“Horns Up, Don’t Shoot”: Metal and social justice in the age of Unlocking the Truth

It’s the forty-fifth anniversary of Jimi Hendrix closing Woodstock with his celebrated rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and I’m watching three pre-teenage African-American kids cover the song in Times Square for donations by the dollar. In the background, we hear whom I presume to be someone’s parents cheer the band on, telling people to stick around because their set is only half over. That video eventually attracted the executives at Sony, who promised the band, Unlocking the Truth, over a million dollars if they manage to sell an agreed-upon number of records. The “Star-Spangled Banner” comes toward the end of the performance, much like Kurt Cobain’s own rendition of it at Reading (play that album all the way through and you won’t miss it, like the nonplussed Britons in attendance), but manages to, in retrospect, carry all the power of Hendrix’s own. Hendrix’s cover could be seen as a rebuke to a certain kind of obscene nationalism practiced by the goblins in Richard Nixon’s cabinet, reclaiming the populist power of anthem from the power of rockets actually bursting in air over impoverished refugees in Cambodia. Nixon might be dead, but we still have old Henry Kissinger to kick around, and plenty of other neocons willing to send the most vulnerable members of our communities into bloodbaths of discretion. So it was that Hendrix was asked to go to war on behalf of a nation that hadn’t yet envisioned the Civil Rights Act; so it is, also, that although the three band members of Unlocking the Truth are all between the ages of twelve and thirteen, that wasn’t the first thing I noticed about them.

Actually, their ethnicity wasn’t the first thing I noticed, either. It was the fact that they were both young and black and played heavy metal. The vocal contingent of apologists will find themselves free to disagree, but metal has been historically indifferent to — when it’s not being openly hostile toward — diversity and inclusion. There are more Catholics playing Satan’s anthems than people of color. Some of the genre’s most prominent representatives actively court the favor of white supremacists and straight-up Nazis, like Norway’s Varg Vikernes, of the black metal band Burzum, who has been lucky enough to be the subject of several documentaries and books, even those produced by people who otherwise disagree with his odious views. Fans of metal quickly denounce his ideology, but still stream the records of the man, who also served twenty-one years in prison for the murder of a bandmate, when they come up on Spotify. I have been reading Jon Wiederhorn’s “Louder Than Hell”, an oral history of metal, and, just for the hell of it, I pointed my e-reader’s search engine toward the keyword “black people” and found zero results. The book is 800 pages long and spans nearly fifty years.

This scans less as negligence on the part of Wierderhorn, a fine reporter and essential biographer of heavy metal, than as realist. At least the omission of virtually any people of color from the conversation surrounding metal means nobody has anything negative or racist to say either. (This differs form Dayal Paterson’s book on metal, in which a member of the band Mayhem points out that the rotting, amputated hands on one album cover belonged to an executed African.) It serves as decent symbolism that when we think about metal we’re usually thinking only about metal, a kind of know-nothing neutralism calculated to insulate a genre already beleaguered by association with mass shootings and Satanism. When I saw Deafheaven and Pallbearer play Churchill’s Pub, a filthy dive bar that is also frequently the only place to see metal shows in Broward County, I didn’t count a single African-American in attendance, and this in a neighborhood called Little Haiti. (One of the only people of color in attendance at all was Shiv Mehra, a guitarist for Deafheaven, who is from Danville, California via Nairobi.) In metal, we are content to leave these things unspoken. Vikernes and his right-wing clique notwithstanding, it remains tacit that there is nothing inherently racist about metal, and that the seeming exclusion of people of color is unintentional.

So why has it taken so long for a band like Unlocking the Truth to emerge on the scene? It’s probably for the same reason it took so long for rock music to produce Jimi Hendrix. As with any capitalist enterprise, the business must necessarily start out conservative before it can begin its long march toward liberalism. The music industry is no different. If metal’s adherents are reluctant to acknowledge that it’s trending anywhere, this is belied first by the very music itself (could Ozzy Osbourne have predicted death metal when Black Sabbath sounds so quaint in comparison?) and next by a shift in ideology, from first an absence, then to a Stars-and-Stripes conservatism, to culminate finally in the advent of bands like Wolves in the Throne Room, a black metal band from Washington, who sought to decrease their carbon footprint by allegedly living in a forest. We are far from the days when Axl Rose can go triple-platinum on an album on which he unironically employs the n-word, and when Napalm Death was the only overtly sociopolitical band for the metalhead seeking to be inspired by activism. Metal, after staying on the sidelines of social consciousness for so long, can no longer afford to be exclusive. Pop-culture liberals like Fred Armisen are lining up to proclaim their love for metal. In Pitchfork, which has been fairly left-leaning in its coverage of music, Deafheaven’s 2013 album Sunbather was listed as high as number six on its best-of list for that year, besting indie luminaries like Arcade Fire and Daft Punk. Metal has never been more present in the conversation about music, and so much of that is due to it never having been more inclusive.

