By the time I even viewed the damning video of Philip H. Anselmo, the legendary vocalist of Pantera, Down, and Superjoint Ritual, performing a forceful “sieg heil” Nazi salute followed directly by adamantly shouting “white power” to the crowd at the end of a star-studded Dimebash fundraiser concert at Lucky Strike in Hollywood, CA, the internet had already exploded with outrage, responses, defenses, theories, and excuses.
In just the few days after the event, it appeared that Phil Anselmo outrage fatigue had already set in. People were already sick of talking about it, hearing how offended people were, or even acknowledging that the heavy music world might have a race problem. Despite this fatigue and the fickleness of the social media news cycle, more than a few people reached out to me asking if I would write some type of response considering my track record of dissecting heavy metal culture and openness to discussing race and politics. I consider it my responsibility to weigh in, so here it is:
First off, it’s important that I say I’m not into casting harsh judgment on ANY individual, even those who have made mistakes or committed a lone detestable act. Measuring the content of one’s character is something that requires time, evidence, and deep soul searching. No matter how much we pry, often we are just left just with our intuition and gut-feeling about people. We live in a society that absolutely loves to crucify any public figure that screws up, be it a gaffe or an actual crime. Feeling morally superior is an opiate for the masses, and figurative witch burnings tickle our bellies.
I’ve had the fortune to tour with Anselmo on Ozzfest 2004 with Superjoint Ritual and some festival dates in Europe in 2009 with Down. But I don’t KNOW the man. I am probably mostly familiar with the larger-than-life persona like any loyal fan, even though I’ve been in the same room with the man.
Looking at the act in a vacuum in as an objective way possible, it’s difficult to see it as a joke as Anselmo originally explained immediately after the video became public. The “sieg heil” gesture was emphatic and purposeful, and the yelling of “white power” seemed to be filled with rage, and was meant to carried as far as possible without a microphone. There was no smirk, wink, or “I’m just kidding” gesture of any kind.
This is where things get dicey, because I think we get wrapped up in our biases and allegiances. If you are one who is prone to defend the act because you admire the man and what he has given us, I get it. It is always difficult to believe something unflattering about someone you admire. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Some just believed the initial response; It was a joke, and it wasn’t a big deal. Even if it was a joke, I find it very difficult to believe that he would do it to the on-looking crowd in a very public arena. Shouldn’t an inside joke be kept…inside? No matter how drunk Anselmo was, it’s difficult to believe that someone as smart as he would fail to realize that this would be taken as a great offence.
There have been some rumblings that it was in reference to the famous Chappelle Show sketch where Dave Chappelle plays a black Klu Klux Klan member, who happens to be blind, and doesn’t realize he is a black man.
And this is where context is so important, and part of the reason why Chappelle eventually quit his show. Unleashing this kind of hyperbolic, racial comedy into the wrong hands can be dangerous if not handled responsibly. “White power” was yelled on this sketch comedy program, on Comedy Central network by a famous black comedian, and in the context of a running joke in the sketch that played on piercing irony. That context matters, and liking Dave Chappelle does not give everyone a license to use racial humor in a way that doesn’t honor the thought process and context surrounding the comedy.
I’m sure we’ve all seen the Robb Flynn reaction video:
I endorse Robb’s take on things, but admittedly, he is a close friend and mentor. I trust his perspective, but in this regard, I am biased. Considering Robb was there, he has anecdotal evidence and enough of a personal relationship with Anselmo to make his assessment of Anselmo being a racist.
Even if I respect and believe Robb, I can’t take his view, because I don’t have his personal experience with Anselmo. I can only do my best to understand the outrage from him, Scott Ian, Metalsucks.net, All Shall Perish, and countless other musicians, media, and industry people within the heavy metal community.
Despite what many commenters say, Robb Flynn coming out of the gates first with a statement is brave. Trust me. Many musicians don’t want to say anything because they are afraid of backlash from the public, or dissing a legend. Robb has gotten plenty of shit for his statement.
Most Reactions Are Ideological & Misguided
It’s difficult for me to not tie many of the reactions on YouTube and Facebook comments to current politics of the day. The state of affairs is dualism in it’s purest form. We have a resurgent state of political correctness that has taken hold of identity politics on college campuses, aggressively policing language, and is quick to throw celebrities in decency jail for saying the wrong things, in the wrong way, at the wrong time. Some like Alec Baldwin eventually regain their standing, but I doubt if Mel Gibson will ever resurface. PC culture is certainly at fever pitch, “boy who cried wolf” sensitivity is at an all-time high, and the left finally has an irrationally sanctimonious sect to mirror the rights’ “moral majority”. The best critique of this obtuse and limiting way of thinking has been covered beautifully on this last season of South Park.
On the other side of the coin is the Donald Trump brand of “fuck you”, anti-PC, “we don’t care who we offend” politics that has really taken hold. Ironically, this mostly white and male demographic also feels demonstratively victimized because they see a shift in the complexion of the country. They are being “attacked” for being white, male, and privileged, so there has been a backlash of unapologetic steadfastness. I do empathize with the sentiment, but the overall movement is much more scary and extreme than I would hope. It is also tinged with racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and generally suspicious of anything foreign-ish or different.
