Jaleesa Leslie: Cataloguing Black Women In Rock

5 Lbs. of ROCK

Interview by Sheila Dianne Jackson

Jaleesa Leslie

It’s been a minute….5Lbs of ROCK is back. This time, I am chatting it up with Jaleesa Leslie of blackwomeninrock.info, a blog which catalogs/documents black women of all persuasions of rock music. Writing and researching on the topic of Black Women IN Rock was a lonely space almost 10 years ago, when I first began. So I am always excited when I connect with another soul whose out there expanding the platform for exploration, discussion and celebration of these women and the music.

SHEILA: What turned you on to rock music?

JALEESA: I grew up listening to gospel and R&B because that was all that the people around me listened to. Shows like TRL on MTV was what introduced me first to pop music, and then to rock acts like Sum 41 and System of a Down. I started listening to rock music exclusively when I was around 14 years old, after a very emotionally rough year. My initial interest was in punk rock. It was through punk rock that I was introduced to X-Ray Spex and to Poly Styrene, who was the first black woman rocker I ever came across. I fell in love with Kurt Cobain and Nirvana a little later, and Nirvana and The Distillers were my favorite bands as a teenager.

My falling in love with rock music was very controversial, with my family. I fell into it around the same time I started suffering from bipolar disorder, and my religious family deeply believed that rock music was Satanic and the main contributor to my illness. Which was bullshit, of course. But everyone around me parroted this belief and it was hard to go against that. My mom used to throw my CDs and shirts away, my school counselor and psychiatrist tried to discourage my interest; and I had no friends around me who were into what I was into. I wasn’t able to fully explore any sort of rock scene until I became an adult. It’s been hard to really get into it, because I still have a lot of their negative messages internalized – though I still go to local shows here in Atlanta (even though I’m ALWAYS going alone).

My family stopped caring about what I listen to once I became an adult, which is ironic to me since the stuff I listen to now is more extreme than the stuff I listened to as a teen. I literally listen to Satanic artists now! Metal is my preferred genre, but I still listen to a lot of punk rock as well.

SHEILA: When I first started research for Nice & Rough, in 2008, porn sites would fill the page when I entered “black women in rock.” When I searched Betty Davis, the only reference to her were as the 1st wife and muse of Miles Davis. My have things changed! What are the changes you have seen in this dialogue, since you began to catalogue BWIR?

JALEESA: I still come across people who are shocked to see black people, in general, who perform rock music – and who are ignorant of all the ways we’ve contributed to the development of the genre as whole. But there are also more black people who are accepting of alternative culture, which is great. I wish it had been that way when I was growing up and first getting into this stuff. Fifteen years have passed since I got into alternative culture/music, and it’s amazing to see the difference in attitudes in that time frame.

SHEILA: I am excited to see a catalogue of BWIR online. What motivated you to start your blog on BWIR? Please add if you are a musician, singer, or fan only.

JALEESA: I have always been a big music fan, and started this project out of personal necessity. It was really to prove a point to myself, and to respond to these negative messages I’d internalized about my interest in rock being weird and abnormal.

There was a blog on Tumblr called Black Women Who Rock that I loved – but the owners of that blog stopped updating it. I decided to create my own to continue what they started, since I was unaware that there were other projects out there doing the same thing, besides Afropunk (which didn’t exclusively focus on black women).

I started the project in 2011 with a knowledge of only a handful of black women musicians, but have individually catalogued 100+ who fit the bill since then. I didn’t know how connected we really are to rock music beforehand. Having the BWIR blog has personally helped me feel less weird for liking what I like. And I’ve gotten messages from other women who felt the same way, until they discovered my project. Tumblr Staff actually featured the original Tumblr blog in a musical ‘black history round up’ a couple of years ago, which was huge for me and greatly increased the project’s visibility. I went from about 200 followers to over 1000 followers literally overnight. The intention for this project was always personal though, and it just so happens that other people seemed to need it as well. I’ve achieved what I meant to achieve with it, which is awesome.

SHEILA: Do you think Black Women In Rock will ever be embraced by “mainstream”? Not that they want to be….

JALEESA: In my opinion, it goes against the status quo to accept the heavy role that black women have played in rock music. Sister Rosetta Tharpe virtually invented the genre, yet she gets no recognition. Big Mama Thornton originally performed the song “Hound Dog” which Elvis made famous, yet she gets no recognition. Even with black men who have contributed to rock music, you have people labeling Elvis Presley, ‘The King of Rock’ music, while Chuck Berry was out doing his thing long before Elvis was on the scene.

Media has become very decentralized though, so I think regardless of whether or not the idea of black female rockers becomes mainstream, people will always be able to find these women if they’re looking for them. I think it’s helpful to have projects like Nice and Rough and the upcoming Poly Styrene documentary, as well as my catalogue out here to help boost the profile of these amazing musicians. Regardless of whether the mainstream recognizes us, we are out here taking care of ourselves, and I love it.

SHEILA: Who do you see as the hottest, new artists to watch?

JALEESA: Cammie Gilbert from Oceans of Slumber is heating up and getting a lot of attention, which is awesome for me to see as a metal fan. Beverley Ishmael of The Tuts also seems to be on the rise. She’s a great person and her band has this great pop, punk sound – and they’re really fun to listen to. I’ve been personally enjoying Youth Man with singer/guitarist Kaila Whyte, as well as Witch Mountain, with Kayla Dixon on vox.

