March 1st, 2013
Author: Laina Dawes
Publisher: Bazillion Points
Formats: Paperback (224 p.), eBook
Release date: December 10, 2012
In What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, Laina Dawes gives a personal account and survey of what it’s like to participate as a Black woman in predominately white rock’n’roll scenes: metal, hardcore, and punk. Despite living in what she calls the postracial society of Barack Obama, with more than hint of irony, Dawes describes the racial barriers and segregationist practices that still exist today within rock, music that derives from Black R&B and celebrates nonconformity, but which caters almost exclusively to white male audiences.
Dawes picks up where James Spooner’s film Afro-Punk: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger Experience and Kandia Crazy Horse’s book Rip it Up: the Black Experience in Rock ‘n’ Roll leave off, focusing specifically on Black female identities within metal, a subculture that celebrates male machismo and white pride and yet has many musical and thematic qualities that appeal to her as a Black woman. Dawes explains the music’s emotional resonance with her once-teenage self: “The lure in listening to metal is to feel free, to escape from reality, even just for the length of a four-minute song.” She also relates her feelings of isolation at metal concerts and her unfortunate treatment by other metal fans that question her credibility and resent her tastes, sometimes violently, because of her sex and skin color. And in relating her struggle to find her place within underground rock as a member of a truly underground population, Dawes discovers others Black females who know all too well the “only one syndrome”—a shared experience involving a shared interest that provides a sense of community where none existed before.
Rock ‘n’ roll is a music defined by rebellion, if nothing else. Quoting Lester Bangs, Dawes describes punk as “a bunch of people finally freed by the collapse of all values to reinvent themselves, to make art statements of their whole lives.” This book, honoring that tradition, is about the struggle of women and African Americans and especially African American women who push back against rock’s restricted access, to play and listen to music and to dress and define themselves as they damn well please.
Reviewed by Betsy Shepherd
Editor’s note: Both James Spooner and Kandia Crazy Horse participated in the AAAMC’s 2009 conference, Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music. In addition, the AAAMC holds the James Spooner Collection, which includes footage and other materials related to his films Afro-Punk and White Lies, Black Sheep.