The tough conversation about racial bias in entertainment

Norbormide, live in Ghanzi 2018
Norbormide, live in Ghanzi, 25 May 2018: image by Thalefang Charles

Just last month I returned home to Cape Town from a most amazing human experience in neighbouring Botswana; a Heavy Metal concert attended mostly by black folk, both as the entertainers on stage and the audience in attendance. Heavy Metal? In the Kalahari? Most people I tell about this back home in South Africa, regardless of skin colour, blink in surprise. Or simple disbelief. That’s okay! Here’s a picture to prove it.

Just last weekend, I attended a Heavy Metal concert in Cape Town where two bands from neighbouring countries visited. Both consisting entirely of people of colour; performing alongside their white* South African counterparts.

* I’ll get back to this in a bit.

As I’d like to see it, underground in South Africa is making progress. Where are we in relation to other parts of Africa, though?

So, just this week, facebook delivered a perspective which echoes an answer. A local black artist posted about most South African festivals being white dominated. Whilst progress might be a fact, it is possible that we’re still losing to the currents of a bigger, uglier tide; generally reflected by the present state of politics in the country.

Whilst some who witnessed yesterday’s post have been – lets say – somewhat antagonistic towards it and its author, and then in turn towards each other (this was on facebook, after all), I actually think it’s an important point of conversation. One which we all too easily avoid; but because it’s tough and people are rightfully afraid to express ideas. Within this theater of thought, there can be no one winner. All participants must be willing to compromise; and such participants are not very forthcoming. Therefore most people just really don’t know how to engage it and thus prefer to stay aloof or simply push it (swiftly, and forcefully) beneath the proverbial carpet of Status Quo.

I’ve referenced a number of specific experiences above, because each lends itself in some way to this conversation and adds emphasis to the complexities that underlay it. I will lay out my further discussion based on these and other experiences.

Norbormide 2018 by Patrick Davidson
Norbormide, live in Cape Town, 22 June 2018: image by Patrick Davidson

White dominated music festivals

“WHITE DOMINATED MUSIC FESTIVALS” was the headline chosen for the status published by a black South African artist. The remainder of the post read as follows:

“How many? Well ive been a performing artist for about 13 years now and I can confidently say that from the festivals ive played in this country 99% of them were all white dominated line-ups. Which I never questioned at the time because it’s normal right? To be the token black band that makes everyone feel like they are still in Africa and are being sooooo open minded about keeping those collaborative spaces inclusive?

Today I went on Psych Night & Vans present: Endless Daze 2018 website just to check out the first round line-up announcement for this year….ALL WHITE! I was perusing also with the intention of wanting to submit my EPK but this just turned me right off and made me realise so much about the music festivals ive played over the years and how much of it ive just complied and excepted just so I can have a stage to be heard on. This country is oozing with people of colour killing it in the underground scene and the festivals in this country are still designed to support and highlight white talent at large?? ARE WE NOT GONNA TALK ABOUT THIS? ARE WE JUST GONNA NORMALIZE THIS BEHAVIOUR?

Please realise that while you’re being exclusively up your own asses that this in turn suppresses our efforts and this doesn’t heal or help grow anything!!! But builds further psychological walls in our social spaces! #ENOUGH”

This touched close to me because, well, I fill the role of a promoter of a small festival event and we definitely fit the label of “underground”. Moreover, I noted that on our current line-up of eight bands, comprising of roughly forty individuals, I can only think of one of those individuals being a person of colour. Perhaps there are another one or two members among those forty-odd, but I can’t be sure. Probably not though. I also realized that the festival to which attention was brought through the artists post… was one which this very website has focused on as a ‘close cousin’ to our own little niche in the underground market.

One could therefore easily conclude that – in the eyes of the artist who has laid this grievance – me and mine are likely a part of this problem she feels faced with.

As I understand it, however, the underground market is vast in its diversity, though not nearly so much in its patronage. I cannot speak for other events, but in our case this outcome was not intentional; it’s merely circumstantial. And we’re certainly not feeling smug about it. In fact, we’ve long ago recognized a greater need towards – lets call it for the lack of better term – a certain Social Responsibility within the South African entertainment realm. As the artist points out in her text, we are in Africa. We actually want to promote cultural diversity and racial parity.

But how? Placing a non-Heavy Metal artist onto the stage at an all-Metal event is just bad for business. And lets face it. For Heavy Metal, business is not exactly booming. It would be an irresponsible allocation of resources which jeopardize the continuation of the festival into future years. Most festival events live pretty much “hand to mouth”. One financial failure away from oblivion. Ours certainly lives that way. We cannot afford to do something just for good sentiment. We need a strategy.

