The subject matter is intense, but Dawes articulates her experiences with a calm, unflinching focus. She’s inspiringly defiant, calling out high-profile artists who abuse their platform as heavy music icons, and is equally frank in terms of addressing her own internalised biases, and how overcoming them has ultimately empowered her. Wears The Trousers chatted to Dawes about finding liberation in heavy music, the process of writing the book, the reception it has had since publication in October 2012, and why she espouses writing as fighting.
What prompted you to start writing the book?
I started out researching and writing about women in rock music, and after facing criticism from the black-centric music publications I was writing for, I wanted to explore why that was. There was obvious resistance to the subject, as it seemed as though there was a vested interest in pigeonholing aspects of black culture. Anything that fell outside of these rigid parameters of what being ‘black’ meant was dismissed. It was the transition from feeling helpless and sorry for myself to feeling angry at the rejection, but finding this weird feeling of empowerment in wanting to find ways so no other black girl would have to go through what I went through.
You articulate a feeling of being caught between cultures: a black woman raised by a white family in a majority-white suburb, dedicated to music that’s typically thought of as ‘white’. How did you eventually manage to arrive at the place of liberation mentioned in the title?
Unfortunately, with age! I first acknowledged my own liberation when I started publicly speaking about my interests and writing about them, despite the resistance. Picking up a camera and shooting concerts and creating my own projects, not waiting to get approval. But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have moments of insecurity. I have some residual feelings of hurt over being rejected in some circles but I have more strength, because of the work that I have done, than I did when I was younger.
Despite their debt to, and roots in, black music cultures, metal and rock are still held as the preserve of the white male. Do you see the book as part of a narrative working to dismantle this notion?
I do hope the book dismantles these preconceived notions. For me though, it’s not solely about acknowledging the ‘debt’ and hammering people over the head about the contributions that black musicians have made in the rock ‘n’ roll music scene, but more about the public acknowledgment that there are generations of young black women who are influenced by the same music as their white male counterparts, and have the same right to enjoy and actively participate in the culture…and to utilise aggressive music in the same way in which it is considered that white men do: to release anger, to find freedom, and to celebrate your individuality.
You would be surprised at how many people still think (or want to think) that music should be segregated, and that active black participation somehow means that another group (white men) will somehow ‘lose’ something. White male privilege in Western society is so ingrained that I think that the people who are resistant to this book cannot even properly articulate why they are so threatened by black female participation.
“One of the most difficult things to explain is, even when no one has verbally or physically assaulted you, the tension in the air can be just as painful to endure” – this sentence was one that resonated particularly for me. In my experience, the hardest forms of oppression to confront are the unspoken/coded ones, such as microaggressions. What strategies and self-care have you found work best when dealing with this?
I think the best thing to do is to talk about it, which is why it is important to find allies in the scene. I occasionally get emails or Facebook messages from people of colour who are in the metal scene about their experiences and they just want to rant, which is cathartic. While I have a lot of white male friends and acquaintances in the scene, the majority of them do not understand racialised or gendered microaggressions. And while they might say, ‘Oh, you should just brush it off,’ you wonder what they would do if it happened to them.
The issue with being involved in a predominantly white scene is that everything, in order for it to be legitimate, must be filtered through their lens, not yours. There is also this underlying thought that you have to put up with nonsense because you are the minority, that somehow you deserve such behaviour because you chose to place yourself in that situation. Not so! As black women we have every right to be there and have every right to enjoy the concert just as much as everyone else.
I see your narrative as one in which you and other women of colour are fighting for the right to spaces where you can celebrate the cathartic, expressive rewards and benefits of heavy music in the same way that white dudes have been able to for years – reclaiming the moshpit, if you will. Why is visibility in heavy music scene so important?
Over the past few years I met a lot of black women who, because they didn’t know of any women involved, didn’t go to shows or actively participate in the music that they loved. Some were musicians who felt they wouldn’t be seen as credible if they performed the music that they wanted to, versus ‘socially prescribed’ black-centric music. Visibility serves to encourage other people of colour to get more involved in the scene. Because of the social stigmas surrounding racial authenticity and music, it really helps to know that you are not the only one into whatever music scene you prefer.
Also, people have to be reminded that, thanks to technology, kids these days have access to a myriad of different music and cultures than they did when I was growing up. It should be seen as a natural occurrence for young black kids to be more involved in music scenes outside of traditionally ‘black’ realms.
