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Laina Dawes Interview

A Conversation with the Author of 'What Are You Doing Here?'


Laina Dawes - What Are You Doing Here?

Laina Dawes - What Are You Doing Here?

Bazillion Points
Updated December 23, 2012
Laina Dawes has written the excellent new book What Are You Doing Here?, which chronicles her life as a black woman in the metal scene and the racism and prejudice she has encountered. She also gets the perspective of other musicians and fans to create a wide-ranging portrait shedding light on those issues.

Chad Bowar: What spawned the idea of writing this book?
I published my first article on black rock artists in 1997-98, when I was in university, investigating why there was such a resistance within black communities to black artists performing rock music. I started thinking about how the imagery of the few black women rock musicians had inspired me by presenting a powerful and sexually assured image that I wasn't getting through other music genres.

At the time, there was a number of black women artists who were segregated into three visual stereotypes: the hip-hop or R&B diva who was strong and militant, the over-sexed hip-hop artist or video vixen who was presumably only there to be of sexual service to black male hip-hop artists, or the granola-type flower-child whose sexuality was always questioned. As I grew up in the Rap era but was more a fan of metal, I wondered what it would be like for black women, whom in this society are saddled with both racial and sexual stereotypes, to be a metal musician or like me, simply a fan.

As I got older and got involved in critical race theory and social justice, I wanted to incorporate my love for music and my cultural theory background as I believe that aggressive music can be used as an effective way not only to expel negative energy, but as a tool to self-empowerment for black women, in an era in which we are commonly thought of as having no power at all - besides Oprah Winfrey! I started looking for other black women metalheads who used the music in the same way I did.

How long did the process take?
After early discussions with Ian Christe (Bazillion Points), who suggested that I take my initial idea of doing a documentary and turn it into a book, I knew what I wanted to do and the Table of Contents came together very easily. I didn't know very many black women metal artists or even fans so I spent six months just doing research, trying to find people online and the few I did, thanks to my metal journalism colleagues, I interviewed to see if my initial ideas were worthy enough to be elaborated. It was not easy, as I sent out questionnaires and got little response, but it was through connections and simply blindly emailing people I found online that helped.

I found that there are few black women metal musicians, but still more than I initially thought. I also found a lot of black women metal fans that are very involved in the scenes where they live the focus of this book is really about them. Did they all want to talk to me? No, but the majority had very similar experiences and had the same worldview as I did - getting into metal had nothing to do with them rejecting their racial identity.

It actually enhanced how proud they were to be a woman and to be black. Overall the process took about two years, but even when I thought I had a full draft of the manuscript I was adding information and tweaking right to the end. There was a wealth of information to talk about, but it had to be synthesized to be a coherent product.

What surprised you the most about the whole book writing process?
I loved the process, but because this is the first book of its kind it was nerve-wracking. I've gotten the 'I didn't know black people were into metal' thing and the quizzical looks and I probably sabotaged myself because I was too conscious of what other people were going to think. While the majority of people were supportive, there were those who thought the whole idea was silly, and some that felt that I was doing a disservice because I even mentioned race in the discussion.

The most surprising part was how difficult it was to find my 'voice,' in terms of how the book should be written in order to attract the audience I wanted. My first draft was too academic in tone, as I thought that by putting in references to cultural and academic theorists to support my arguments would alleviate any questions about the legitimacy of the subject matter. After that first disastrous draft Ian said to me, "you are the authority," and encouraged me to write from my perspective. And the process became a lot easier.

You told your story and incorporated other black female musicians in the metal, punk and hardcore scenes. How difficult was it to line up those interviews?
As mentioned before in the research phase, it wasn't that easy. Even by posting on black-centric alternative websites looking for interviewees, there are more people who are either into punk music, or like to dress like punks but really listen to hip-hop, and fewer metalheads. Since the book has been promoted I am being contacted by a larger amount of black women metal fans than I could originally find!

One thing I found interesting through this process is that while the people I spoke to were very proud and aware of their racial identity and were happy to talk about it, I found others who did not want to talk on the record, as they thought that people in their lives might look down at them for talking about how their ethnicity or gender affected their lives.

Was there anybody you wanted to include in the book but were not able to?
There were a few black female metal and hard rock musicians who declined to be interviewed. I really wanted to interview Jada Pinkett Smith about Wicked Wisdom, but had no luck. I was pretty insistent about interviewing black women fans who were lifers in the scene, and those who were into more extreme, underground metal bands, not those who simply downloaded one track from iTunes from a mainstream metal, punk or hardcore band and declared themselves a metalhead.

There were a couple of black metal artists whom I didn't want to interview, or I had interviewed previously for music publications and knew that they would not be interested in talking about race, identity and sexuality. It was more about finding and talking to people who were really open to 'keeping it real' about who they were as black people and also passionate about the music.

You have been doing a lot of interviews to promote the book. What has been the response to your story, and is it what you expected?
Overall it has been great and I've been surprised! I was really worried that issues would not be perceived as clear as I thought they were in the book but for the most part, reviewers have been able to understand the important messages in the book. Talking about race and gender is not easy, as it has been dismissed as not being a relevant issue as some who have never experienced any form of discrimination refuse to see that it could possibly be a problem for anyone else!

I really want to expand some notions on how we as human beings either consciously, or sub-consciously tie racial and cultural identity in with our musical preference, and the judgment that is placed on people because of what they listen to or how involved they are within the accompanying musical culture.

