Love it or hate it, when most people think of metal, they think of white dudes. Even if metal was born from the blues and there are growing scenes in places like Indonesia and Peru, metal's founding fathers – Priest, Sabbath, Maiden – and most of those who've come after them have been unmistakably Caucasian. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to find out there was a small but passionate collection of guys who knew who Lemmy was, dressed like doomsday cowboys in the predominantly black southern African country of Botswana.
Spared the civil wars and venal dictatorships that scar much of Africa, in its own, quiet way Botswana is something of an African success story. In 2008, South African photographer Frank Marshall accompanied a South African metal band on a one-gig tour of Gaborone, Botswana's capital.
"Arriving at the small nightclub venue where they were to play, I was greeted by leather-clad Motswana metalheads," recalls Frank. Said metalheads had given themselves names like 'Dead Demon Rider', 'Coffinfeeder' and 'Ishmael Phantom Lord'. "As the metal scene in South Africa is mainly white, I was immediately fascinated and thrilled by the small, tight-knit subculture that had grown up in the country."
Marshall returned a year later to make the Botswana metalheads the focus of his photography degree thesis. Marshall would come to call his project Visions of Renegades – an exhibition of his striking photographs will be held at Johannesburg's discerning, avant-garde Rooke Gallery in July [More text and images on pages 2 and 3].
The photos show a world that's at once familiar and strange to anyone acquainted with metal. Yes, there's an obvious novelty in seeing a black African guy in an Angel Witch tee surrounded by savanna, but there are other things here that don't fit, such as the cowboy hats and leather gear these guys have adopted from biker fashion. So much attention to detail has gone into the costumes, and the Motswana metalheads stand tall, proud and aloof. It's all wonderfully homoerotic.
"The costumes are like an arms race amongst the scene members," says Marshall. "There's a competition between them to see who can look the most brutal. When I was in Botswana, I was carrying around a few of the previous metaller portraits I'd done. The locals admired the guys in them. But they also felt compelled to raise their sartorial games."
Giuseppe Sbrana is the lead guitarist and vocalist with the band Skinflint. He's also one of the few white metallers in Botswana, and reckons that the scene's dress code is 'old school.'
"A good example of where we get the style from is Motorhead's Ace Of Spades cover," he says. "Also many metalheads in Botswana are cowboys from the villages and farms, so they mix the cowboy image with a biker metal look. Many wear hunting knives and parts of dead animals. We drink from the hollowed-out horns of cows."
Tshomarelo Mosaka – AKA 'Vulture' – is in the band Overthrust. Their Facebook page says he is responsible for "bass and growlings".
"Metal is given very extreme respect and great dignity in Botswana," explains Mosaka. "A metal gig here is like a religious ritual among the metallers, they become very, very delighted or even crazy sometimes whenever there is an upcoming gig. They will spend weeks preparing their leather pants, boots and other metal attire – it's like they are preparing for war!"
"When the time to gig has arrived, they will make a straight line, move at the same pace, same step, quietly and gently marching to the gig. It's like they are robots or their spirits are possessed by machines."
The scene's roots lies in the work of the pioneering Motswana classic rock band Nosey Road, who formed in the 1970s. Nowadays, it's split mainly between Gaborone and Botswana's tourism centre, Maun (known as 'Maun Rock City' among scene members) and though it's still pretty small (about 1,500 fans) what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in solidarity, as Thuto Motladiile of the band Skeletal Saints emphasises.
"The reason we have a majority black scene here isn't because of racism – everyone comes, whites and blacks, provided the gig is in a safe and secure place. But I think it's mostly black guys who turn up because we want to give each other support."
Botswana's metal bands have recently started to play outside of their own country, in South Africa and Namibia. The scene's best known band, death metallers Wrust, are signed to Durban's Witchdoctor Records, and others, like Skinflint, are putting out self-released recordings.
Perhaps one day some metallers from Botswana will 'do a Sepultura' and challenge the white American-European stranglehold on the world's metal scene. Until then, Frank Marshall's photos provide a window on a small corner of the world where metal has put down roots, despite the fact it obligates its devotees to sit around all day in the blazing sun sweating their balls off in leather strides.
PHOTOS: FRANK MARSHALL
WORDS: KEITH KAHN-HARRIS
Frank Marshall's Visions of Renegades exhibition will be showing at the Rooke Gallery in Johannesburg in July.
Keith Kahn-Harris is the author of Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge. He blogs at metaljew.org.