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.”