by Laina Dawes

In the search for metal knowledge, there is always a place for a niche perspective.

Bazillion Points is one of the very few publishers worldwide focused on presenting these niche perspectives, often getting down to surprisingly specific terms. Their title Swedish Death Metal by Daniel Ekeroth covers, as the title suggests, the history of the Swedish death scene, Only Death is Real documents the history of Celtic Frost (1981 – 1985 only) and their recent publication We Got Power traces the beginnings of hardcore in Southern California during the early 80s.

So a title like What Are You Doing Here? is not a surprising addition to their catalogue. It is written by Laina Dawes, a Canadian writer and activist, and as the title suggests, it’s about her experiences as a black woman involved in the Canadian and US metal scene. Niche, right?

Well, yes and no.

Dawes writes the book in the first person and states up front that a significant motivator in writing the book was to work through some of the issues she faces because of her race and gender, but also as a way of reaching out to other black female metal fans and musicians. The bones of the book are the interviews that Dawes conducts with these people, as well as a smattering of relevant academics, and they do provide a great deal of insight into what the black experience of metal and hardcore is. In this respect, it is a niche topic.

As a male, white, Australian reader it’s tough to know how to approach this book, and it’s difficult to say how relevant it is. It would be easier if the book was academic or even semi-academic in its approach, because that would likely include a range of perspectives and some unbiased peer-reviewing. Such a method would allow the author and the reader to address the topic detached from personal or emotional associations, and also invite outside perspectives that would be perhaps somewhat unqualified, but still valuable. But that is not what Bazillion Points does, and it’s why we love it. It certainly isn’t what this book is either. The overarching ‘voice’ of the book is Dawes’ alone and it’s clear that this is as personal a topic to her as could be imagined. While there are interviews, they are delivered and interpreted with the clear intention of aligning with Dawes’ experiences and perspectives. Given the title of the book this goes without saying perhaps. The book does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s about one black woman’s experience in heavy metal. But Dawes lets herself down and risks alienating the non-black, non-female reader at a number of points when it becomes clear that she is perhaps too close to the subject to offer a constructive or unbiased assessment, manifesting in some quite painful generalisations and indulgent editorialising.

Although many people won’t be able to identify with the main conceit of this book there is still significant value to be found in it. Dawes’ discussion of female representation in metal is valuable on a general level and she also presents interesting documentation on the history of black involvement in the scene. Dawes also goes into some detail around the Afro-punk movement that, while fascinating has, given Australia’s very low African or African-American population, received very little coverage here.

In terms of what an Australian reader might take away from this book, then, the most valuable aspect is its core message about inclusion and difference in metal, hardcore and punk. This message is a starting point for exploring what it is like to exist as a minority within these scenes. Dawes recites many, many examples of situations where racism and sexism arise and how reactions to it differ from indifference to indignation and boycotting.

Taken as examples, the situations Dawes puts forward are relatable to almost any scene in any place and prompt some questions relevant to Australian metal. What is like being a woman in the metal scene? What about someone of Asian descent? Indian descent? Aboriginal? A person living with disability? These could be, but don’t seem to be, questions that we might ask ourselves here in Australia. In general, is Australian metal welcoming and embracing of difference? As a middle class white guy it’s difficult for me to say, but just being inspired to ask these questions is where the value in What Are You Doing Here? rests and why, after consideration, the book might not seem so niche after all.