Under The Skin: There is no place for racism in Heavy Metal (or anywhere else)

Phil Anselmo - apology video crop

When footage emerged online last week of Phil Anselmo making a ‘Sieg Heil’ salute and shouting “White power!” from the stage of this year’s Dimebash event, my reaction was one of colossal disappointment and disgust.

I was disappointed because there is no place in this world for racism. I was disappointed because there is no place in heavy metal for racism. I was disappointed because I love a lot of the music Phil Anselmo has made with his bands Pantera and Down specifically. I was disappointed because Anselmo was a guy I had looked up to.

How could you, Phil?

And yet here he was, a man who is a highly regarded and important figure in the world of heavy metal, making an abhorrent and deeply racist gesture at an event which existed to commemorate the tragic death of another highly regarded heavy metal musician, Dimebag Darrell: a former band-mate of Anselmo’s, no less.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the footage of Anselmo at Dimebash that was posted to Youtube.

I briefly thought about writing a piece for Skin Back Alley and then initially decided against it. Metal Hammer magazine had been swift to publish Paul Branningan’s piece on the same subject, as had Metal Sucks with Axl Rosenberg’s editorial, which also drew attention to some previous examples of similar behaviour from Anselmo. What could I add?

But in the following couple of days I realised how strongly I was feeling about what had happened. I naturally found myself speaking to musicians, friends, relatives and metal-heads, soliciting their views and thinking through my own as questions arose in my mind. Should I throw out all those Pantera records and Down albums? Should I do the same with other artists’ works if they had done equally idiotic things in their lifetimes? When exactly do you give up on artists you have (had?) respect for?

Once the footage of Anselmo’s offensive gestures had been published, the man himself responded, dismissing his actions as part of a “joke” that was based on the fact that many of the musicians that had been performing at Dimebash were drinking copious amounts of white wine. Although the post has since been deleted, here was what Anselmo had to say in the comments section beneath that Youtube video:

Anselmo comments - Youtube screen shot

And therein lies the admittedly very fine line for me. Anselmo’s behaviour on stage at Dimebash was appalling. Whether he found it such or not, his gestures and that phrase WERE offensive. They WERE racist. They WERE downright wrong. Nevertheless, in time it might have been possible to forgive the man and move forward if he had truly owned his actions, acknowledged how wrong they were, apologised for them and committed to making amends for the future.

As it was, he tried to pass it all off as the “inside joke of the night.” Despite trying to claim that he will “own this one”, he plainly didn’t, ultimately concluding “No apologies from me.”

Well, the spectacularly unfunny “joke” is on you, Phil.

Another respected metal musician who performed at Dimebash, Machine Head frontman Robb Flynn, had his own thoughts on the matter:

Other musicians whose music I love and who I have immense respect for have, down the years, said and done some spectacularly offensive things. Whilst reflecting on the events at Dimebash I found myself thinking of other examples in order to try and place Phil Anselmo’s behaviour in some kind of context.

In 2014, Black Flag and Rollins Band icon Henry Rollins published an article in LA Weekly titled “Fuck Suicide.” In it he wrote some incredibly ill-informed and downright offensive things about people who suffer with mental illness and tragically take their own life as a result.

Back then I was just as disappointed in Rollins as I am now in Phil Anselmo. I corresponded with a musician at the time of Rollins’ article and asked how they felt, knowing that they too looked up to Rollins, but also that they worked closely with charities seeking to end the stigma and widespread misunderstanding associated with issues of mental health. Referencing the fact that Kiss’ Gene Simmons had also made some disparaging remarks about people who had committed suicide, the musician I corresponded with wrote:

“I’m for Simmons and Rollins as people, even though I’m not for all of their opinions. If I had the opportunity, I would sit down with them and try to open up an honest dialogue about mental health. Shame has no place.”

Wise words. And in the days following Rollins’ original column, he published a follow-up that was refreshing in its honesty and attitude. Rollins not only apologised for what he acknowledged were ill-informed and offensive remarks, but committed to educating himself further about the topics of mental health and suicide:

“I have no love for a fixed position on most things. I am always eager to learn something. I promise that I will dig in and educate myself on this and do my best to evolve. Again, thank you,” he wrote.

And there was that difference that I was looking for. Yes, Henry Rollins had expressed views that were undeniably offensive, ill-considered and simply wrong. BUT! He listened to what people had to say to him. He recognised that his position was wide of the mark. He really did own his mistake, apologised for it and made a commitment to educate himself and become a better person as a result.

