In mid 2017, a CNN producer approached Christian Picciolini with a two-year-old post from a notorious neo-Nazi internet forum featuring lyrics from an old white power song. On this post, a commenter had asked who had written the lyrics and where he could find the music. Then four months later, that commenter had walked into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, with a .45-caliber Glock handgun, and murdered nine black men and women. Picciolini immediately recognized the poster as Dylann Roof, but it was another realization that made his “blood run cold.” Picciolini himself had written the lyrics in question.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Picciolini had performed in Final Solution and White American Youth, two of the most popular white power bands of the era. “It didn’t even dawn on me until I was done reading them that those were my lyrics,” Picciolini told me. “My heart sank. It’s absolutely still influencing people. I planted all these seeds of hate so long ago, and I’m still pulling out the weeds from them. Some of them, like the music, are going to live forever.”
Picciolini left the white supremacist movement in 1996 for a number of reasons, including, he says, the guilt he felt over his involvement in the gang-beating of a young black man. In 2009, he cofounded Life After Hate, an organization for those who used to subscribe to far-right violent extremism that works to deradicalize people in those movements. (He left Life After Hate in the middle of 2017 to go help build a global extremism-prevention network.) However, his musical footprint remains. What was once a major recruitment tool for the white power movement through concerts and brick-and-mortar record stores is still drawing people in through its proliferation on online platforms. YouTube in particular has become a major site of what’s called passive recruitment through the widespread availability of white power music and its messages. According to a 2012 study by the Anti-Defamation League, passive recruitment works because “of all the people who encounter it, some will be interested enough to look into white power music, and of those people, a certain amount will find the white supremacist movement itself attractive.”
Today, if you search online for either of Picciolini’s former bands, some of the first results will be YouTube links for songs like “Skinhead Pride” and “Allegiance.” In the preview boxes next to those songs on YouTube are videos by Skrewdriver, Rahowa, Bully Boys, and Final War—all notorious white power bands. With just a few clicks you can tumble down a rabbit hole of hate music. Judging by the hundreds of thousands of views some of these songs have received, it’s obvious that many have followed that path.
The ease with which anyone can access this content is all the more alarming when one considers that some of the worst far-right terrorists in modern history, from Roof to Anders Behring Breivik, were influenced by white power music in some way. In some cases—like Wade Michael Page of the band End Apathy, who walked into a Sikh temple and fatally shot six people in August 2012—the musicians themselves carried out the crimes.
In 2004, the Minnesota-based white power label Panzerfaust Records caused a significant stir with a scheme called “Project Schoolyard.” It sold its CDs to white supremacists at dirt-cheap costs, encouraging them to distribute the albums to children at schools. Neo-Nazis are now running something of an updated version of the operation for the internet generation on YouTube, uploading significant amounts of white power music to a site that gets billions of views daily and has an immense millennial and Gen Z audience.
According to the New York Times, YouTube has become the “new talk radio” for the far right, and it’s been similarly useful as a stage for the otherwise uncommercial and politically toxic white power music to flourish. “User-focused platforms like YouTube allow individuals to access white power music like no other platform,” Keegan Hankes, an analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. “In a moment in which experts are increasingly concerned about the capability of a person to self-radicalize oneself via the internet, hate music is finding a new lease, and new listeners, beyond the movement that birthed it.”
Platforms such as iTunes and Spotify have responded to complaints about white power music by removing the content. In 2017, after a Digital Music News investigation revealed 37 white power bands available on Spotify, the company removed them. YouTube has largely avoided the reckoning faced by these other services, perhaps because music can be uploaded by anyone, not just the people who created it. A recent search of the bands flagged by Digital Music News shows that every single one mentioned in the investigation is still available to stream on YouTube.
This isn’t to say that YouTube hasn’t been criticized. It has come under intense scrutiny for its content. In response to this criticism, the company has put in place a feature that targets this type of content once it’s been reported through a variety of means—removing the videos entirely, demonetizing them, making them unsearchable, or disabling their comment section.
In a statement, a YouTube spokesperson told me that there is no room for “hateful content that promotes violence” on its website. “In the last year, we have taken multiple actions to protect our community against violent or extremist content, testing new systems to combat emerging and evolving threats. We work closely with many law enforcement groups to understand local context and so that we can understand where artistic expression escalates into real threats.”
Policing YouTube is a lot easier said than done in both a moral and logistical sense. Many far-right speakers and musicians argue—to varying degrees of success—that expressing their viewpoints constitutes free speech. But even if you completely remove yourself from that particular point of view, the simple act of trying to remove a song from YouTube is like playing whack-a-mole. If you take one video down, five more go up. With more than 300 hours of video content being uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day, it’s a daunting task to even comprehend how you would tackle a problem like this.
