First Person

What covering heavy metal taught me about spotting Nazis

January 12, 2021
Jake Angeli, a QAnon believer who was part of the attack on the Capitol, was taken into custody Saturday. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

A bare-chested, wild-eyed white man in bearskin furs and a horned helmet stood at the podium of the Senate chambers, his fists raised in triumph, as fellow Trump-supporting rioters laid waste to the Capitol. The man, a QAnon cultist from Phoenix named Jacob Anthony Chansley, who goes by the name Jake Angeli, has since been arrested alongside a few dozen others, but not before the far-right social mediasphere tried to paint him as an “antifa spy” planted among the insurrectionists. The efforts at misdirection were in vain, however—Angeli is a notorious pro-Trump presence at rallies in his home state, and he’s pleaded publicly for recognition as a true “patriot.” In case there remained any uncertainty, a close look at his hairy torso made Angeli’s leanings clear: when I zoomed in on his tattoos, I noticed white power symbols—Angeli was quite literally wearing his fascist sympathies on his heart. I knew what I was seeing because I recognized some of the same iconography hidden in the margins of black-metal albums.

For the uninitiated, black metal is a subgenre of heavy metal music distinguished by its aggression, over-the-top theatricality, and affinity for the occult, as well as its unfortunate history as a hotbed for white supremacy. The vast majority of black-metal artists avoid politics in favor of the supernatural—and a growing number have embraced anti-racism and leftist politics—but a small, virulent subset is rife with anti-Semitism, racism, far-right rhetoric, and bigotry of every stripe. As a longtime music journalist and metalhead who is also a dedicated antifascist, I’ve had to become adept at deciphering the white supremacist code words, symbols, and dog whistles that litter the black-metal scene.

Over the past few years, my work has shifted away from music writing as I’ve focused more on labor and politics, but I’ve kept my Nazi-hunting skills sharp, as they have become increasingly relevant to my new beat. As right-wing extremism has risen in America and abroad, white supremacists have used black metal as a vehicle to spread hate and radicalize nominally apolitical metal fans; those efforts have increased as “anti-antifa” sentiment has gained a foothold in the broader metal community. National Socialist black metal (NSBM), a catchall term for bands that overtly promote fascist and white supremacist ideology, has been knocking around since the nineties. The satanic or otherwise occult influence in black metal has also made space for various neo-Nazi groups to gain purchase flogging racist paganism, Luciferian ideals, Evolian philosophy, and esoteric fascism. Atomwaffen, a neo-Nazi terror cell, has made liberal use of black-metal aesthetics in its propaganda; last year, one of its leaders, James “Rape” Denton, was spotted Sieg-heiling at a gig for the band Horna. Operation Werewolf, a biker-themed crypto-fascist fitness collective that has become popular in the black-metal community, abounds with white power sentiment; its founders’ original group, the Odinist cult Wolves of Vinland, is openly white nationalist. I could go on; the web of connection between black metal and fascism is astonishingly vast. What I didn’t realize was how it would lead, ultimately, to an attack on the Capitol.


THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO CATCH A NAZI. Often, they make it easy by wrapping themselves in swastikas and trumpeting their repulsive beliefs to whoever will give them a platform. But some prefer to hide in plain sight, or to obscure their intent. It takes time and dedication to flush out a Nazi who does not wish to be recognized, and you’re likely to miss the signs if you’re not conversant in the language. Music and culture writers are used to reading between lines that way, whether they’re unpacking the symbolism behind Taylor Swift’s latest album, decoding a cryptic Instagram post from a mysterious DJ, or digging into the enigmatic poetry of the late, great MF DOOM. The same principle applies to black metal and white supremacy. 

