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What Are You Doing Here? Laina Dawes Talks About Being the Odd Black Girl Out in Metal

In her debut book, What Are You Doing Here: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation In Heavy Metal, music journalist and hardcore metal devote Laina Dawes uncovers black woman’s voices and stories of participation in punk and metal.

The metal scene is traditionally a very macho place. Think long, sweaty manes coiling down the backs of men in black leather, licking their Flying-V guitars as they thrash on stage. Metal is a nerd’s night out. It’s just weird like that. The pit in generally a boys club too. Of course, this has changed. It’s not 1980 anymore. The big-haired, high-cut-bikini-wearing metal groupies are now metal mosher’s or metal musicians themselves. The gender issue has been talked about, but what about black women in metal? Lita Ford has spoken, but where is Tamar-Kali?


In her debut book, What Are You Doing Here: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation In Heavy Metal, music journalist and hardcore metal devote Laina Dawes uncovers black woman’s voices and stories of participation in punk and metal. Being a fan who was tired of the “what are you doing here” looks at shows, she decided to rip open the subject by talking to other black women in the scene. Covering topics from racism, to black woman’s sexuality to personal interviews with women such as Sandra St. Victor, Tamar-Kali, MilitiA and Diamond Rowe, Dawes vowed not to miss a beat. I wanted to know what it was like for Dawes trying to find the black female perspective in the super macho world of metal, so I asked her about it.

VICE: The second chapter of your book is "Metal Can Save Your Life"… how did metal save yours?

Laina Dawes: Metal is commonly perceived to be the outlet for white men to vent their frustrations, to release anger and to escape from their everyday pressures. As a black girl growing up in small-town Ontario, I found that metal helped me express my feelings of alienation and frustration when no one else would listen, or as I thought at the time, cared. What interested me about this project was that many of the women I interviewed felt the same way. As women, and as minorities, the 'voice' of black women's experiences is commonly ignored, and the music served as a way to get those feelings out, and to create an individual way of expressing themselves. You can scream, pump your fists and allow yourself to feel in the same ways as 'white men' are 'allowed to express themselves in the metal scene.


As a girl who plays in a punk band I understand the gender part for sure. Punk/metal are not commonly a woman's place, especially metal, which is very macho, traditionally. Did you ever play in a band?

No. I do come from a family of musicians, so music was an integral part of my growing up. But I did take guitar and played bass in high school. I lost interest was because I thought that there was no way I would be able to join a band. Who would want me?

Do you think it would have been different if you had been in a big city instead of a small town?

I don't think so. I really gravitated to the music for the same reasons as anyone else would - I just have a natural affinity towards loud and extreme music. From speaking to women who grew up in predominately black and urban environments, there are commonalities in how we grew to love and 'use' the music. In some ways I was lucky because I grew up with older boys as neighbors who were into the classics: Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, so I started off with the classics and was able to see the correlation between those bands and the ones that later emerged. For other interviewees, they gravitated to MTV and were first aware of bands from the Headbanger's Ball show just like everyone else.

Too bad MTV is totally useless now.

Oh yeah!

It's weird. I feel like the music scene and the capabilities of finding communities online is a good thing though. We have access to everything, which can be damaging when it’s “thinspiration” sites, but can be amazing when it's Bandcamp pages.


It is great. Communities are extremely important in the metal, hardcore and punk scenes, and it is a lot easier to find your 'tribe' now and to find music that the major video stations or radio will never play.

Without me totally spoiling the book by asking you this question, can you talk a bit about black female sexuality in the metal scene?

I had always thought that the metal scene was more of an empowering forum to express black female sexuality. I really admire black female singers, such as MilitiA from Judas Priestess and Skin from Skunk Anansie, as they are in control of their image, how they want to use their bodies in their performance, verus a hip-hop artist, who needs to be hyper-sexualized in order for people to take notice of her. Metal is more about technical and musical proficiency than what you look like, and I think that in hardcore and punk too, black women can have more control over their performance and how they want to present themselves. The images of black women in popular culture can be so two-two-dimensional - the oversexed groupie or 'animal' or the overweight, sassy ghetto chick. The metal scene can provide a place of sexual empowerment for black women, as it provides an alternative to all that.

I never thought of that. That's really interesting. I feel less sexism in the punk scene than I did when I was a waitress. You know?

Oh yeah. I think people are more interested in your performance as a musician. You are in a position of power.


See, you get that but I feel like outsiders (critics, reviewers, etc.) don't see it that way and kind of victimize women by asking the infamous "woman" question. You know? It's not like it's 1970.

Because they don't know what else to say and they are lazy. And they refuse to think outside of the box - that is what they think that people want to know, but people are - well some - are more evolved than that. That is a disservice to the interviewee, as they come off in interviews that they do not have a personality that extends outside of their genetalia.

I'm curious about racism in the metal scene.

Talking about racism in the scene(s) was probably the most difficult to cover, as it had to be done right - I didn't want to get sued, and within the metal scene, people don't want to hear about it. "You're whining, wah wah." Everyone had some negative experience, which ranged from dirty looks and racial insults, to physical altercations. I wrote the book from the perspective that as a human being, we all have the right to participate in whatever musical scene we want to and we should not be hindered in any way from attending shows, etc. One of the other areas in terms of race and racism was what black female metal, hardcore and punk fans would do if one of their favorite artists had made public racist pronouncements. Would they stop listening? Boycott? Or do they separate the music from the person who is performing it? It's not as cut and dried as you think it would be. I also think there is a sense of denial, but all you need to do is look in the comment sections on music websites when a black artist is profiled in a post.


What would you do if a band you liked made a really racist and public comment?

I would stop listening and would not support them in any way. And I've been in that situation a couple of times, and it is hard. I'm not going to spend my time or my money on someone who does not respect me or other minorities - whether that be based on sexual orientation, religion, or people from other ethno-cultures.

I imagine most people would. I get pissed off if a band I respect says anything remotely ignorant. I can't separate that.

Oh my god. I have gotten into arguments with people over Burzum / Varg Vikernes. There are a lot of people who couldn't give a shit - because it doesn't directly affect them. There are people who say stuff in which there could be a potential of physical harm to someone, and to me that is so repellent, BUT you would be surprised at how many people turn a blind eye because again, they are not involved, so who cares? But they blindly think that because it doesn't affect them, it shouldn't affect you.

Fuck that shit.

For more info on What Are You Doing Here, go HERE.