Andrew Lee of Ripped to Shreds on Ending Racist Stereotypes Against Asians in Metal

Illustration by Mike Wohlberg

Andrew Lee is is the frontman of death metal bands Ripped to Shreds, Skullsmasher and numerous other underground extreme metal acts. He’s an American of Taiwanese descent. 

If you are born with a yellow face and slanted eyes in America, you are not American. You are a perpetual foreigner, inviting open staring, whispered mocking and the ever-popular and unwelcome greetings of “ni-hao,” no matter your first language or parents’ country of origin. You are a violin prodigy, a math wizard, an emasculated nerd with no game, a seductive harlot with a sideways pussy and an uncreative cheater who can only copy. Worst of all, you are silent. You are apolitical, you work hard, study hard and you keep your mouth shut about politics.

During this global pandemic, old racist stereotypes against the Chinese and their “exotic” cuisine have been brought to the forefront. Chinese are dog-eaters, vermin-eaters, barbarians who consume anything on four legs. They are the bat-eaters who unleashed a global plague with their disgusting palate. There are calls from countries around the world to close “wet markets” across China, markets no different from most farmer’s markets in any American city. The spread of COVID-19 sparked a rise in anti-Asian racism and violence, but you can’t even visually distinguish between a Chinese, Vietnamese or Korean, because we all look the same.

Seeing Brujeria’s Facebook post about their new single was a kick in the gut. “The Coronavirus is the Devil’s plague sent to purge humanity of all kinds! […] Coming from China where eating bats is as normal as getting midnight tacos off the truck parked at your barrio’s gas station.” Commenters cheer the band on for telling it like it is, speaking the unpopular truth that the Chinese people and their dietary practices are at fault for the pandemic. Yet no one gives other foodborne illnesses a national name. Mad cow disease is not “the British virus” and no one blames white people for forcing cows to cannibalistically consume the dead. And while it is true that bats are sometimes consumed in rural areas, so is raccoon and possum and Rocky Mountain oyster in America, yet no one calls Americans “testicle-eaters.”

I’m most frustrated not with Brujeria, but the rest of the metal blogosphere, who have spent the last four weeks decrying racism, police brutality and injustice, yet remain silent. Metalsucks recently posted the Brujeria single, leaving out the band’s blurb, despite claiming to stand for social justice. Nuclear Blast USA and Blabbermouth both edited out the racist comment when sharing the video, indicating that they clearly knew it was unacceptable, but did nothing to stop it. Or maybe Brujeria added it in on their own, submitting a “clean” version to Nuclear Blast, and intentionally adding in the racist jab on their own Facebook page. I’m not really sure which scenario is worse.

Putting aside terminally edgy black metal misanthropes, metal claims to be a positive force, uniting metalheads worldwide in a shared love for music. The metal consumer demands the exotic and oriental, cramming Asian bands into neat little boxes. Japanese grind and hardcore band just do things better because Japanese people are crazy and intense; it’s something in the water. Chinese bands need to play twangy guqin or erhu folk instruments. Indonesian bands are brutal slam. Thailand, Singapore or Korea may as well not even exist.

Underpinning these divisions is the perception that these exotic bands are interesting and unique because of where they are from, and that perception colors how Asians living in Western countries are viewed. Herman Li is a sick shredder because there’s always an Asian who can do it better. Cole Kakimoto from Gulch plays Japcore influenced grind because you can see “C. Kakimoto” on the liner notes. If you don’t fit in those boxes, people are confused. If a reviewer knows that I front Ripped to Shreds, they ask why there aren’t folk instruments or convenient Oriental flourishes to let them know the music was made by a Chinaman. Often, they’ll say something like, “I thought this band was from Japan,” because Asian Americans don’t play metal.

Metal should unite, because there’s power in community and shared experience. The truth is metal is divided along national lines. There’s nothing wrong with categorizing metal into scenes, as Swedish death metal is its own thing, compared to Norwegian death metal or Floridian death metal, and so on and so forth. But white people have the advantage of visually blending in: A Swedish American won’t be expected to play Entombed riffs and a Norwegian American won’t be expected to be a Darkthrone clone. Does anyone know where Mike Scalzi’s grandparents come from? Does anyone care? White people are free to be Americans playing whatever kind of metal they please. Brujeria’s racial comment is not ‘just’ Juan Brujo being ignorant and hurtful. It’s a symptom of the endemic perception of Asians as alien others, as scapegoats, as perpetual foreigners. If we Asians respond to these racist stereotypes, we’re told to lighten up, it’s just a joke, it’s just satire. That’s not how your fellow Americans should be treated, and that’s not how other races are treated in America.