At the tender age of four, an iconic track impressed upon me so greatly that it transformed the way I connect sounds and emotions forever. That song was none other than Metallica’s legendary Enter Sandman, introduced to me by a beloved metalhead uncle playing nanny to keep me occupied.
While the cassette turned on our large, black stereo, intense headbanging ensued. My little head bobbed aggressively to the clean guitar intro building up into the explosive main riff, a hypnotic sound bursting with energy, and not a little bit of horror for a four-year-old. Thrash metal isn’t exactly kid-friendly, but something about it must have struck a nerve with me then. Little did I know that this pivotal childhood moment would follow me for the rest of my life.
I have been a metalhead for as long as I can remember, so much so that it has become one of the defining traits of my identity. I cannot imagine myself not being a part of this seemingly strange subculture, largely misunderstood by outsiders as almost cult-like, or worse, satanic.
Growing up as a brown, headbanging Muslim girl meant I suffered from the age-old malady that metalheads have in common: a genuine desire for connection with like-minded souls sharing your musical tastes. Normally, attending gigs or concerts often serves as a major initiation point into the subculture. This isn’t the case if you live in remote areas, or in countries where metal music has a history of being outlawed or banned.
I happened to live in one, so most of my teenage years’ enjoyment came from MySpace and building up a private CD collection in subgenres ranging from melodic death, folk, to black metal. In place of live performances, I found delight in sneaking into specialized record shops selling metal paraphernalia behind my parents’ back, collecting a mixture of original and pirated releases.
Back then, I never paid much attention to the problem of representation and how I saw myself within the metal community. As a genre steeped in hypermasculinity, metal comes with its own history of misogyny, sexual assaults, homophobia, and even neo-Nazism. My isolation was already a letdown, so I didn’t bother with questions of representation or contending with metal’s darker side.
The closest I felt to feeling seen as a female headbanger was through women-fronted European bands such as Nightwish, Epica, Lacuna Coil, and Sweden’s iconic Arch Enemy, whose vocalists are some of the most successful women in metal employing death growls in their primary singing technique.
It wasn’t until I moved to Toronto for my studies that I’d have a more expanded worldview of what it means to be a part of the subculture. Naturally, the metalhead in me reveled living in a hotspot for concerts. I certainly had my fill of attending gigs and getting sucked into the mosh pit, and it felt surreal seeing bands I’d been listening to for years in the flesh.
I’ll never forget attending Black Sabbath’s iconic Reunion tour in a sold-out concert, singing with the rest of the crowd to Ozzy Osbourne’s rabid onstage antics. Or the time when I munched a grilled cheese sandwich for iftar on the first day of Ramadan, while Swedish death metallers Amon Amarth growled atop a Viking ship that was fitted to the stage.
Personally, the best part of interacting with other metalheads in Toronto was seeing other Brown and Black folks in the metal community. I always knew that we existed in masses out there—but connecting with each other in person was a completely different experience of affirmation. My understanding of metal’s universality too expanded as I dove deeper into its cultural impact across the globe. Sources like historian Mark LeVine’s landmark book Heavy Metal Islam and filmmaker Sam Dunn’s documentary Global Metal showcase thriving international metal scenes from Lebanon to India, where alternative music often collides with activism as an outcry against reactionary politics and religious extremism.
Still, musicians who are women of color are notably missing in these discussions. They don’t get their dues despite longevity and success. If you’re not curious to look far and wide even as a metalhead, you’ll likely remain in the dark about those who have been in the genre for a while. For example, Farida Lemouchi of Molasses (formerly The Devil’s Blood) is a vocal powerhouse and a key figure of the Dutch metal scene.
Taiwan’s internationally-acclaimed political metal band Chthonic boasts bassist Doris Yeh, who has been one of the band’s mainstay since 1999. Frontwoman Cammie Gilbert of Oceans of Slumber is easily one of the most recognizable Black women in metal, bringing her own experience of racism in the South into the band’s self-titled album to reflect the collective grief of African Americans in the wake of increased police violence.
Ultimately, metal is as diverse as its subgenre. The achievements of women of color in metal not only shatter stereotypes about who belongs in the scene; they are vital to its evolution. My personal experience in the community has been generally positive as a Muslim woman. It’s not without its problems, but it’s also a welcoming space where who you are doesn’t matter as much as what bands you love.
Of course, I imagine it would raise a few eyebrows had I been a hijabi. However, this clearly hasn’t stopped other visibly Muslim women to take up space and rock their way through, as burqa-wearing metaller Gisele Marie Rocha or this all-girl hijabi Indonesian band demonstrate. I am also more discerning of who I listen to these days, and whose music I amplify.
I can’t help but celebrate in glee each time I see Muslim women brazenly paving their own way in the scene. The teenage me would definitely have been euphoric, and I’d feel less lonely witnessing others like me embracing the complexities of who we are. Being a Muslim woman and a part of the metal community isn’t an anomaly. We’re definitely out here, and we will continue to headbang.
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