Laina Dawes’s What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal is an important and gutsy debut from the Toronto, Canada-based journalist. The book, which follows Dawes’s search for identity as a black woman in the metal, punk and hardcore scenes, investigates her “dual-outsider dilemma”, in which communities toted as radical, open spaces exhibit the very same “race and gender issues that exist in the outside world.” Dawes deconstructs a raft of complex, interlinking issues, highlighting how black women must steer an often-perilous course through the metal and punk scenes to find the catharsis and freedom they seek in the genres.
Part autobiography, part socio-cultural history, Dawes’s narrative is fleshed out with interviews with academics and black female musicians and fans who speak about their positive and negative experiences in the metal and punk scenes. Racism, sexism, stereotypical assumptions and inaccurate portrayals are predominant themes throughout. However, black women finding “liberation in metal and hardcore,” and expressing their individuality as “active participants in the metal and punk scenes,” comprises an overriding arc.
Dawes describes her own search of selfhood in moving terms as she unpacks issues such as alienation, intimidation, and the indifference of metal and punk fans unaffected by intolerance. Her reflections on genres such as the blues, and cultures bound by themes of struggle and resilience, highlight the often-incomplete history of metal and punk. She documents erroneous representations of black women, and issues around sexuality and objectification, in a history of conflict, coercion and a wrestling back of control of their bodies.
Dawes’s interweaving anecdotes speak volumes about her strength in seeking her rightful place in the metal scene. But she also speaks candidly of her fragility, and her weariness when encountering entrenched inequalities. Her resolve is tangible, and evident in the challenging nature of What Are You Doing Here?, where many of her arguments are confrontational, welcomingly so.
Her experiences are intensely personal, and her reflections are duly impassioned. The issues she raises are complicated by metal’s bloodthirsty and provocative temper, and some metal fans may feel she is making generalizations that conflict with their own open-minded and unprejudiced views. But Dawes doesn’t claim to speak for or about all, and the metal community is well aware of its dark side–where resistance to hearing or acknowledging perspectives such as Dawes’s substantiates her argument.
Metal is a global, diverse and multicultural medium to which Dawes is adding her distinctive voice and interpretation. Pan-global issues such as racism and sexism, are far too easily shrugged off as isolated and insignificant incidents in the metal world–primarily because the bulk of its audience is white and male. Dawes’s raising of such issues, backed by research and firsthand accounts, is crucial in keeping an often-avoided discussion on the boil. Her ability to illustrate the impact of privilege and prejudice upon black women, and the barriers they (and other marginalised ethnicities or sexualities) face in the metal and punk scenes is undeniable.
The degree of opposition Dawes has encountered by simply following her love of metal is disturbing. As a means to channel her frustrations, metal has often proven to be frustrating (“Why the hell am I putting myself through this bullshit?” she asks). She has, at times, had to deal with the objections of those closest to her–causing her to conceal her love of raucous noise–and she speaks openly about her complicated relationships with those who have questioned her involvement in the metal and punk scenes.
Still, as much as What Are You Doing Here? draws attention to problems Dawes and her interviewees have faced in the metal and punk communities, it’s not a tirade against either. Their varying stories share a common thread, one where the two genres have provided space for them to channel their anger and exasperations. The purgative release and independence of such aggressive music is apparent, and while What Are You Doing Here? may seem like a complicated love story at times, and understandably so, the rewards of metal and punk are reaffirmed time and time again.
What Are You Doing Here? comes with a mass of emotional weight and considered analysis, and Dawes’s tenacity in ensuring that the place of black women in the metal community is recognized and valued is palpable and inspiring. What Are You Doing Here? is essential reading for those who have never felt the blow of intolerance, and for those who have felt it far too often. At the heart of the book is a simple message: “As human beings, we have the right to do and be who we are.” These are ideals, indecently, that metal and punk have long professed to extol.
Metal and punk don’t always respond well to critical analysis, and Dawes’s commitment to starting a long-overdue conversation is courageous. What Are You Doing Here? reaches out to black women, offering them support and encouragement, but its themes are universal–it is a potent reminder of the need to confront the inequalities that discourage any and all individuals from participating in whatever music scenes they desire.