Metal, in other words, has often seemed to be the last holdout. We have seen the occasional black band member: Hirax, Suicidal Tendences, and Killswitch Engage can all make this claim. What makes the rise of Unlocking the Truth so astonishing is that it’s taken place six years after the country decided it was “ready” for a black president, a period of time which also includes the deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Ramarley Graham, Troy Davis, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, and the subsequent slaps-on-the-wrist for and outright acquittals of their murderers when their murderers were even tried at all. This kill list, effectively state-sanctioned in theory if not in actual practice, has only grown larger, with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement reporting in a recent study that 313 black people were slain by a police officer in 2012, amounting to one extrajudicial killing every 28 hours. It might perhaps be too much to ask of Unlocking the Truth to speculate about the state of black justice in America, even as the narrative is consumed by its lack; when I was their age, the only thing I cared about was filling out my PokeDex and winning the affections of a skinny vixen in my Hebrew school class. But one also suspects that the lived experience may differ from that of a suburban Jewish boy to three black tweens from East Flatbush, and if these kids were shrewd enough to secure an impressive-sounding record deal from a major record label then I had no reason to doubt their facility in the realm of the social.

About that record deal, however. Steven Hyden at Grantland points out that, in order to collect on the full sum promised by Sony Music, the band would have to outsell even Mastodon, currently the most popular artist from the extremer side of metal’s spectrum, a band which has headlined major festivals, sold out world tours, and moved hundreds of thousands of units on its way to what can be described as mainstream success. Unlocking the Truth is a very talented act, but they’re hardly the audacious and genre-defying force that propelled Mastodon to global domination. And in an auspicious time for music, when even Jay Z has to broker oligarchical release deals with Samsung in order to inflate his sales numbers, the contract gives off the cynical stench of bad faith from the corporate elite who should know better. As an advance, the $60,000 supposedly already paid out to each of the three artists is to be celebrated, not scoffed at, but it’s the complete deal, the $1.8 million over several albums, which is at stake should the band prove to be less than five times as famous than Mastodon. Anticipating this line of criticism, Sony may have purposely tipped its hand; indeed, it may be banking on a hope that the sheer size of the deal, enough to garner the kind of shocked press coverage that generated so much interest in the band, may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unlocking the Truth is already well-known enough that Malcolm Brickhouse, its guitarist and vocalist, can announce the track “Monster” as one of their “most popular” songs, and he’s not wrong. Not only is it surprisingly catchy (days later, I caught myself humming its hook), but I could hear audience members in attendance singing along with him. Their career is in its earliest stages, and the band’s combination of ambition, talent, and crossover appeal may yet settle the worries of those of us who feel protective of them.

At the AfroPunk festival, an annual music festival in Fort Greene celebrating black artists and musicians, a sign hanging out front and reappearing throughout the park grounds reads “no sexism, no racism, no ableism, no ageism, no homophobia, no fatphobia, no transphobia, no hatefulness.” In another context, it may well function like list of demands, the sort of thing asked of and missing from the Occupy movement which many outsiders blame for its dissolution. The names and punctuated histories of Michael Brown, Troy Davis, and John Crawford were in constant presence, an engaged solidarity with the protestors in Ferguson, MO as part of a larger narrative of institutionalized violence against defenseless people of color that encouraged reflection of the overlap between art, activism, and justice. Attendants could, with hands raised, pose for photographs in front of a white backdrop printed in stencil with the words “Stop, don’t shoot”, referencing not just the assassination of Michael Brown but any number of recent executions and attacks on black people who had committed no crime.

Through Daniel Hernandez, a coordinator and promotor from Sony’s RED Music distribution division, I had earlier arranged to meet Unlocking the Truth before their set. Accompanying them would be their manager, Alan Sacks, who produced the ‘70s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter”, and “The Color of Friendship”, a Disney after-school special that I remembered watching during Black History Month in 2000. They were scheduled to play one of the four stages with a slate other metal bands, each containing at least one black musician, and there was time before their performance to talk. Other interviews of the nascent band prevailed with an abundance of caution, underestimating the precocity of Malcolm, Jarad Dawkins, and Alec Atkins to their detriment, which is to say that I was determined not to ask about whether they had time to complete their homework after school. But it seemed almost reckless to go in with my guns blazing, even at a festival explicitly encouraging social activism, so I made the usual tired chirps about inspirations and influences, and, being well acquainted with what is generally my favorite kind of music, was able to extrapolate from there.

