By: Nicholas Pell
Long Beach-based metal band Hirax has a unique sound, blending the galloping beats of the new wave of British heavy metal with the intensity of thrash. Katon W. De Pena's operatic and aggressive vocals lead the way. Since 1984 De Pena, who is 49, has fronted the legendary thrashers.
He's also part of an elite club: metal bands with black singers. He's not entirely alone -- 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. And, of course, the late '80s gave us Living Colour. Though Latinos are common in metal, African-Americans are not. 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 that there won't be any other black kids there and they won't be accepted."
He believes their anxieties are misplaced, however. "I think if black people went to shows, they'd be stoked. It's not like what people hear about on talk shows." De Pena believes metalheads to be an open- minded and 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 himself 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 was formed, albeit slowly. "It used to be me and two other black guys. Now it's a couple dozen," he says. "I'm very proud to lay groundwork for guys who will follow me in the future," he adds. But it's not clear that 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. [It's] important for people to know they'll be welcomed in."