Sister Outsider Headbanger

On Being a Black Feminist Metalhead

originally published in Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture on November 30, 2000.

I’m not sure exactly when or how it happened, but at some point in my childhood I began to think I was a white guy trapped in the body of a black girl. And not just any white guy, either—a guitar player in a heavy-metal band.

Ok, stop laughing. It’s no joke. I’m a black female metalhead. Like I said, I can’t really tell you how it happened. Maybe it was growing up in the ’80s, being fed a steady diet of Ratt videos on Chicago’s quasi-MTV uhf station. Or maybe it was coming of age at the same time heavy metal reached public consciousness as the Voice of the Disgruntled Adolescent White Male. Sure, I wasn’t white, male, or even particularly angry as a 10-year-old—but I recognized the force of those electric guitars, relentlessly pounding drums, and growling vocals. Even then, I knew that heavy metal was power, and power was irresistible.

Over the next few years, I embraced my heavy metal destiny. I wasn’t ashamed of my love for metal (well, except for maybe hair metal). I just couldn’t explain it to most people. Heavy metal has always been and will always be the red-headed stepchild of rock, much maligned and generally misunderstood. Respectable rock fans and critics dismiss it as simplistic and puerile; conservatives condemn it as “the devil’s music.” For a lot of black folks, it’s just a bunch of crazy white guys screaming, which is just as bad. Even my older sister, who is almost ridiculously eclectic in her musical tastes (Barry Manilow!), wasn’t exactly feeling metal, if you know what I mean.

But in the early ’80s, some of us kids in the ‘hood did listen to metal. Radio was somewhat less segregated than it is today, but hip-hop didn’t exist to MTV or the producers of the myriad local and syndicated music video shows that aired at the time. But we did know about Quiet Riot and Poison, those mainstays of pop-metal. Later, when hip-hop came of age and a lot of my peers grew out of the Crüe and into Boogie Down Productions and N.W.A., cable television got me intrigued by Megadeth, Anthrax, and Queensryche.

I buried my metal affection at first, not wanting to seem like too much of a freak to my friends, sneaking Metallica songs in between Salt ‘N Pepa and Digital Underground on mix tapes. After all, conventional wisdom holds that “normal” black people do not listen to heavy metal. Like decaffeinated coffee, a black female metalhead is something that doesn’t make sense to a lot of people; this was especially true at a time when hip-hop as a genre was very much linked to the cultural experiences of the black community—”black folks’ CNN,” as Chuck D put it. What could I possibly find appealing about heavy metal, seeing as how it didn’t reflect my life experience or cultural identity in any tangible way?

And yet I think that contradiction was what appealed to me in the first place. Heavy metal was so radically different from the music I grew up with that it allowed me to imagine myself as someone radically different from the geeky, awkward preteen I normally was: someone louder, someone meaner, someone who wouldn’t take shit from anyone and didn’t give a fuck about rules. Even as my burgeoning black feminist self felt empowered by seeing Queen Latifah and Monie Love do “Ladies First” on Yo! MTV Raps in 1989, another part of me—the one that secretly watched Headbangers Ball in my basement every Saturday night—wanted to run away from home and become a roadie for Metallica.

And so it went for a couple of years—maintaining the dual identity of regular high-school student by day, hard-rockin’ metalhead by night—but I felt pretty isolated. Finding other heavy metal–loving black kids in a Lutheran high school was no easy task. I mean, where do you go to find young sistas or brothas with a secret jones for heavy metal in the pre-AOL ’90s? Do you put an ad in the paper (“BF teenage headbanger seeks same for friendship”)? Do you start a support group at the local Y?

By sophomore year, I had encountered some kindred spirits. I met my friend Nicole when she noticed the cover of my Metal Edge magazine peeking from my notebook on the way to English class. “You read Metal Edge?” she asked in shock. I was ready for another fight—I had already endured more than a semester’s worth of ridicule after coming out as a metalhead—but she exclaimed, “So do I!” A friendship was born.

