Laina Dawes is a heavy metal journalist and fan, who also happens to be a black woman. What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal is her personal account of dealing with being the only black woman in the concert hall. Dawes also covers the history of black women in rock music from the early days of pre-rock with Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday to Tina Turner and Skin of Skunk Anansie.
For a black person, male or female, one often faces a crisis of identity when drawn to heavy metal music. Dawes and the many women she interviewed for What Are You Doing Here? all revealed that they had to hide their record albums and when they were found out, had to face accusations from friends and family that they were somehow betraying their black heritage by their musical taste. Dawes states:
“As a black girl into metal, I had nobody with whom I could share my adoration for Rob Halford or my crush on the late Steve Clark from Def Leppard. While listening to music and perusing music magazines became a great form of escape, I always felt a bit of residual guilt. After all, black people–real black people–don’t listen to metal.”
However she was drawn to metal for the same reasons it attracts many of its fans:
“There was a lot of rage around me, and I knew it could be channeled into the positive energy that I found through metal.”
How do other black women metal fans reconcile their musical taste with the criticisms they hear because of it? Music journalist Keidra Chaney told Dawes:
“‘I didn’t fit in,’ she says, ‘but I wasn’t going to fit in anyway, so my loving metal was just another reason to be that weird chick. It wasn’t a black identity issue, like me wanting to be like white folks because I grew up around only black folks. It wasn’t an issue like I needed to choose. I just happened to be a weird black chick that happened to like weird music.'”
“‘It’s extremely confusing as a black teenager,’ adds singer Camille Atkinson from Empire Beats. ‘Who knows who they are as a teenager? You are trying to assert your identity, but at the same time, you feel that you are being separated from your black identity.'”
Dawes deals with the negative reaction to her musical preference expressed by other blacks in the chapter entitled “So You Think You’re White?”. As a music journalist Dawes is well educated in the history of modern rock. When her critics–people who really ought to know better than to make an issue out of someone else’s musical preferences–berate her for liking loud metal music played by white men, her revelation that it was black musicians who invented rock music in the first place always seems to grab their attention and build bridges of understanding.
In the chapter entitled “‘The Only One’ Syndrome”, Dawes shares testimonials from other black women metal fans and their experiences at concerts. It takes an enormous amount of courage for a black woman to attend a metal concert, and some of the women she interviewed simply do not attend live events because of the attention they draw upon themselves simply by being there. Dawes herself often doesn’t find support even from other black women concertgoers:
“I have felt the disheartening chill of making eye contact with the only other black girl at a metal show, and receiving a death glare in return that says, ‘In no uncertain terms may you even try to talk to me and embarrass me.'”
This reaction reveals to me that the women Dawes sees might themselves be insecure about being at a metal show, and might feel more comfortable trying as hard as they could to be invisible, versus joining another black woman for a chitchat wherein they share their mutual love of metal.
Heavy metal music may have an unfair reputation for being sexist and racist, and Dawes confronts these issues in the chapters entitled “Too Black, Too Metal, and All Woman” and “The Lingering Stench of Racism in Metal”. Metal journalist Sameerah Blue sums up both issues with this observation:
“As a black female journalist covering metal myself, sometimes it seems like there are more haters than supporters. ‘Just like with most women musicians and fans in metal, you would have to work twice as hard as a guy, that just goes without saying,’ says Blue. ‘Even if you take color out of the equation, women in metal have to work harder. And if a white woman has to work twice as hard, a black woman is going to have to work four times as hard. You will ultimately get the same acceptance, but you have to work for it.'”
What Are You Doing Here? is perhaps the first book of its kind, giving a voice to black women who love heavy metal. I recommend this book but future printings should see the eyes of an editor. There were many grammatical errors, with repeated words, or repeated infinitives, or often missing words like the “to” when preceding an infinitive. I am led to believe that Dawes typed this at her computer, possessed with intelligent rapid trains of thought. An editor’s keen eye, or even her own slow re-read, would have caught these mistakes. Dawes does make the same observations over and over, and at times What Are You Doing Here? seemed frustratingly repetitious. Yet at 206 pages Dawes’s work seemed unfortunately too short; it is a sign of a hungry reader and perhaps a wider readership to wish to read more on this topic.