A friend of mine recently told me the story of how he logged into his neighbor’s network through their unprotected wireless router. He found their music library, an oddly assorted collection of Britney Spears pop and Burzum black metal and all points in between (which I guess is all the points there are). Browsing over the black metal, he found a lot of so-called NSBM (national socialist black metal), which basically means racist Satanists from Norway. He may or may not have deleted some of it.
This is interesting to me because of my recent insider/outsider status in the online metal community. I occasionally post on a couple different forums, mainly to gather death metal recommendations from people who’ve been listening to the stuff for two decades more than I have. On that front I’ve done extremely well. I don’t listen to black metal*, but one can’t participate in that kind of forum without at least skimming over some of the black metal-oriented conversations.
Now, there is definitely such a thing as racist death metal. Arghoslent is probably the best-known proponent of growly singing about flogging a particular kind of now-illegal cargo.** But they don’t represent a very large trend. NSBM, on the other hand, is widespread enough to have earned itself a genre name, albeit one that rarely appears in Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly’s music section.
The people who listen to this music are in some unmeasurable percentage not racists, though, and that is what fascinates me. If you ask them about it, the general theory goes like this:
1. It doesn’t really matter what they’re singing about if the music is good.
2. Besides, you can’t understand them most of the time anyway.
3. I have a black friend.
4. Wagner hated Jews, so, y’know, wtf.
I haven’t had to indulge in this exact rationalization myself, because I don’t listen to NSBM. I don’t listen to black metal in general – most of it strikes me as juvenile, talentless, and ridiculous. If death metal is a cousin to good horror movies (as I’ve argued previously), most black metal reminds me of those Italian cannibal movies where they stage gruesome scenes designed to look like no-budget snuff flicks, and sprinkle on some actual animal killing for flavor. I don’t watch Italian cannibal movies from the seventies, and I don’t listen to black metal. And even if I was going to listen to black metal, I doubt I’d be deep enough into it to have exhausted all the good bands and need to move on to shitty racist ones.
But the basic concepts here should be familiar to fans of several other kinds of music – most notably hip hop and dancehall. And indeed, Diane, I listen to both.
Hip hop ran into a lot of trouble in its early days by damning homosexuals (Brand Nubian, 2Pac, lots of other guys) and Jews (Public Enemy’s Prof. Griff, Ice Cube). After a few public relations disasters, it seems like most rap artists – or maybe their record labels – learned not to cross those lines. You still can hear some homophobic and anti-Semitic rants on hip hop records, but they’re buried a little deeper and scattered a little wider. Certainly not a lot of major label releases are going out with this kind of rhetoric embedded in them. Where they still venture though (and problematically for the enlightened listener) is into the dark waters of misogyny, as well as anti-white racism. The former is more common – so common, in fact, that I think the average gangsta rap listener long ago stopped being shocked or surprised by songs that refer to bitches and hos, and in what capacity said bitches and hos are best used.*** Anti-white racism is fading out, especially now that MC Ren is off the scene and Ice Cube is making kiddie movies in exchange for what must be fifty zillion dollars and all the free handjobs he wants, but it still carries an aura of acceptability. In fact, most white listeners I’ve spoken with about this type of lyric have shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess that’s fair.” The spectre of slavery and segregation have created a free pass for this kind of subject matter. You’re more likely to get in trouble in the media for a gay slur in your rap song than for calling whites “devils” or talking about shooting up a white suburb. (To be honest, if anybody wants to go shoot up Carmel, IN this weekend, I’m available and would be happy to drive.)
Dancehall has an even bigger PR problem than hip hop nowadays. To give some background, Jamaica is a pretty homophobic island. Homophobia is deeply ingrained in both the culture and the most well-known (though far from statistically dominant) religion, Rastafarianism. A lot of Jamaicans in general are prejudiced against gays, and an even larger proportion of rastas are. I don’t know for sure, but it would not surprise me if the likes of Bob Marley and Winston Rodney (a.k.a. Burning Spear) were homophobic to some degree. However, they didn’t sing about it.+ But as reggae has evolved into the more aggressive digital styles of ragga and dancehall, homophobia has jumped to the forefront.
Roots reggae was always infused with rasta spirituality – one love and all that. As such there was a certain amount of anti-Babylon polemicism, a degree of condemnation of us American sodomites (not necessarily meaning “one who practices sodomy,” but rather a latter-day resident of a metaphorical Sodom and Gomorrah). Dancehall has evolved that into a full-on battle against homosexuality. Slack artistes++ like Bounty Killer will use some unfortunate gay slurs and insult an opponent by saying he’s homosexual, but it’s really the rastas in dancehall who sling the most anti-gay fire. Capleton and Sizzla, two singers whose music I enjoy, have been banned from performing in certain venues (and even whole countries) because of some of their lyrics. Partly this is because the rasta way of speaking sounds more violent than it is. A singer condemning the gay lifestyle will “bun [burn] it out” or throw “fire pon dem,” which is not intended to describe a literal torching of gay people, but rather a spiritual fire that cleanses sin. In the same manner, for instance, a rasta would sing about burning down Babylon, which just means me and most of my friends (small comfort, eh? Enjoy another day of sin, fellow Babylonian). Where the trouble comes in is in the more literal violence of songs like Buju Banton’s notorious “Boom Bye Bye,” or Sizzla’s “Gunshot.” It may be a lot of big talk or it may not – Banton was recently charged with attacking some men who were believed to be homosexual – but either way it’s a troubling tendency. More difficult for the listener is that your average Capleton or Sizzla album tends more toward roots reggae and milder lyrical themes; it’s usually on the single-only, aggressive dancehall tracks that they cut loose and really burn out the sodomites (this time meaning exactly “one who practices sodomy”). So if I buy the latest by one of these guys, am I supporting their hidden agenda? Should I wait for them to stop releasing anti-gay singles before I spend money on their gay-neutral (or non-gay-mentioning) albums?
