Louisiana officials are trying to learn what motivated a sheriff’s deputy’s son who allegedly burned three black churches in the state recently.
At a press conference Thursday, officials said 21-year-old Holden Matthews, whose father is a sheriff’s deputy in St. Landry Parish, is facing arson charges for allegedly burning the churches in neighboring towns over a 10-day period. St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas, and the Mount Pleasant Baptist church, also in Opelousas, all have predominantly black congregations. Matthews would have carried out further attacks if he hadn’t been arrested, the officials added.
In the search for a motive, the FBI will particularly be looking for evidence to support or dismiss the possibility of hate crime charges — namely, did Matthews, who is white, specifically target black churches due to racial bias?
At the press conference, Louisiana Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said investigators were looking into Matthews’ involvement in “a type of music called black metal and its associations with church burnings that has been documented in books and movies.”
What's black metal?
Keith Boutte, a singer, songwriter and artist from the St. Landry area, told VICE News that Matthews contacted him about six months ago, wanting to jam. “He liked my vocals and my music. I told him that black metal isn’t what I do. I like blues and aggressive music, but I don’t like black metal or death metal,” said Boutte, 39. Still, Boutte and Matthews stayed in touch and continued to talk about music.
Boutte says he lives just down the road from where one of the churches burned, and was initially shocked to learn that Matthews was the alleged arsonist.
“He just doesn’t seem like someone who would do a heinous act like that. Just a normal gung-ho kid goin’ around talking about music,” said Boutte. “But I hate to say it: It almost doesn’t surprise me, because he’s big into black metal.”
But experts in metal music say that a person’s interest in black metal music alone doesn’t make them more or less likely to commit arson against churches.
The metal music genre has lots of subgenres and nuances. There are strains of metal that cater to the far-right neo-Nazi crowd. There’s also a robust anti-fascist metal scene. In the early 1990s, the black metal scene was linked to dozens of church burnings in Norway, which was the subject of the 2018 film “Lords of Chaos.”
“This scene was highly influential in developing black metal worldwide,” said Keith Kahn-Harris, author of ‘Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge.” “However, far-right activity is by no means the norm in black metal, and it would be wrong to say it was intrinsic to it.”
There are subgenres even within black metal. Kahn-Harris said knowing which scene Matthews was buying into is important in this context. “It’s vital that we understand the role that black metal played in Holden Matthews' life in order to judge how far it inspired his actions,” said Kahn-Harris. “In particular, I'd like to know what sort of black metal he listened to. Did he listen to NSBM specifically?” (NSBM is National Socialist Black Metal, a subgenre of black metal that promotes Nazism.)
According to the Daily Beast, Matthews commented on two memes about Varg Vikernes, a black metal musician who did time in prison for burning churches in Norway in the 1990s. Vikernes, who has been described as a sympathizer of Anders Breivik, the Norweigan neo-Nazi who murdered 77 people, was arrested in 2013 by French authorities on suspicion of plotting “a large terror attack.” He was found guilty the following year of inciting racial hatred for publishing racist screeds online attacking Muslims and Jews.
Trying to fit in
In an interview with BuzzFeed, an associate of Matthews from the metal scene described him as someone who was impressionable and trying to fit in. Nygyl Brynn, who told BuzzFeed he’d known Matthews since 2014, said most people in the black metal scene were offended for how “Lords of Chaos” portrayed their culture by focusing on the church burnings. “But Holden liked it,” Brynn said.
A Facebook page linked to Matthews, who describes himself as a singer and songwriter for a band called the “Vodka Vultures,” tells us little more about his specific inclinations, either politically or musically speaking. The artists and pages that he’d “liked’ are mostly local bands or musicians.
It’s also not clear what Matthews did for a living beyond his aspirations to make it as a musician. Public records show that he was a registered Democrat.
As for why Matthews allegedly singled out those churches, Boutte says churches are a dime a dozen in that part of Louisiana. “The community down here is hardcore Catholic. It’s the Bible Belt of Louisiana,” said Boutte. “Every corner, you see a church.”
Cover: Eric J. Rommal, FBI New Orleans Field Office special agent in charge, speaks at a press conference on the arrest of suspect Holden Matthews for the arson of three churches in Opelousas, La., Thursday, April 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Lee Celano)