Phil Anselmo, Robb Flynn, Racism and Metal: does it matter if musicians are racist?

If you have an interest in metal, you’ve more than likely by now seen, or at least heard about, the video showing Phil Anselmo’s actions at Dimebash last week:

You may also have seen Robb Flynn of Machine Head’s response video posted a few days later:

In the first video, Anselmo shouts “white power” accompanied by what is widely believed to be a “sieg heil” salute. In Flynn’s video, he points out that this is by no means the first time that Phil Anselmo has said or done something so inappropriate and that this latest incident is the straw that’s broken the camel’s back; Robb Flynn has had enough of Anselmo’s bullshit and bullying persona, and vows to never perform a Pantera song ever again.

Now this issue has seen tempers flare on opposing sides. We have fans of Phil Anselmo defending him saying that people shouldn’t be so sensitive, his personal actions are separate from his music and, even if he is a racist, metal is all about being “extreme” and “offensive” and so you’re not really “metal” if you have a problem with him. On the other hand, we have people more sympathetic to Robb Flynn’s view of things who declare that racism has no place in metal and that, just because he’s very famous and popular, Anselmo’s actions should not be simply brushed under the carpet and ignored. Like Flynn, I’ve seen several other metal fans, writers, DJs, etc. say they are now “done” with Anselmo and are boycotting Pantera, Superjoint Ritual, Down and any other band or project he’s been involved with. To be perfectly honest, while I am very sympathetic to Robb Flynn’s take on things, I can, to a degree, see where both sides are coming from here.

First of all, I am not going to debate whether or not Phil Anselmo is a racist. I don’t know if he said what he said with any element of seriousness or malice, I don’t know if he is genuinely prejudiced against people of other races and ethnicities, and I am not sufficiently experienced in racial politics (privileged white bloke speaking here) to discuss the ins and outs of what it actually means to be a racist. What is clear, however, is that regardless of intent, Anselmo’s actions were idiotic, divisive and exclusionary; even if he isn’t racist, he certainly appears to be one in this video. Moreover, even if he was “joking”, the language and symbols used here are so historically offensive that such excuses are irrelevant. Not that I’m in the business of telling people what they can or cannot make jokes about; I’m just saying that, when you attempt (poorly) to inject humour into a subject that is so hurtful to so many people on such a deep, fundamental level, don’t be surprised if not many people are laughing along with you.

The point is that the use of such language and symbols, regardless of context, will ALWAYS alienate a lot of people; to suggest otherwise is to misunderstand or ignore their historical context. But, what about the protestation (which many on Facebook, Twitter, etc. have voiced) that to criticise Anselmo for this is racist against white people? Why, they cry, is it ok for black people to say “black power”, but not ok for white people to say “white power”? Robb Flynn mentions in his video that to compare the two phrases implies a gross ignorance of (quite recent) history. “Black power” is used to fight oppression whereas “white power” is used to promote it. And yes, there have been racially-motivated crimes against white people, but to suggest that it’s anywhere near the level of persecution suffered by black people is preposterously moronic.

Essentially, dismissing the use of racist language and gestures as something that’s no big deal suggests a distinct lack of empathy. A lot of people treat the metal community as if it’s just them and a few of their mates; everyone looks the same, acts the same and has the same opinions and attitudes about everything, so there’s no need to worry about offending or excluding anyone ever. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have been a metal fan since my mid-teens, nearly 15 years now, and the rock/metal community is by far the most beautifully diverse group of people I have ever known; I have met people of countless nationalities, genders, races, sexualities, religions and socio-political backgrounds. The idea that none of them should have a problem with Anselmo’s actions is ridiculous; maybe you don’t find it offensive, but what about black, Asian, or Hispanic metal fans? Maybe, for example, there’s a bunch of kids right now in India, Peru or Tunisia who have recently got into metal, are excited about maybe starting a band of their own, and then they see this video of Phil Anselmo: how do you expect they would react? Do you think they’d just laugh it off as a joke? Maybe they would, but what’s more likely is that they’d get the impression that metal is not meant for them; it’s made by white people, for white people.

This of course is just not true, and you don’t even need to dig that deep to see that metal is enjoyed by all kinds of people. Black Sabbath, Metallica, Dio, Slayer, Guns ‘N’ Roses, X-Japan, Sepultura, Suffocation, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Dream Theater, Rage Against the Machine, KorRn, Orphaned Land, Deftones, Chthonic, Lacuna Coil, Opeth, System of a Down, Dragonforce, Skindred, God Forbid, Killswitch Engage: all big-name metal bands that have had members who don’t conform to the W.A.S.P./Aryan ideal , and there are countless more besides. If the point of metal was to freely spout racist bile, then you can wave goodbye to these bands ever existing. Metal is of course an alternative, non-mainstream subculture but that doesn’t mean it’s an exclusive club, only open to a select few. There is nothing “extreme” or “alternative” about being racist; if you look throughout human history, it’s just about the most pro-establishment, conservative thing you can be! Mainstream culture often excludes and alienates many people, and metal is an “alternative” to that. As Rob Zombie said in the documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey: ‘Metal is all the weird kids in one place’. If metal is not an inclusive place where people from all walks of life can feel accepted, then what on earth is the point? Ignoring racism is not “metal”; fighting it and welcoming victims of it certainly is.

