By now you’ve already seen it, or at least you know the story: At the 2015 Grammy Awards, Kanye West responded to Beck winning the year’s best album award by intruding onto the stage, apparently ready to relive his infamous 2009 moment with Taylor Swift before reconsidering and returning to his seat. Afterward, Kanye was quoted as saying Beck “needed to respect artistry” and give his award to Beyonce.
If you didn’t see the little drama play out live (if, like me, you ignore the Grammys as one more among a slew of bloated, masturbatory and irrelevant award shows) then you probably learned about Kanye and Beck from the ensuing controversy, pre-packaged and ready-made for social networks. By reversing course and not taking the mic, Kanye even kept his intrusion brief enough to fit in a Vine. At last count it had just over 3.2 million loops, and I bet only 100,000 of those are from Kanye watching himself. Shirley Manson of Garbage delivered a carefully worded skewering, and millions of everyday viewers have either chided or cheered Kanye.
…and this is where I get a little uncomfortable. The image above was among the many memes and responses trending on Facebook and other social networks. Any pop culture controversy, especially one involving Kanye West, is going to wake up Racist Twitter, but something about this image felt subtle and coded. I didn’t recognize the man in the picture (first mistaking him for Metallica frontman James Hetfield) but it turns out this is Zakk Wylde, former guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne and founder of the heavy metal band Black Label Society.
Now, to be clear I’m not accusing Wylde of racism–but he’s almost certainly not the one who created this meme, and heavy metal has long been a favorite of the white supremacist movement. With his beard and long hair, the leather wraps and gothic font, he becomes is a nordic warrior, his chosen weapon on a studded leather strap, standing atop a mountain and promising implied harm to his interrupting foe.
Heavy Metal didn’t get to be a favorite of white supremacy by accident. Bands and musicians in the genre have long-embraced symbolism and imagery that is central to supremacist culture, including Odinist, nazi, and American confederate iconography, songs about norse myth and southern pride, and aggressive positions against rap and hip hop. While some of this is certainly marketing, other bands have openly embraced the white-power philosophy. Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo delivered white power sermons during concerts, and other bands have included thinly-veiled messages in their lyrics. Motorhead often used Nazi and Confederate iconography, and frontman Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister collected Nazi paraphernalia, though when confronted about it he said it was only for aesthetic value and strongly disavowed racist thought. The embracing of punk and metal by white supremacist hate-groups has been documented by publications like Tablet and Noisecreep.
As for Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society, their branding includes icons like the celtic and iron crosses, both frequent symbols of white pride, though Wylde, like Lemmy, says he uses such symbols only for their aesthetic. Wylde was a close friend and protege of Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, and in the early 1990’s played with a band called “Lynyrd Skinhead.” I’m not alone in my suspicions: A 2012 conversation on the white supremacist community Stormfront is titled “Is Zakk Wylde one of us?”
Even if Wylde is only blowing that dogwhistle by accident, it’s still being heard–and the message of the meme above, decoded, seems clear. Beck may have handled Kanye’s interruption with class and even admiration, but a soldier in the white nationalist army would’ve taught Kanye West to “know his place.”
White supremacists have a special hate for Kanye West, beyond the mere fact of his race. In 2009 he interrupted and embarrassed Taylor Swift, an ivory-skinned pretty white girl who got her start singing country ballads (and who went on to perpetuate black stereotypes in the guise of “good clean fun”). This, after calling out George W. Bush in 2005, and Kanye’s habit of comparing himself to Jesus. Of course he’s also a successful, outspoken, and ubiquitous black entrepreneur with what might politely be described as “an ego issue.” Poke around in online white supremacist discussions for a while [friendly warning: it’s not a pleasant experience] and you’ll find Kanye’s name comes up a lot, often in conversations unrelated to his work.
Is it fair to criticize Kanye? Of course it is; his behavior at the Grammys was entitled and narcissistic, as it so often is. But the modes of expressing that criticism suggest the motives, for many on social media, are less about Kanye West’s behavior and more about his race.