To this faction, there is no reason for anyone (other than them) to ever be offended. Nothing is too inflammatory, unless someone offends their particular set of issues. Try bringing up gun control or Obamacare to the anti-PC crowd, and I’m sure they will get offended pretty quickly. It’s important that we know where the line is, and some things have to be considered out of bounds. Seriously supporting Nazism has to be considered at the top of the list of objectionable and morally bankrupt ideologies. You have the right to support it, but I also have to the right to be offended, because a line has been crossed in my personal morality. We’ve entered the realm of truly dangerous ideas, and something has to be said.
It’s easy to just cast each of these molds as liberals vs. conservatives or democrats vs. republicans, but I don’t think that’s accurate. These are really the extreme edges that yell the loudest, and take up the most bandwidth. I hope the more reasonable of us can persevere and win the conversation by steering the focus towards something more rational. This is where I think emotionality gets the best of human beings in the collective sense. When the cards are down, we have a tendency to let our tribal instincts take over, and we retreat to our respective corners of genetic categorization. Tamping down the worst of our natural instincts is what separates human animals from the rest of the animals. This is a discipline that has to be practiced and emphasized, because it’s easily tossed aside during harsh times.
Race & Heavy Metal
In addition to my reputation as someone who speaks their mind about cultural issues in heavy music, the main reason I think people wanted me to speak out is I am partially black, and am most know for playing with God Forbid, a band that was comprised mostly of black members, and were known as the “black” metal band for a time. No pun intended. Some want to hear the “black” perspective on this. As a black person, should I be particularly offended by Phil Anselmo’s actions? Does this speak to an overarching theme of metal’s struggle to remain one of the last bastions of dominant white or more specifically, European culture?
To address the first question, I don’t think black people, Jewish people, or other minorities should me MORE offended than anyone else. Only being offended when your particular subset is being marginalized shows a severe lack of empathy. It’s like coming out for gay rights only when you find out your son is gay. Only supporting issues when you have something personally to gain or lose is very selfish, and does not honor the big picture of progression.
Is metal culturally “white”? I would say, “yes”, but that’s ok. Liking Wes Anderson movies and pretentious coffee shops are fairly “white” activities, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to feel like a weirdo for enjoying them. With that said, there are still plenty of racial demons that need to be exorcised. If you want to know the ugly truth, just look at any God Forbid music video on YouTube, and read the comments. There is a sad state of racial strife and bigotry. It is difficult to know how representative YouTube and Facebook commenters are of the general public, but even knowing that it’s a vocal minority is unsettling.
You can also look at the comments section on a news story or video of a black man being shot by the police or riot footage from Baltimore or Ferguson. That racial strife is strewn throughout our national conversation, and is clearly not settled. Perhaps the heavy metal community is no different, and the work needed to move beyond it is far from over. For the most part though, race is not something I have focused on much when it comes to music. If someone doesn’t like me or my band because of race, that is their issue, not mine. I will say that I am lucky to live in a time where I can brush it off, and exist beyond it, because 40 or 50 years ago racial barriers would have been directly in my face, impossible to ignore. Not acknowledging that progress is purely cynical.
Whether or not Phil Anselmo is a racist I think depends how you define what an actually racist is. If he is someone who believes the white race to be superior or entitled to a higher standing within society, then I would consider him to be racist. I can’t say for certain if that’s true, even if there is a fair amount of evidence that points to the idea that he may support the ideology of white supremacy as a political movement. He has a history of speaking out against pro-black culture from Pantera’s heyday. I don’t know what’s truly in his heart. Was it a split personality that temporarily took over his body to “sieg heil” and scream “white power”? There is something in him, subconscious or not, that has racial issues.
I think his apology was sincere, but I also think the blowback was so immense that he couldn’t help but see the error of his ways. Self-reflection that leads to positive change is meaningful. Many will never give Anselmo another chance, and conversely many can distance themselves between an artist’s work and their character. I too can separate the artist from the art very easily. Michael Jackson’s alleged actions don’t disrupt my joy when I hear the drum beat and bass line for “Billie Jean” kick in, and I still think The Cosby Show is funny.
How we deal with famous transgressors needs to evolve though. Racially offending people isn’t a crime. That person is being an asshole, and it’s important that we let them know that they are being an asshole. If they want to stop being an asshole, it’s important that we listen to that sentiment as well. Much like our criminal justice system, when it comes to disruptors of the peace, we prefer vengeance over rehabilitation. Maybe it’s our Judeo-Christian morality woven into our culture with themes of guilt, repentance, shame, and punishment. Shame can sometimes be an effective tool to persuade people to want to atone for their sins, but pure vengeance and social banishment seem to be ineffective solutions to get people to really change and learn from their mistakes – especially those deemed as racists and bigots.
I am glad we are at a place where racism in the public view is mostly viewed as detestable and intolerable. Unfortunately, how we deal with the offenders has not developed to the same level of sophistication. A teachable moment should spark outward and in all directions. Ignorance can be unlearned, and compassion for faulty minds is the next step for quelling perceived moral superiority. It’s less about him, and more about us.