This is the second part of my series of posts on Botswana. Part One can be found here. In this installment, I’m talking about how the Botswanan scene compares to scenes abroad, and about the scene’s reception.
The notion of metal in Botswana – particularly such a vibrant, committed scene, composed almost entirely of black fans and musicians – is a strange one, as metal is traditionally seen as a white and European or American scene. While there’s an element of truth to this, I think it’s important to remember that there’s a huge and long-standing death/thrash scene in Indonesia, and scenes thrive in many places that aren’t majority white.
The striking images of Frank Marshall’s exhibit, which were one of the first mainstream exposures of the scene, also emphasise the unique fashion dominant among the scene’s fans.
This extract from metal blog Invisible Oranges describes many of the possible reactions to discovering the Botswanan scene:
Potential subtexts abound:
“Look – metal in [insert obscure country]!”
“Look – black people liking metal!”
“See the natives as they collide with Western culture!”
These were the first three narratives that came to my mind. As you can probably tell, they’re mostly negative. The first and third smack of exoticization, and the second is patronizing.
The first of these points is a common reaction when encountering metal that isn’t from one of the traditional centres of metal production – and indeed may often be to the advantage of bands from isolated scenes. However, all of them can be read with negative implications, as the writer points out.
The racial element in particular has a definite novelty to it, and while this serves as unique selling point for many African bands, it does not come without its share of problems. As written by the blogger she wolf on the site hearevil.com:
People don’t even ask me about metal music from Botswana — they ask about the scene. What the hell am I supposed to think about the scene? I’ve never been to Botswana, I’ve never been anywhere near Botswana, and I have never met anyone who’s been to Botswana. What meaningful opinion could I possibly have? I know there are only two reasons you could possibly give half a damn what I have to say about these people:
1) You feel, due to certain pigmentational similarities between myself and them, that I should have stronger opinions than average about what they do
2) You view them as some sort of sideshow-esque novelty and want someone to gawk with
I wonder if “Do you like Wrust?” is to African metalheads as “Do you like Nightwish?” is to female metalheads.
This is not to say that all reaction to the metal produced in Botswana has been negative. I think we metalheads have a fondness for novelty. It’s well-known that knowledge of obscure bands grants great status in the metal community, and I suspect that Botswanan and other African bands have benefited from this, problematic though it may be.
Botswanan bands tour widely in neighbouring countries. Skinflint and Wrust in particular have been very successful, with many positive reviews on blogs and websites. A documentary film entitled “March of the Gods” has recently been made – it was in fact presented at a film festival in SA last weekend – following Wrust as they toured their Intellectual Metamorphosis album.
This tour included playing a festival in Italy in June of last year, which made them the first Botswanan band to play outside Africa. Skinflint matched this by appearing in Norway in November.
Some news articles seek to emphasise a link between traditional Sestwana culture and the practices of the nation’s metal scene. A metalinjection article titled In Botswana, Africa, Heavy Metal is the New Patriotism writes
…Botswanan bands are increasingly determined to create a unique, cultural identity for Botswana, in the international arena; it seems quite plausible, with a metal movement that ties the essential elements of metal, with an ancestral connection to one’s culture and heritage. As Gunsmoke described, “most of us are in a tribe,” and the “animal totems” they carry invariably represent the specific culture to which they belong.
He also claims, other Batswana see them as “guardian angels”, and they are approached by children and parents. He says that Botswana as a nation is proud of its metalheads, and even claims the country’s president Ian Khama as a fellow rocker, and that metal has become an integral part of Batswana self-identification.
To quote a CNN article with a similar slant:
It’s a uniquely African movement, and one that celebrates a special spiritual connection to the land.
Frank Marshall doesn’t go as far in his claims, and while he doesn’t portray the metalheads as occupying a special place in Batswana society, he portrays them as an accepted group, if a somewhat curious one, as shown by his account of a group on their way to a gig:
Sometimes you hear an awkward silence followed by cheers and shouts by onlookers in the street.