Sheila 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.”

Rock & Race, Part II

ROCK & RACE, Part II

Laina Dawes

Interview by Sheila Dianne Jackson

WAYDH-front-jacket w skin

Canadian music journalist and author, LAINA DAWES‘ new book entitled, What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, is slated to be released this summer.

Laina shared a great deal with me about her upbringing and her journey as a young girl into rock and metal, in Part II of her interview with NiceandRough.com.  Read on….

SHEILA:  Some projects begin in a very different place than they end up.  How did you come to the decision to write a book on black women in metal?

LAINA D:  I had been writing about Black women in rock music since 2001 or so, as I was a lifelong fan and wanted to see if there were any other women out there who shared the same observations as me. I grew up in an all-white environment. I only had white, male friends who were into the music.  And, while I went to a lot of shows, I always felt a bit out of place. I saw the correlation of how the music affected me as a kid and how it helped me get through some very serious rough patches in my teenage years – being a Black girl in an all-white environment. I’d always been very active in social justice / anti-racism activism and felt that even though it was weird, there was a strong correlation in that the music made me feel strong and empowered in an environment where it felt that there were many obstacles in my way that made me feel like I was nothing.

When I was 11 or 12, I used to stay up late to watch this Canadian music video show on alternative/punk music, and I discovered Agnostic Front and  Henry Rollins from Black Flag. I was mesmerized.  When I was in my early twenties I started collecting Henry’s books. Through him I learned that you had to have faith in yourself before anyone else and that got me thinking about how my metal albums as a kid really helped define me as an individual outside of all the negative, sexualized and racialized stereotypes that Black women face.

In 2005, I presented a paper at the ‘Experience Music Project’ conference (EMP) in Seattle and I met a fellow writer, Phil Freeman whom later asked me to contribute to a music anthology he was editing, Marooned: The Next Generation of  Deserted Island Discs and I wrote about Skunk Anansie, whom I’m a huge fan of. After that, it was suggested that I turn the documentary I wanted to produce on Black women in rock, to a book. I decided to focus on extreme, underground metal, simply because I’m a fan and it was of more interest to me.

SHEILA:  Tell us a little about yourself..and your background?

LAINA D:  I’m a trans-racial adoptee, born in Toronto and was adopted at six months and grew up outside of Kingston, small city in Eastern Ontario, Canada. I come from a family of classical musicians – my dad, who was a chemist, is now a professional musician ( I’m so proud / happy for him) ; one of my brothers is a full-time professional music director, pianist and church organist and my little sister is a very talented violinist. My grandfather on my Dad’s side was a minster and also a musician, so music was very, very important in my household, though it was primarily classical. My parents had an awesome record collection of classical, ragtime and some early folk and soul music, and since we grew up in a rural area with no cable, my four brothers and sisters relied on their records to keep the boredom away. I was never judged when my love for KISS at 8 morphed into a serious metal addiction by 11 or 12.

heavyfuckingmetal

SHEILA:  How did you come to be a music journalist, and now author?

LAINA D:  I must say though, I’ve been told that it was my background that led me to “white people’s” music, but honestly, my family really doesn’t like or really understand the music, but my 70+ mom does know who Metallica and Megadeth are! My first professional photography gig was shooting Metallica and she loves those pictures.

As a black kid raised by white family, I had a hard time fitting in in both the white and black communities – there was a smattering of black families in the area where I went to high school – and I was not

I started out doing hip-hop and R&B music for some online magazines, and writing some pretty militant race-relations stuff, but I was bored by Hip-Hop and once I got the opportunity, started writing about rock, alternative, punk and later, metal music. I still write about race and ethnicity issues for Blogher.com, but my real passion is extreme metal.that interested in fitting in, but more in just finding my own way. I was obsessed with Circus, Creem and Hit Parader magazines and while I always wanted to be a music journalist, I didn’t think black girls were ‘allowed’ to do it. I had always written essays and opinion pieces since high school, but it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I started taking music journalism seriously.

SHEILA:  When can everyone expect to see your new book. What Are You Doing Here, in stores?

My book will be out  August 14th , 2012 by Bazillon Points Books, a niche but really successful publishing company out of Brooklyn, New York that focuses on publishing high quality books on aggressive genres of music.  The publisher, Ian Christe, who is a successful author in his own right, was the one who suggested I turn my idea of a film to a book, and he has stuck with me though very bad and disorganized early drafts, and always had faith in my work when countless others have not. It truly is an honour to be published by that company.

I plan to have a big-ass book launch in New York in August, where many of the musicians I interviewed live and where the Black Rock Coalition, who have been extremely supportive, was founded. Outside of that, I plan to hit every major city I can in the fall/winter of 2012, do some readings, and hopefully have some live performances by black female metal, hardcore and punk musicians from every city I visit. My site, www.whatareyoudoingherebook.com  will not be up for another month or so, but people can pre-order the book on Amazon.

You can also check out my blog, Writing is Fighting.

SHEILA:  We will keep the niceandrough.com community informed of your book launch events and  locations.  Rock on Sista!

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.”

Rock & Race, Part I

ROCK & RACE

Laina Dawes

Interview by Sheila Dianne Jackson

 

LainaDawes

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.

metal

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.

Read Part II

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.”