EDITOR’S NOTE: In February 2016, The Intercept retracted the article in which someone identified as Dylann Roof's cousin said he'd been “listening to that white power music stuff.” The quote appears to have been fabricated by a former Intercept staff reporter.
What makes a young man a racist killer? Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old charged for the murder of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston last week, was “normal,” his cousin told a reporter, “until he started listening to that white power music stuff.” It’s not clear exactly what Roof was listening to or how it influenced him. But it wouldn’t be surprising if music were one of the channels through which his racism crystallized; hate rock is one of the most powerful tools white-power groups have to spread their ideology to young people.
Christian Picciolini was a middle-class teenager from the suburbs of Chicago who loved punk rock. In the late 1980s he started listening to Skrewdriver, a British band formed in the regular punk sphere that morphed into a notorious neo-Nazi group. “When I heard the white-power lyrics I felt like they spoke to me,” Picciolini recalled. “My neighborhood was rapidly changing, I knew people whose parents were out of work because of minorities taking their jobs—at least, that’s what I thought at the time.” He was attracted to the aggressiveness of the music, to the way it channeled his angst. Yet he perceived its message to be a positive one. “It seemed like they were asking people to stand up and protect their neighborhoods and families. I realized later they were calling for violence.”
Picciolini says that music was the “primary” reason he became a skinhead; he didn’t come for the racism, but he absorbed it and in turn used music to bring other kids in the Rust Belt into the fold. “Music for us was the most powerful tool—definitely the most effective recruiting method,” he says. Within a few years Picciolini was the front man for the first American white power band to play in Europe. “There’s white pride all across America/White pride all across the world/White pride flowing through the streets/White pride will never face defeat!” he sang to 3,000 skinheads in Weimar, Germany, when he was 18. After selling hate rock out of his backpack for a while, Piccionlini opened a record store, where he kept the white-power music behind the counter. He estimates that it accounted for 75 percent of his revenue.
The scene that Picciolini was a part of has been associated with various acts of racial violence. Wade Michael Page, who murdered six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, was a member of several bands, including Youngland, a popular group that performed around Orange County. Youngland was known mainly for its song “Thank God I’m a White Boy,” a worked-over version of John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Page sang vocals on “Activist or Terrorist,” a track on Youngland’s 2003 album Winter Wind that concluded: “Activist or terrorist depends which side you’re on/Defend against the invader this war will greet your son/Hey you gotta go not your home anymore/If you don’t move quietly you’ll be forced to war.”
Most white-power bands today play what sounds like punk or heavy metal, but white nationalists have channeled their ideology through everything from country to Celtic folk. The scene’s locus has historically been Northern Europe, but crackdowns on hate speech abroad eventually drove the scene to the United States. Distinctly American contributions include a Cajun musician from Louisiana called Johnny Rebel who pioneered a racist strain of country music in the 1960s in response to the civil-rights movement. His early singles include “Nigger Nigger,” “Some Niggers Never Die (They Just Smell That Way),” and “In Coontown.” He made something of a comeback after 9/11 with a song called “Infidel Anthem,” a promise of vengeance that, while heavier on the profanity, is similar in thrust to Toby Keith’s mainstream country hit, “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American).”
In the late 1990s leaders of white-nationalist groups became more intentional about using music as a recruiting tool, particularly to middle- and upper-class kids like Picciolini. “I am overjoyed at the success we are seeing with the White Power bands,” wrote David Lane, a member of the neo-Nazi group The Order, in a fanzine in 1998. “I must confess that I don‘t understand the phenomenon, since my preference runs to Wagner and Tchaikovsky, but the musical enjoyment of us dinosaurs is of no importance. White Rock seems to reach and unify our young folk, and that is the first good news in decades.” In 1999 the leader of the National Alliance, William Luther Pierce, acquired a label called Resistance Records, which advertised itself as the “soundtrack for white revolution.”
Though white-nationalist rockers sometimes billed their music as an alternative to the “corporate” music business, certainly the music’s potential to raise revenue along with new recruits was not lost on its backers. Resistance was bringing in close to $1 million a year for the National Alliance in the early aughts, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which “helped to take the National Alliance to an all-time high in terms of membership and funding.”
