Theses Doctoral

“Freedom Ain’t Free:” Race and Representation(s) in Extreme Heavy Metal

Dawes, Laina

The extreme metal subculture is a collective of musical genres that are generally more sonically aggressive and experimental than heavy metal. This dissertation argues that extreme metal and its accompanying culture can be beneficial to young Black musicians and fans, as it allows for more creative freedom for artists to express themselves within a music culture that on the surface, is concerned more with the music than the visual aesthetics that drive mainstream music genres. However, through my own experience as a Black woman metal fan, I also believe that anti-black racism can be a distinct detractor in active participation within this music culture that because of its absence in mainstream popular music culture, is dependent on its listening audience to stay even more independent.With each chapter, I look at various issues to demonstrate these ideas while also acknowledging that extreme metal shares some of the same sociocultural complications as heavy metal, such as racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. I explore how black participants who are currently involved in their respective scenes find freedom and individualism despite the challenges they could face. This dissertation is interdisciplinary in nature, as I refer to scholarship from several disciplines to explore how, despite the reluctance from scholars to properly acknowledge the contributions of African American within heavier variations of rock n’ roll, there are sonic, lyrical, and philosophical correlations between the freedom expressed within the music and lyricism of blues music, as well as in Avant Garde jazz stylings, and extreme metal.

My methodological process was grounded on providing the “subaltern” a voice: It was crucial to offer space to Black musicians within extreme metal genres to document not just their musical experiences, but their abilities to work within a music culture that has been historically marked as “white-centric” in its music and its aggression. This is no easy feat, but I argue that with each year, there are more Black artists getting involved within their respective extreme music scenes as musicians, fans and industry workers who work behind the scenes as journalists, photographers, and tour managers. I also provide anecdotes from my own experiences as a longtime fan, a music journalist and my knowledge that was gained through my previous work researching and writing a book on the experiences of Black women within the heavy metal, hardcore and punk scenes. Through interviews and examples from my experiences covering extreme heavy metal concerts and festivals, this dissertation effectively blends scholarship and real-life examples that I believe encapsulates the issues that Black extreme metal participants are presently experiencing.

I conclude my dissertation with suggestions about the ways in which Black fans can participate within a music culture that is marked with the current political and social climate. By noting that extreme metal genres have been used as a vehicle by White Nationalist groups to recruit members, as well as in sharing disinformation, I provide ideas that participants can use to ensure their safety to enjoy the music they are passionate about. Overall, my philosophy is that extreme metal is not only an enjoyable music but can also be a vehicle for progressive change: The aggression and the energy has been a lifesaver for myself and all my interlocutors as a method to acknowledge and release the frustrations and anger that we feel in living in an unjust society. I am especially concerned with Black youth, as expressions of anger omitted within public spaces could potentially lead to violence enacted on their bodies. Extreme metal allows Black youth to express these emotions within spaces that are shared with a myriad of people from various backgrounds, but we must find productive ways to deter Black youths from internalizing their pain and anger and exploring and advocating for healthy ways they can express these emotions with others who share the same feelings. While these extreme metal scenes come with their own complications, I hope this dissertation serves as a beginning in exploring alternative ways to express our own individuality in whatever manner we choose to.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Fellezs, Kevin
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 13, 2022