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Image by Lia Kantrowitz

America Is Still Afraid of Heavy Metal

Kim Kelly

Kim Kelly

Two Native American metalheads were kicked off a campus tour last week by a white woman who feared their brown skin and black T-shirts. That fear is nothing new.

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

Heavy metal has always had an uncomfortable—and often downright acrimonious—relationship with the rest of society. In a way, that’s the point; a genre fomented on rebellion, disillusionment, and dissatisfaction with the status quo was fated to be adversarial towards all things “normal,” and metalheads ourselves do an excellent job of keeping up that divide between them and us (even as we tussle and spit internally about who qualifies as an “us”).

That combative attitude towards the mainstream is as intrinsic to metal culture as long hair or sweet guitar solos or a fascination with evil, and that enduring pique has resulted in some of our most cherished pieces of art, from Metallica’s ...And Justice for All to Napalm Death’s Scum to Castrator’s No Victim. It’s also gotten us in a lot of trouble over the years. The social stigma surrounding a long-haired person in a black T-shirt, long hair, and leather jacket remains, even as high fashion and streetwear companies continually mine the metal aesthetic for fun and profit.

The spirit of the 80s-era Satanic Panic lives, and its impact continues to reverberate throughout the annals of modern history; one can draw a straight line between the PMRC’s fear-mongering to the media’s portrayal of the Marilyn Manson-loving, black-clad Columbine shooters to this most recent incident. Mainstream public perception of heavy metal culture is still stuck in a sort of cultural hangover thanks to this bitter cocktail of societal influences, which is garnished by a lack of positive portrayals in mainstream film and pop culture. We’re generally the butt of the joke anytime we pop up, from Airheads and Empire Records to Beavis and Butt-Head and the loving but still over-the-top homage that was Metalocalypse.

In real life, metalheads seldom make the news for nice reasons; two of the most prominent images of metal fans to hit our current news cycle were both utterly contemptible—the video of a scrawny white neo-Nazi in a Slayer shirt sucker-punching a woman at Charlottesville’s deadly “Unite the Right” rally, and the recent malicious felony assault conviction of Jacob Goodwin, a white supremacist who brutally assaulted a black man named DeAndre Harris there that same weekend and who can be seen proudly wearing a Suffocation shirt on his social media profile.

Earlier this month, two young Native American men—Thomas Kanewakeron Gray, 19, and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray, 17—left their home in Santa Cruz, New Mexico and drove seven hours to tour the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. They’d saved up for months to make the trip, and had chosen the school due to its proximity to Denver, which is known for its burgeoning heavy metal community and strong live music scene. The brothers, who are members of the Mohawk Nation, are both metalheads, and happened to be wearing black band T-shirts that day; Lloyd sported a Cattle Decapitation shirt, while Thomas wore an Archspire hoodie.

They arrived to the tour a little late—it had been a long drive, after all—and quickly found themselves being questioned by the mother of one of their fellow attendees. They clammed up in response to her questions, which seems like a reasonable reaction when a strange adult is trying to interrogate you about your intentions on a college tour. In response, she called the cops.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Kanewakeron Gray

The brothers were stopped, searched, and questioned by campus police, then prevented from rejoining the tour. According to the New York Times, the woman who called 911 on them said the brothers were “definitely not” a part of the tour; she described their behavior as “odd” and their clothing as bearing “dark stuff,” and also accused them of lying by not giving their names or answering when she asked what they wanted to study. She then called 911 a second time, second-guessing herself and saying “it’s probably nothing” but that it “actually made me like feel sick and I’ve never felt like that.” Her name has not been released, but she has been described as a middle-aged white woman.

The university apologized profusely to the teens and has offered to reimburse them for the trip and bring them back as VIP guests; the teens’ family has not said whether or not they plan to accept. The boys’ mother, Lorraine Kahneratokwas Gray, spoke to NPR’s Northern Colorado affiliate KUNC after the event, saying, "I was concerned for my sons' safety and advised them to return home immediately. Our family is shocked and saddened over this incident of racial profiling, and disappointed that the school didn't take a proactive stand in protecting my boys from being shamed in this hostile way."

While this particular combination of brown skin and black T-shirts proved to be too much for one mouthy bigot to stomach, it’s not altogether uncommon for the latter to raise eyebrows—or hackles—here in America. Despite reactionaries’ panicked baying that the moves the genre’s made towards social progress is in fact a plot to make metal “less dangerous,” the fact of the matter is that, to most people, heavy metal and its fans are still seen as taboo, scary, weird—and, as was unfortunately made apparent last week with the Gray brothers—dangerous.

