Heavy Metal is the New Patriotism in Botswana, Africa.
Geo·dissonance: the metal movement is proliferating to all corners of the globe. In its relentless display of vitriolic truths and the ugliest questions of existence, we can hear the resounding riffs of heavy metal in the most conservative pockets of society. As your Punjabi, riff-worshiping correspondent, I've created Geodissonance to report the controversy: as metal unveils dissonance in cradles of brutality around the world.
In the streets of Botswana, the patriotic identity has evolved into a form deceptively close to our own: heavy metal counter-culture. The sight of young metalheads in tight leather clothes, spikes, and chains – what we might classify as a throwback to the NWOBHM form – has become the national image of a modern-age, guardian angel. Youth aspire to adopt the metal “way,” and parents encourage their children to interact with members of this burgeoning, local culture. Thus, in a country known exceedingly for its wildlife preserves and representative democracy, heavy metal has found an unexpected niche, and is claiming its rights to defy old stereotypes, and encapsulate African culture. The proof? It can easily be found in the lyrics of Botswanan band Skinflint, through to the treasured, metal library purportedly possessed by the country’s president, himself, Ian Khama.
The regression of the metal appearance in Botswana is a sharp contrast to the “metal style,” as it exists in the states, today. As opposed to the more common American approach, à la band t-shirt, jeans, and sneaks, Botswana’s metalheads have brought back the New Wave of British Heavy Metal feel; black leather, skulled belt-buckles, chains, and cowboy hats infuse the old, heavy metal appearances with the familiar nuances of American-bred, Hell’s Angels. The style is surely reminiscent of an old era, but no less inspired by extreme music; the sight of Cannibal Corpse shirts is no less common than those of Iron Maiden, or Judas.
The emergence of Botswana's metal style is the proof of an ongoing, yet long-standing cultural evolution – one that grew, analogously to American metal, from the seedlings of classic rock. It’s an evolution to which Frank Marshall – South African photographer – is no stranger. According to Marshall, “metal was seeded [here] by a classic rock band that started in the early 70s. Since then, it’s evolved and grown.” Marshall has showcased his photography of Botswana metalheads at his own, Renegades exhibition, in Johannesburg. Through his shots, he wishes to capture the shift, which, he added, “in the last 10 to 20 years, [has] come to be visually composed of what it looks like now – the guys dressed in leather. It started off with classic rock and later on more extreme forms of metal were introduced.”
The sense of community amongst Botswana metalheads is undeniable – the sort of brother-to-sister “camaraderie” that maintains “strong bond[s] and friendship[s]” between fans of the genre. It was a connection that Marshall witnessed most physically at local metal shows. In contrast to the often visible distances between concertgoers (e.g. friends, moshers, and the far-away, unwounded onlookers), Botswana metalheads are “very physical.” At shows, “you don’t just shake [their] hands. They’ll grab your hand and shake you around.”
The physical contact is an initiation for new listeners, as well as a shared manifestation of their underlying aggression. They collectively “embody the very aggressive elements of metal," through what is ultimately, "an expression of power." It is a ferocity of the mind that is palpable in their speech, and “deliberate, lurching strides.”
For any spectator from the “West,” the seeming rituals of Botswana metalheads may “seem bizarre and comical;” names like Demon and Gunsmoke make these rockers that much easier to dismiss, as caricatural or trite. Nonetheless, amongst members of the metal and non-metal community, they are treated with acceptance, and oftentimes, admiration. With the status they have attained through their music is an associated, social responsibility – both to their community, and the preservation of the Botswanan heritage, itself. Metal artists and fans are similarly aware of this social influence, and have readily expressed their desire to “portray a good figure," and serve as "good role models.” To them, metal is not a superficial or skin-deep engagement; while it is usually regarded as a “hardcore thing,” commented Botswanan metal artist, Gunsmoke, “it’s something in our heart, too.” The Botswana self-identification lay not only in a love for metal, but for one another – “it’s all about brothers in arms. Brothers in metal – we’re there for each other.” Community and music are the dual components of how “[we] identify ourselves.”
Ironically, the potentially overpowering appearance of Botswana metalheads is no cause for local concern. Rather than reproach these rockers for their appearance or aggressive riffs, locals approach them with affection and gratitude. Thus, if we were to make an association between the appearance of Botswana headbangers to Hell’s Angels, we would be fatally mistaken; according to Gunsmoke, the metal community is seen as a group of “guardian angels,” rather than hell-sent, threats to national order. It’s a testimony well-supported by Botswana families; Gunsmoke added that “kids follow us around. Parents approach us.” There is a tacitly understood notion that metalheads are “there for a good cause,” namely, to “help people on the streets at night.” Given the invested interactions between bands, and the community, “heavy metal [has become] more than just a scene – it’s part of the national identity.”
Unlike many of their nationally repressed and emerging, global counterparts (think: Indonesian headbangers, and Iraq-based Janaza!), Botswana bands fear no governmental scorn. Gunsmoke posed the question himself – “why should [we] be scared when our president is a rocker?” According to Gunsmoke, not only is Ian Khama a metalhead, but a source of great pride for Botswana metalheads, as the “one man…leading the nation.”
Botswana metalheads aspire to give their homeland a globally recognized, positive reputation. “Bots is known as a small country," which “people used to think…was a province of south Africa.” Thus, Botswana bands are increasingly determined to create a unique, cultural identity for Botswana, in the international arena; it seems quite plausible, with a metal movement that ties the essential elements of metal, with an ancestral connection to one’s culture and heritage. As Gunsmoke described, “most of us are in a tribe," and the "animal totems" they carry invariably represent the specific culture to which they belong.
The symbolism of the totems is mirrored by Botswana metal's lyrical content. According to Giuseppe, the lead singer of Botswana band Skinflint, African tales and mythology are ineffaceable elements of their music. “We have a lot of ancestral beliefs,” and “back in the day, they used to believe that if someone [died] and you touched the dead person, then Gauna [would] come back and take your soul.” While seeking inspiration in the old, the band created their album – Gauna – “on a 7-inch vinyl,” which was later “distributed by Legion of Death Records in France." This made them the first African, metal band to take this retro approach.
Their creative deliberations did not end there. Lead singer Giuseppe is white – a racial distinction from his bandmates, towards which he remains cognizant. Rather than down-play or evade the difference, he has used it as a means of sociocultural unification, and empowerment. In a recent interview, he expressed that “the metal nation knows no racial boundaries. We’re all one. We all speak one common language, and it’s called heavy metal." Thus, despite their deep-seated, cultural inspirations, Botswana metalheads fearlessly retain their dedication to the universality of metal – as a “language” of aggression and truth, that bears no geographical constraints. As Giuseppe expressed, "metal is music about power, independence, and freedom. That’s what [I] believe in…standing up for what you believe and showing individuality,” despite the voices of opposition from above.
[photos via CNN]