By Mark Thompson
“Expectations can be disrupted by music, that’s its function”
– Tosin Abasi
It’s no secret that Black people lead culture in so many areas, there’s almost nothing that our influence hasn’t touched, especially music. When it comes to music today, however, Black artists and fans are often pigeon holed into certain genres. Why is it that? And why are we seen as anomalies when it comes to metal – a progression of a genre that we created?
As a white passing biracial kid coming up in the hardcore/metal scene I would often struggle to belong in the predominantly white rock subculture. If there’s one thing that most metalheads understand and bond over it’s being social outcasts, but I always knew there was another layer of that for me. Yes, I looked like most of the people around me at shows, but I couldn’t fully and truly identify with them. Navigating the world of metal while Black can be, at times, alienating and discouraging. However, the feeling of being an imposter would immediately be gone after connecting with another Black headbanger from across the venue. Seeing the one or two Black artists on stage during a festival or the few Black fans in the crowd never failed to bring a sense of comfort to the loud chaotic backdrop of a metal show.
Let’s take a step back from metal. If you’re looking at the greater rock family tree, you’ll eventually arrive at its roots — or a point where Black creativity birthed an entire musical movement. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, then Chuck Berry and Little Richard were the Black progenitors of rock as we know it today. But when looking at the modern landscape it is easy to see the effects that decades of whitewashing and stealing the work of Black artists have had on the genre.
Representation matters and there are powerful Black artists in almost every scene within rock making space for more Black people. Shelly Nicole, the driving force of Shelley Nicole’s BlaKbüshe, have gone beyond just being seen and have proudly taken to spreading a message of Black love with her music. Within metal specifically, someone who has inspired me is Tosin Abasi, the lead guitarist of the prog-metal band Animals as Leaders. His virtuoso talents have made him an undeniable force within metal and he has forever changed the way guitar will be played. Black musicians and singers within rock and all of its subgenres are crucial to inspiring the next generation of artists that will continue to evolve the music.
My uncle, who has played guitar in multiple blues rock bands influenced me in my early teens to pick up a guitar. Now I know I’ll never be the next breakout guitarist, but the passion is still there. What started as tinkering on my own guitars at 15 has turned into a fledgling side hustle of building custom guitars from scratch. Delivering my first sale this summer was an extremely rewarding moment filled with immense pride. I’ll keep building custom guitars, and hopefully one day it’ll be for the next Shelley, Tosin, or any future Black musicians continuing the legacy our culture and our community created.