“Heavy metal and violence: More than a myth?” CNN asked in 2008, before ultimately deciding that horror movies were worse. While prejudice against metalheads has manifested in much more severe ways in certain religiously conservative countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and United States—itself a religiously conservative nation teetering on theocracy—has plenty of similar skeletons in its own closet.

The Gray brothers themselves have a few thoughts to share as well—most of them about death metal, and their band Snot Goblin (which is quite promising—think mid-period Carcass mixed with Nunslaughter and goofy teenage humor). When I called them up at their home in New Mexico on Monday night, they were hanging out with Snot Goblin’s new bassist, 25-year-old Coy Benallie, who joined the band about three weeks ago. Benallie has been playing various instruments for 18 years, while Thomas has notched 12 on guitar and Lloyd has been drumming for four. Their musical evolution has definitely been a family affair, and it’s no coincidence that Thomas describes Santa Fe’s close-knit DIY metal community as a second family. Thomas does most of the talking, speaking slowly and haltingly in that classic teenage way, though Lloyd and Benallie pipe up now and then.

“Both my older brother and dad both started teaching me [to play guitar] around the same time, and that’s how i started getting influenced by different music,” Thomas explains. “My older brother is the one that actually started getting us into metal shows and showing us different bands; he’s in a band too called Marrow Monger from Santa Fe.”

The idea for Snot Goblin was sparked three years ago as the brothers were listening to GWAR—a band rather well-versed in monster lore (and bodily fluids)—and wondering how they could whip up the same kind of manic crowd energy that the Richmond thrashers conjure. Their answer: homemade blood-spitting goblin masks paired with high-energy, shredding death metal played with tongues planted firmly in cheek.

“We were listening to GWAR, and thinking, what could we do to make something fun and out of the ordinary?” Thomas says. “How we think about Snot Goblin is we’re trying to get a lot of bad thoughts and put them into positive energy. We’re trying to bring something new to the table. A lot of bands just look pissed off and bored when they’re playing, [but] we’re going to try to add more to our artistic experience. We just want to make it fun and forget about shitty times.”

Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy of Thomas Kanewakeron Gray

The events of the past few days have driven a significant amount of attention Snot Goblin’s way, and the band is still struggling to decide on its next steps. Thomas tells me that they’d been discussing a number of options, including killing off Snot Goblin outright “because a lot of people have been feeling sympathetic for us, and that’s not something we want, we’re just trying to have a good time and keep up positive vibes.”

“It’s a good feeling knowing that people are listening and that they like what they’re listening to, so that just encourages us to work harder at it, and perfect it,” Lloyd adds.

Thomas also thinks that, “I feel like we should use this time of [attention] to help people gain knowledge about problems that are happening around them,” and one way they plan to do that is to hold a benefit show for missing and murdered Native American women. Details are still being worked out, but they’re planning for a date in June. They’ll also hit the studio to record six new songs that same month that will undoubtedly draw upon Thomas’s love for technical death metal, Benallie’s Scandinavian black metal, and Lloyd’s soft spot for the the drum work in Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

Meanwhile, the metal community has rallied around them. Snot Goblin currently has the top-selling album on Bandcamp thanks to a groundswell of social media support, which has seen metalheads and other well-wishers snapping up digital copies of The Path Of The Shrunken Heads in droves. “Metal has always been welcome and cherished on Bandcamp and makes up a large portion of the artists and fans on the platform,” a representative for Bandcamp told Noisey. “We're so thrilled to see the community coming together to support these young musicians after they experienced such a despicable act."

Cattle Decapitation vocalist Travis Ryan (whose band posted on Facebook offering the teens free concert tickets for life following the incident) has reached out to the brothers himself, and also had a few choice words to share with Noisey when we asked him for his thoughts on the situation.

"It's absurd that in 2018 there's still people out there that harbor the mentality of the scared 80s PMRC mom who thinks everything is Satanic or out to get them or their sons and daughters," Ryan said via email. "My peers who were shunned in the 80s and 90s for being into death metal are now doctors, lawyers, teachers, cops. These are two very shy, quiet kids just trying to mind their own business and further their education. There's gonna be kids dressed in black whose appearance does not dictate who and what they are inside as individuals. Metalheads, fringe types, and counterculture folks are everywhere and we simply want to mind our own businesses and do our thing, which does not include interfering in your life or anyone else's—so please don't interfere in ours."