It appears that Unlocking the Truth really did emerge from a kind of social exclusion the three boys had experienced, but not in the way one would expect. They had found solace in the music of Disturbed, a nu-metal band famous for a series of early-aughts hits thematically and aesthetically centered around the well-worn battle against private demons. Although Disturbed’s frontman is now better known in parody as “the down with the sickness guy”, a label he might do more to discourage if he hadn’t been mindlessly retweeting imperialist diatribes on Twitter in all-caps, the music still carries a powerful resonance with young boys struggling to give voice to their experience. Malcolm and Alec told me that children at school had bullied them for listening to the music and painting their nails black, a scenario all too familiar to anyone who has shunned community decorum for the sake of personal expression. In emulating their heroes, the band found empowerment: metal as solidarity for the vulnerable, the success they found out of which a scathing complement to the chance to boldly voice their objection. Jarad also mentioned that, growing up in the church, the band retained some religious roots. Recalling, perhaps, the phenomenon of weeping statuettes of the Virgin Mary, Unlocking the Truth’s original name was Tears of Blood. There is some precedent to this: both Slayer and Megadeth, one-half of the thrash metal “big four”, have outwardly Christian frontmen among their groups.

“Mostly I think metal is pretty uncompromising,” says Mike Hill, and he should know. The band he fronts, the experimental Brooklyn-based outfit Tombs, as well as being one of the most innovative and admired recent extreme metal bands, has also been among the heaviest and darkest. “It’s kind of at least why I was attracted to it initially.” He told me that he’d felt like an outsider, and that there was an “armor, or some kind of wall that separates your typical metalhead or typical metal musician from normal society in some ways.” One might feel, somewhere in the background, that one is different from other people; into different things. “You might be interested in darker aesthetics, and that’s a result of maybe not feeling like you belong, growing up. I think that that sort of defensiveness is something you carry through your life, and if you’re a musician or attracted to being creative, that gets expressed in your art or the types of art that you enjoy.” He described the wall as a place where likeminded people can be on one side, and those who judge safely sequestered on the other.

Hill has been playing in hardcore and metal bands for at least a decade before any of the members in Unlocking the Truth were even born, but I wasn’t surprised to find ideological kinship. Discussing the origin of the band, Jarad said that it means “to do what you want to do, be yourself, don’t let nobody tell you who you are, or who you should be. Just do what you want to do and do it.” Alec added that the music was directly inspired by bullying. “I think that’s where we got it from,” he said. “So that other kids, if they get bullied, they might be able to do the same thing and overcome that.” I asked him to elaborate, and in addition to the nail polish and love of heavy metal, Alec told me that they’d been called “white boys.” But they “didn’t really care what they said, even though they were bullying us. And look where we are now!”

“A big difference!” Malcolm laughed.

I asked them if they see any role for metal in addressing the sociopolitical.

“Alec will answer that question,” said Malcolm. “He looks like a smart boy.” And while Alec was clearly wise beyond his years, he demurred. He fell back on bullying and religion again. I asked how religion could take such a fundamental role in a band inspired by darkness, and whether in that ironic way the darkness itself could be empowering. Inadvertently echoing Mike Hill, Malcolm said, “I think bands make songs like that so people don’t feel alone, not really to make people feel bad about themselves. Just for their fans not to be alone.”

“Yeah, because for a lot of people, that’s a not-discussed topic a lot, the darkness inside of them,” Alec added. “People don’t real like talking about that, and sometimes bands preach about that. And it gets turned out that, you know, if their favorite band is singing the same thing, then they’re like, ‘Oh, I like that band.’ It makes you feel more secure.”

“Nice to meet you, Professor Atkins!” Malcolm said.

I had been fixated on a Tombs lyric that seemed particularly appropriate in light of the police response to the protests in Ferguson. “Fear is the weapon,” Hill bellows on an older track, words he recycled later for an EP. Hill told me that, while his work isn’t overtly sociopolitical in the sense of a clearly left-wing band, “fear, and overcoming fear” are two of the more prominent topics in his work and writing. “That’s like a defining moment, where you can overcome your fear. Fear and intimidation have been used by the government, to put fear, to put doubts in peoples’ minds, for control,” he said. “Fear is born out of insecurity. Even if it’s being used to oppress people, that’s someone who doesn’t feel secure in their power, and using intimidation tactics to control people.”

I asked the boys from Unlocking the Truth if they were following the news. “I haven’t watched TV in like two months,” Malcolm exclaimed. “No,” Alec said. “I follow GTA [Grand Theft Auto] news, Unlocking the Truth news, what’s going on with our money, and that’s it.” “Everything on the news is depressing!” complained Malcolm. I asked if he was referring to the shooting in Ferguson. Even the lighthearted and excitable Malcolm turned grave. Jarad said, “Yeah, we heard about that.”

“Our music doesn’t really talk about that,” Malcolm said. And Alec added, “To be honest, I don’t think we should really get involved with those types of issues, because we’re a metal band, we’re not protestors or anything like that.” Unfamiliar with the evidence, he seemed concerned about taking sides, but admitted that “people do things out of fear that they might not normally do, when, you know, everyone reacts to fear differently.”

