ROCK & RACE
Interview by Sheila Dianne Jackson
More than 2 years ago, I received a call from Canadian music journalist, LAINA DAWES, who was working on a book about black women in metal. She was referred to me by my sister, metal artist Kudisan Kai, who told her about Nice & Rough and my documentary on black women in rock.
Laina and I have kept each other up-to-date on our progress over the years. I was, and am still, excited to have another journalist to dialogue with about this incredible journey and these very special women, who are called to rock.
I recently had the opportunity to meet and hang with Laina at the “Women Who Rock (UN)Conference” in Seattle Washington, back in March. We had so many stories and so much information to share, I had to bring some of this incredible dialogue to niceandrough.com.
In this 2-part interview, we talk about race and rock and explore the story of black women in metal, and gain insight into the personal journey of the writer as well. Enjoy….
SHEILA: What has been your experience with black women in metal rock with their willingness to self-identify and explore race in relationship to their music?
LAINA D: It’s been very positive, despite what people think – that black women into harder music are ashamed of their ethnicity. I didn’t start out trying to find “race positive” women, even though I was a bit worried that I would, so I was very lucky. A lot of the women were very proud of their background and more importantly, saw the correlation between their experiences surrounding their ethnicity and gender, and their involvement with the music culture(s). Besides simply enjoying the music, they saw the music – the energy and the aggression – as a way to express a side of themselves in which they were told needed to be hidden. We are conditioned to believe that we have to be strong and silent, and not show our vulnerable side or be angry or loud. Their involvement in the scene lets them be that, and most importantly, simply be who they are, warts and all.
SHEILA: Do you find that black women in rock see their race as an issue solely with “the establishment” (record companies) or do you find that these women feel they had to overcome the issue of race with their fans as well?
LAINA D: About ten years ago when I started interviewing black women musicians, there were a couple of people who told me some really horrific stories about their interactions with record companies, and yes race and gender – especially surrounding what is deemed as attractive and marketable – were an issue. On the other hand, I’ve interviewed a couple of young women in the past year who are in bands with all white men, and they don’t see their ethnicity as a problem. One of the women is signed to a major label ( Straight Line Stitch) the other one is an up-and-comer (Tetrarch), but I expect great things from her.
However overall, I do think that it is an issue with record companies and also black-centric media outlets. Women musicians have to be marketable, because it’s all about money. If they feel that you are not economically or physically viable, you are screwed. But there are plenty of outlets for people to market their music, thank goodness. I know too many black women who are supremely talented that deserve more attention than they are currently getting and are not getting it because they do not fit into a box. But is it stopping them from performing and recording? Hell no.
SHEILA: Give us some idea of the scope of your project: How many black women in metal are included in your book?
There are a lot of women! I interviewed about 40 women but not all are in the book. But if you look at the social media sites, like Afropunk.com, there are a lot of women who are into punk and alternative, but not too many into metal. But I travel a lot and see some girls at shows.
SHEILA: How many black women in metal would you estimate there are total?
LAINA D: More than most people would think, but on the other hand, there is still a stigma in openly talking about it. Some people just want to blend in and some women I approached didn’t want to talk about it, for fear of people thinking that they are ‘too black.’ Also, I was looking for Black women in which metal is a big factor in their lives – they are immersed in the culture as fans of the metal underground, or writers, musicians, industry workers, or photographers. I was looking for ‘lifers,’ and their stories were incredible.
SHEILA: Where there any particular themes that emerged in your research and interviews?
LAINA D: Freedom, liberation and the opportunity to be themselves. Almost all of the interviewees were into the music because not only were they simply fans, but they were able to find a ‘space’ in which they were allowed to express themselves as individuals, without the heavy stereotypes of being a black woman in Western society. It is really important to allow yourself to just let loose and let go of whatever is burdening you. And while I felt the same way as when I was a kid, being into Judas Priest and Sabbath, it was interesting that my interviewees felt the same way, thirty years later after I first got into the music.
SHEILA: How far back does the history of black women in metal date?
LAINA D: Well metal didn’t really become popularized in North America until the mid-to-late 70’s. I recently got a picture from guitarist / singer Suzanne Thomas, who was in a band called PMS in the early 90’s – an all black female metal band from Los Angeles, which was cool. As for Hard Rock, you could say that there have been elements from the 70’s on – Mother’s Finest, The Family Stand, Toronto’s Blaxxam in the mid-to-late 90’s, hell, even early Ike and Tina Turner. In punk, there were a a few more black women involved – Polly Styrene from the UK, Molly Johnson, who is from my hometown, Toronto Canada, and was in Alta Moda and The Infidels; Lynn Breedlove from Tribe 8, Yvonne Ducksworth from Germany who has been in Jingo De Launch since the mid 80’s. And of course, Skin from UK’s Skunk Anansie who is a personal favourite of mine.
SHEILA: Metal, much like punk is an extreme on the continuum of the rock genre. What do you see as the attraction for black women to metal?
LAINA D: It’s hard and uncompromising – like our lives in North America! The sound of punk varies – some is more ska and dub-like and almost light, but metal, especially the extreme stuff, is raw, honest and heavy. One thing that was repeated to me a few times was that the musicianship in metal is more technical and proficient than other aggressive genres of music. Some interviewees complained that punk – especially the East Coast and UK style – was really sloppy, and more about attitude and less about the music. I think Hardcore is a happy medium. And I love it. But people are looking for realness and rawness in music tend to veer towards metal. To me, it makes me feel something real.
Sheila Dianne Jackson is an award-winning author, biographer and CEO of Eve’s Lime Productions. She is Director-Producer of the upcoming documentary, “Nice & Rough: Black Women IN Rock.”