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How White Supremacists Infiltrated Metal

Metal's fight against white power types offers lessons on how to combat their presence in music.

Of the tens of millions of Spotify subscribers, some of them are quite inevitably bigots. The number of white supremacists and neo-fascists on popular streaming platforms has particularly been thrown into relief in the past few years—in 2014, Apple removed 30 of 54 bands on iTunes that were deemed racist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In August, after public pressure mounted, Spotify confirmed that it was also removing white power bands on the SPLC list from its service. Many of those removed were metal bands—where, indeed, several of white power bands have wedged out a mostly unwelcome home for their views in the last few decades.

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.

Though white power bands are relatively few and far between these days—the Anti-Defamation League estimates between 100 and 150 exist in the U.S., noting there’s significant overlap in band membership—those remaining still spread prejudicial messages and offer public-facing platforms for them. Alarmingly, white power music has also been directly linked to hate crimes on a number of occasions: In a report on white power music in the U.S., the ADL notes that white supremacist music often encourages violence against minority groups, and has been connected to violence. And, like any band, white power musicians need help from gatekeepers in music, technology, and the media in order to have any sphere of influence.

Kim Kelly, a writer, leftist organizer, and heavy metal editor for Noisey, tells Pacific Standard that racist bands hide behind metal's already “shadowy” and dark reputation to mask their fringe messages. New bands have continued to crop up since the 1970s, sometimes attempting to pass as legitimate bands by combining relatively subtle white supremacist messaging with standard metal tropes, other times using overtly fascistic and white supremacist language. U.K. band Legion of St. George's 2004 album Out of the Rubble... Comes Revenge, for example, includes songs titled "Expressions of Freedom" and "Blood Feud." Ad Hominem, a self-described "totalitarian black metal" group out of France, has albums called Purification and A New Race for a New World. Like many fascist bands, Legion of St. George and Ad Hominem make liberal use of white supremacist symbols like the Celtic and iron crosses in their logos.

Kelly says that, while industry gatekeepers—including labels and venue management—don't typically go out of their way to promote white power music like National Socialist black metal, they do "allo[w] it to exist unchallenged." Most of the people who want to hear this kind of music must seek it out themselves, given that white power bands aren't as well-publicized as, say, Slayer. But Kelly says that some major labels, streaming platforms, and even music journalists enable white power bands to spread their message when they remain silent.

Kelly says that, in the past, she wasn't always as vigilant about incendiary bands as she is now. "In my early 20s, politics weren't at the forefront of my mind, and I gave column inches to [racist] bands who certainly didn't deserve them," she says. "My politics have evolved as I've gotten older, I've grown a lot, and now I'd never give a band like that the time of day." She adds, "Every music writer owes it to themselves and their audience to practice the same kind of vigilance."

When gatekeepers fail to acknowledge that bands have racist messages, and do nothing to prevent their music from spreading, white power bands "end up being sold alongside apolitical ones," Kelly says, "and, by extension, how tour packages in which apolitical and white supremacist bands share the same stage are cooked up."

Consider Inquisition, whose music is frequently received well by music critics, and which tours with other black metal bands. The frontman, Jason Weirbach, has another music project called 88MM, which is also the name of a firearm used by Nazis during World War II. The number 88 also has explicit Nazi connotations: The 8th letter in the English alphabet is "H," and 88 has come to mean "HH" or "Heil Hitler." 88MM was also featured on white-supremacist record label Satanic Skinhead's 2006 compilation Declaration of Anti-Semetic [sic] Terror—the band's contribution was a song called "14 Showerheads, 1 Gas Tight Door." Inquisition is currently on tour in the U.S., with more dates scheduled abroad.

And though explicitly supremacist bands are largely ostracized from the greater metal community, big-name bands have revealed bigoted opinions as well. Phil Anselmo, frontman for the Grammy-nominated heavy metal band Pantera, performed a Nazi salute on stage and yelled "White power!" during a show in Los Angeles last year. Following rebuke from metalheads, Anselmo apologized and claimed his antics were a joke, but this wasn't the first time he's expressed white-supremacist views: Anselmo once wore a shirt that said "Stop Black on Black Crime," a common refrain among white supremacists, Rolling Stone noted. And Pantera isn't alone at the top in this type of behavior: Metal singer Marilyn Manson has used the "n-word" in lyrics, and called racism "a stupid, made-up word" in 2014.

Racist messages in metal music directly affect fans and metal musicians of color, particularly women, several of whom have publicly reported dealing with harassment in the scene. Kayla Phillips, who fronts the grindcore band Bleed the Pigs told Bitch magazine last year that people give her "up and down looks" and hurl slurs at her at metal shows. (This treatment doesn't deter Phillips from participating—she says she responds by "making space for myself regardless.") Laina Dawes, author of What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, told Bitch that musicians of color are not taken as seriously as all-white bands in metal, which prevents them from getting contracts and expanding their fan base. In light of the breadth of issues caused by racism in the industry, Kelly says that, as long as dangerous ideas about race exist in metal, everyone has "a crucial duty to speak out."

Some already are: Journalists, antiracist metalheads, and other activists have long targeted industry gatekeepers who enable white power bands. But their work is gaining broader attention in light of the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August. That same month, an activist from the Twin Cities sent a tip to a local paper that a nearby label, Behold Barbarity Records and Distro, had been selling neo-Nazi music—the site for Behold Barbarity has since been taken down, and the intellectual property lawyer behind Behold Barbarity, Aaron Wayne Davis, was fired from his job after being exposed in the paper. A few weeks later, Texas news network KXII reported that an Oklahoma interim police chief, Bart Alsbrook, had two neo-Nazi websites registered to his name that sold both white power music and Nazi memorabilia. The websites were removed and Alsbrook resigned, but he has denied that he owned the sites.

Gatekeepers and fans of musical genres could learn from this campaign to change the culture of metal music: Though there's a white supremacist presence in metal, there's no shortage of it in other musical milieus, either. Take Taylor Swift, a mainstream pop darling, who is viewed by some white supremacists as an "Aryan Goddess" who secretly adores Donald Trump (Swift hasn't denounced these allegations). Rolling Stone reported that many country musicians were mum after the white supremacist march and violence in Charlottesville. While metal certainly has a problem with white supremacy, it's just one of several genres that could take a more active approach to excoriating bigotry.

By speaking out against white power music, a sinister aspect of metal society in general, metalheads are limiting the influence of a tactic to spread messages of hate one website, band, and album at a time. In protecting their spaces from white supremacists and neo-fascists who stoke violence against marginalized people, antiracists in metal provide one useful model for how to deal with racism and other forms of far-right fanaticism.