Colorado Metalheads Unite for Black Lives Matter

Cierra White started working on what would become the Death in My Metal, Not in My Streets Fest 2020 after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Here she is playing with her band Last Word.EXPAND
Cierra White started working on what would become the Death in My Metal, Not in My Streets Fest 2020 after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Here she is playing with her band Last Word.
Noble Bison Productions
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In spite of their fondness for demonic imagery, aggressively sinister sound, and band names such as Dying Fetus and Cattle Decapitation, metalheads are often among the nicest people you’ll meet. It should come as no surprise, then, that more than a dozen Colorado metal bands eagerly signed up to help put on the anti-racist music festival Death in My Metal, Not in My Streets. The musical showcase and interview series, taking place online on Saturday, August 22, will benefit Black Lives Matter 5280 — and possibly convert a few people to metal fandom.

Yet there is still something unusual about a social-justice metal festival in Denver. While there are plenty of anti-racist metalheads, the broader scene isn't exactly known for taking on the issue. Some bands and promoters have even sullied metal's reputation here by taking explicit fascist positions.

Last year, Denver concert promoter Metal DP organized the Divinus Principium festival, which included a host of bands that use Nazi and fascist iconography. Anti-fascists chased the festival around town from one unsuspecting venue to another before the promoter rented out the Roxy Theatre and managed to pull off half its planned programming.

More recently, amid Black Lives Matter protests, plenty of musicians from heavier genres have taken to the streets, written songs decrying police violence and used their work to challenge racism, though much of the musical output reflecting on racist police killings has come from hip-hop acts.

Cierra White, drummer for metal outfits Magister, Last Word, and Oak, Ash & Thorn, says the inspiration for Death in My Metal, Not in My Streets began while she was watching a video of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was hunted and gunned down by white vigilantes as he jogged through a neighborhood outside of Brunswick, Georgia, in February. Then in May, George Floyd, also a Black man, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes on a Minneapolis street.

Eventually, White decided to break her silence, releasing an online video explaining her thoughts on these tragedies. Friends and acquaintances began to reach out and ask how they could help combat racist violence, and the festival gradually came to fruition.

“The wheels started turning,” recalls White. “I felt like the music community could come together and try to do something, because when times are good, you play music; when times are bad, you play music.”

The festival, which will be virtual because of COVID-19, will be headlined by area stalwart Allegaeon; the rest of the lineup includes We Are William, Pathos & Logos, Harboured, Celestial Wizard, Liontortoise, Pile of Priests, Last Word, Triton, the Leshen, WarCrown and Kaldera. The bands play a variety of styles, from the melodic, technical death metal of Allegaeon to the sludge-metal/stoner doom of Triton and the progressive metal/jazz/post rock of instrumental act Liontortoise. One non-metal act, the Celtic-flavored Landward Rogues, is also on the bill.

Organizers will auction off artwork, jewelry, tattoos and other creatives' work, with proceeds benefiting BLM 5280.

Cameron Johnston of progressive-metal band We Are William says organizers lined up the playlist to start easy and progress into more extreme subgenres, so people who don’t know much about the style can whet their metal beaks. Organizers hope to draw a large crowd in order to raise as much money as possible for Black Lives Matter.

“It’s an opportunity for people to really open their eyes to the metal community, which is a scary thing for a lot of people,” Johnston says. “For a lot of people, it’s like, ‘I don’t want to go in a mosh pit’ or ‘I don’t want to deal with that guy who's wearing all black and leather and [has] bones on his jacket.’ Hopefully, you can change people’s minds.”

In between the pre-recorded sets, there will also be interviews with activists and members of the Colorado metal community. Among them is White, who is biracial.

“There were some people of color, and we just [talked] about our experience on this earth so far, things we might have to deal with that other folks don’t,” White says. “Just kind of shine a light on why this stuff is important to realize. … We also got a couple of our friends who are not of color, just to get their perspective as well — an ally perspective.”

White says the metal world is predominantly made up of white men, but there are plenty of people of color who play in bands or are fans of the music. Metal, she says, is also global in nature, and one can travel almost anywhere and find a metal scene.

“Metal down in Mexico is huge,” she says. “Metal on the continent of Africa is huge. In Europe, which is where metal came from, and in the U.S., of course, there are metal communities everywhere. When you go to shows, especially bigger festivals, there is really a diverse group of people, especially if you go to metal shows abroad.”

Jeff Riley of Liontortoise and film production company Noble Bison Productions contributed a set from his band and his video expertise to the project. Riley says he was inspired to participate after driving by a Black Lives Matter protest in Denver a week or two before seeing White’s video. He didn't stop because he was worried about his camera gear getting damaged, but the sight of the protestors had a profound impact on him. In addition to Liontortoise's set, Riley offered his services as a filmmaker to any participating band that wants its set recorded professionally.

“I was like, ‘Man, I really want to figure out a way to get involved with this,’” Riley says. “Where do I fit in this story, and in this movement? I think that’s a big part of this. Just because you’re not marching doesn’t mean there isn't a role to play.”

The eagerness of people in the music community to participate has been encouraging, notes White. Among those who chipped in are Kenny Vasko, part owner of Dog House Music Studios, who offered all participating bands free recording and tracking services for the live recordings at his Lafayette studio. Kirk Albert of the Leshen created artwork for the festival's promotional materials, and other artists donated their work for the auction.

“This was just an idea I had when I made the Facebook post to get this all going,” White says. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was not expecting to have an actual team.”

Death in My Metal, Not in My Streets will stream on Facebook, Twitch and YouTube at 1 p.m. on Saturday, August 22. Go to noblebisonproductions.com for more information. Organizers have also set up a PayPal account for donations.

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