Ten Bazillion Years: The Laina Dawes Interview

Bazillion Points, the heavy metal publishing house founded by Sound of Beast author Ian Christe, turns 10 this year. To celebrate, Decibel corralled authors from the BP stable to discuss their own works and what it’s like to be part of the world’s heaviest publisher. 

If you are involved in the metal scene as anything more than a casual fan—and let’s face it, there aren’t many of those—you are well aware that the metal scene is struggling with the same issues of culture and identity as our society. Since its inception, metal has operated on an anything-goes mentality: no matter how offensive or sacrilegious there was a place for it. That Wild West ethic explains why fans celebrated The Mentors and why bands like Burzum ended up on essential album lists despite their association with racism (not to mention murder).

A key reason why so much went unquestioned or unchallenged for years is that most of the vocal and influential people in the scene were white men. As our culture has evolved it’s become clear that African-Americans and other minorities who played a pivotal role in the scene from the beginning deserve to have an equal say in the conversation and push metal to examine its more troubling aspects and associations. One of the first books to delve deeply into the issues of race and ethnicity was Laina Dawes’ memoir and critical study What Are You Doing Here: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation In Heavy Metal. Disclaimer: I have known Laina for years and talked to her as she was working on the book. What I could not have predicted was that her book would prove unusually prescient. Many of the issues Laina wrote about–marginalization, racial identity, and sexism—have been fiercely debated in metal in recent years. Those debates have increased since the election of Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement. Dawes talked to us about how her book came together and if she has considered revisiting it in light of current cultural debates.

How did you find Bazillion or did they find you?
Ian (Christe, publisher) kind of found me. I had contributed to an anthology that came out in the early to mid-2000s. I submitted an essay on Skunk Anansie. The premise was to talk about an album you would take with you on a desert island. (Later) Ian had started Bazillion and was looking for potential authors. I’d followed him as a journalist for a long time so as soon as he said let’s talk, I was ready. Ian recommended just for professional reasons that I send the book out and see what the response was. I sent it to a few places. There was one Canadian publishing company that was interested, but I wanted to ensure this book got out globally. Bazillion had a great reputation for being serious about the music and the genre and putting out books that would satisfy the most ardent fan.

When you first started working on the book were you thinking of it as a memoir or a critical exploration? Or was putting those two things together always the plan?
It was more looking at it critically. I was most interested in compiling the stories and experiences that black metal fans and musicians had. I felt that to add some legitimacy to the project I had to write about my story and why I was a metal fan and some of the situations I experienced and why I had an emotional connection with the music.

When the book came out, I remembered thinking that it was a real outlier for both Bazillion and the metal scene in general. What did you think about your book pushing against boundaries?
I was concerned because I wondered if people would take me seriously. But the people that I spoke to, some who didn’t even end up in the book, said the story was needed. I was a photographer and writer in the scene for a long time. Some questioned my legitimacy as a fan and a journalist. I knew there was a demographic out there whose voice and stories were ignored. We still don’t talk about race. I think that’s gotten worse since the book came out. I thought it was important that this book came out because people needed a 101 on black women in heavy metal. I knew there were people out there interested in this story. Their voices need to be heard, as much as people into Norwegian black metal or people into the thrash scene.

There are books in the Bazillion catalog that celebrate metal culture like Swedish Death Metal and Murder In The Front Row. Your book asks readers to take a closer look at the troubling aspects of something they love.  Did you change any minds or hear from readers?
I heard from readers, from a lot of white guys especially who said that they never thought about it or assumed metal was for everyone. Metal is such a maligned musical genre and culture. There are already social stigmas and burdens to being a metal fan. I think some people are concerned about those aspects and they don’t ever think about issues of race or sexism. I’ve met a lot of really cool people as a result of the book who said I opened their eyes or introduced them to new music. But I also met with a lot of resistance. You know me well enough to know I don’t deal with resistance well (laughs). I’m very passionate about these issues. There have been about two or three instances that have been mind-blowingly bad. I think what gets under my skin is when I’ve been forcefully confronted by people who are angry that a black woman is writing about heavy metal or that racism is being brought up. They assume the world revolves around how they think and get upset when someone else is talking about music and culture that shaped their lives.

They feel a sense of ownership.
Yes, but I’m a passionate fan just like they are. Otherwise, why would I spend years writing this book? I am just as invested in the genre and culture as those people. We’re on the team but I am a black woman, and my experience is different. Some people say these issues don’t exist–then we can’t have a discussion. I think there are still problems with talking about issues of gender and ethnicity. White women have an easier time talking about issues of misogyny and gender than minorities.

In the six years since the book published, we are politically and culturally in a much different place. You’re an SJW, or you think anything and everything should be out there, no matter who it affects. You pointed out some of these conflicts years ago.
There is a line between people who are considered SJWs and those who think politics has no place in metal. Politics has a place in metal because we are listening to the music and participating in the culture during very political times. The real world doesn’t end when we enter a venue. I’m sure that somewhere in Ian’s book (Sound Of The Beast) it gets into how metal fans tend to be very socially conservative. When it comes to politics, metal fans have historically been conservative. Because of that, and the way the world is right now, it makes participating in the scene as a person of color more complicated than when I was writing my book.

When I was talking to Dallas (Coyle) from God Forbid for the book he was talking about his experiences writing a pro-Obama column for MetalSucks. The racists were coming out, and people were threatening him. God Forbid was in the metal scene for more than a decade at that point and had a huge following. Now, the tensions are even more heightened. What I’m hearing from black fans and women is that they are afraid of going to shows—not because Antifa is going to blow something up but because certain artists bring unfavorable people and racists out. “Social Justice Warriors” is a terrible phrase for people standing up for what they believe in and people who want to point out these problems in the scene.

Considering all the changes in the world, will there be a new edition?
I don’t know if we will call it a second edition, but a new version is coming out that will discuss some of these issues. I think an entire compendium on these topics should be published at some point.

How has this book changed your life?
If it weren’t for Bazillion Points, this book would have died. Bazillion represents a collection of publications that are extremely thought out regarding what they want to accomplish. Ian has curated a careful roster, and because of that, they have an excellent reputation. Bazillion also opened doors for me. I was going to shows like Maryland Deathfest when I was writing the book, and people wouldn’t give me the time of day. I couldn’t get interviews with people, and some people essentially laughed at me. Once I published with Bazillion I had that access. Do I resent that? I resent it one-hundred percent.

I have to say I never had similar issues, even in the early stages.
It was very hurtful. But ultimately it wasn’t just about the access.

Given how charged these issues in the book are I can imagine reviewing and fact-checking it was crucial because one mistake would allow critics to try to delegitimize your work.
I’ve always been aware that if you make a mistake people will come after you. As a black woman, I knew there would be much more scrutiny. So I worked hard to make everything right—and also stayed true to what I wanted to say.  No one has said anything is wrong—they just complained that as a black woman I shouldn’t be writing this book.