Black Women In Metal Music Are Screaming “We Belong”
“These are narratives that we haven't heard before.”
For Amy Love and Georgia South, members of the nu metal duo Nova Twins, going by the book was never an option when it came to forging their paths as musicians. “We didn’t fit in the conventional standard of what it was to be a rock band in this day and age,” Love tells Elite Daily. “It was always like, ‘Where do we place you?’” There was always something: They were told they weren’t “quite rock” because they “looked” more hip-hop. Meanwhile, the duo also faced rejection from their own peers. “When we first started, the Black community didn’t necessarily accept us,” Love says. “We fell in the cracks,” she adds.
At its heart, hardcore rock and metal genres are more than music — they’re visceral storytelling from a pointed perspective; the perfect outlet for an emotional release of anger, despair, and more. For the young Black women in the industry, this music provides emotional catharsis in a culture that too often demonizes their anger. Instead, they’re using the genre to challenge expectations and create space where emotional intensity is not only desired but required. “It’s just good to have a safe space to be able to get out your frustrations and aggressions,” Love says. “That’s why people want to go to rock shows, ’cause they want to let their hair down and feel something more.”
These are narratives that we haven’t heard before.
While the phrase “metalheads” might bring up images of greasy-haired white guys in Slayer T-shirts, the actual face of the genre is way more diverse — especially amid a full-blown angst renaissance with Gen Z listeners. On apps like TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram, artists and fans can bypass the music industry’s institutionalized standards by forging their own platforms. While Black and brown voices in rock and metal have often been pushed to the sidelines, TikTok users are ensuring artists of color see the spotlight by using hashtags like #BlackAlt, #AltPOC, and #BlackGoth, which have gathered more than 365 million views combined. Meanwhile, growing social movements have been raising attention to systemic racism across the country, a backdrop of social change these artists are exploring through their music.
“The stage right now is so set that people can express themselves in so many different styles,” says Ashanti Mutinta, a Zambian-Canadian rapper and producer who writes about her experiences as a Black trans artist under the stage name Backxwash. “I think that is so great because these are narratives that we haven't heard before.”
As of August 2022, not one of the metal and hardcore bands featured on the iTunes Top 100 Heavy Metal Albums chart are fronted by women of color. And according to a 2018 study from Erasmus University, Rotterdam, rock fans evaluate musicians differently based on nonmusical traits, such as gender, race, and ethnicity. The researchers found that listeners were significantly less likely to see Black women in hardcore music genres as rock artists, and more likely to see them as “temporarily acting as metal.”
According to Laina Dawes, an ethnomusicologist at Columbia University and author of the 2012 book What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, the emotional catharsis is the most critical part for artists and audiences alike. “People gravitate toward certain musical genres,” she tells Elite Daily. “One of the main things that is important is the anger, aggression, and energy that heavy metal and extreme punk and hardcore [music genres] have.” And within those extreme genres, Dawes notes, people feel free to explore some of their most complex feelings.
“I’ve always been really expressive and needed avenues like art and music to throw my feelings at,” notes Audrey Campbell, a Texas-based vocalist for the garage-punk project Pleasure Venom. “Pleasure Venom gives that to me: an outlet, having a safe place to work sh*t out, like my woes and my frustration with the system,” she adds. “Living as a Black woman, my experiences, my f*cking mental health, I need it.”
Even within a genre where personal emotions are a pivotal part of creating music, Black women are still policed for expressing themselves. “I don't see myself as anything but a conduit when it comes 2 this art sh*t,” Campbell wrote in a July 21 tweet. “Racism and assumptions about a Black Woman creating [from] a vulnerable space freaks u out. Period,” she added. “My creative expression is F*CKING VALID.”
If you are denying somebody else’s existence just for being their natural selves, then that’s surely not right.
While music (particularly rock music) has never been politically neutral — take the barrage of anti-Vietnam-War music in the 1970s — Black women artists seem to receive a disproportionate amount of criticism for sharing their views, and even their most basic emotions and experiences can be seen as a political stance. “We address social politics. We call out what we’re seeing, how we see it,” Love says, noting how much of their newest album, Supernova, was influenced by civil unrest amid the Black Lives Matter movement. The song “Antagonist” itself is an anthem dedicated to fighting in the face of adversity, including the possibility of justified violence. “If you are denying somebody else’s existence just for being their natural selves, then that’s surely not right.”
“Our existence is inherently political,” says Mutinta. The lyrics of her 2021 single “Terror Packets” describes the pressure to fit into transphobic and racist social norms and the unhealthy coping mechanisms she turned to. Even when her art isn’t intended to sound political, Mutinta says, “there’s still some semblance of it being political, because our existence is.”
By using music to express their troubles with lived experiences — which often includes lots of racism, sexism, and transphobia — Black artists shift the perspective from one that’s usually gracious to white people to one that’s inherently critical. According to Maureen Mahon, a cultural anthropologist at New York University and author of Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, the pushback that comes from this has a lot to do with disrupting that status quo. “If white people are making the critique” against racism, Mahon says, “the audience can identify with the singer and [think], ‘Oh, I’m on the same page.’” However, if that very same critique is made by a Black artist, “that identification can’t happen for white audience members … in the same way, or at all.”
Highlighting these experiences can lead to pushback. The metal genre, in particular, is known to have a problem with white supremacy amidst its fanbase. “There’s a lot of people who are afraid they’re going to get beat up at shows,” says Dawes. When far-right militia groups started gathering in her own Brooklyn neighborhood, Dawes didn’t feel comfortable going to certain metal venues, as there may have been white supremacist activity there. “You didn’t know what was going to happen to you at a show,” she says. “You can’t visually tell who’s holding this ideology and who isn’t.”
For Black artists within these hostile environments, success is much more difficult to attain. “There is this concerted effort to racially segregate music genres,” Dawes adds. Many Black musicians, she adds, “just [know] they’re not going to get a fair shake when they go out on tour or play.”
The Nova Twins have seen this play out within their own careers. “When we played festivals, we often would look around and be like, ‘Wow, we’re really the only Black people here,’” says South. They were also often the only women at their gigs. “We thought, ‘OK, this is where it’s at. We’re going to just play the best show we possibly can and rehearse hard.’ ’Cause we know that 90% of the time, they hadn’t seen a band like us play live.”
But through the years, Love and South have seen the scene become more diverse than it ever has been before. “[We’re] seeing people finally being able to identify with their real selves, and try things, and experiment,” Love says. “So band together, find your community, find friends, get involved, and lift each other up,” she adds. South chimes in. “We’re actually taking charge of the scene, and we belong here.”