May 29, 2013

Book: Heavy metal and the other

‘What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal’
By Laina Dawes. Bazillion Points; 224 pgs., $16.95.

Reading this book makes me excited, because it is an experience I know quite well, having lived an almost identical one. I want to kick myself, because I should be writing about my own experience so that other women of color who are attending or performing in “alternative” scenes or are secretly “alternative” know we exist.

I guess those are similar reasons why Laina Dawes wrote this book — it is a story that needs to be told. The documentary “Afro-Punk” did a great job of opening the initial door that allows people of color to show their underground stripes. However, as a woman, there is more to say, and Dawes does service to this by offering a beginning look into the female perspective of being attracted to and participating in the metal, hardcore and punk scenes.

Dawes offers a collection of experiences from multiple black female voices who (like Dawes, like me) had a similar story to tell. We were risk-takers, in a sense, and in the book she touches on that fact, at one point talking about her own experience: “I had to be me — whether I lost my black pass or not.” It is most difficult — not the fitting into these scenes but explaining to our own ethnic group why it is we don’t fit (or don’t exclusively fit) into the R&B or hip-hop scenes. It isn’t that we don’t like both R&B or hip-hop; in fact, after reading “WAYDH,” it seems many of us do.

But it was the choice we made to step out of the box that made our fellow African-Americans question our “blackness” and judge our “whiteness.” As music history, it is something that has been little discussed but is rich for exploration. Using an array of input from educational experts, fans and musicians, Dawes’ story realizes we aren’t abandoning our black heritage for white music. We are sensing a very real way of reclaiming what originated from our culture.

This is only a tiny bit of what “WAYDH” is about. Dawes explores, with relatively solid analysis, the many aspects of choosing to be different. She doesn’t seat the whole book in a burdensome analytical voice but gives enough that her discussion has some weight. More plainly, she says, “Come hell or high water, none of us will ever back down from a fight.” Ultimately, I believe this is the underlying story. Being different creates a sort of fighter instinct. Choosing gut against comfort and creation makes a person willing to fight for what is believed and what is enjoyed. This is a tale that is more than the sum of its parts. I think it is a book that should be read as a study in living difference.

What I least like about the book is the same thing I like. The collection of experiences is not what I expected when I read the title. I assumed this was an autobiography; I expected one story and instead got many. The voices are, at times, difficult to distinguish, and I had to often read back to clarify who was speaking.

Overall, Dawes tells an important story well and gives voice to the many black girls and women who are brave enough to let themselves be different.