
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How did you first meet, and fall in love with, heavy metal? What was your introduction to heavy metal music and culture?
KISS served as a gateway in discovering heavier music when I was about eight or so. The imagery of that band was fascinating, and since my eldest brother is an artist, he painted his face, along with mine and our two other siblings’, like the band at the time — conveniently there were four of us. Also, I grew up in a rural area where there were teenagers who were into Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, so I had those influences as well. My older sister’s friends got her involved with punk music, and like everyone else, I started listening to the Sex Pistols and the Clash. With the emergence of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, I eventually became a rabid Judas Priest and Iron Maiden fan at about 11 or 12.
At 13, I begged my parents for, and finally got, a subscription to Circus magazine, and later Hit Parader and Creem, and from then on I wanted to become a music journalist. That dream was greatly deferred, as I thought that girls couldn’t write about metal, especially Black girls. Those magazines were the biggest influence when it came to getting interested in the music and culture. They also shaped my opinions on what the music scene should be about, which was the music, not the aesthetics of what people look like or who they’re sleeping with. The ’80s presented a good image of what music writing could be.
How does your identity as a metal head intersect with, enhance or complicate your identity as a writer?
I think that metal writers are some of the best writers out there; I don’t find the music that easy to write about, especially extreme music, so when writers do it well, it can be a masterpiece. In that sense, I find writing about it a great challenge, as I am competitive by nature and want to slay everyone out there. It makes me think a bit more critically as a writer, as I am always striving to improve my skills, but it has been a challenge, in terms of people taking me seriously, especially because I also write about race and ethnicity issues. At first glance, one doesn’t exactly mesh with the others and I have been accused of being “weird” and a “race traitor” because I go from being involved in a very white-dominated culture to having a firm foot in cultural identity issues. I think that these two areas — North American culture and this generation — go well together, but there is still a lot of work to be done, in terms of getting over preconceived stereotypes as to what women, especially Black women, “should” be involved in and what they should avoid in order to retain some kind of credibility in the outside world.
Could you talk about your various roles in the metal community as a writer, reviewer, critic and photographer?
For the past few years, outside of writing assignments, I’ve been focusing on my book and concentrating on concert and album reviews, with a few interviews sprinkled in here and there. I prefer focusing on grindcore, stoner/doom, thrash and death metal; I work less on black metal, for a few reasons. As a critic, I write about various issues concerning women in metal, and race in metal, as I am, unfortunately, still a bit perplexed with the levels of sexism, or straight up misogyny, racism and homophobia within the scene and, quite frankly, not enough people are doing it. Does it make me popular? Hell no, but I’m passionate about the metal community, so I’m willing to put my ass on the line.
I started getting into concert photography first out of necessity, as it’s easier to pitch publications when you can offer both writing and photos, but after my first major show, which was Metallica in 2009, I was hooked. There is nothing better than being in the photo pit and being able to get so close to the stage and the musicians. Since then, I’ve done about 50 shows in Toronto and NYC, including some festivals, like South By Southwest in Austin, TX, and Maryland Deathfest in Baltimore, MD. My photos have appeared in Exclaim!, NPR and the new Chicago metal magazine The Offering.
Tell me about your projects. You are currently in the process of writing a book?
What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal investigates how metal, hardcore and punk music and culture can serve as a liberating and empowering vehicle for Black women to express their individuality. Over the past few years, I interviewed Black female musicians, fans and industry workers, and some male journalists and musicians about their experiences in the scene. The book is focused on issues surrounding race, gender and the interactions with white and Black fans at shows, and also the pressure within Black communities to adhere to a certain cultural norm of “Blackness” and how constricting that can be, especially for young women in this generation.
I’ve been going to metal shows for over 20 years and I had a lot of observations that I wanted to test out. I wanted to know: how do other Black women metal heads deal with overt racism? How do they deal with the accusatory “you think you’re white” from their friends and family? How does expressing one’s sexuality in the scene differ from the images we see of women in hip hop? It also looks at the “birth” of metal, the Black influence on its origins and why rock’n’roll, which metal was born from, was essentially abandoned by Black communities in the ’60s. The book will be out this Spring via Bazillion Points Books, which is really cool; I’m excited!
Your blog, Writing is Fighting, often examines the relationship between race, gender and heavy metal. How does heavy metal culture accept and/or reject you as a woman of colour?
I would say that it doesn’t reject me or accept me. There are a lot of people who don’t know how to take me! As a writer, as long as I don’t mention “Blackness” in any of the outlets I write for, it’s cool, because it isn’t about me. That is why I have my blog, as that is a forum in which I can “keep it real” in my space. I’ve met a lot of really cool people within the metal scene and I’ve met a handful of people who seemed very agitated that I am in “their space.” I’ve had a number of very unfortunate incidents in the past few years that have led me to believe that “we” aren’t as socially progressive as we should be, especially as metal culture is thought to be one of the most inclusive music cultures out there. That’s very sad, but there are enough awesome people out there not to dwell on the bad times. During the process of writing this book, I heard some stories of what people had been through at concerts, or in their communities, that would make your hair curl. Many Black women, and men, and other people of colour, go through a lot of verbal and, in some cases, physical harassment just to be able to enjoy the music they choose to listen to.
Do you identify as a feminist? If not, how does your self-identification interact with your identity as a metal head?
I don’t identify as a feminist, as I don’t believe in the philosophy in which feminism was created. I believe that the philosophy was solely built with white, heterosexual women in mind, not women of colour. Do I believe and adhere to certain principals? Definitely. I believe in equality and fairness, of equal access to opportunities and education. However, there is a level of racial inequality that exists within the feminist movement that turns me off.
There are white women that have to acknowledge their societal privilege and factor that into their feminist principals. Until then, I will not identify as one. As for the metal scene, I simply believe that female metal heads should be given the same respect as their male counterparts, and that in terms of the rampant issues of sexism and misogyny within the scene, we all have an obligation to help eradicate such bullshit. As women, we all have the duty to voice our outrage when we read, hear or see things that are detrimental to us actively participating within metal culture. It’s 2012, for God’s sake.
What should we be listening to right now?
I have been listening to a couple of awesome Japanese, but defunct, metal bands: Greenmachine and Sonic Flowers. I am really into anything Southern, so Rwake‘s Rest album is awesome, and so is Goatwhore‘s Blood for the Master. I have also been listening to Orange Goblin‘s A Eulogy for the Damned and the new self-titled Corrosion of Conformity. Other than that, in my non-reviewing time, I like Bongripper, Weedeater, Bongzilla and a lot of doom/stoner stuff. I’m looking forward to new music this year by High on Fire, Converge, Lord Mantis and Neurosis.
What advice would you give to young women who were looking to get more involved in the music and culture of heavy metal?
That depends on what they want to do. Fans: go see shows and go with friends. At first, don’t go alone. Make friends via social networking sites, as there are a couple of Facebook groups that have been set up so metal fans can network. Just be careful!
Writers: research metal websites, find which ones you connect with and volunteer to write for them. Find a writer that resonates with you and ask them to be a mentor. When I started, I emailed people for advice and no one refused! If you take yourself seriously, they will take you seriously.
A few months ago, I got an email from a young woman who wrote: “despite being Black, I want to be a metal journalist. What should I do?” I wrote her that the first thing she should do is figure out why she wrote “despite.” I told her that it doesn’t matter who you are, if you want to do it, just do it.
In my book, I’ve dedicated a chapter to advice for women musicians, so I won’t get too much into it, but basically, don’t let anyone tell you “no” and always believe in yourself because as much as it is a cliché, if you don’t, nobody will. Be fearless.