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WPGM Commentary: Is Rock Music Racist?

Is Rock Music Racist 18.02.2016ANDREW

Recent weeks have seen heated debate as regards the potential racism in and of rock music, particularly in heavy metal. Ex-Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo has come under fire for racist language and gestures; cue the apology and retraction. Is rock music racist, or is it, largely speaking, merely a straggle of individuals in the scene that maintain certain negative stereotypes, as regarding lovers of certain genres of rock?

The debate about this could go back to rock’s beginnings as a purely black culture when it was still steeped in the blues. It wasn’t racist as such, but very segregated. Up until Elvis, white people weren’t really involved on a playing level. Moving onto the ‘classic rock’ of the Seventies and the like, there’s Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and what many interpret as their dangerous love of the Confederate flag. Their sole original member, guitarist Gary Rossington, tried to clear this up in 2012:

“Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or Southern flag from its tradition and the heritage of the soldiers. That’s what it was about. We didn’t want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things. We know what the Dixie flag represents and its heritage; the Civil War was fought over States rights…the confederate flag, at times, was unfairly being used as a symbol by various hate groups, which is something that we don’t support the flag being used for. The Confederate flag means something more to us, Heritage not Hate”.

Although many find it hard to equate the Confederate flag with anything other than racism and slavery, what’s more perplexing were the views of original, deceased singer and primary lyricist, Ronnie Van Zant. In “Sweet Home Alabama”, many think he extols former Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, a noted supporter of segregation. Funny coming from someone, who in their younger years, supposedly looked up to and idolised proud black man and most famous boxer on the planet, Muhammad Ali.

Like human nature, these things seem very contradictory, and, of course, attitudes change and taboos are smashed. Were, and are, Lynyrd Skynyrd racist? Strictly speaking, no; but seemingly still somewhat entrenched in what many of their generation and location espoused, and the associated ignorance.

The punk explosion, starting in the late Seventies, was, politically speaking, a bit of a backlash against bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. The likes of them and Pink Floyd were often described as ‘dinosaurs’. Not only did bands like Dead Kennedys, who really came to prominence with their brand of hardcore punk in the early Eighties, lash out at such bands; they lashed out on those within their own genre. 

In “Nazi Punks F**k Off”, they quite clearly nail their colours to the mast. What’s more, their bandmate, onetime Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer, D.H. Peligro, was black. This may have ve magnified the other band members’ racial awareness, seeing what a black man, even of a relatively forward generation, post-Civil Rights, had still to put up with. Were, and are, Dead Kennedys racist? An emphatic no; their militant left wing politics, though maybe a tad pedantic at times, wouldn’t allow it.

Come the late Eighties, and early Nineties, there appeared to be a Lynyrd Skynyrd of the current generation, in the guise and form of Texas metal bruisers Pantera. They were fronted by the uncompromising Phil Anselmo, singer and primary lyricist, someone who helped spearhead the band’s pride in all things Southern. This included, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, often using the Confederate flag for things such as backdrops to their live set.

Even their super talented and late guitarist Darrell ‘Dimebag’ Abbott sported a Confederate themed guitar. Their introduction to the world proper was “Cowboys From Hell”, which featured a mixture of low vocals steeped in the blues, and highs akin to that of Rob Halford, of Judas Priest fame.

Very recently, in July 2015, Anselmo spoke out against Pantera and his other bands’ usage of the Confederate flag, claiming it was a mistake to use it on their merchandise, albums and other promotional material: “These days, I wouldn’t want anything to fucking do with it because truthfully… I wouldn’t. The way I feel and the group of people I’ve had to work with my whole life, you see a Confederate flag out there that says ‘Heritage, not hate’ I’m not so sure I’m buying into that”.

He added that Pantera used the image because they were huge fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but it was never about promoting hate.  This just doesn’t seem to square up at all with more recent events. Fast forward barely a year, and his words and actions seem wildly contradictory. He’s at ‘Dimebash’, an event whereby fellow musicians pay tribute to the fallen and murdered, his once guitarist, Darrell Abbott. Backstage he talks to Machine Head frontman, Rob Flynn:

“Within 30 seconds of sitting down and talking to him, his drunk ass decided to let me know in no uncertain terms that he hated the ‘ni**er era’ of Machine Head, referring to our third and fourth album, ‘The Burning Red’. [Mocking Phil‘s voice] ‘He hated every second of it, hated it with a passion, the stupid look’”.

Flynn himself made an admission, after the whole debate sparked personal reflection: “The thing that’s amazing about this is that we’re all scared to say anything… I am scared… Because we all sit there and look at ourselves and it reminds of us every time we’ve ever said the word ‘ni**er’, and I have said the word ‘ni**er’ before. I was jumped by fifteen black guys, I was angry for a while. But you know that was in my 20’s and at some point along this journey of life, you change”.

Flynn said that, although he didn’t see everything Phil did that night, he was, however, “on stage when we were playing “A New Level” and you were ‘seig heiling’ after the ‘and power,’ [mouthing white power] like you’ve done forever now, like you’ve done forever now. And nobody calls you on it. No bands call you on it”.

Anselmo tried to explain it was a private joke about the white wine backstage. Flynn retorted there was no white wine, and then a buddy of Phil’s appeared to procure photographic evidence that indeed there was. Forever tit for tat. Are Phil Anselmo and any other acts he’s associated with (Pantera, Down and Superjoint Ritual for a start) racist? No, but his seeming love for all things politically incorrect and belligerent, has earned him much deserved criticism and scrutiny.

Furthermore, are Machine Head and Rob Flynn racist? If he speaks for the band’s ideology through himself, it could be argued his past indiscretions and experiences have made him a reformed racist, so much so it moulded subsequent works. That being the third and fourth albums, much influenced by nu metal, which in turn was influenced by hip-hop.

Finally, we’ve got the Noughties. One of the vehicles for that aforementioned nu metal are Disturbed, propelled by Jewish vocalist, David Draiman. He appeared to take a pop at people like Motorhead’s frontman, the late Lemmy, who collected World War II memorabilia, a lot of it Nazi related:

“I don’t give a f**k who you are. If you’re going to brandish Nazi symbolism, I’m going to have a problem with you because I don’t understand how anybody could think it’s OK to wear something on their body that symbolizes the annihilation and genocide of my people. I’m not OK with that and there is no excuse and there is no explanation”.

The gossip that ensued pitted Draiman against Lemmy, but apparently the issues weren’t personal, he just didn’t agree with the apparel. Is David Draiman and the likes of Disturbed racist? No, quite the opposite. In fact many Jews feel an affinity with the oppressed of any current time. Furthermore, were Lemmy and Mororhead racist? No, but surely a touch of sensitivity would’ve gone a long way.

Surely you can look ‘cool’ and ‘rock and roll’ without wearing things deemed widely as evil and oppressive as what Nazi regalia symbolises. Lemmy’s fascination with this stuff also surfaces in “Bomber”, based on a novel about an air raid on western Germany.

Broadly speaking, the political connotations of metal are of it as right wing and racist; and punk as left wing and inclusive. However, this discussion has proved, particularly with metal bands like Machine Head and Disturbed, that this isn’t always the case. Also, in the words of the Dead Kennedys, the likes of Nazi punks, skinheads, do in fact exist. People are people, though, and as in most cases, no music genre is as any racist as the other.

Words by Andrew Watson

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