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'What Are You Doing Here?' forces reader to address prejudice about Blacks in hard rock music

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 1/11/2013, 11:40 a.m.
'What Are You Doing Here?' forces reader to address prejudice about Blacks in hard rock music

Through the combination of media imagery, cultural alliances, record industry shepherding and racial classification, the sight of a black person holding a guitar (and not playing funk, soul, or R&B) is seen as a anomaly. It's seen as something weird and out of place with how things "should work." Add being a woman to the equation and the image becomes even more confusing in the eyes of many.

Journalist, cultural critic and photographer Laina Dawes tackles the latter in her must read book "What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal." Focused primarily on the heavy metal, hardcore and punk scenes (three subgenres of hard rock that many contemporary blacks hold stereotypes of) Dawes talked to black women who perform, promote, work in or are simply fans of the scene and weaves the interviews into her personal life account as a metal fan and commentary on the issues black women face.

"Though more black musicians and fans in the rock, metal, hardcore, and punk scenes have publicly acknowledged that those genres allow them to explore different sounds than those generally categorized as "authentic" black music - hip hop, R&B, soul and jazz - they must pay social and often economical price to do so," writes Dawes. Dawes eloquently demonstrates her price when it came to family and friends. Adopted and raised by a White family in Canada, her background was used by some as a reason for her being into heavy music. Her ethnic pride was questioned and she was accused to "trying to be White." Some of those comments came from White people.

Recounting events like being physically assaulted by a skinhead at a South By Southwest show, a metal message board with commenters proclaiming black women to be "sexy, but not beautiful," racial remarks made by some of her personal favorite metal artists and the weird mental dance that occurs when a black person notices another black person in a mostly, White venue, Dawes delves into the pain and anguish that ironically make the music that much more necessarily as a form of catharsis.

Dawes reaches back to discuss black women artists who threw back stereotypes in the audience face and challenged them, like Big Mama Thornton and other blues artists. She brings up bands like Mother's Finest who didn't really get the proper pushing from Black radio or their record company. She mentions pioneers like Bad Brains and Fishbone who, despite their legendary status, have not reaped the rewards that their White contemporaries have off of their innovations.

Being black and being a fan of anything that doesn't conform to the current idea of what "being Black" means could be a lonely path. Dealing with the sensitive topics of race and gender in music, Dawes demonstrates that black women n heavy metal, hardcore and punk are fighting a four-sided battle when declaring themselves fans of the music: black (and White) perception of what black people should be listening to, sexism from black and White people regarding expectations of how women are supposed to act, racism within a mostly White sub-community and the battle with themselves in regards to self-doubt and self-hate.

Dawes tackles them all with great aplomb. She points to the unacknowledged black roots of metal when building the foundation for her support for the music. She presents everything without a spoonful of sugar to make it go down easy. What makes "What Are You Doing Here?" more than just a portrayal of one woman's bitterness at the world for not letting her be free is the hope that Dawes still holds for what lies ahead. She points to the AfroPunk community for at least giving Blacks in hard rock (if not necessarily metal) a voice. She sees a growing acceptance of blacks in the scene while accepting that there might always be some barriers. But more than anything, she shows the reader and herself that she isn't alone and for black women who call the heavy metal, hardcore and punk communities home that might be all they needed to hear.