Intersectionality in the mosh pit, or, why it matters that Phil Anselmo is racist.

I’m generally skeptical of any attempt to try and define a culture or sub-culture as “being” something. Such claims tend to homogenize and reify diverse cultural arrangements and lifestyles, and lead to totalising statements, which can often be inaccurate. And this was the problem I had to come to grips with once again, when I tried to work out if metal music had a problem with race.

A bit of background as to why this is a pertinent question right now. Earlier this year, video footage emerged of Phil Anselmo, former vocalist of legendary metal band Pantera, and current vocalist of Down and Superjoint Ritual, screaming “white power!” after a gig, and doing Nazi salutes. The footage, posted by YouTuber ChrisR, is pretty damning. Anselmo visibly does raises his right arm in a Sieg Heil (and the man next to him awkwardly forces his other arm up into a vastly less offensive display of thanks) and then bellows “white power!” at the audience, to audible boos. You can watch the short clip below:

Anselmo later claimed that his shout was a joke about white wine being available backstage. Which presumably means that if it had been red wine, he’d have chanted the Red Flag, or if a nice bottle of Glen Livet had been on offer, we’d have been treated to a rendition of Whiskey in the Jar. Of course, this didn’t go down especially well with both fans and other musicians. It didn’t help Anselmo’s case that in 1995, he’d given a fairly garbled speech about white pride while on stage with Pantera, which you can see below:

Anselmo’s racist statements don’t merely end there. As someone who very much enjoyed Pantera’s music, I felt decidedly conflicted when I read the lyrics to 5 Minutes Alone, one of that bands best songs, and found that I had been headbanging along to the words “you used complexion of my skin for a counter-racist tool.” I, I think, like many metal fans, tried to comfort myself and believe that Anselmo, and Pantera, weren’t racists, because I admired their musical ability. Yet, in the weight of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I feel that Robb Flynn captured the disillusionment and exasperation of metal fans in his excellent video blog, below. I would strongly encourage you watch it all the way through: 
 
Flynn’s response, viewed over 1,000,000 times at time of writing, has provoked a mixed response from the metal community. It’s hard to take the temperature of a fan base from YouTube or Facebook comments, but it’s telling that Flynn has received hateful messages from fans, accusing him of being part of the politically correct police, of disrespect, and, because this is the internet, also telling him to walk in front of a bus. Hooray for the internet. 
Is Phil Anselmo a racist? I’d say yes. Very definitely yes, and at this point, that’s not what concerns me. I still very much enjoy the work of Pantera and Down, but I’m pretty much done with Phil Anselmo as a person. He’s certainly no Varg Vikenes (and if you’re not familiar with metal, a swift browse of Varg’s Wikipedia page is in order), but his words and deeds are nonetheless pretty vile. But there is a bigger question here, and that’s whether or not metal itself has a racism problem. And as a dedicated metal fan, that’s the more important question.
Dom Lawson, writing for the Guardian, argues that metal doesn’t have a race problem. He writes: 

Metal does have a few wonky-eyed fascists lurking at its fringes, particularly within the underground black metal scene, not to mention plenty of disingenuous apologists trying to further their careers, but we’re talking about the kind of minuscule minority that would probably be statistically likely in any notional community. Similarly, while the majority were manifestly not impressed by Anselmo’s behaviour, there were still plenty of racist simpletons expressing support for him online this week, in much the same way that Jeremy Clarkson never suffers from a lack of effusive support when he drops yet another off-colour clanger. “

This in itself is a fair point, and links back to what I said earlier when I said that I’m hesitant of any homogenizing statement about any culture. Yet, at the same time, are metal fans in particular complicit in someway for Anselmo’s actions? Axl Rosenburg of MetalSuck seems to think so. In an impassioned editorial, Rosenburg blames Anselmo’s outburst on the fact that metal fans are “cowards” unwilling to face up to the sober truth that Anselmo definitely isn’t going to be winning any diversity awards any time soon. Rosenburg hastens to add that this is by no means a reason to boycott Anselmo’s work – I recall writing a similar thing about Phil Labonte’s homophobia – but implicit in what Rosenburg is saying is that there is a collective responsibility within the metal community for the actions of our stars. This silence is something that has bugged me, and something that I’ve had to negotiate as a metal fan. Anyone who knows me will know I adore Slayer, but I’ve never felt especially happy with Kerry King, the Slayer guitarist, who, among other things, dismissed a potential drummer for the band for “hitting like a fag.”   Metal is still very much a male dominated genre; many female bodied friends have been harassed at gigs, and as a death metal fan, I’ve been disturbed by the misogynistic content of lyrics, which blended violence against women with heavy riffs for shock value. Of course, show me any musical genre has many of these issues; Lawson makes the point that we live in a world of reactionary horseshit, and metal is no more susceptible to that than any other genre. We live in a kyriarchy, therefore our culture will reflect the values of that kyriarchy, even without intending it.  But how then do you approach this if you are both a metalhead and also – according to silly people on the internet – “a humourless SJW Mangina”?

I think the difference really comes from the difference between being “non” and “anti.” Man Booker Prize winning author Marlon Jones makes the point that there is a huge difference between being “non” racist and “anti” racist. You can watch a short video of him explaining his thoughts on this below:

 Most of us a probably “non” racist, “non” sexist, “non” homophobic and so on, but that means we are taking a very pedestrian view to very real, tangible forms of oppression. It’s not really good enough comforting yourself on being “non” misogynist, if you don’t examine your own entrenched misogyny, or seek to combat misogyny in the world you see around you. Similarly, I would argue that in tolerating Anselmo’s “white power” shouts, metal fans may be being “non racist” but we’re certainly not being “anti-racist.” And that’s really not good enough, at least in my view…
But anyway, I’ll leave the last word to Robb Flynn: 
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