Although there were some outliers, most white power music in the 80s and 90s tended to be one dimensional—hardcore punk fronted by gravelly throated men. As such, it appealed to a pretty specific demographic. But just as the platforms have diversified, so have the musical stylings. These days, you can find far-right or white nationalist messages in any genre you like on the world’s second most popular website.
One of the rare female voices in the current scene (as you can imagine, the neo-Nazi scene is rather misogynistic) is a Swedish woman named Saga who is well-known for her soft rock covers of white power music—think a neo-Nazi Celine Dion. On YouTube, Saga songs have hundreds of thousands of views, and you can find playlists—created both by users and a YouTube algorithm—of her greatest hits. In Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto, which he sent off shortly before slaughtering 77 people in Norway, he called Saga “the world’s best and most talented English speaking patriotic musician.” (Saga distanced herself from Breivik immediately but still continues to make music and perform.)
Folk singer Paddy Tarleton could be described as a bizarro-world Woody Guthrie who hates commies and idolizes fascists. He plays acoustic guitar and the banjo and works in the tradition of taking old melodies and plugging modernized lyrics into them. While still building his following, he has become one of the darlings of the alt-right—having profiles written about him on Richard Spencer’s website and appearing on podcasts like Radical Agenda, which is hosted by Chris Cantwell, the notorious crying neo-Nazi. One song by Tarleton, entitled “Charlottesville Ballad (War Is Coming),” takes the melody from an Irish rebel song and turns it against Antifa and Heather Heyer, the woman killed when a car rammed through protesters at an anti-fascist rally in Charlottesville last year.
There are also instrumental electronic movements such as Trumpwave and Fashwave—Daily Stormer (the internet’s largest neo-Nazi “news site”) used to have a weekly segment called Fashwave Fridays—not to mention white power hip-hop, and white power indie rock. There’s even a kids’ section. In one niche corner of white power YouTube, a user who goes by the name Walt Bismarck creates parodies of classic Disney songs, many of which are synced to the original videos. Some of Bismarck’s songs have been flagged as adult content, but others are easily accessible by anyone, including children. In total, Bismarck’s channel has been viewed more than 2 million times.
These are but a few examples of what gets passed around on internet forums like Stormfront—one of the most popular places for disseminating white power music. The anonymity of these internet platforms only extends the reach of the videos uploaded, as people can spread their views without experiencing the shame or judgment of being identified with them.
The anonymity of these internet platforms only extends the reach of the videos uploaded, as people can spread their views without experiencing the shame or judgment of being identified with them.
“I listen to all the WP bands that I find, and I will still like the band even if their music is full of crap,” wrote one member in a forum dedicated to white nationalist musicians. “My opinion is that White Power music is 90% feeling and NS ideology expression, and the rest 10% [ sic] is the music to have fun. White Power music is the perfect tool to attract more people (especially young) to National Socialism …”
I sent several examples of the content discussed in this piece to YouTube. This includes individual songs alongside full playlists such as a YouTube–generated “Top Tracks” of Skrewdriver. After I heard back from the streaming platform, many of the videos I flagged had either been removed or have had their functionality stripped back. As of this writing, many other YouTube links to these songs remain.
Two of the videos I sent to YouTube were songs by Final Solution, Picciolini’s former band. The songs in question, while hidden behind an offensive-content warning, remain up and searchable on YouTube.
Having seen both sides of music’s influence—as the leader of two of the classic white power bands and in helping others leave the movement—Picciolini says that he still encounters people whose gateway into the movement was music. “There are still people using that method. We can’t discount it. It is one of their recruitment tools,” said Picciolini. “It’s not their biggest one, but it’s an important one.”
Back in 1993, Picciolini opened Chaos Records in Alsip, Illinois, where he stocked and sold white power records alongside a more general interest inventory. Since the only other options for buying these white power albums at the time was basically by mail order or actually going to the shows, people used to drive across the country to get their hands on his merchandise. But opening the shop also gave him the chance to get to know people who didn’t share his ideology, and after a few years and the birth of his children, Picciolini decided to leave the movement. He pulled the white power records from his shelves, but since they brought in the “majority of [his] revenue,” he ultimately had to shut his store down.
When it comes to the continued online existence of his own music, though, it’s not as simple as just throwing away records and closing shop. Picciolini himself can’t even take down the songs he recorded and wrote in his former life—he used to try but eventually gave up in frustration.
“Either the platforms weren’t responsive, or it wasn’t something they could take down, or you would be successful and five more would just pop up,” he said. “So, yeah, I could keep trying, but I think I would just waste my whole life doing that.” Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.