Laina Dawes is a brilliant Toronto-based journalist, cultural critic and concert photographer. Her new book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal takes a hard look at the way black women (musicians and fans) navigate the male-centric genres of metal, hardcore and punk.
Adopted by a white family at six months and growing up in rural Ontario, Dawes is no stranger to the experience of the outsider. “I was used to racial harassment and discrimination from a very young age,” she told InvisibleOranges.com. “I was always really angry as a kid but I turned that internal anger into being very forthright.”
In 2008, Laina covered a metal festival for Metal Edge Magazine and found the environment hostile. To get to the root of this phenomenon she considered creating a documentary but instead decided to write a book. What Are You Doing Here, her first book, is the result.
We asked Laina to tell us more about her fascinating journey from music fan to journalist to author.
What was your first experience discovering metal?
KISS served as a gateway to metal when I was eight-years-old via their made-for-TV movie, “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.” I was enamored with the visuals – the makeup, the costumes – matched with heavy music and how it all correlated into a powerful image. I was raised in a rural area and later turned on to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath through older neighbors. The first ‘metal’ band I fell in love with was Judas Priest.
How soon after discovering metal did you notice the lack of female representation?
Because all I saw were men in metal for a very long time, as a kid it seemed like the music was only performed by men. I grew up in the era when Pat Benatar and Joan Jett were popular, and punker Wendy O. Williams was fronting The Plasmatics, but they seemed like anomalies. It wasn’t until I started reading hard rock and metal magazines, like Creem and Hit Parader in my early teens that I became aware of Lita Ford and Doro. But they did not really resonate with me, as I still didn’t find any comparisons between myself as a black woman, and them.
Can you talk a bit about how you felt alienated (and by whom) for liking metal?
Very early on I learned that by talking to people about the music I was into that there were issues surrounding my fandom. While I have always had white male friends who were just as into the music as I was, the majority of people thought I was weird. In addition, my black friends and their families’ thought I was ‘white-washed,’ as though by being involved in extreme music, I was somehow trying to eschew my blackness. Even to this day it is a problem. But as an adult, it is easier to deal with the annoyances than as a teenager, when I really did think something was wrong with me!
I know you aren’t a musician, but did you ever give it a try in any way?
I come from a family of musicians, so definitely. I took piano and flute lessons for years, and even a few bass guitar lessons up until I graduated from high school. I didn’t really have the natural talent or confidence to continue through with it, but I definitely gained a huge respect for all genres of music and what musicians go through.
What drew you to journalism?
Music magazines. I always wanted to be a music journalist but didn’t think I could do it until I was an adult. There were few women journalists that I followed and for years thought that as a black woman there was no way anyone would hire me to write about rock and metal. I haven’t been interested in writing about anything else, even though I wrote about hip-hop and some R&B artists when I was starting out. I have been writing about race and culture issues for longer than I’ve been a music journalist so that was about the desire to share my perspective. I didn’t really see anything that resonated with my life experience.
Was there one particular moment that made you want to write the book?
I can’t pinpoint when the exact moment was, but it had to do with the change of emotions of being stared at during concerts for being the only black woman there and the hurtful criticisms I received from people, which went from feeling sorry for myself as thought I was the problem, to being really angry and resentful. I also wanted to ask why I was usually the only person of color at a show, especially because of the era in which I grew, where people had access to myriad musical genres. Why was it assumed that black people only listen to black-centric music? Why were women not ‘supposed’ to listen to or perform metal music? There were a lot of questions I couldn’t find the answers for, so I decided to investigate them myself.
Which artists that you interviewed surprised you the most?
I was surprised at the candor of all of the artists. It seemed as though they were waiting for someone to ask them questions about their experiences in the scene, and someone as a fellow black woman metal / rock fan could relate to their experiences. I specifically tried to stay away from standard questions like ‘what’s it like to be black in metal?’ and ask more pointed stuff where they could elaborate a bit more.
How difficult was it to address racism in the metal scene?
Easy, because there was a lot of material to pull from, but difficult because you have to tread very lightly when talking about race and/or racism in any public forum. There was no reason to make sweeping generalizations and still encourage black women fans to participate in the scene. Racism should not be happening in any musical scene, period, but it is common for people to deflect criticism by turning it back on the messenger, saying that you are the racist for even bringing up the subject.
Also, the scene is still predominately white and male. Some white men or women have never experienced racism so they try to dismiss it by stating that because they have no problems it simply doesn’t exist and if you don’t like it, then don’t participate in it. That is incredibly stupid and makes no sense, but it happens. I had to tread lightly because I know from previous experience how people can be vicious about it. On the other hand, it was important to provide a forum in which black women fans could share their experiences without any judgment.
Best comment you have received about the book?
There have been many (thank goodness)! One of the very best was from the Philadephia City Paper: “Though focused on metal, these insights are relevant to anyone interested in how racism and sexism can impact any micro-community.” While the book is focused on the experiences of women within the metal, hardcore and punk scenes, it really is a book for anyone who is interested in music and how race, gender and music are intertwined.