For now, though, the Gray brothers are riding out this current storm with remarkable grace. They scoffed at the idea that they would alter their appearance or abandon their beloved death metal T-shirts after the incident (“I have like four pairs of pants and 9,000 metal shirts!”) and collectively giggled “Wear your metal shirts to church!” when I ask if they had any particular message they want to get out there. Thomas did get more serious, though, and told me, “Don’t listen to what people say about you because it’s not important. I think a lot of young people bring each other down, but it’s all one love, like Bob Marley said.”

The Gray brothers have handled this all with grace and good humor, but their story is just another example of the stigma that metalheads have faced throughout our comparatively short history as a subculture. Just this week, a viral tweet showing pages from an 80s police document made the rounds, dredging up uncomfortable memories for those who came of age during the Satanic Panic while amusing those young enough to have escaped its grasp. The document was apparently originally circulated with the intention to identify, investigate, and understand “criminal ritualistic activity” in teenagers, some warning signs of which included terrifying behaviors like “being bored” and “low self-esteem.”

A major focus of the document was, of course, heavy metal (as well as punk and “skinhead” culture) which it linked to “aggressive behavior, abuse of drugs or alcohol, graphic violence, graphic or explicit sex, sadistic/masochistic violence, and suicide,” and listed the PMRC as a “resource” for parents whose children were struggling with an appreciation of the dread genre. It also fingered the metal horns hand gesture, the peace symbol (?), the anarchy symbol, and a whole list of potential tattoo designs (five of which I currently have inked on my body—oops) as signifiers of a youth gone wild; even Dungeons & Dragons got dragged into it, with the excellently named group Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons occupying prime real estate within the document’s pages.

As ridiculous and over the top as all this may seem now, we must remember that this misguided tomfoolery had a very real, tangible, and negative impact on many people’s lives. The West Memphis 3 are perhaps the most famous victims of societal prejudice against metalheads. In 1994, three working class Arkansas teenagers who were accused of murdering three boys in a “Satanic ritual;” they were arrested for a crime they did not commit, pulled up on scanty evidence that included their manner of dress (black metal T-shirts and long hair) and an interest in occultism, and thrown in prison for life—and in the case of Damien Echols, sentenced to Death Row. Their unjust imprisonment became a cause célèbre for many metal and rock celebrities and fans the world over, and in 2011, after years of appeals and new DNA evidence, the three men walked free. Their years of suffering became a totem for the metal community—a warning of what can happen when the mainstream (and the state) turns against you.

That’s what happened to these two young Native American men; mainstream society (personified by a racist white woman) conspired with the state (personified by its attack dogs, the police) to create a situation in which these innocent kids’ lives were placed in danger. Native Americans are killed in police encounters at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group; when this woman called the cops on these teens, she made the conscious choice to put them in danger, because she read the combination of their skin color and their black T-shirts and shy, “awkward” demeanor as “out of place,” and it made her feel “nervous.”

"I’d like to guide the direction of this story away from how quickly and graciously the college came to action to compensate these victims of this maddeningly all-too-common racist, discriminatory occurrence, and steer it more toward calling out the individual that committed this act of impulsive bigotry,” Archspire vocalist Oliver Rae Aleron told Noisey when we reached out about the story (he posted a similar statement on the band's Facebook page). He went on to invite the woman and her family to come attend an Archspire show next time the Canadian band rolls through Colorado, in order to “observe firsthand just how positive, excepting and overall uplifting the ‘out of place’ lifestyle that these innocent brothers freely and publicly represent, actually is.”

“This seems the most logical and frankly the only course of action we as artists can take to help prevent further stories like this from surfacing,” Aleron explains. “Hopefully by observing firsthand the unity and undeniable joy that’s brought into the lives of these young music and art enthusiasts, one might just change their biased perspective about who these two brothers and other fans of intense music really are at their core."

Would this woman have called the cops if the Gray brothers were white? Maybe, maybe not. Would she have done it if they were wearing slacks and blazers? Maybe, maybe not. We can argue in hypotheticals all day, but the fact of the matter is that, this happened. She made the call. All we can do now is thank all that is unholy that these two young men made it out of the encounter safely, and work to dismantle the oppressive systems that led to it happening at all.

Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; follow her on Twitter here.