The word “navigate” pops up frequently in Laina Dawes’ debut, What Are You Doing Here? She has good reason to use it so frequently. Over the last three decades, the veteran African-Canadian music journalist has had to constantly reassess and readjust her identity as a black woman in the world of metal. Traditionally, the genre has leaned toward white males, but there’s more to that dynamic than simple polarization, a point Dawes astutely, poignantly brings to the fore, even as she acknowledges her own difficulties in being an outsider among outsiders.
In the book’s short length, Dawes dwells on a staggering number of topics: metal’s overlooked roots in black music (both being prime examples of “the devil’s music”), the complex web of racial codes and signifiers to be untangled at any given metal show, and how black people are often the first to shun metal fans who are black, mostly due to the assumption that embracing metal means rejecting black culture. But Dawes triumphs most when she makes her case a personal one. Using anecdotes—both humorous and heartbreaking—she recounts her own travails as a woman who has to forge her own path through racial and gender barriers, simply to participate in the music that’s always spoken to her. In an especially sobering account, she recalls being body-checked and verbally assaulted by a skinhead at a South By Southwest venue, an experience that hammered home just how much ghosts of scenes past still haunt the present.
Dawes doesn’t sugarcoat her life in metal, but neither does she let bitterness drown out her idealism. In her forties, she still holds metal to be a force for expression, freedom, and catharsis, especially among those who can’t easily fit in elsewhere. It’s unfortunate, though, that she tries to factor punk and hardcore into the equation. In her introduction, she admits that incorporating those genres into the book wasn’t a central concern, and it shows; she mentions iconic hardcore bands like the all-black Bad Brains only when it suits her story, without ever fully incorporating and fleshing them out—let alone indicating what a huge influence Bad Brains had on metal, particularly ’80s thrash. That said, she manages to ably work in other styles of music—R&B, funk, hip-hop—and she provides a broader cultural context that nimbly avoids academic stuffiness.
“When I began writing this book,” Dawes says in her epilogue, “I didn’t know any other black women who were metal fans.” Therein lies the fundamental strength of What Are You Doing Here?: Amid its historical research, sociological rigor, and interviews with many of the unsung black women in metal (a roster that remains pitifully small), she allows her own quest for belonging and connection to underscore her narrative. In doing so, she brings a vulnerability and humanity to a music scene not generally recognized for either.