Young, Gifted, and Black

Some of you may have become aware recently of the young three-piece Metal band Unlocking the Truth. To those of you who haven’t heard of these guys, check out this video.

Now, three things are apparent when watching this band: firstly, their age; secondly, their proficiency despite their age; and, thirdly (and perhaps most controversially) their race. It hadn’t really occurred to me prior to discovering this young trio, but Metal is a very very White genre, perhaps more so even than Country. Why is this? And why should our race determine the genres we listen to and play, even without our consent?

Our music tastes are, of course, influenced by our surroundings – our parents, our friends, our country, and, to an extent, our race. And yet, it is the last of these that, in the modern world, should be the least relevant. For well over a decade it has become apparent that White people can make decent Hip Hop (Eminem), that Brazilians can be metalheads (Sepultura), that Black people can be folk-influenced singer-songwriters (Michael Kiwanaku). These are all relatively recent examples, and of course there are plenty of examples in Popular Music history of pan-racial genres. But it does seem that Metal, and other Hard Rock influenced genres like Punk seem to lack any Black artists.
There is an expectation that “Black Music” should be soulful and beautiful. Even Michael Kiwanaku is genrified as ‘Soul’, when really his work owes more to the White singer-songwriters of the ‘60s. And, if it’s not soulful, but rather angry, it has to be aggressive Hip Hop, with references to gang violence and inner city life. There seems to be no space for Black anger directed through a Rock genre.

The band Death recently came out of the woodwork. A three piece Proto-Punk group from Michigan, their heyday was the early seventies, and a collection of previously unreleased recordings demonstrates how they were in the forefront of creating Punk. The songs are short, angry, and focussed on the energy, not the precision. What is really interesting about Death is that they’re all Black guys. It is probably safe to assume that the reason these guys didn’t have huge success at the time was to do with their race – at the time, people liked their music far more compartmentalised: there wasn’t much room for cross-pollination. Nevertheless, many famous Proto-Punk musicians such as The Ramones and The New York Dolls have come out to say that they were hugely influenced by the music of Death. How is it, then, that Punk became so predominantly White even, in some corners, coming to represent Fascist White Power movements?
There is a whole debate here to do with White appropriation of Black music that resonates throughout the history of Popular Music, all the way back to the earliest recordings (see ‘Tiger Rag’ by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band), so I shan’t go in to here in detail, but it does seem that Death were another casualty of the engrained racism within the music industry. Unlocking the Truth are, in my mind, the inheritors of Death’s progress.

In the video above, Jarad (the drummer) seems to suggest that the pressure not to play Metal comes from the group’s peers and contemporaries at school: they all listen to Hip Hop and Pop. Racialised genres are, it seems, embedded in to the psyche of even the youngest and it takes an anomaly such as Unlocking the Truth (an apt name, perhaps?) to make us reconsider this. But, really, it is this anomalous nature that draws so many to Unlocking the Truth.
Their appeal is two-tiered. Firstly, in playing Metal despite their situation they embody all that the genre represents: rebellion in the face of adversity, anger at being the outsider, celebration of your difference, and doing all this through loud, aggressive, heavy music. Secondly, and this is where truths may get ugly, without their racial difference they would simply be another school Metal band. It is their Otherness (to get all Critical Theory on yo’ asses) that has projected them to international recognition. I mean, that’s the reason I’m even writing this!
Now, the real question is: is this a bad thing? Shouldn’t we just appreciate their music without taking their race in to account? I say, no. Their race is part of their act, part of their music, and most importantly, part of them. It is part of their context, and without their context we can’t truly understand the significance of their music. The fact that Bob Dylan is from Minnesota, Snoop Dogg is from Long Beach, and First Aid Kit are from Sweden (to give some disparate examples), all give a further depth to their music. Musicians, and art, don’t exist in a vacuum. It is the constant battering off the outside world upon these artists that mould their shape and, thus their work.

I, for one, wish all the best to Unlocking the Truth and more than that, I hope that their example can lead other kids of similar situations to think outside the box of what musics they can and can’t listen to and play. Only through experimentation outside of the norm can we really find new musical worlds and experiences, and these three young guys from Brooklyn are taking the very first steps to making this happen.

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