In 2004, a white power label called Panzerfaust Records launched “Project Schoolyard USA” with the tagline, “We don’t just entertain racist kids: We create them.” Panzerfaust made 100,000 copies of a mix CD priced at 15 cents apiece, in the hopes that fans would buy them in bulk to distribute to middle and high schoolers. “[W]e know the impact that is possible when kids are introduced to white nationalism through the musical medium,” Panzerfaust’s owner Bryant Cecchini (who also went by the name Byron Calvert) wrote on his website. The CD included bands like the Bully Boys, who sang about “Whiskey bottles/baseball bats/pickup trucks/and rebel flags/we’re going on the town tonight/hit and run/let’s have some fun/we’ve got jigaboos on the run.” The following year, Panzerfaust collapsed amidst a debate about whether the label’s cofounder was actually white.
White-power groups have struggled to get their music onto the airwaves and into record stores and concert venues. The Internet now offers a cheap and easy way to reach listeners. There’s Micetrap Radio, for instance, which prides itself on being “the very first internet radio program to play White racial music.” Its website streams “the noise of our white generations” 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The SPLC has had some success cutting off online distribution networks: Apple started to pull white-power groups from iTunes late last year after the SPLC identified dozens of hate bands whose music was being sold through the service. The group is still pressing Spotify and Amazon to remove a number of bands.
C. Richard King, a professor at the University of Illinois who studies white supremacist culture, says that music is “one of the two most important pathways by which someone goes from wherever they’re at to being engaged or committed to something we might call white power.” The other pathway is the Internet, and the two are often bundled together. “If you wanted to be into white power thirty years ago, you had to show up at a bookstore or go to a Klan rally or a Nazi march. Now, one can simply log on and hit some keywords in Google and you can find the music and the websites,” King explained. While white-power music circulates now through online communities instead of between teenagers’ backpacks, King said that live shows, by giving people a reason to get together, continue to nurture white-supremacist communities in the real world.
Should the white-power music scene be more heavily policed? First Amendment free-speech rights protect hate rock to a greater extent in the US than in Europe, where authorities have taken an aggressive stance. In Germany, police developed a smartphone app to alert officers when one of some 1,000 neo-Nazi songs indexed in a federal database is played at a club or on the radio. But stricter regulation of hate speech in Europe hasn’t silenced white-power bands or dismantled neo-Nazi groups; it’s just led them to adopt more deeply coded racial language, King said.
In the United States, a better approach to burying the subculture might be to drag it into the light. “The thing that America really needs is to talk about and engage race, and to take seriously what the foundations of the music are. The music is not the product simply of disturbed individuals or people who are disaffected,” said King. “It emerged out of a much longer history of how blacks and blackness get thought about and how whites think about whiteness.”
American popular music expressed many of the ideas about race that permeate what is now defined as a fringe genre well into the 20th century. As King and his co-author David Leonard write in Beyond Hate: White Power and Popular Culture, it was only once overt racism became impolite that there was reason for “white power” music to occupy its own subculture. In the contemporary era too the boundaries between white-power music and mainstream punk and rock are more porous than one might assume. For instance, Skrewdriver was influential in wider punk circles before the band’s racial politics fully crystallized.
If American popular culture and white-supremacist ideology are no longer in explicit alignment as they once were, the idea that white America needs defending still pervades mainstream politics and culture—the way the right talks about immigration is a clear example. “We need to get those myths, those ideas, that history out. We need to talk about them and engage them seriously,” King agues. Rather than dismiss the genre, “we need to have more conversations about the content of the music—why it’s being produced, why people are listening to it, what is it that makes a young guy in this day and age wear flags from Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa.”
For Christian Picciolini, what led him to the white-nationalist movement was ultimately what took him out of it. At his record store he talked with customers he might have otherwise avoided—people who were black, Jewish, or gay. As he found himself bonding with someone over a punk or a rockabilly record, he became increasingly embarrassed about the stock of hate music behind the counter. “I couldn’t deny the feelings that I felt for these people,” he says. He dropped out of the skinhead scene, and stopped selling white-power music. His revenue plummeted and the store went bankrupt. In 2010 he co-founded a peace advocacy group called Life After Hate, and this spring, he released a memoir.
Dylann Roof walked away from what might have been a similar redemption. According to reports, he spent an hour with his victims inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church before he shot them. He “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him,” sources told NBC News. The day after, a crowd assembled at the Morris Brown AME church in Charleston for a prayer service. They sang “My Hope is Built,” a hymn that ends, “On Christ the solid rock I stand/ All other ground is sinking sand/ All other ground is sinking sand.”