DevilSpeak M4A 2017 by Christopher Tatzreither
DevilSpeak: image courtesy of Christopher Tatzreither

What attempts have we made to fulfill our Social Responsibility so far?

Granted, perhaps not enough. More on why not later. For now, what have we done?

Well, given that we cannot place a non-Metal act onto our Metal stage, the next logical solution is to seek out black talent which performs Metal music. We recognized a need to promote this kind of social agenda right in our earliest days. But (and here is the punchline marked with * above) what if there were no black musicians available within our niche? This was precisely where we found ourselves ten years ago. Still find ourselves today, to a significant degree, in a strictly South African context.

So we cast our nets to beyond South African borders. In 2010 we welcomed Wrust, a Metal band from Botswana. This was a great risk at the time – not because we believed our very white dominated audience wouldn’t enjoy this all-black Metal powerhouse – but because of the financial implications. We went ahead with it anyway and it was lovely!

We’ve enjoyed a few other non-white visitors from across borders since. Does it sour us a little bit that we’re obliged to import this talent? Well, sure it does! Not that we don’t enjoy connecting with our neighbours, but we’d love if it weren’t as the situation has dictated.

Botswana’s Overthrust, live in Stellenbosch at SummerFest’14

Some other implications to consider

Off stage, however – and getting back to the “why not” promised earlier – this investment into non-white entertainers followed a very specific agenda: we had hoped to see an increase in attendance; particularly as regards people of colour. We need to see some evidence of a return on the investment.

It would be naive to think: “Boom! Black band. Black attendance.” We recognize that to see a transformation in our scene will take a protracted effort. And probably a lot of money. Whilst we are long-term committed, we’re definitely not long-term financed. We take each event as it comes and our first priority always is that it survives.

To be clear on this: whilst financial prudence is always part of the decision-making, hunger for profits were never part of the ambition here. Offering a few hours holiday from real life to our tight-knit community of Metal music and Metal lifestyle lovers is the only goal. Whatever money comes in simply gets recirculated into the next event cycle, and the numerical data collected at one is what gives us confidence in future decisions for another. We’d love more than anything to expand that community, but if we want to see racial parity on the line-ups then we need to establish duality on both sides of the playing field. More black people attending as audience today increases the likelihood of local black talent on the stage tomorrow. And I mean this on a more esoteric level than financial. In Metal we are always asking “where is tomorrow’s generation of great bands going to come from?”. Naturally, from today’s fans. We can spend more money on sourcing black entertainers from wherever they can be found if we can see that our audience base begins to increase as a result of it, and vice-versa a momentum begins to develop.

Presently we do enjoy a rather more cosmopolitan audience than any time before. Mostly white and coloured. We welcome the small handful of black attendees with open hearts though. But that doesn’t seem enough to attract more.

We’ve got a lot in common \m/ taken in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town

Why are our efforts so weak in impact?

I think I can understand a little better about why our efforts have been so weak in impact. Especially now after having traveled to Botswana. I’ve been dying to make that trip for years, yet personal finances have not allowed until I could join a like-minded group of co-travelers in 2018.

See, we opted to take the first steps by extending a hand towards the black community by showcasing black talent. Our intention was to show black/brown/other South Africans that Heavy Metal in South Africa is not a racially biased space, privy only to white people. We felt a need to show that (to ourselves equally as much as to any others) because throughout the apartheid years and beyond, Metal has definitely looked like a “white thing only” in South Africa. This is distressing to us because, to our North in Botswana and East in Mozambique, there are plenty of black people who absolutely live Heavy Metal just the way that some of us whites in South Africa do. To us as metalheads, this is a human connection that we hunger for, and skin colour is not a factor. We live our sub-culture almost to the extent of a religious fervor; which is why society at large remains suspicious of us and why Heavy Metal generally tends to be marginalized. Why can we enjoy Heavy Metal music and culture alongside black people in other African countries but not here?

I’ve come to believe that it’s because we’ve only made a half attempt at bridging the gap. Putting black talent on our stage is not enough. It’s as the offended artist points out in her post, “the token black band”. She’s probably right. I can’t imagine how that must feel.

The problem – as I now believe it to be – is the feeling of trust and safety.

We shouldn’t expect black to automatically come to us – we need to go to black

Arriving in Botswana was surreal. As a metalhead, I could immediately see where my kind of people were congregated, even though they were black-skinned. Entering among them I was greeted in what among my people is the appropriate manner. I felt welcome. At home. Safe.

