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Could Church Burnings in Louisiana Show a Connection Between Black Metal and White Supremacy?

The man accused of burning three black churches in Louisiana had an affinity for metal music, a cultural scene white supremacists have infiltrated in the past.

Soon after authorities arrested a suspected arsonist in Louisiana last week, journalists pored over the man's social media feed, looking for clues that might reveal his motive for allegedly burning down three historically black churches in the state in a 10-day spree. Quickly, one connection rose to the surface: The suspect, Holden Matthews, was an aspiring musical artist with a strong affinity for black metal, the dark and shrieking musical genre.

On Monday, authorities in Louisiana charged Matthews with a hate crime. Officials have yet to specify what the charges specifically entail, but, according to the New York Times, authorities are looking into whether or not the arson has a connection to black metal, as the genre has played a role in church burnings in the past.

The connection does not indict the black metal community as a whole, but journalists have noted that the genre's pagan and anti-Christian themes—as well its propensity to attract disaffected young people—has historically made it a breeding ground for radicalism. In 1992, a prominent Norwegian black metal artist, Varg Vikernes, was at the center of his own church-burning spree. Vikernes, who spent 15 years in prison for arson and the murder of a bandmate, claimed his attacks on churches were motivated by his opposition to Christian hegemony.

In 2017, Pacific Standard analyzed the connection between metal music and another form of radicalism: white supremacy. Just as black metal became a locus for anti-Christian ideology in Norway, in the United States and the United Kingdom, white supremacists and Neo-Nazis have infiltrated the metal music scene. As Elizabeth King wrote:

Metal's association with white power types extends back to the 1970s, when white supremacist skinheads emerged in the United Kingdom's punk and metal scenes, which were predominately populated by disaffected, young white people. Members of the National Front, a fascist party in Britain, strategically invaded punk and metal scenes, correctly figuring they would find recruits in their disaffected ranks. Fascists in the United States soon took a cue from overseas, and white power bands spread in the U.S., Europe, and beyond. Throughout the '80s, fascist bands worked to incorporate dark and stigmatized themes in metal, connecting themselves to paganism, Satanism, and right-wing anarchism, to blend in.

It's not yet clear what role metal music played in Matthews' potential motives. It's also unclear if the potential connection between black metal and his alleged arson has to do with white supremacy or anti-Christian violence. While black metal has associations with church burnings in Norway, in a place like Louisiana, church burnings inevitably evoke connections to white supremacist terror committed during the Jim Crow era (and after). White supremacists in the U.S. have targeted historically black churches—the spiritual center of many communities—in their attacks. In 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan set off dynamite in a Birmingham, Alabama, church, blowing up four young girls.

The three churches Matthews allegedly attacked were all in the same Louisiana parish, and they were each more than a century old.