It was cool to find people who spoke the same musical and cultural language as I did, girls who read both Essence and Rip, who could talk about the new Slayer video and the pros and cons of relaxers in the same conversation. I felt validated—even though my mom thought I was either losing my mind or suffering from the delayed effects of some childhood head injury, and classmates accused me of betraying my blackness or thought I was flirting with Satanism. Eventually I came to appreciate the fact that black nail polish, shit-stomping combat boots, and Faith No More t-shirts had the dual ability to confuse family members and scare the living shit out of my schoolmates. Instead of trying to change people’s minds, I settled for screwing with them. My friends and I wore our metalhead status like badges of honor. We all felt like outsiders for one reason or another, and it was no coincidence that we were all attracted to music that made difference into a source of pride and used it as a shield against rejection or ridicule.

It’s this sense of rebellion, an almost self-imposed alienation from “normal” society, that’s a big part of metal’s appeal. In her 1991 examination of the genre, Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, Deena Weinstein aptly calls heavy-metal fans “proud pariahs.” Metal has never been particularly trendy, even in its heyday, but that outsider element adds much to the music’s appeal. “Some people get into music that’s not really popular, like heavy metal, to make themselves distinct from their peers,” Weinstein told me during a phone interview. “It makes sense that you’d be attracted to it. Teenagers use music to distance themselves from their parents, their upbringing.”

I can buy that. But there’s something more to it, a sense of camaraderie and acceptance that is unique to metal fans (ok, and Deadheads): a loyalty that borders on obsession. Metalheads are not casual fans. We memorize every word to every song of every album by our favorite bands, we wear tour t-shirts until they literally fall apart, we see our heroes in concert dozens of times, we spend hundreds of dollars on bootlegs and import lps even if we don’t have a turntable to play them on. My friend Christina described it best: “The respect that bands have for the fans, that the fans have for each other—if you love the music, if you’re sincere about it, you’re in. It’s like a great big family.”

But if metal fandom is a great big family, I sometimes felt like a second cousin once removed. Though I was drawn to the outsider appeal of the music in the first place, it was difficult for me to forget my double outsider status at concerts, where guys would gawk and point at me and my metalhead clique as if we were Martians instead of black girls and we could count the number of black faces on one hand. But once the lights went down and the band came onstage, we were all headbanging and moshing and howling the words to the songs. The music took over, and we could all share that universal bond of loving the music, if only for a few hours.

Of course, as in all of rock’s subgenres, female metal fans have had to walk that fine line between sighing teen-dream fandom and balls-to-the-wall solidarity. A lot of women embrace and identify with the music and musicians the same way male fans do, while also grafting very girly wants and desires onto metal’s aggressive vibes. We want to be tough and emulate our heroes and start our own bands—but, yeah, we also fantasize about hanging out with the guys, dating them, fucking them.

And so female fans found ways to connect with each other: as pen pals, chatting in the women’s restrooms during concerts, at record stores, wherever we could. We even had our own magazine, the aforementioned Metal Edge. The late-’80s and early-’90s incarnation of Metal Edge was a strange amalgam of Kerrang and Tiger Beat: glossy pinups and wall-size fold-out posters next to ads for instructional videos like “How to Play Guitar like Yngwie Malmsteen” and classifieds from aspiring musicians trying to start bands. Metal Edge never explicitly billed itself as a metal magazine for teen girls, but Gerri Miller, the magazine’s longtime editor-in-chief, had an uncanny knack for appealing to the desires of female metalheads. One of my favorite sections was “When They Were Young,” a three-page spread of some B-level pop-metal bands’ goofy baby photos and high-school yearbook pictures. “That’s how you knew that Metal Edge was really for girls,” recalls Christina. “No boy cares about what the guys from Slaughter looked like as babies.” Was Metal Edge exploiting our conflicting desires? Maybe. But the magazine was one of the few forums where female fans could simultaneously indulge our lustful groupie desires and our dreams of being in the band, without losing our hard-core credibility. Metal Edge embodied precisely how female metal fans are a subculture within a subculture—but not disempowered by it.

By the time I entered college I’d started to reconcile my identity and beliefs with my love for metal, but it was hard to leave my ambivalence behind. If saying that I’m a metalhead and a feminist sounds like a contradiction, then saying that I’m a feminist because of heavy metal probably sounds even more so—especially considering that Feminist Theory 101 often implies that the only inclusive, empowering space for women in music is among other women playing “women’s music.”