I don’t have a good answer for this; it’s just a dilemma I have been thinking about. My conscience is clear when it comes to NSBM and Arghoslent, because I don’t like either one. But I do buy a lot of hip hop and dancehall, and I’m sure some of the artists I’m supporting are harboring some not-really-concealed homophobic and misogynistic and possibly racist agendas. (Note: just to pre-empt any accusations of racism on MY part, I am going to point out that I also own three Eminem albums, and he is square in the center of this discussion as well, considering tracks like the infamous “97 Bonnie and Clyde” and his pre-Elton John lyrics about gays. Intolerance and prejudice is by no means a black or Jamaican province; I just happen to listen to a lot of black and Jamaican music.) Am I obligated as a consumer to only support artists whose politics and opinions I agree with? Or at least not support the ones whose politics and opinions I strongly DISAGREE with?
Would I buy a Ku Klux Klan monthly calendar? Even if it had Jessica Alba in various stages of partial nakedness on every page? No, I wouldn’t. (Uh, probably.) So maybe I shouldn’t be buying music by anyone who sings about hitting women or gays. There is one difference, though, which is that the Klan primarily exist to further prejudice; artists primarily exist to create art. Even politicized art is mainly intended to entertain and stimulate the mind+++, which is very different from an organization holding racist rallies and trying to get affirmative action laws overturned. And unlike your standard skinhead punk band, most of the artists we’re discussing here sing about things other than their unfortunate prejudices. Eminem rapped about killing his bitch wife (a few times) – but mostly he raps about killing everybody else, plus doing drugs, trading letters with Stan, and losing himself in the moment. I don’t feel like the money I give to Eminem is going into his “Kill All The Bitches legislation” fund. I’m guessing (hoping) he doesn’t have one. More likely it’s funding his pot-buying and his next “Rocky” remake. Mostly it allows him to continue to exist as an artist.
The difficulty re-enters here though: if an artist is encouraging people who aren’t very good at thinking for themselves to have intolerant, prejudiced attitudes, should I oppose the art? A lot of Eminem fans are young and stupid. They absorb anything you put in front of them – and then spit it back out like parrots. And regardless of the fact that Eminem hasn’t made me cut your head off and stuff you in my trunk, Diane, it’s possible that he might be gently enticing some other dumbass out there to do so.
It’s a question that I’m not going to answer now. I’ve babbled on for far too long already, and besides, it should be obvious to you that at this point I don’t really have an answer. It’s just something for all us hip hop, dancehall, national socialist black metal, and racist polka fans to consider. And to my friend browsing his neighbor’s music collection: don’t delete their shitty black metal collection. Maybe eventually they’ll decide to do that on their own. Maybe not. Or maybe they’re actually a bunch of racist assbags – but hey, even racists are entitled to their bizarre, completely wrong-headed opinions, and their Britney Spears albums.
* For those of you out there wondering, death metal and black metal are not the same thing – no matter what allmusic.com tells you. Death metal is an outgrowth of thrash (e.g. Metallica, Slayer) that places a high value on technical skill, and utilizes a lot of twisted guitar riffs, low-pitched vocals, and precise drumming to get its point across. Lyrics can be about almost anything (though mostly they are about mortality and sub-horror movie gore descriptions). Black metal is defined as much by ideology (“we love Satan!”) as music (“we like singing in a high-pitched rasp that sounds eeeeevil… to high school students!”).
** Meaning slaves. Seriously, they have a song called “Flogging The Cargo,” and that’s exactly what it’s about. They also titled one of their albums “Incorrigibly Bigotry.” For some reason, these guys get a lot of hate mail. For some other reason that is a lot less clear, the metal community is generally accepting and borderline-worshipful of this band. Maybe they’re just stunned that a bunch of racist dickwipes playing metal don’t sound like a pig with its foot in a blender. I’ve spoken with a guy who describes himself as mixed Puerto Rican and Spanish; he listens to Arghoslent, and commented that he didn’t feel bad about listening to them because he’s “not a jew and not a full spic.”
*** Sperm receptacle, punching bag.
+ Burning Spear is actually still alive and active in reggae, but sorting out the tense changes in these two sentences was too irritating to finish. My apologies to Mr. Spear.
++ Being “slack” in Jamaica is the equivalent of being a gangsta thug in America; slackness is the same as hooliganism, but the word is a lot less hilarious. “Artiste” is how they refer to musical artists – I wasn’t just spelling it that way to be annoying.
+++ This is what differentiates art from propaganda, and “Birth Of A Nation” from “Triumph Of The Will.”