In Botswana, a generation of people taking classic heavy metal and making it their own. Photo by Frank Marshall.
When people think of heavy metal music, I think many still think of the United States in the 1980s: Tipper Gore, the PMRC, kids throwing the horns, bulldozers driving over CDs, sawblades on codpieces, pentagrams — all that business. Metal has come a long way since then, but it’s still the music of rebellion, wherever that rebellion happens to be.
Take, for example, Botswana, where South Africans have adopted the leather and studs. They’re listening to the classics, but also playing their own heavy metal.
For these folks, one thing that seems to appeal about heavy-metal culture is the unique combination of devoted tribalism and sanctioned aggression:
“There’s a strong sense of camaraderie amongst them. That’s the first thing you’ll notice about them as an outsider coming in. They’ve got a very strong bond and friendship with each other.
“They’re very physical. At the shows, you don’t just shake their hands. They’ll grab your hand and shake you around.
“They embody the very aggressive elements of metal. It’s an expression of power. Everything is an expression of power for them, from the clothes to the way they speak to the way they walk.”
Unlike the Hell’s Angels they are said to resemble, these rockers hang out on the streets of Botswana at night, making sure people get home safely and scaring away thugs. The music seems to give them hope, optimism, a sense of belonging.
In Afghanistan, it’s not all that different. There, young musicians are coping with the recent war and its aftermath by playing in bands with names such as District Unknown, and songs titled “Two Seconds After the Blast” and “The Beast.” It’s not so far from Leyton to Kabul.
District Unknown’s founding brothers, Qasem and Pedram Foushanji, discovered heavy metal by way of Metallica — and fell in love:
The brothers immediately took a liking to the fast-paced, aggressive sound, saying a childhood spent amid war and violence helped them to connect with the music.
“I feel most comfortable playing metal music because you go out there in everyday life and you get a lot of negative energy,” Pedram said. “Playing metal makes me feel better. It does for me what meditation does for others.”
The bandmates are part of a new rock-music school in Kabul, which would have been banned under the Taliban. Even now — as in many Middle Eastern countries — metal bands do not enjoy full freedom; the band frequently wears face masks to avoid persecution from religious conservatives.
Some people were never able to make sense of why metal fans love this noisy, angry, uncompromising music as much as they do. By looking at metal fans worldwide, we can gain a better sense of its appeal. It’s best loved among young men (though there are many female fans as well) who are experiencing a rift between their current reality and the one they believe is ideal. They’re undergoing stress, tension and alienation — and perhaps facing threats or violence. Whether that violence is taking place in a warzone or a city, or threatened at home or at school, or perceived from society at large, doesn’t matter. Metal provides a way of meeting the world’s aggression halfway, and making peace with it.