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A Conversation With Leila Abdul-Rauf

June 17, 2010

Leila Abdul-Rauf is guitarist/vocalist for San Francisco’s Vastum, Amber Asylum (plus piano and occasionally trumpet), Hammers of Misfortune, and the currently inactive Saros. She also had a brief stint as a vocalist in Bastard Noise in 2007 and 2008, though right now the first three bands are keeping her more than busy enough.

1) How has feminism informed your experiences as a musician?

It has informed everything I experience in life, as a musician, as a friend, family member, or in whatever role I find myself. I also don’t feel sexism is any worse than racism, classism, homophobia, or any other -ism. To me, it’s all human injustice and it’s all equally fucked up. So I guess you can say it’s informed me about how fucked up our world is, and who has power over whom. It definitely gives me a different perspective from most people in the metal scene. I grew up on punk rock, so it was all about challenging these injustices, even if on the most superficial level. But then somewhere down the line feminism stopped being cool, and now there’s this big backlash against it; like if you identify with it, you’re the “uptight PC police” and totally not metal.

2) What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing women musicians today? What about challenges for other groups that fall outside the whitedudemetalgod stereotype? What can we do to break down barriers when and where they exist?

One challenge is not being taken seriously for whatever reason, and being tokenized or fetishized. There’s also the assumption that you don’t know jack about bands or gear. Let’s face it: the metal genre is fueled by testosterone, and unfortunately in many cases, misogyny. As long as you can handle these things surrounding you, and not absorb it internally, that’s half of the battle. For me, breaking down barriers means you have to develop enough inner strength where you really don’t give a shit about what people think of you, even if it means you won’t be popular. That can be hard to do, because people for the most part want to feel accepted.  I see women all the time sacrificing their self worth just to fit into the boy’s club.  I couldn’t care less about the boy’s club, but then again I couldn’t care less about being metal enough either. But then again, I’m not playing music to make money or be famous or anything.  If those things matter to you, then there will be a lot of sucking up involved.

3) Who are some artists/bands/musicians that inspire you and why?

My friends that I play music with or have played shows with inspire me; I’m lucky to have bandmates and friends that have a really unique perspective on life as well as being incredible musicians.  Two of the friends that inspire me the most from a feminist perspective would have to be Dan, the lead vocalist from Vastum and Acephalix, and Ayla, guitarist of Portland’s late Anon Remora and Disemballerina. Both are extremely talented, queer-identified, feminist and 100 percent metal, without sacrificing their identity or values. They are the future of metal. Also, this blog inspires me. I love the dialogue and friction it creates among people with extremely different opinions.

4) Why do you think many musicians (whether in metal or not, female or not) are reluctant to claim the term feminist for themselves? Is it the same sort of thing that happens in greater culture (a la the culture wars)? Or is there something else going on?

Social ethics and values have become fashion in this age of consumer culture. Feminism in the ’90s was cool; you could wear the slogan on a T-shirt, a button, etc. It’s simply not cool anymore; it’s passe’.  And in the music scene, being passe’ is even less cool, because you want people to like your band.  Women, already at a social disadvantage in the metal scene, don’t want to appear any less cool, so there is this reluctance to claim the feminism term if they wanna fit in with the boys. And for men in the metal scene, it’s not only uncool to talk about feminism in a positive way, but it’s “wussy.” I personally find this mentality to be incredibly weak, but then again I don’t care about being metal enough or popular; I’m not trying to impress anybody, get “signed,” or compete with anyone.  I am satisfied with what I already have.

5) What else should we talk about when we talk about women in metal? What’s not being said/tackled/discussed?

So much is not being discussed, too much to go into in this interview. Like the fact that more women are participating in metal bands these days doesn’t necessarily mean that barriers are being broken. And why female musicians are always referred to as “female musicians” and not simply just “musicians.” It would be more interesting to discuss the actual hierarchies that are in place, and how those hierarchies (patriarchies) are holding back actual creativity for everybody.  And the homophobia, which I feel is at the root of a lot of social problems. What people don’t realize is that the basic ignorance around not discussing these issues are actually preventing new art from being created — art that’s unique, fresh and interesting, the way punk and metal took the world by storm in the 1970s. We’ll never be able to experience anything like that again unless we get past these social barriers, or shackles, which is exactly what it did the first time around.

6) Can you share a story where you were really enthused about a scene’s response? Maybe there’s a place out there that’s doing things right.

I think the Eagle Tavern in San Francisco is doing things right.  It is one of the first – or maybe even THE first – gay leather-daddy bars to exist on the West Coast. (I believe the “bear” term was even invented there.) They have weekly metal nights there, and they always seem to draw the most diverse crowds women, men, straight, queer, transgender, etc. – and for some reason, differences never matter there. It’s a real melting pot on those Thursday metal nights. And the queerness is totally in your face Tom of Finland homoerotic artwork all over the venue, etc. yet straight people – straight metalheads still seem to feel welcome and comfortable going there. And it’s still this dive-y, down-and-dirty kinda place, and 100 percent metal, so it’s the best of everything.

Morla, the ancient one

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2010 6:32 am

    ahh, leila…. youve melted my little heart once again… you pony. thanks for all the kind words and thank you to the interviewer for prompting this rad discussion. onward!

  2. June 25, 2010 5:19 am

    Awesome interview! I totally agree – the musician/female musician thing pissed me off when I was playing in bands and still pisses me off today. As much as I’m for more women in music (and definitely heavy music), it’s always been frustrating to be evaluated on the basis of my gender rather than the fact that I’m actually a good musician, which I’m sure is a sentiment a lot of women in music can relate to.

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