What are your expectations for the book once it hits the shelves?
I'm hoping for a wide audience of readership- people who might not like metal, hardcore or punk but are interested in issues surrounding race and identity or gender issues, or music criticism. It is extremely important that this book be perceived as a forum in which black female musicians, fans and industry workers are able to tell their stories through an unfiltered lens.

It might not be pleasant for some, but it is the truth. Rarely, if ever do black women involved in a predominately white and male scene get to share both their positive or negative stories, and I really wanted this book to do that.

What are some of the factors contributing to racism and sexism in the metal scene, and have you noticed that changing at all the past few years?
When I was younger and going to way more shows than I do now, three to five times a week, my friends and I went to some serious, hard-core venues where there were bikers and other people that you might want to cross the street if you encountered them outside of the show. Outside of the occasional dirty look, there was never a problem especially in a city (Toronto) that is pretty diverse, even though we were always the only black people there. But in the last five years there has been a growing tension. On the other hand, as I've gotten older my patience for tolerating nonsense has greatly dissipated.

I also think that the monetary success of hip-hop and other black-centric music has caused a lot of resentment. There is a resentment because not only are those perceived as (and those who purposefully crafted a public persona as being) uneducated, drug-dealing pimps are making a lot of money performing music that is considered by some as not really music. While in reality, white and non-black fans make up the majority of consumers purchasing hip-hop albums, 'don't you people have your own music?' is a common refrain directed at black folks at metal shows.

In the book I asked Dallas Coyle (ex-God Forbid) about whether he felt that there was an increase of racism - especially as he wrote about the 2008 presidential election for Metalsucks.net - after Obama was elected, and he agreed. People use music as a way to escape, and if they are having issues in the outside world, they are going to bring it in.

Do you think there are a substantial number of minorities that are metal fans but don't go to shows because they have experienced the racism and other incidents you describe in the book?
Definitely. Especially if they live in an environment where there are not a lot of people of color, and if their friends/family are not supportive. However, I was fortunate to meet a lot of young people who were simply influenced by the same music as their schoolmates were, and just wanted to hang with friends at shows.

Unfortunately as a woman, you have to be aware of your surroundings, and willing to stand up for yourself is something goes down. On the other hand, if you are totally paranoid you are simply not going to enjoy yourself. There are way more positives than negatives in the metal scene, but there should be NO reason at all why people should be fearful of going to shows.

What can be done to make metal more inclusive?
I think people need to pay more attention to the band on the stage, their musical proficiency and the quality of their music and less about what the person standing beside them at a show looks like or what's between their legs. Also, I think that metal publications, both online and print need to address and condemn musicians who have publicly made their racist/misogynist views public. When they don't they run the risk of alienating their readership which is more socially and racially diverse than they realize.

Money talks - the less readership, the fewer page views or clicks for online publications and fewer subscribers for print publications, hence less advertisers. I understand that music is primarily here for enjoyment and to temporarily escape from reality. Music publications do not feel like they need, or want to step on a political soapbox, but they do alienate readers when they ignore or choose do dismiss comments that someone has made within their publication.

How did you first get involved in metal writing, and who do you currently write for?
I started out writing about hip-hop and alternative music about 12-13 years ago, but in 2005, I met journalist Phil Freeman at a music conference and soon after that, he invited me to submit an essay for an anthology. A couple of years after that, I started writing for Phil at Metal Edge magazine, which I loved. After the magazine ceased publication in 2009, I started writing for Hellbound.ca, Consequence of Sound and Exclaim!

Currently I do concert reviews and photography for Exclaim! and I have contributed to Popmatters.com, The Offering.com, NoiseCreep.com, Metalunderground.com, Decibel.com, The Wire, Bitch Magazine and I also write for some non-music publications on race and culture, such as the Toronto Star, Blogher.com and my blog, Writingisfighting.com. I hope to write for a few more music publications in 2013.

What have been your most memorable interviews?
In terms of magazine work, Rob Halford from Judas Priest. I'm a huge fan so I was trying really hard not to gush! Skin from Skunk Anansie who I interviewed for the forward of What Are You Doing Here? was great. She was really nice, gracious with her time and it was a thrill because she was an inspiration for the book. I've interviewed a slew of bands that had just released their first album and it has been great watch them grow over the years.

Do you have any plans to write another book?
Yes. I don't want to say exactly what right now, but I'm slowly fleshing out a proposal. It will be along the same themes of What Are You Doing Here? but focused more on men. One of the things that I really couldn't afford to do for the book was to travel to Europe and Africa to research and interview black women metal, hardcore and punk musicians and fans, so as soon as I get some funding, I'd like to do that.

What have been some of your favorite metal albums of 2012?
This year has been amazing! A few that are always on heavy rotation are Pallbearer - Sorrow and Extinction, Dragged into Sunlight's Widowmaker and Lord Mantis - Pervertor. The new High on Fire, Converge, Neurosis, Primate, Old Man Gloom, Pig Destroyer and the two albums from Ufomammut were great.

Anything else you'd like to mention or promote?
I've started a quarterly Zine, The Interloper and the first issue is available on Magcloud.com. And I'll have copies available at all the book readings I'll be doing in 2013. (I don't know when this will be published) I'll also be speaking at the Greatest 3-Minute Metal Stories Ever at Public Assembly in Brooklyn on December 11th.

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