As I said at the beginning though, I can to an extent see where both sides are coming from here. Looking at the people who wish to ignore Phil Anselmo’s actions, they are invariably going to be big fans of his music, and it can be hard to accept that your idols are sometimes much less than perfect human beings. Especially with music, it is something that is often enjoyed as a total escape from the world and thus many people would rather not pay attention to its context (i.e. they’d rather concentrate on appreciating the music for its own sake). So, if such people are confronted with unpleasant contextual information (such as a musician’s offensive personal views or actions), they choose to ignore it, deeming it irrelevant in determining how good the music itself is. On the other hand, given that we have people saying they are turning their backs on Anselmo’s music as a result of his actions, it looks like the reverse is true too; that is, we have people refusing to listen to, if not outright disliking, music because of negative contextual factors. My personal position is somewhere in the middle though and, to explain why, I’ll need to recall something I learned at university several years ago…

I have Bachelor and Master’s degrees in philosophy, and one subject I studied was aesthetics: the philosophy of art. A central topic in this area of philosophy is the question of what it means for a piece of art to have value. We learned that a piece of art (be it a song, film, book, painting, etc.) can be said to have both “aesthetic” and “non-aesthetic” value. The aesthetic value of a metal song or artist, for example, would be found in its composition, style, musicianship and anything else that makes it good from a technical standpoint. Non-aesthetic value however comes from external factors; moral, social and political considerations for example (i.e. anything that is separate from how good a song is on a technical level, but which can still affect how it is critically perceived). Aesthetic and non-aesthetic considerations can often conflict and contrast, so that we may find ourselves struggling to determine how valuable a piece of art is. A key example of this that I looked at during my studies was the film Triumph of the Will by Leni

Aesthetically, it is considered a work of brilliance due to its ground-breaking cinematography. Non-aesthetically, it’s, well, a Nazi propaganda film; regardless of how technically good it is, the controversy of the subject matter invariably affects many people’s opinions of it. So, you might say the film is “good” if you place more importance on aesthetic factors, but “bad” if you place more importance on non-aesthetic factors. In either case, your overall view of the film is limited. Both aesthetic and non-aesthetic factors are necessary in order to determine how good or valuable a piece of art is; if we just focus on one or the other, we don’t see the full picture.

So what does this mean for Phil Anselmo and the large quantity of music that he’s produced?  It means that it’s understandable to criticise or boycott it as his actions arguably affect the non-aesthetic value of his music. Conversely, his actions do not necessarily affect the aesthetic value of his music, and thus many people remain happy to listen to it. I personally think it’s important to try and balance the two though. I am not the biggest Pantera fan but I’ll generally bang my head and so forth if “Cowboys from Hell” or “5 Minutes Alone” comes on in a club. Will I stop doing that now? I don’t know, but I do know that it will perhaps affect my overall enjoyment of the music. Similarly, I think Ted Nugent has written some decent songs, but his right-wing views leave a bit of a sour taste in my mouth when I’m listening to them. Art does not exist in a cultural vacuum; how it relates to cultural norms and sensibilities is certainly going to affect many people’s opinions of it as it is just one little piece in the jigsaw of a person’s life. Personally, as well as being a proud metalhead, I also identify as being English, Irish, bisexual, an atheist, a humanist, a liberal, a social democrat, and a feminist: I don’t stop being any of those things when I put my headphones in or attend a gig, and so they all feed into how I interpret and appreciate my music. 100 people may each recognise the technical brilliance or raw power of a great metal song but a multitude of factors can affect how non-aesthetically valuable they each judge it to be.

To conclude, racism should not be accepted within metal as it threatens the community’s inclusivity; we are a family, where no one should be made to feel unwelcome. Does that mean we should all stop listening to Phil Anselmo’s music? I personally think it’s understandable whichever decision you make there. Pantera’s influence and legacy are undeniable and if you are such a big fan of their music (or of Superjoint Ritual or Down), you might very well find it impossible to stop listening to it. But, don’t give people a hard time if, like Robb Flynn, they have decided to turn their back on it. The unacceptable nature of Anselmo’s actions means that, for many people, his music is now irreparably tainted. It may not be bad technically, but it is really hard to enjoy something if it offends, excludes or alienates you. For metal to survive as a thriving community, it requires us to ultimately be respectful of the differences we have; metal can make you feel free and liberated from the often oppressive nature of mainstream society and no one should be denied this.


One comment

  1. Wyrd Ways Rock Show · January 31, 2016

    Reblogged this on Wyrdness Abounds and commented:
    You’ve got a good point there, Tom.


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