Metalheads find themselves in a very uncomfortable position right now thanks to Phil Anselmo. And I have to say, that’s a good thing. We need to feel every ounce of it while it lasts.
Millions of Pantera fans spent the weekend glued to YouTube, replaying the final seconds of Dimebash 2016 at the Lucky Strike Live in Hollywood on Jan. 22 where Anselmo drunkenly gives a sieg heil salute and shouts “White Power!” at the crowd with every ounce of strength in his strained vocal chords. Days later, he blamed the slip up on too much Pinot Grigio (which actually turned out to be Lemon-flavored vodka, but whatever). Over the weekend, Machine Head frontman Robb Flynn, who was briefly on stage with Anselmo playing “New Level” in Dimebag’s stead, uploaded an 11-minute YouTube video condemning the incident and the metal community for letting his racist behavior go unchecked for years. It went viral and here we are.
In the time it took the belligerent, beer-bellied frontman to pull this drunken stunt, he turned what was supposed to be a tribute to Pantera’s late guitarist into a lightning rod of controversy. In fact, he might as well have just spit on Dime’s grave in my opinion. I personally rewatched the clip about a half dozen times. The more times I clicked it, the angrier I got. Not just because of what I saw, but for all the stuff the video didn’t capture. For a second, I saw myself in that crowd. Because I could’ve easily been there. And as a black person, that idea is more than unsettling. Mostly because I consider myself a fan of the band.
I sat there on my couch rewatching Anselmo spew this racist bullshit and I immediately thought of the minority Pantera fans in that crowd that had to hear that, turn around, shuffle through the crowd and hope the frontman’s hate speech didn’t make a dozen other lowlifes feel like they had the license to fuck with any brown person they saw walking to their car. I’d like to think most Pantera fans at this show, especially in a city as diverse as LA, would be repulsed by Anselmo’s actions. But you can never be sure. And as a black person outnumbered in a sea of white males amped up on aggressive music and whatever else, that kind of thing is always in the back of my mind, even when I don’t want to admit it.
I grew up in Orange County going to punk and metal shows. My father was a professor of African-American studies at Cal State Fullerton for decades. I grew up studying black history and culture intensively prior to college. Yet sometimes all the knowledge and pride about my people’s history felt like a curse while growing up in a place where none of it seemed to be reflected in the world around me. I spent a lot of time feeling angry about that, like an outsider in my nearly all-white community. And through my teens, the only forms of music that really reflected the anger I felt were punk and metal. The music became an outlet—whether I was playing my bass, blaring music through my headphones, or going to shows. It was music meant for outcasts, a club I felt like I belonged to.
Yet even within that community, it was apparent that at any time, at backyard parties or crowded shows where I was alone or with a small group of people, the tune could change instantly if someone decided to single me out. And it did happen. The first time a couple of racist dudes run up on you in a mosh pit and seriously try to harm you solely because of what you look like, the memory stays with you. Same with the second time. And the third. After a while, eyes in the back of your head become just another accessory I would put on before going to a show. Watching Anselmo’s clip definitely triggered those memories.
It’s just reality—you can choose to let it intimidate you or not. I refuse to let intimidation dissuade me from going to any metal or punk show because for the most part I’ve gotten more acceptance from white people (or any race for that matter) in either of these scenes than I could’ve ever asked for growing up. And the majority of the time I wouldn’t know who the racists in the club were because they would never dare let it be known in public or to say anything to my face. For that reason, Anselmo’s apology afterwards feels like an even bigger insult—to my intelligence.
Obviously it’s well documented that this wasn’t the first racist thing to come out of Anselmo’s mouth (see the video above from 1995). Once again, it was his choice to get up on stage and say something he knew would offend people of all races. So is hiding behind alcohol and his inability to control his emotions last month supposed to make that okay? And now to hear him apologize for it just makes him sound like a pussy. Not only that, he makes all the racist idiots who defended him look like fools as well. I’ve always been of the opinion that whether you’re racist or not, I’d prefer to know where you stand and just be real about it—why hide your feelings if you’re so goddamn proud of your superiority? As Flynn mentions in the video—people in this country will always have the right to free speech, but not freedom from the criticism of that speech.
In Anselmo’s case, I can’t think of too many metal frontmen who preached about sticking to his guns and living life unapologetically with more ferocity. It’s what drew me to Pantera’s music in the first place. How am I supposed to believe any of it now that he’s buckled and apologized after he gets called out? Yes, people make mistakes. But at this point in his career, to do what he did and say what he said, these willful actions are another example of his choices, not his mistakes.
Some Anselmo apologists are trying to compare his statements to the fashion sense of another metal god, the late Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead—famous for his collection of Nazi regalia. If you’ve ever done some research into his fashion choices you’d see that both men are worlds apart. Sure, Lemmy did explain his style choices ad nauseum to the press, but he never apologized for them. Do I think the fashion choice was strange? Yes, but his collections never intersected with his music or his other life choices as far as I could tell. The man idolized Hendrix, and even roadied for him. Add that to his many relationships with black women and we can see the difference between one man’s aesthetic and another’s deep seeded ideology.
As a metal fan, whatever relevance Anselmo would’ve had left in the metal community disintegrated as soon as he apologized. I believe it was weak and unbecoming of a man we all worshipped enough to let his racist tongue slide for so long. He knew he did wrong and is now going to pay for it with the final shreds of his career. That’s the only reason he’s apologizing.
It reminds me once again of those metalheads I’d encounter who would make black or Mexican jokes and then back away from them the minute anyone (myself included) called them out on it and turned the microscope back on them. I’m not saying these kinds of problems with race don’t exist in other genres of music, they do. But more often than not, the post-racial apologists have been more willing to let it slide when it comes to metal in my experience. There were times where I admit that even I stayed quiet in mixed company when I’ve heard racism come out of people’s mouths for the sake of not being that guy—the angry, black man that people expected me to turn into—because I didn’t want to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me upset. And indeed when I said the metal community was put in a tough spot because of Anselmo’s remarks, I include myself in that. It’s no secret that our paper champions a lot of metal musicians of all ethnicities and creeds, including some Pantera in the loads of lists and stories we put out about the genre. That’s no accident. We love our metal bands over here.
But it’s clear by the reaction to the video of the Anselmo incident that we’ve broken new ground in the metal world. And I, not only as a metal-loving minority but as a journalist and an editor, have to be part of that. That means being uncomfortable for a while. And probably writing about Pantera’s collective awesomeness a whole lot less, even though it was only one guy who put a damper on it. As for their lead singer, allow me to echo Flynn in saying goodbye, Phil Anselmo. Regardless of my skin color, you’ve lost yet another fan.