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As That Metal Show’s season 14 premiere looms, we’re celebrating hard rock and heavy metal all month long, but February also marks Black History Month so what better time to delve into the legacy of African-American musicians in the loudest genre on Earth. Metal fans of course know that music is colorblind and that people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds listen to and play metal music. It might surprise people unfamiliar with the genre, however, to find out how much heavy metal owes to African-American music and how many African-American musicians have had a huge influence on the genre.
Of course the first wave of hard rock and proto-metal bands, from Blue Cheer to Black Sabbath, drank deep from the well of delta and Chicago blues artists such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Their tales of hell-raising, with or without the aid of Satan, and heavy pentatonic riffs still echo through metal to this very day. Guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix is of course lauded as one of the first “hard rock” artists and still inspires disciples to this day. Before him however, R&B guitarists like Ike Turner (yeah, Tina’s husband) with Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats and Howlin’ Wolf sideman Willie Johnson were abusing their amplifier’s to get thick, overdriven tones which were a precursor to metal’s ubiquitously distorted axes.
At the dawn of the 80s, Washington D.C.’s Bad Brains inspired punk rockers and metal heads alike with their increasingly metalized hardcore assault and Hirax frontman Katon W. De Pena was an instrumental part of the early Bay Area thrash scene. Guns N’ Roses wouldn’t have had the same impact without the guitar playing of Slash, who is African-American on his mother’s side, and Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, raised in Illinois but Kenyan on his father’s side, revolutionized the instrument by adapting turntable techniques to the six-string. African-American musicians continue to play a vital part in heavy metal music, playing in bands that reflect the musical diversity of the genre as a whole. In honor of Black History Month and Metal F***in’ February, we celebrate the legacy of African-Americans in hard rock and heavy metal.