However, the reactions of the public seen in the media are quite different – as seen in this Dutch news feature on the scene, they range from suspicion:
Teenage Girl: I think it’s weird, first of all, and then it’s hard to understand, yeah? And also, you know the way they dress? It’s, you know, they’re different! It’s all spooky!
Concerned Man: It’s very hot, you don’t have to wear those kind of clothing. It’s extremely hot, it goes to 39 degrees.
Describing a more negative repsonse to the metalheads, Vulture, lead signer of Overthrust, is quoted in The Guardian:
People think that we are rough, evil creatures, but [metal] teaches us to be free with expression, to do things on our own
as is Skinflint’s bassist TKB, maintaining that though they are not yet accepted into the mainstream, they are increasingly recognised:
The culture doesn’t accept heavy metal fans, the people all look at you, but nowadays even the young boys know that this person is a metalhead.
and fan Trooper says
Some perceive us as Satanists, which we are not.
These descriptions of alienation, placing the metal subculture on the fringes of, or outside the social mainstream have more in common with the typical narrative of metal in other countries, which presents metal and its fans as outsiders.
The opposite issue, the importance of Botswana national identity within the metal scene, is similarly divided. As quoted earlier, Skinflint’s lyrics are particularly interested in dealing with local heritage and folk tales – but analysing the lyrics of other bands show this to be the exception, rather than the rule, for Botswanan metal. Giving the opposing viewpoint, Stux Daemon from Wrust talks about his own band’s connection to their homeland:
You are going to try to use your surroundings to influence your music, your thoughts and your songwriting, but [Setswana culture] is not something we focus on.
What isn’t reported
For the most part, scenic experience in Botswana seems to be little different from that in other countries. Fans attend gigs, mosh, and buy records and merchandise; while bands record and perform music – the normal actions of a music scene of any sort. The fashion may be different to other countries – but importantly, like anywhere else, the metal fashion serves as a signifier of “metalhead” status and as a provocative social statement. The fans and outside observers often comment on the high levels of camaraderie and brotherhood experienced by scene participants, but this is similarly reported in scenes abroad.
The media reports on the scene frequently focus on the Visions of Renegades exhibition, drawing attention to the fashion prevalent in the scene rather than any other scenic practices. As well as exoticizing this one practice and ignoring the other aspects of Botswanan metal, this interest in fashion has focused solely on fans. Most pictures of bands active in the scene show them dressed in a much less extravagant versions of the local style, where the local style is even present at all.
I used two of these photos in my last post, and I’m curious if any of you picked up on the disparity here. Amok are wearing leather jackets, but that’s hardly notable. Giuseppe Sbrana has cowboy frill on his jacket, but that’s the only visible element of the style that is presented as the norm, while Wrust could just be four dudes from anywhere in the world. The only band that seem to follow the fashion is Overthrust, and interestingly they are one of the only bands not from either Gaborone or Maun (they come from the Western town of Ghanzi).
It’s almost like the normal situation abroad has been reversed – the fans wear the elaborate costumes and the artists just dress normally.
Though Skinflint attempt to incorporate aspects of regional culture into their music, this is not particularly surprising. Bands hailing from all regions, including those outside of metal’s traditional strongholds, also follow this path: Israeli band Melechesh for example write chiefly about Assyrian and Mesopotamian mythology, while the Taiwanese group Chthonic are concerned with reclaiming indigenous Taiwanese history and identity in a way that is distinct from Chinese culture.
Sbrana’s reference to Christianity is particularly striking – many Scandinavian metal artists are vocal in their rejection of Christianity. While some may do this for its shock value, or in favour of Satan or atheism, many choose to replace Christianity with indigenous pagan beliefs. This reclamation and engagement with pre-Christian religion is also a feature of folk metal bands in every one of Europe’s regional scenes.