I first got into black metal when I was about seventeen. Like many young fans, I was drawn to its defiance, its edge, its spookiness. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, with little exposure to anything outside of my very white, very rural community. At the time, black metal’s violent history struck me as transgressive and fascinating; paging through metal magazines and scrolling through webzines on my parents’ dial-up internet was a revelation. It didn’t take long for me to stumble upon full-fledged neo-Nazi bands. I was a pretty liberal teen, but in those days I didn’t have much in the way of developed political views or recognition of my privilege. The Nazi stuff was horrifying, intriguing—and it didn’t seem like it could possibly be serious. During my early years as a music writer, I brushed off what I saw, unaware of the harm in granting fascists legitimate coverage.

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Over time, however, I educated myself politically and learned about how insidious and widespread white supremacy remains in metal culture, as well as the damage it has caused to metalheads with marginalized identities. As a means to correct my past behavior, I made it my mission to fight back. I trawled the forums where artists and fans converge—the places where right-wing iconography, code words, and fascist ideologies tangle with album news and tour listings. Symbols like the swastika, Totenkopf, and sunwheel are obvious; others, like the valknut, othala rune, or Order of the Nine Angles symbol, are more obscure but just as damning. The Encyclopedia Metallum, a kind of crowdsourced metal Wikipedia, has been an invaluable resource in examining album details and discovering links between seemingly harmless artists and their racist collaborators. Sometimes a werewolf is just a werewolf, but often it’s a sign of something more malignant.

By combing through album lyrics, parsing interviews, and inspecting tattoos, journalists covering black metal—and even casual fans—become adept at rooting out bigotry. Doing so has, by now, become a conscious part of the wider black-metal experience: for leftist fans, a familiar ritual involves poring methodically through all available information to decipher an exciting new band’s political position. It’s kind of like playing a heavy metal version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, except the locus is invariably a Polish neo-Nazi or racist death metal guy from Florida, and winning is really losing. The thrill of discovering a killer new record is attended, always, by anticipation as you scour the lyrics and artwork and member lists and touring history—and then, all too often, you discover that (dammit!) the guitarist has a racist side project, or their label has released anti-Semitic material. But metal is too good for Nazis. Surveilling black-metal artists’ activities and exposing any associations with violent far-right networks is a means of defending a community I hold dear.


I DON’T NECESSARILY RECOMMEND immersing oneself in hatred in order to learn its contours. But journalists tasked with covering politics, technology, and national security would do well to take notes from leftist black-metal aficionados as a way of keeping officials honest and catching them in subtle acts of Nazi signaling. The incoming crop of congresspeople is especially worthy of this kind of cultural scrutiny—in the time since they’ve been elected to office, some have already made explicit use of white supremacist slogans, symbols, and memes.

From Hitler admirer Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) and Proud Boys supporters Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) to Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), a follower of QAnon, right-wing politicians have embraced violent nativism and extreme far-right rhetoric. Identifying these things for what they are involves many of the same techniques used by a music writer—hearing words not only as they appear but listening in and searching for references.

Just last week, for instance, a couple of days before the attack on the Capitol, Greene tweeted from her official account, “I’m here to fight for my children’s future and the next generation’s American Dream.” The sentence immediately felt strange to me; upon reading it again, I realized that it held a striking similarity to the white supremacist “Fourteen Words”: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Greene’s message was fourteen words long. Was it a coincidence, or a dog whistle? Given Greene’s QAnon connections and strong white nationalist support base, it bears closer examination—and a fluency with the extensive literature of white supremacist symbology. 

Beyond Donald Trump, several members of Congress have been directly implicated in the insurrection; others had made clear their sympathies with white supremacist ideology long before the rioters stormed in. To the antifascist and other political researchers who have been sounding the alarm on these communities for years, the warning signs were obvious. The same goes for those of us closely following the extreme metal scene. For the other journalists only now catching up, the need to understand fascism’s many calling cards is urgent, and requires a willingness to accept that the far-right voices occupying the halls of power in Washington, DC, are just as dark, bellicose, and dangerous as those lurking in any satanic-black-metal forum.


ICMYI: “A view of anything”: Photographing the insurrection

Kim Kelly is a freelance writer and organizer whose work on labor, politics, and culture has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Baffler, The New York Times, and many others. She is the labor columnist for Teen Vogue, and currently resides in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @grimkim.