Spoiler alert: the world can be a rather awful place. It can be filled in with moments of joy or surprise, but for the most part, life is in fact hard, whether it’s hard because your family is the most fucked up thing ever, or because you hate your soul-crushing job you think you must have, or maybe because you feel “other” to the track that most of the world seems to be on. Given the moderately crushing weight of everyday reality, most folks with relative awareness find some way to escape. Some retreat to books, some to alcohol and drugs, some to art. Some find music.
Laina Dawes found music. Loud music. Loud, fast, hard, mind-numbing, heart-shredding, heavy-hitting music. And she hasn’t looked back since.
What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life And Liberation In Heavy Metal is rock journalist Laina Dawes’ ode to metal and its cousin in arms, punk rock. The book sets itself up as a memoir, but hard facts aren’t lacking, so if you had any doubt about Dawes’ credentials, you would be sorely wrong. The book starts out with Dawes’ own personal history, one that is of course, defined by words like “navigation” and “figuring it out,” as well as “outsider” or “the only one.” Dawes is the adopted daughter in a small Canadian town, where she, as a way of seemingly preparing her for her later experience in metal, is the only black person in her area. While her musical interest starts out in Top 40, as she becomes more aware of the fact that she is treated differently, a subject she can’t talk about with her well-meaning, yet slightly clueless parents, she begins to gravitate towards the metal that several of the guys in her neighborhood listen to. From frustrated to teen, to screaming frustrated teen, Dawes has found an outlet for not only the general pain that comes with being a teenager, but being a black woman sprinkled on top. In her generalized words, she has found home.
As with most of the goals or ideas of homegrown scenes, there is a utopic notion that because people feel that their place in mainstream culture is unwanted or that mainstream culture is not representative of the type of life many want, then smaller groups that come together will be able to transcend certain societal ills. Obviously, for all this said open-mindedness, it’s these smaller groups where social ills are replicated to a T, or sometimes even worse. Yes, you heard right — those on the margins marginalize just as much as those front running. I certainly experienced this while growing up in the punk scene of the deep South — but, unlike Dawes, I don’t have the dual oppressions of being both a woman and being black. Being a woman in a white guy’s scene was hard enough (or rather, being white made being a woman in that scene much easier), your choices being: do it twice as loud, fast, and hard, and with more guts to make you “one of the guys” or, the choice that was normally placed upon you, groupie or girlfriend. As Dawes puts it, as a black woman, “you have to do it four times as hard.”
Of course, women decided to strike out on their own, after feeling wrought with the amount of sexism in punk culture, and began forming their own enclaves. With Riot Grrl came trail blazers like Bikini Kill, Hole, Bratmobile, all rising off the shoulders of artists like Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene. Yet, riot grrl, for all that it did bring to the forefront, is still a scene that is rife with its own set of problems, including, yes, how white it is. It also didn’t solve the problem of the overwhelming majority of white men in punk and metal, and how to figure that dynamic out, for those who know that this music is just as much as theirs, yet feel as if they are “the only one” or that their presence is somehow up for question.
But rock is as rightly theirs as it is anyone else’s. One only has to look at the history of black musicians having their music co-opted for white audiences, taking the songs of artists like Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Muddy Waters, etc. and turning out artists like Bill Haley & His Comets, Elvis Presley (whose biggest hit, “Hound Dog,” is a re-recorded Big Mama Thorton’s song). This also doesn’t take into the consideration of white artists who took in the styles themselves: The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, both who have admittedly been influenced by American blues. As the evolution of rock continued, metal and punk surfaced as new forms, which wonders why is it so easy to ask, “What are you doing here?” to the black women who gravitate towards the louder, faster, heavier, especially when the roots are firmly there.
In black communities, music is so integral in terms of a storytelling mechanism. Back in the blues era, African-American women were actually able to talk about their hardships and sorrows through music, and be very personal. [The same is true of] hip-hop because it’s also obviously a black-centric music form. When I was in my 20s and hip-hop was coming out, a lot of black people felt that if you listened to hip-hop, that means that you’re really black, that you’re proud of yourself, that you know who you are. So when black people listen to “white-centric” music — which is rock ‘n’ roll, country, heavy metal, punk, hardcore — it’s seen that they are somehow not proud of who they are.
Not only does the book explore Dawes’ story of oftentimes being the sole black woman at a metal show, but it fans out to capture the ultimately different, yet vastly similar experiences of the many black women who make up both metal and punk audiences, as well as the women who also front bands, refusing to be damned back into the boxes most are comfortable with. It also explores the double-edged sword of “the only one,” a special, yet hyper-competitive feeling that if you have been the token one in any sort of scene, you may know of. Dawes talks about an early experience at a show, the very real threat she feels when one day at a concert, she sees another black woman, dressed to the nines, and feels intimidated, and throws back to the very question the book poses: “What is she doing here?” The hyper-competitiveness that women can feel towards each other in male-dominated scenes is that recreation of what partially makes Dawes feel so isolated in the first place: this is my scene. I was here first. It’s only later that she breaks down this feeling as being one of the nasty side effects to being the “only one” who wishes that she did talk to this woman, that they did connect.
Dawes wrestles with monolithic representations of all sorts: of being black, of being a woman, of what black music versus white music is, of who she, as well as those who finds themselves in similar shoes, are expected to be versus who they know they are. The book only poses one solid point: why aren’t there more black women here?
The book is half love letter to both black women who have paved the way and continue to pave the way, as well as the music that brought them there, and half unflinching real talk of the all unfortunate actualities of the casual to the not-so-casual racism that is embedded with the scene. But Dawes doesn’t just experience confusion and hostility from just the white side (though one is obviously more about the imbalance of racial power than the other) — she, as well as many other subjects in the book, have lived with the questioning of their identities: “Just how black are you really if you are so into this white music” — a question and accusation all at once, asking really, what is it that ticks off points on racial identity? Why is it that whiteness gets a pass on this? Is it because of its monolithic supremacy and unquestioned authority (see the section on what happens when you not only bring a black woman into the metal scene, but when that black woman happens to be Jada Pinkett-Smith)? The fact that the majority of white men in these scenes feel as if this is “their place” and they are the gatekeepers to the “other” (AKA, women, men of color, women of color)? That to not have to consider or be questioned on your racial identity perhaps might be one of the sweetest privileges that being white has to offer? Of course, if you are looking for an answer to these heavy questions, Dawes has no answers; only than she thinks more black women should build community in these scenes. One takes away that the question should evolve from “What are you doing here?” to “When will you be there?”
Correction: The original published version of this review misidentified Felony Melony in the second photo, and photographer Ed Marshall was accidentally not credited.