With the US struggling with yet another mass shooting, there’s much discussion of what motivates people to do such horrible things. For example, Dylann Roof, the shooter in the Charleston massacre last week, was very much into racist white power music. The Nation looks at the history of hate rock.
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.