As well as taking a cohesive look at how racism and sexism function and manifest in the heavy music scene, you also voice the process of overcoming your own part in it all, mainly the idea of internalised sexism and the policing of other female fans/artists in metal scenes. Is it important that women confront the fact that they sometimes unwittingly support gender biases – in music scenes and wider society – by hating on each other, and therefore blocking any kind of solidarity?
It is extremely important that women investigate their own gender biases, and how their individual actions make it more difficult for women to participate within the extreme music scene. I know women involved in the industry who are not ‘walking the walk’, per se, and while I can understand that there is pressure to adhere to social tropes that dictate what role women should play in the scene – primarily as the supportive partner of a male metal fan. I’ve witnessed women who are using their gender and sexuality in order to obtain a higher position in the scene they are involved in. We all want to be seen as individuals, which is difficult to accomplish, and I think that women, more than men, are always comparing themselves to someone at a show, or an industry colleague, wondering if they were to be more like them if they would be able to propel themselves higher in the food chain.
One thing I wanted to make clear is that just because black women and white women share the same genitalia, it does not mean that there is no conflict. One of the main issues that I mention in the book that troubles me greatly is how, as black women fans, we are not even perceived as ‘women’ in the scene, and at times are physically treated as though we do not matter at all. And there have been white women who choose to trump their race over their gender and have gladly participated in negative actions against black women. We need more unification. Just because it is a predominantly white male scene does not mean we have to choose one side over the other.
The book deals with heavy experiences – alienation, abuse, violence, depression, silencing, misogyny, racism – but it’s also very much a celebration of your struggles, emphasising the endurance, courage and dedication you’ve ploughed into your life as both a fan and a professional critic. Was writing it a cathartic experience? Has it strengthened your resolve?
Writing the book was cathartic from the standpoint of providing a voice to the voiceless, as these experiences need to be put out there so others can utilise the music as a form of self-expression and a way to expel negative emotions, and to encourage other women to do so – whether it is writing or performing music, or whatever they want to do. It was not easy to write this book. There was a lot of self-imposed doubt and a lot of doubt from certain people in my life, so I’m proud of myself in sticking to my vision. Every time I wondered how legitimate this book would be in the public, there was always some incident that happened that made it abundantly clear that it is.
Calling out high-profile artists – in some cases, your heroes – takes a lot of guts. Have you had to field negative reactions from privilege deniers? You weren’t afraid to call people out directly in some cases, Phil Anselmo of Pantera for example.
So far the response has been far more positive than I thought it would be. In terms of high-profile artists, anything I have written about is on public record, so it is what it is. My chapter on racism was the hardest one to write, and I had a couple of colleagues read rough drafts to ensure I wasn’t going over the line with my accounts. I didn’t feel like getting my ass kicked, but if I did it wouldn’t be based on something that wasn’t true.
How has the response been to the book from people within the scene, specifically in your native Toronto? Has it prompted other women of colour to come forward and add their voices to yours?
In general, there is great resistance to black women publicly sharing their opinion on anything. There have been a few commenters to interviews and book reviews that scoff at the subject matter, and I’m not surprised as it always seems to come from the angle of “I haven’t had any experiences/seen anything, so therefore, it doesn’t exist.” This book isn’t about trying to convince white people of anything. It is a collection of experiences from black women who are involved in the scene. Since the book has been out in the public sphere there have been a number of women of colour, primarily outside of Canada, who have expressed incredible support, who have experienced things that – until this book came out – they felt that there was no one who could ever understand how they feel. When I receive those messages, I feel that I have accomplished what I set out to do.
The appendix of the book includes the findings of a survey you undertook. What was the purpose of the survey, and can you tell us a bit about your findings and how you interpreted them. Did they affirm your own experiences, or maybe complicate them?
I posted the survey online at the end of 2007, as I wanted to confirm the topics to be discussed. As I really didn’t know any black women in the extreme music scenes, I did need to test out what ideas were more relevant than others. I was fortunate enough to discover that all the ideas or theories I presented were well received, as there was nothing that people rejected. To be honest, because in 2007 there were not as many websites geared to alternative black culture as there is now, it was a struggle to get respondents. I even re-posed one of the surveys just over a year ago on Afropunk.com and got a very limited response. To this day I can’t figure it out, but overall the response was good enough to proceed with publishing the results. The most troubling thing that came out of both the survey and from primarily talking to young black women was this thought that they had to hide their musical interests from friends and family, as though listening to rock, metal, punk or hardcore music was somehow shameful.
You mention a lack of interest about the book from ‘black-centric’ publications on your blog. Why do you think this is?