Another attribute in common with many foreign scenes is the tendency to adopt pseudonyms. This is by no means a phenomenon unique to Botswana; consider Cannibal Corpse’s George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher, or the near-ubiquitous pseudonyms of the Norwegian Black Metal scene – Ihsahn’s real name is Vegard Tveitan, or consider Varg “Count Grischnakh” Vikernes – aka Louis Cachet, birth name Kristian (ironically enough), often known by the name of his one-man project Burzum…
The media’s focus on certain specific aspects of scenic experience and practice in Botswanan metal – some of which may not be unusual, or even entirely accurate, as we’ve seen – has meant that other, interesting aspects of the scene are left unreported.
As I’ve said, the engagement of Batswana fans in the scene has more in common with that in other countries than the press would suggest – the only things notably different from a typical scene experience is the fashion and the lack of internal generic distinctions. Of these, the media has only reported on the first, and has not commented at all on the fact that this style seems almost entirely limited to the fans.
Regarding the lack of internal generic distinctions: despite its small size, Botswana has a relatively large number of active bands in a variety of genres. This is in contrast to many regionally-defined scenes, which are often defined by a certain common stylistic approach – Bay Area Thrash, Floridan Death Metal, Norwegian Black Metal. Though bands exploring other genres certainly existed in these places at these times, these scenes became popular due to a certain style; in Botswana, despite the fact that Wrust and Skinflint play two very distinct types of music, both have achieved similar levels of success. As I touched on in Part One, these bands also share stages, and the fans don’t seem to distinguish between genres.
All of this points to a tendency in the media to exoticise and other the Botswanan metal scene. This is held up in many other ways – such as how some articles present an account of the scene being venerated within the country’s society, despite evidence to the contrary and on the basis of a single fan. How they report the scene also smacks of stereotyped images of Africa – could you come up with a more clichéd image than “celebrating a deep spiritual connection with the land”? And as one commenter at the Metal and Marginalisation conference suggested, that particular phrase not only others Africa and suggests offensive stereotypes of primitive, tribal Africans, but by association could be seen to belittle metal as a primitive music.
It’s not that the scene isn’t interesting – of course it is, and I really enjoy some of the music produced there. But the music itself isn’t particularly notable, and there’s nothing particularly Botswanan about it – it’s metal much like that produced anywhere else, despite the othering representations of it in the press. A recent (in fact two days before I presented on this topic) cracked.com photoplasty contest asked readers to submit “Insane Subcultures You Won’t Believe Actually Exist” and the #1 spot went to an entry about the Botswanan metal scene and an image of the fan Maximum.
It’s true that it is interesting and unexpected to have a dedicated metal scene here, but as Invisible Oranges pointed out, it’s patronising to focus on that aspect of it. While it’s somewhat notable that most scene participants are black, that doesn’t seem to be a concern for the people involved. Ultimately most of the actual interesting aspects of what’s going on there are being left unreported and unexamined by this tendency to exoticise. And while it’s true that Botswana seems to be one of the most active centres of metal on the continent, excluding South Africa, it’s not clear to me that the amount of attention it’s gotten compared to other scenes in sub-Saharan Africa (Angola or Kenya, for example) is proportional.
In conclusion, through an emphasis on only some of the attributes of the metal scene in Botswana, the media has favoured what may be a distorted view of the scene. Rather than exhibiting a one-dimensional interpretation of metal and coalescing around a small number of tropes, as frequently happens with localised scenes, Botswanan bands cover a range of metal styles. Not solely concerned with booze, or horror, or nationalism; and not focused on creating a unique local sound but also not obsessed with emulating the sound of foreign bands, Botswana’s metalheads show as broad a range of interpretations of metal as may be found anywhere; not merely existing, but thriving despite their high level of stylistic variance. A more balanced view of the scene would not only be fairer to scene participants, but would better serve metal in general, both as a increasingly global community and as a topic for serious academic study.
Part Three will be some thoughts about what more research could be done on metal in Botswana and the wider African scene, some sources, and some of my personal responses to the music. I’ll be traveling a bit for the next week but will post something by Friday the 9th.