Fear is the weapon, and the city of Ferguson had given itself a reason to be afraid. Why else had its police department gone into the protests wearing unnecessary jungle camouflage, and unloading from armored military vehicles built to withstand improvised explosive devices? These theatrics are meant to preempt the sort of unrest one may expect from a community in which, as Wesley Lowrey, in the Washington Post, reports, “police were twice as likely to arrest African Americans during traffic stops as they were whites.” Black people in Ferguson had been made to fear; those sworn to protect and serve them had long expected reprisal and armed themselves accordingly. In a municipality whose population is two-thirds black, and rising, the Ferguson police have just three black people in its force. Lowrey goes on to describe a former lieutenant who made targeting black people in stores an official policy, and an ass-covering video carelessly released by the police department during the protests purported to show Michael Brown vindicating this mentality. The video is still being cited by white people washing their hands of a guilty conscience. Whatever race one may be, the casual shooting of Brown seemed to confirm something for everybody.

Hill, longtime veteran of extreme music, agreed with Alec. “I think metal really is the wrong place to look for addressing social issues,” he told me. “I think as a genre of music it’s been more about the individual, and a lot of it is maybe” because the varying ideologies that go into producing the music span such a wide spectrum of beliefs. “Metal’s more about power and darkness and stuff like that,” he said. “I think the aesthetics of it can be inspiring to you. Not necessarily the lyrics.” He mentioned the hardcore punk band Black Flag, whose lyrics often sound like direct orders to smash capitalist society. “But if you listen to Morbid Angel [an influential death metal band], like [their 1989 debut album] Altars of Madness, you really won’t find any direction on there. But the music is empowering though, because of the intensity of the music and the fact that it’s an extreme statement of creativity, and it maybe inspires you to do something extreme with whatever your thing is. It’s more the aesthetics of extreme music and metal maybe giving someone that sort of social power, for lack of a better term.”

At the AfroPunk festival, Alec says, “So the Ferguson thing, that’s not our problem.”

I hadn’t realized that Alan Sacks, the manager, had walked up to our table and put his hands down flat on it, leaning forward.

Suddenly, he looks worried, from the best I could tell behind his dark sunglasses. “No,” he says. “Did you ask him about that? No. That’s not something to talk about with them.”

The band, to my amazement, collectively shushes him. Daniel Hernandez, who had orchestrated my interview, has also appeared at my side, telling me I needed to wrap it up, that the band was about to go on News12 for a live interview.

Malcolm says, “[Alec’s] talking about it!” And Alec says, “we just said it’s not our problem!”

The defensiveness in his voice, and his rush to reassure his manager, seemed to confirm my hypothesis, that the band had been primed to only answer certain kinds of questions. I look at Sacks and remind him that the festival, with its mantra of tolerance and inclusiveness, its celebration of black lives, and its overt push to activism, was exactly the kind of place to ask about a shooting in Missouri that had violated all of those things.

But Sacks replies, “Yeah, no, no, understood. But in terms of the actual terms of Ferguson, I don’t want us to go into that right now.”

Alec seems resistant that this “us” should include his white manager. “Y’all need to leave us alone while we do interviews,” he says.

But Sacks says, “Alec, just chill. Just chill.”

And Alec says, “Chill? No, you’re not chill, man. I’m fine. I’ve got my iced tea…”

And Hernandez says, “We’re going to wrap it up.”

I begin to thank them for their cooperation, but Sacks isn’t finished. He begins to question my credentials, something which hadn’t concerned him for the entire interview. And then he says, “Before you do anything with this, present it to [the publication], I need to know exactly who you’re presenting it to, and I want to read it.”

He continues, “I think that, in this case, I think Daniel and Sony need to be on top of this.”

I reach for my iPhone, which is recording the whole outburst. Hernandez says, “Let’s definitely be in touch, I think there was a miscommunication,” but as I’m walking away, I catch Sacks leaning furiously toward the three young black boys under his tutelage, and saying, “Let me explain something to you.”

When Malcolm sings “I am a monster” on the popular song, he might not be intentionally echoing the fears of African-American people living by the discretion of a militarized police force. Metal, it turns out, may not be the ready to commit to the sociopolitical activism of its cousins in punk and hardcore. But with its capacity for empowering people of color, metal has also shed, as Mike Hill put it, its unfortunate “white boy mentality.” He reminded me that people of color are more and more populating his shows and those of his friends and colleagues. “Look at us now,” Alec said. What they’ve achieved so far is nothing short of amazing, and so far unheard-of. As a vessel for communicating a certain kind of struggle, that of the individual’s right to be heard, and treated as an equal, the band has the potential to build something profound. “Look at us now,” the band agreed. And we are.