M etal likes to think of itself as a family, a safe haven built on inclusivity. Everyone is welcome in the pit. Yet, historically, metal has also been a hostile space for women, people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community. Look below the line on articles published on any big metal website and youâll find comments riddled with homophobia and transphobia. In 2019, an article published by Metal Hammer, titled âMetalâs most interesting voices are all female â and itâs about timeâ, attracted thousands of misogynistic comments. Meanwhile, white supremacy has been an inescapable presence in black metal since the scene was born in the 1980s. And few in the industry will forget Down and ex-Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo bellowing âwhite powerâ and Sieg Heiling on stage in 2016.
Recently, however, things have started to change. Bands from all corners of metal are creating ferocious music that offers new perspectives on discrimination, race, gender and sexuality.The Guide: Staying In â sign up for our home entertainment tips Read more
âI feel like this is the most exciting time I have experienced in rock and metal in a long time,â says the Kerrang Radio presenter Sophie K, who founded the podcast On Wednesdays We Wear Black (OWWWB) in order to âcreate a space that felt safe for people who arenât normally representedâ in alt-culture. Alongside co-presenters Metal Hammer journalist and TikTok personality Yasmine Summan and radio presenter and musician Alyx Holcombe, she delivers the kind of frank and hilarious conversations that happen between female and non-binary metal fans behind closed doors.
âItâs always been this idea in alternative [music] that [it] is a white thing,â says Summan. âIn beauty, in music, in the culture. Itâs always been that way and no oneâs questioned it until now.â
The first episode of OWWWB entered Appleâs music podcast chart at No 2, with thousands of downloads across 11 countries. Sophie says the trio receive daily messages, âsome confessional, some really deep, telling us how people are feeling seen. I keep thinking about the people who said Yasmineâs honesty has helped them feel more comfortable being non-binary.â
Alongside OWWWB, platforms such as Hell Bent for Metal, a podcast for LGBTQ+ metal fans co-hosted by the metal journalist Tom Dare, online communities like Alt Together, and fanzines such as Blkgrlswurld and Tear It Down are elevating unheard voices. âIf mainstream magazines are not touching on these issues or putting diverse people on the covers then I should be the person to do that,â says Simone Barton, who founded Tear It Down to showcase artists of colour. âI should make the representation for myself.â
Within metal, fans are now actively seeking out bands who are pushing boundaries and have something to say. Who Are the Girls?, the frenetic 2020 debut from Nova Twins, delivers on both counts. Serving an eye-popping blend of gnarly bass, hip-hop and glam-infused punk and buzzsaw riffs, their lyrics â such as on the stomping Bullet â tackle everything from misogyny to racial microaggressions (âIâm that girl you couldnât get and now you hate meâ forâ it / Iâm not askingâ for it / Donât you ever touch myâ hair unless youâre paid to cut itâ).
âWeâre not shying away from talking about things that are difficult to talk about, thatâs our role,â says guitarist and vocalist Amy Love, who says that the band have a responsibility âto make sure that the people that are following us know what we represent, what we stand for and that we have their backâ.
The duo are driven to open metal up to new audiences. In November 2020, they wrote an open letter to the Mobo awards, calling on it to add a rock/alternative category to its 2021 show: âThis is more than just a category, itâs a message to all young black people to let them know that they can do and be anything that they choose.â (Mobo tweeted them back, writing: âThe Mobo Awards Judging Panel have actually discussed this and we will continue to review potential category expansions for future Award ceremonies.â)
âAs black women, society will tell you that you belong in R&B and hip-hop,â says Love. âWeâre open to music, weâre both mixed. Iâve got an Iranian mum, my dadâs Nigerian and I was born in Britain, so Iâve been exposed to so many different cultures and music thereâs no box for us to be in.â
Another musician using her growing platform to introduce a new generation of would-be players to metal is Diamond Rowe. The lead guitarist of rising nu-metal band Tetrarch, Rowe is the first African-American female metal guitarist to receive major press coverage in the US. She sees herself as a gateway artist, persuading those who wouldnât usually consider the genre to give it a chance. âYou donât see any African-American chicks shredding on stage,â she says. âBut I have to ask myself: is it because they donât feel comfortable or are they just not interested?â
However, she is now seeing the tide turn. These days, she receives hundreds of messages from people saying things like: ââI didnât know there was anyone in the mainstream who looks like me.â They see me get up on stage with the band and theyâre like: âI got to check this out.ââ
Similarly, heavy LGBTQ+ artists are more visible than ever. Last year, we saw excellent releases from the non-binary doom duo Vile Creature, and industrial-laced, Zambia-born trans rapper Backxwash. Louisiana sludge band Thou, who have discussed #MeToo, sexuality and gender in their music, released May Our Chambers Be Full, a collaboration with Emma Ruth Rundle. Already this year, we have been gifted Mirrors, the deliriously savage 2021 debut from grindcore band Pupil Slicer, which touches on transgender healthcare rights among other things. And last month, metallic hardcore veterans Life of Agony released the excellent documentary The Sound of Scars, which charts the bandâs early days in the macho New York scene and sees vocalist Mina Caputo talk about her experiences as a trans woman.
If some of the most exciting music of the moment is being created by queer artists, there is no escaping the fact that thereâs a long way to go. âIâd like to think thereâs more diversity in music, more diversity in the minds of the people that are making the music,â reasons Caputo, although she notes that even years after she came out as transgender in 2011, she still receives transphobic abuse on social media.
âIâve declined a lot of interviewers that wanted to talk about how the metal community is so pro-trans and pro-gay. Itâs like: shut the fuck up!â she says. âI can name about 20 radio DJs that used to love Life of Agony and play us all the time on their metal shows that donât play us any more.â Is heavy music moving in the right direction? Caputo is sceptical. âI think the answer to your question is a big maybe,â she replies. âA big-ass maybe in capital letters. That question could be asked 20 years from now and we still wonât know.â
Last yearâs Black Lives Matter protests were a galvanising moment for heavy music. A group of hardcore bands, including Knocked Loose and Year of the Knife, came together to release merch raising funds for BLM, while other metal artists teamed up for a compilation to raise funds for BLM-affiliated organisations, with many more speaking out on social media. Yet, at this stage, it is hard to say whether the protests have led to transformative change in the music industry.
âWhat has changed is people like me can go into a company and go: âWhereâs the representation? I donât feel this is good enough,ââ says Sophie K. âAnd we can question things.â For Summan, change needs to be more than a tokenistic gesture. âI have concern of whatâs going to happen in the next five years. Are these bands [still] going to be uplifted? Are these record labels going to hold out on their promises?â
Both agree, however, that we may at least be on the right track: important conversations have started, which is the only way to create a metal scene thatâs homogenous. âFor me growing up and being a fan of heavy music, thereâs a change in the times,â says Summan. âIt feels different; it feels like thereâs a new gust of wind and a new gust of life in heavy music and itâs here to stay.â