If only Phil Anselmo had immediately done the same.

After a lot of heated debate within the heavy metal community, Phil Anselmo did publish his own apology, going on camera to say that he deserved the “heat” that he was getting. Here’s the video:

I hope that Anselmo is sincere in his apology. Whilst he has made no public commitment to do so, I also hope he spends time educating himself about racism and, much as Henry Rollins did, try and evolve and become a better person as a result of the controversy. I believe that people genuinely can change for the better, and also believe that it is possible for Anselmo to do the same. Even in the world of heavy metal, a world that thrives on cultures and styles that are outside of the mainstream and that can seem from the outside like a place of extremes, we have to have a compassionate hope for the future, and the future of the music that we love.

As seriously as I take Phil Anselmo’s actions, and whilst I will continue to confront the tension that exists between his music and his behaviour and will continually sense-check myself and my listening with a view to developing and evolving my thoughts and opinions, I won’t be throwing out my collection of Pantera and Down albums just yet (although absolutely reserve the right to do so in the future.)

As a respected classically trained musician and critic asked me in recent days, should we also abandon Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Parsifal because the man himself was very far from perfect? No. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold artists – or anyone else – accountable when they do something so repulsive.

On that theme – and another reason behind my decision to publish my thoughts here – my enormous disappointment with Phil Anselmo himself has been matched only by an equally sizeable disappointment in the response to Anselmo’s actions from people who claim to be fans of heavy metal and its culture.

Even the most brief perusal of the comments posted beneath Metal Hammer’s article or Metal Sucks’ editorial will turn up hundreds of abhorrent opinions: people claiming that Anselmo has nothing to apologise for; people claiming that Anselmo shouting “White power” is no different to others shouting “Black power”; people claiming that liberalism has no place in heavy metal, or that this is just another example of the politically correct brigade jumping on a bandwagon and using it as a means of furthering their own agendas.

No. Enough.

In my heart-of-hearts I have always believed that the heavy metal community, at its best, is about welcoming and embracing minorities. It is about giving a home to people who have felt that they have no place in mainstream society, or who feel that they don’t fit the picture of whatever society deems “normal” these days; people who feel like the proverbial square peg in a very uninviting looking round hole.

What Phil Anselmo did on stage last week is the very antithesis of that philosophy, and the raft of vile and vitriolic opinions that have popped up during the fall-out from Anselmo’s behaviour are too. If you feel in any way that heavy metal has been misunderstood as a culture and community over the years, spouting views that tacitly support the continuing of racial hatred is not going to do you, or the culture and community that you supposedly love, any favours.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. I’ll keep saying it until it becomes clear that it is no longer necessary to do so: there is no place in heavy metal for racism. There is no place in the world for racism.

So please, no more. We can all do better. We need to evolve.

oOo

As an aside, and not central to the problem of Phil Anselmo’s racist behaviour, another reason why I decided to go ahead and publish my thoughts here was the sniping that I saw cropping up in various heavy metal publications’ coverage of this story.

In particular, I felt that Paul Branningan’s piece in Metal Hammer, whilst to be entirely applauded for holding Phil Anselmo to account, let itself down in its criticism of other publications’ decisions to either (A) not post any news about the story or (B) couch their coverage in language such as “apparently” or “appears” when describing Anselmo’s comments and gestures. To quote one of Brannigan’s paragraphs from Metal Hammer:

“Certain major rock magazine websites have, at the time of writing, failed to even make mention of the incident, a shameful, negligent oversight which speaks of editorial weakness. Other news outlets have elected to couch coverage of the incident in conciliatory language, talking about what Anselmo “appears to” have said, and “appears to” have done, as if, perhaps, we cannot be trusted to verify the evidence presented before our eyes and ears.”

It felt like an unnecessary swipe and, as it turns out, it was a little hypocritical. In fact, Metal Hammer had used exactly the same kind of conciliatory language in their social media posts linking to their own news articles about the events.

Metal Hammer Facebook Anselmo post

I am fully aware of arguments about how all it takes is for “a few good men to do nothing” for terrible things to occur in the world, and would have expected major rock and metal publications to cover the news. That said, the paragraph in Metal Hammer felt like it was delivered from a very high horse and left a bitter taste.

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