It’s a combination of respectability politics and how fragile self-esteem has permeated our communities. In terms of respectability politics, during the post Civil Rights era, black folks were encouraged to dress and behave in certain ways to present themselves in public as having a ‘better’ image than the one their ancestors had. And to be honest, the encouragement was one of self-survival. You had to get a job, you had to mingle with the larger society, so being prim and proper was a necessity. Unfortunately, black folks are commonly lumped into one monolithic group, a group that is rife with negative racial stereotypes, so if someone was behaving in a way that was considered offensive by other black people, it was perceived as a black mark against the whole community. Despite the fact that rock ‘n’ roll was built off the backs of African-American musicians, it is still thought of as a ‘white’-centric musical form, something that we should not listen to. In addition, it is commonly thought that if you are involved within one of the white-dominated musical scenes, you are trying to eschew your blackness, that you are ashamed of being black and would prefer socialising with white people.
What bothers me greatly is that both these attitudes are still prevalent today. Black-centric publications have to make money to sell their magazines, and it is easier to imagine that the demographic is a lot more insular in terms of general interests as then advertisers will want to invest in the publication. It’s a money game and they are not willing to gamble on alternative thoughts and ideas. But they often ignore the fact that the younger generation of black boys and girls are being influenced by a myriad of different cultures, not just ‘black’ culture and its limitations on individual freedom.
Tell us about your zine, The Interloper.
The Interloper is a direct response to the above. There were articles and interviews on artists that I wanted to explore, and based on previous experiences of getting pitches rejected I wanted to take matters into my own hands and wanted to do something on my own. Hopefully I’ll have some contributors to the zine this year.
You blog is called Writing Is Fighting. Who are the writers (lyricists, perhaps?) who originally spurred you into using words as a weapon?
I ripped off the title from American writer Ishmael Reed! I’ve always been interested in opinion pieces and writing about issues that I didn’t see in other publications and, based on my personality, it fitted. I wanted to create a space where I could be me and simply write about things that I wanted to write about, versus changing my narrative to fit someone else’s publication. It’s messy at times, but it’s me.
You’ve become something of a cheerleader for women of colour in metal. Who would you recommend that Wears The Trousers readers check out?
I’m going to hype Diamond Rowe, the lead guitarist for Tetrarch, a metal band from Atlanta. They are releasing an EP and will be touring the States this year, so I hope people will be able to check them out. She’s a very talented guitarist. There is also this band that I’ve only recently come across, Dust Angel, a hard rock / punk band from Brooklyn. MilitiA, the singer from Judas Priestess, is amazing. And, of course, Alexis Brown from Straight Line Stitch, a Tennessee-based metal band. Also, Saidah Baba Talibah is a solo singer from Toronto, and while her music is really a melange of hard rock, funk and soul, she is definitely worth checking out.
What makes your work difficult?
The occasional urge to conform. I know that I would be a lot more successful if I chose to write about more mainstream topics, but then I’d be bored. Since the publishing of the book, I’ve also realised how many people didn’t think this book would see the light, even though I’d been steadily working on it for years. The fact that there are people who really do not believe in you, or are only on board when you receive accolades, makes you wonder sometimes if all the blood, sweat and tears is worth it. However, that is a very temporary feeling, as I push it aside and do what I feel is right.
What makes your work rewarding?
The men and women who have contacted me online and said “Thank you for writing this, this is my story” make me feel that the sacrifice of giving up my social life and the irritants – people who refused to be interviewed, the scepticism I received – has been worth it. I also love the book reviews that accentuate something small within the pages of the book, a thought or a theory that I never thought that would resonate with anyone. I feel as though I did my job.
What advice would you give to other young women hoping to follow in your footsteps, with writing, journalism and activism?
For women, especially women of colour, you have to believe in yourself and surround yourself with allies that believe in the importance of your work. I really suffered from a lot of self-doubt, but I had a small crew of people that were patient with me when I cried and whined. Dig your heels in and don’t let other people’s opinions alter your focus. I had this thought that helped me work on this book which, in hindsight, was a bit negative but it allowed me a lot of freedom: no one expects much from me, so I might as well do what the hell I want! I also was lucky that my publisher, Bazillion Points, always had my back and let me do what I wanted, so if you are planning to write a book do your research and find the publisher who will work with you to craft your best work.
Some relevant links for you:
Bazillion Points’ ‘Black Women in Hard Rock, Heavy Metal & Punk Playlist’
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