Long Beach-based metal band Hirax blend the galloping beats of the new wave of British heavy metal with the intensity of thrash, and Katon W. De Pena's operatic and aggressive vocals lead the way. Since 1984, 49-year-old De Pena has fronted the legendary thrashers, and as the group's only original member, he has shared the stage with such metal demigods as Metallica, Exodus and Slayer. Those are pretty much the only headbanger credentials he'll ever need for the metal world.
He's also part of an elite club. A black singer for a metal band, he's not entirely alone in the club. Jimi Hendrix and Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy blazed trails, and today, we have Byron David of God Forbid and Howard Jones, formerly of Killswitch Engage. In the hardcore punk scene, Washington, D.C.'s all-black outfit Bad Brains made it a point to straddle the line between hardcore aggression and blistering metal chops that still remain unparalleled to this day. And, of course, the late '80s gave us Living Colour and Fishbone. Though Latinos are common in metal, African-Americans are not. Despite the foundation of metal stemming from rock & roll—an art form perfected almost 60 years ago by such African-Americans as Chuck Berry and Little Richard—black acceptance in metal culture, or rock in general, is nowhere near as prominent as in hip-hop. Why is that?
"These are questions that need to be asked," De Pena says, adding that although he's never felt excluded, he's felt "misunderstood by other black folks. You get looked at differently if you're black and into metal. I still get that today."
He believes many listen at home but are wary of stepping into the scene either because of misconceptions about metal fans or peer pressure—hip-hop continues to reign supreme, after all. "There are tons of black kids who love metal, but they think there won't be any other black kids there and they won't be accepted."
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However, he believes those anxieties are misplaced. "I think if black people went to shows, they'd be stoked," De Pena says. "It's not like what people hear about on talk shows." He says metalheads are an open-minded, accepting bunch. "People come from all religious backgrounds, skin tones and hair lengths. I was more accepted because we're all outcasts and misfits."
For what it's worth, De Pena says, he was taken aback by the metal scene while cutting his teeth. "I saw Motörhead on their first U.S. tour, and it blew my fucking head off," he says, "but it was kind of unnerving. When you see something that intense for the first time, it's a weird feeling." Nonetheless, he was quickly drawn to both the music and subculture of metal. Apparently, the metal scenes internationally tend to be more diverse. "The bulk of our shows are overseas," he says. "In South America, you notice a lot more black people. Even I was surprised."
And things have changed since the days when Hirax were formed, albeit slowly. "It used to be me and two other black guys. Now it's a couple of dozen," he says. "I'm very proud to lay groundwork for guys who will follow me in the future."
But it's not clear whether he's talking about race anymore; De Pena is, over and above other identities, a metalhead. "The thing that attracted me to metal is that I felt more at home there than anywhere else," he says. "[It's] important for people to know they'll be welcomed in."