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Learning How to Breathe
On Laina Dawes' "What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal"

When I was reading Laina Dawes’ first book, What Are You Doing Here?, for the third time, it finally dawned on me that I had been reading the title wrong. The question it poses is not simply “what are you doing here,” but “what are YOU doing here?” It is a much more ominous, charged statement, the kind of challenge that what might result in what Dawes refers through repeatedly throughout the book as “thickening air.” That phrase is used to describe the palpable, elevated tension that rises, chokingly, to clog and complicate discussions of racism and sexism in the heavy metal community.

Sometimes Dawes describes it rising when someone makes a clumsy gaffe around race; sometimes when someone issues a challenge or insult that threatens to turn violent; or simply when Dawes, and the many women of colour that she interviews, feel the haze of their fellow concertgoers weigh particularly heavily upon them. It is the thickening air that clots with discomfort, that threatens to make Dawes fell unwelcome when listening to the music that she loves. Her book, What Are You Doing Here?, has the force of a powerful, eloquent typhoon, seeking to create a space where people of colour, women, and anyone whose identity and appearance does not conform to the standard white, young, male concept of a heavy metal fan, can breathe more easily.

What Are You Doing Here? is at once a personal piece of writing, drawing heavily on autobiographical experiences and personal anecdotes, and a thorough and wide-ranging piece of journalism, employing cultural theory and research done on aggressive music as well as a compelling collection of original interviews conducted by Dawes herself. The potent combination of traditional, well-cited journalism and the raw, sometimes confessional tone of the writing infuses the book with both a solid research backbone and a moving personal narrative. Dawes does an excellent job of balancing her own experiences with those of her interview subjects, often presenting opposing or disparate views and always analyzing them in a larger historical and cultural context.

The narrative arc of What Are You Doing Here? follows a roughly autobiographical trajectory, beginning with Dawes’ childhood loving rock music and burgeoning discovery of heavy metal in her early teens, resolving with the current state of her career and her place in the metal community. From that structure, Dawes tackles topics as diverse as black female sexuality, the blues roots of heavy metal, and feelings of loneliness and isolation often experienced by women of colour in the metal scene.

One theme that weaves its way throughout the text consistently is the sheer volume of the resistance that Dawes and many other black female fans, writers, and performers face in the heavy metal scene, both from within the metal community and from the larger world as well. In particular, Dawes examines the way that other people of colour often challenged or disparaged her interested in “white” music, as though her affection for it was a betrayal of her race. In her moving intro to the book, Skin of the band Skunk Anansie talks about working with a major session singer who tells her, “you are not doing music for your people,” and the pain statements like that caused her. Dawes discusses similar censure from friends, boyfriends and colleagues that make her question, and even deny and hide her love of metal, for years. Dawes admits to starting out as a hip-hop writer before shifting to writing about rock; it was not until 2007 that she began to focus entirely on metal. She admits that the resistance she encounters to her love of metal, and to writing this book, has at times been “excruciatingly painful.”

Dawes makes clear that the point of the book is not to dwell on racism or sexism (nor does she wallow in any sense of pity), but to share the stories of black women who are metal, punk and hardcore fans (and writers and performers and label reps and photographers). She recognizes that the experiences of people of colour and women in the metal scene are not the primary narrative, pointing out that “since young men are still considered the majority in the heavy metal scene, their experience commonly defines the entire heavy metal experience.” Dawes presents a narrative beyond that, the story of black women finding freedom and liberation through aggressive, guitar-driven music. She identifies the joy of relating to the social commentary of songs like “Schism” by Anthrax and “Operation: Mindcrime” by Queensryche. She presents metal as a source of joy, an outlet for negative emotions, a physical release and catharsis. It is also an opportunity to embrace something that Dawes, and the women she interviews, love intensely, and therefore is also the narrative of the triumph of truth and happiness over the pressure of public perception.

One of the most powerful chapters in What Are You Doing Here?, entitled “We’re Here Because We Started It,” explores the blues origins of metal, hardcore and punk. She points out that blues and metal share themes of “pain and perseverance,” and how the very aesthetic of metal and punk is heavily borrowed from African and Native American cultures. She eloquently and thoroughly examines the ways that blues musicians pioneered sounds and techniques that metal has cribbed for decades, and how these origins were systematically left out from the history of the genre.

The thickening air that haunts this book is not limited to stares and an ephemeral sense of discomfort. In personal anecdotes as well as interviews, Dawes discusses the very real violence that she and other fans and performers have faced to participate in the metal community. As she stated in an interview with Canada Arts Connect, “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.” She also discusses the victim-blaming that often arises when she brings up the subject of violence and harassment, when friends or colleagues wonder, “why would you put yourself in that situation?”

In an interview with Invisible Oranges, Dawes talked about being physically threatened, insulted, and even having bottles thrown at her head while covering a metal festival in Montreal in 2008. She found herself wondering if the scene was for her, and if it might not be time to throw in the towel. She ultimately decided to assert her right to the space and to the music that she loved, return to the fest, and come out swinging. This impulse, the desire to fight for space in a scene that she loves, is a constant refrain throughout What Are You Doing Here?, as well as on her blog Writing Is Fighting.

Dawes speaks articulately about the complex issues of race, gender and sexuality that she raises, allowing them to be complicated. She acknowledges this in an interview with Mish Way for Vice, talking about racism in the metal scene. “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 favourite 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.”

She speaks of the challenge of loving music that hurts you, that often denigrates women or is poisoned by ugly pockets of racism. She speaks about a racist tirade (and subsequent apology) by Phil Anselmo in 1995 in Montreal, how the importance of Pantera and Dawes’ love for that sound and its predecessors often has to reconcile with moments of ugliness (Dawes also speaks about what Anselmo has done to correct this and his general conduct towards fans and while performing). Ultimately, it is love that wins out in What Are You Doing Here?, and the answer to the question posed in the title is that Dawes, and other women of colour, are here because they wants to be and it is their right to do so.

When I interviewed Laina Dawes for the series Girls Don’t Like Metal, she related the following advice to other young women, and especially women of colour who love heavy metal and want to carve out a place in the scene: “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.” Above all else, Dawes counseled, “be fearless.” With this book, Dawes follows her own advice to the letter. What Are You Doing Here? is fearless.

____

Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.

For more, follow us on Twitter at @torontostandard, and subscribe to our newsletter.

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