And they reassured me that I was safe – literally, verbally – which seemed strange at first, but later emerged that they’re quite tuned-in to what mainstream media projects about South African politics and society. Yet in Ghanzi I was shown how Pantsula can blend in seamlessly to a Moshpit, and to actually participate in the music (through voice, or dance, or even bringing a frying pan and beating on it to the rhythm) is the most majestic expression of gratitude. This is the cultural crucible I long so dearly for to experience here at home! Also note that there was never apartheid in Botswana.

Recalling South Africa’s apartheid laws, there are geographic areas still where black folk probably don’t feel quite at ease just yet**, or are difficult to access for nightlife owing to transport routes and schedules. Incidentally, these are the areas our shows have always happened, because that’s where we’ve grown established. Comfortable. Safe. Our fault has not been our intention, but rather our execution. If we’re serious about making black people feel inclusive in these underground scenes, then we probably need to take this underground culture (which is highly mobile) and present it inside our less-than comfortable spaces. We need to take Heavy Metal into predominantly black areas.

** Even as a “soutie” I used to feel a little wary of social life “agter die boerewors gordyn”

African Metal by Linda Evermore for M4A at Witchfest 2015
Picture taken at Witchfest 2015 by Linda Evermore

Sadly, this is where the bus stops for now.

Knowing this is a far removed reality from actually doing it. Money. Contacts. Securities. Where will these resources come from? We don’t have it, and we’re certainly can’t expect help from government or business. Taking our sub-culture into new and exciting places will be an incredibly resource-heavy exercise. We need input which we currently just don’t have. And it’s not that we aren’t keeping our feelers out; it’s a situation that life is hard and simply putting bread on the table demands so much already. We’re kinda at the end of the rope! We need to see some positive things happening higher up in echelons of political society if we’re going to get to doing this kind of work.

Or… we need normal everyday people – similar to ourselves – from these areas begin to reach out to us so that we can collaborate. We don’t know how to find them otherwise. If any such person is reading this, then consider my words as a virtual welcome handshake.

The Demogoroth Satanum question

I can’t justifiably conclude this writing without taking a moment to focus on Demogoroth Satanum. Some may indeed ask us, “why haven’t they played yet?”

A fair question. Demogoroth Satanum is a beautiful (and beautifully ironic) phenomenon which arose out of Soweto and first hit stages in Johannesburg in 2013. Now, for any readers who might be new to Metal, when we talk about Black Metal, we’re not talking about Metal created by non-white people. We’re referring to a particularly heinous sub-genre within the greater Metal family of sub-genres, originating in its greatest part from Norway. It’s arguably the most extreme form of Metal in both sound and ideology. Bluntly put: it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.

In the case of Demogoroth Satanum, we have what we believe to be the world’s first all-black Black Metal performing band. And they’re from South Africa! And to top it off, they’re probably our country’s first ever all-black Metal band. At metal4africa we feel immensely proud of this. But then why have we not hosted Demogoroth Satanum at one of our Cape Town events yet?

Sadly, it comes back to financial prudence. Whilst Demogoroth Satanum actually enjoys a fair share of international fame and interest, we have to look at what people here in Cape Town are entertained by. Black Metal does not enjoy a large share of the market. Every band which we book for a show has to result in a value exchange – the money we’re putting down in favour of getting a band onto our stage needs to equate to a certain number of sales in tickets. For every band that we book, we need to have confidence in that the books will ultimately balance. Black Metal has seldom proven to be a good investment for us, unless it was locally sourced (as in Cape Town) and consequently low in cost. Or, just low in cost. Sometimes a band already on tour can be booked at low cost because we as promoter don’t have to be burdened by massive travel expenses. The fact that Demogoroth Satanum needs to travel across the country at great expense to play here is the biggest obstacle.

By the same token, South Africa’s most commercially successful Metal band to date is Vulvodynia. Also an extreme sub-genre, and also lower-than-average popularity within the Cape Town market (though this may be changing presently). In Europe, however, Vulvodynia is headlining its own tours and performing sold out shows. Amazing! Yet this is another South African band we have not yet hosted because, frankly, we can’t feel confident in a return on investment for the cost involved.

Here is Vulvodynia performing at a European festival in 2017.

Wrapping it up!

Anyway, I felt strongly compelled to share this inside perspective on how metal4africa feels about the matter.

Perhaps it invokes some constructive food for thought. With any luck, it’ll lead to some discussion with players that can be of assistance in the challenges we collectively face. I decided to leave the artist’s identity unnamed because I don’t want to attract more of the unpleasant feedback facebook has already delivered. Personally, I actually think she’s awesome in her vision and what she’s achieved as an artist.

To say that I respect her does not mean I think she is correct or has my support in every aspect of her argument though. But she has motivated discussion and further thought, and perhaps this is the part where each side needs to be able to find compromise in talks about the future.