Race and Global Subcultures: Materiality, Style, and Metal Fans in Botswana
Posted by Paul Mullins
Some observers suggest that mass culture has homogenized once-clear lines of difference, with the marketplace reducing difference to a rich range of pre-manufactured “resistant” styles. Yet South African photographer Frank Marshall’s work on metal subcultures in Botswana provides an exceptionally compelling statement on the aesthetics of race, empire, and mass culture. Marshall’s images of African metal fans illuminate the question of precisely what constitutes difference in a 21st-century consumer culture: a stock of universal commodities and popular symbols circulate through a global marketplace, somewhat counter-intuitively producing social formations like the utterly multicultural and international metal subculture that includes Botswana’s metal fans.
Metal is clearly a multicultural fandom, and in some ways it is much like many other seemingly isolated subcultural collectives that are now global social formations. Metal fandom reaches into nearly every corner of the globe and is reflected in fan communities everywhere in the world (cf. Keith Kahn-Harris’ 2009 bibliography on metal scholarship). Nevertheless, metal fandom is routinely stereotyped as the province of the likes of Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, straight White men who are shallow, provincial, and perhaps xenophobic. Consequently, Frank Marshall’s Botswana metal fans striking a Judas Priest pose deal our own xenophobia a blow. We live in a historical moment in which subcultural distinction is often reduced to shows of style accessible to any shopper at the mall, and we accept that “identity” is an enormously fluid entity. Yet the Botswana metal fans force us to examine how race persistently shapes our gaze along and across lines of difference.
In many ways the Marshall images reflect routine subcultural theatricality as the Botswana subjects perform metal materiality. The Botswana metal fans strike a variety of strong poses while clad in especially intimidating garb: black cowboy hats, a cascade of studded leather jeans and jackets, belts crafted from bullets, and a variety of chains, boots, and black band t-shirts adorn Marshall’s subjects. Their reproduction of metal materiality rings familiar even as it is distinctive in stylistic features like the cowboy hats and bullet shell belts, and certainly a rigorous ethnography would unravel the social factors shaping such style. Yet it may be that very theatrical appropriation of recognizable subcultural codes across the color line that seizes the gaze of many audiences.
The Botswana images may reflect what Dick Hebdige divined in 1970’s British youth cultures, which he argued were “the dialogue between black and white most subtly and comprehensively recorded, albeit it in code.” Hebdige suggested that working-class British youth cultures (e.g., reggae) provide “a phantom history of race relations since the War,” tracing unacknowledged connections across lines of difference. The embrace of Iron Maiden in Botswana invokes familiar subcultural sentiments—powerlessness, indignation, subversion—and compels us to examine the caricatures to which metal fans in our midst have been reduced. Global fandoms and post-subcultures are complex social formations that do not fit facile definitions of a clearly defined social group antagonistic to an orthodox mainstream. Instead, the Botswana metal fans are part of an increasingly diverse global mass culture.
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All images from Frank Marshall Renegades