But metal did empower me. Because the music was so far away from my experience, it didn’t place defini­tions on who I was or could be as a black female. When I listened to Metallica or Corrosion of Conformity, I wasn’t a “bitch,” a “ho,” or some anonymous jiggling booty in a rap video; I wasn’t a woman who needed rescuing by some dream-date pop star. I was someone who felt weird in high school, who wanted a place to belong.

Bands like Living Colour and Sepultura took things a step further by bringing a strong antiracist and political tone to their headbanging. Such bands helped me adapt my fandom to my personal ideals, and in turn I examined songs with a critical ear; refused to support bands with racist, sexist, or homophobic lyrics; and wrote angry letters to metal fanzines when they made racist comments. Most important, having the music as an emotional outlet made me feel safe to eventually explore my identity as a black woman and as a feminist, and to find strength in that as well.

While writing this, I realized just how long it’s been since I first discovered metal. I’m 26 now, so it’s been well over half my life. Heavy-metal fandom doesn’t hold the same place in my life that it did when I was 13; I try to keep up with the music and I still go to concerts occasionally, but I’m not deeply immersed in the fan culture. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older; I have a greater understanding of my own identity and I don’t need the music or the fandom to help express my feelings or provide a sense of community. Or maybe it’s that I’m just not into the music the way I used to be. I do see young brothas and sistas who are fans of newer groups like Sevendust or Kittie, and I can appreciate the connection that they feel to these bands even if I don’t share it. I wonder if they feel as conflicted about race or gender as I did. I wonder if they feel like they have to justify their musical tastes to their parents or peers, or if they try to hide it. I wonder if they even think about this stuff at all, and if it seems relevant to them.

In some ways, music fandom seems a lot more diverse than it was when I was a teen. Thanks at least in part to MTV, kids of different races and ethnicities have more music in common than even a decade ago. It’s not uncommon to see a black or brown kid giddily requesting Papa Roach on Total Request Live, and hip-hop has pretty much replaced rock as the soundtrack of adolescent rebellion for kids of every color.

But while the appropriation of hip-hop by white guys has become all the rage (calling Fred Durst!), it’s not like there’s a black female rock equivalent. In the past 15 years, black rockers like Living Colour and Fishbone and newer bands with multiracial lineups like Sevendust and the now-defunct Rage Against the Machine have made strides in crossing rock’s color line. But MTV and radio (including black stations) still don’t know what to do with artists who don’t fit any pre-existing molds, like Me’shell Ndegéocello or the black female–fronted rock band Skunk Anansie. So instead of taking on the challenge of exploring black rock, mainstream media largely ignores it.

In the 1999 sociological study–cum­–motherlode of interviews Frock Rock: Women Performing Popular Music, Skunk Anansie vocalist Skin talks about growing up as a black female rock fan: “It was music that was quite differ­ent from what I grew up with. I’d kind of hide my love for it…. I never had anybody I wanted to be like, because they were so different from me that I didn’t identify with them. I identified with them musically, but looks-wise or anything else, they were completely alien to me.”

Even now, we sistas who rock don’t have a high-profile role model to identify with or emulate. The act of participation in rock music as musicians and as fans is still pretty subversive for black women—for black folks in general, really. I hope at some point the music industry will have the guts and good sense to support black rock, and young black women who want a harder sound than Tracy Chapman will be able to find the emotional connection I did, plus something more—a sense of being represented musically, culturally, and politically. But right now I’ll settle for those rare but cherished moments when I spot a girl walking down the street sporting a ‘fro and a Korn t-shirt. I’m reminded that we’re still out there, shattering those narrow notions of what’s popularly defined as “black music” or “women’s music.” I know some of us use those opportunities to directly and indirectly challenge the racism and sexism in the industry and in fandom through writing fanzines, making websites, and supporting black rock bands. But if nothing else, we get the chance to screw with people’s heads a little, by messing up their image of who the “average” metal fan is supposed to be. That’s a victory in itself, and damn fun, too. 

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