Essay: Racist Music

By Heidi Beirich

The white power music industry is a leading source of money and young recruits for many of the Western world's most dynamic racist revolutionaries. Since the early 1990s, it has grown from a cottage industry into a multimillion-dollar, worldwide enterprise. In many ways, this remarkably violent music is accomplishing for the radical right what decades of racist theorizing didn't: It has given racist skinheads and other racial extremists around the world a common language, and it has worked far better than most propaganda to create more young racists.

White power music, known to many of its enemies as "hatecore," grew out of the skinhead movement in Europe. The classic skinhead look – Doc Martens boots, red suspenders and shaved heads – first appeared on British streets in the late 1960s. It was all part of an angry, working-class response to the hippie counterculture, which was seen by skins as hopelessly middle class and soft, and was marked by soccer hooliganism and a marked predilection for other kinds of street violence. But that early skinhead culture was generally not racist, and its music originally was a spinoff of black musical forms like Caribbean ska and rocksteady.

That began to change in 1982, when Skrewdriver, the legendary band led by Ian Stuart Donaldson, held the first of a series of white power concerts under the banner of "Rock Against Communism."(This was a response to "Rock Against Racism" concerts held by punk rock bands.)  Earlier, in the late 1970s, Donaldson had begun publishing the magazine Blood & Honour, named after the inscription on the daggers of Hitler's SS youth corps. Donaldson, who died in a 1993 car crash, would go on to inspire racist skins all over the world, including America. Along with other leading British racists, he split the skinhead movement into opposing racist and non-racist factions, a split that still characterizes the worldwide scene today.

The international path that racist skinheads blazed in the 1980s through Europe and North America gave them a reputation as "Trotskyists of the right." After the first skin groups arrived in the United States in the early 1980s, hate groups like Church of the Creator (known today as The Creativity Movement) and White Aryan Resistance (WAR) began recruiting them in earnest – seeing them, in the words of WAR chieftain Tom Metzger, as the "shock troops" of the coming revolution. The first groupings in what would later become Hammerskin Nation, one of the most violent skinhead groups in the world today, emerged in Dallas by 1989. During the same period, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, U.S. skinheads left a trail of ruthless beatings and stabbings – and some 40 murders.

During Skrewdriver's heyday in the 1980s, several European labels sold white power music, often alongside anti-racist punk albums. But racist music didn't really take off internationally until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For millions of people, that fall, in addition to ending the old Soviet empire, also meant economic disaster, social instability and an identity crisis that combined to make extremist politics suddenly appealing. One result was that many extremists in the West, now lacking the external threat of communism, turned their fears inward to target Jews, blacks, immigrants and their own governments. In Eastern Europe, the crash of communism also brought the lifting of import controls on CDs.

Between 1992 and 1997, the international racist music industry mushroomed. In Sweden, for instance, there was one white power concert held in 1992. In 1995, there were 20. White power labels, including Sweden's Ragnarock Records and Nordland Records, started selling their wares in many European nations. Michigan-based Resistance Records, formed by Canadian George Burdi and others, became the largest American label and even produced its own glossy magazine.

The culture that accompanied the lucrative racist music business was violent. In internecine disputes, neo-Nazis in the industry have stomped each other with boots, beaten each other with baseball bats and tortured each other with hammers. They have hired hit men and burned down buildings. Racist music fans have bombed children and bludgeoned people with iron pipes; they have drowned LGBT people and executed police officers. This violence is not surprising, given the nature of the music. "You kill all the niggers and you gas all the Jews," sang Burdi and his band RAHOWA (short for the well-known racist slogan, "Racial Holy War"). "Kill a gypsy and a commie too. You just killed a kike, don't it feel right? Goodness gracious, Third Reich." (Burdi would later renounce racism).

In Europe, where such music is generally illegal, governments in recent years have deported racist aliens, raided white power CD caches and banned some neo-Nazi music organizations. Such pressure has driven racist music underground even as profit margins have shot up for what is seen as illegal contraband. Increasingly, this crackdown has made the United States, with its First Amendment protections for even extremely violent hate speech, a haven for the racist music business. Now, with the rise of digital music, Internet-based "radio" shows stream racist music around the world at all hours of the day. In the United States, racist music from more than 100 domestic bands, plus hundreds more foreign ones, is available on line.

Racist music is big business, almost certainly the main source of income for many radical groups. Resistance Records, for instance, reportedly was selling some 70,000 CDs a year in the early 2000s, netting hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits. The label had been purchased in 1999 by the National Alliance (NA), then the premier neo-Nazi group in the United States. Profits from Resistance helped fund the NA's political activities as its leader, William Pierce, embraced the music's potential. "All too often we turn [our anger] against ourselves," Pierce wrote at the time. "We need to give a proper direction to that anger. ... [Resistance Records will distribute] music of defiance and rage against the enemies of our people. ... It will be the music of the great, cleansing revolution which is coming." By 2002, the year Pierce died, the NA had 17 paid national staffers — a remarkable situation made possible only by the income provided by Resistance. But Pierce's death set off a series of internal disputes, and the NA is now a shadow of its former self. Resistance Records, which Pierce had built into the most dominant white-power label in the world, still sells a few CDs today, but other labels have taken much of its market.

If white power music remains big business in the United States, it is even bigger in Europe, and especially Eastern Europe. Racist music is found in every one of Europe's 30 countries, but it is especially widespread in the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia. Perhaps most troubling is that racist skinhead culture, which has always sought the extreme, has even come to seem normal in places. In Germany, where the neo-fascist National Democratic Party (NPD) has openly sold white power music to raise money for elections, racist skins boastfully call some neighborhoods "National Liberated Zones" – no-go areas for any foreigners, blacks or Jews who want to avoid a beating or worse.

Interpol estimated in 1999 that the European neo-Nazi music industry was worth $3.4 million a year and said profit margins were better than for selling hashish — and since that time, the industry has clearly grown. In Poland, some racist bands now sell as many as 30,000 albums, comparable to successful local pop bands. In the early 2000s, that country of 39 million people had about 15,000 individuals intimately involved in the racist skinhead scene, according to Rafal Pankowski of the Polish anti-fascist group Never Again. In Germany, before the neo-Nazi music organization Blood & Honour was banned in 2000, there were about 180 white power concerts a year – or one every other day – according to Antifaschistische INFO-Blatt (AIB), a German anti-fascist organization. In Sweden, a 1997 survey showed that 12% of those aged 12 to 19 listened to white power music.

There is no certain estimate of the size of the American racist skinhead music scene, but it is clearly far smaller than in Europe. There remain, however, several American vendors of hate music, including NSM88 Records, Tightrope and Free Your Mind Productions. Each year, several hate music concerts are put on around the nation, usually by skinhead organizations like the Hammerskins. But there has been a great deal of turmoil on the racist music scene, with the virtual collapse of Resistance and another major label, Panzerfaust Records. In addition, the Imperial Klans of America (IKA), which hosts an annual Memorial Day weekend event called Nordic Fest, has lost much of its power since a successful 2008 lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (The suit targeted IKA over several members' attack on a boy they wrongly believed was an illegal Latino immigrant.) After years in which the concerts held at IKA's Kentucky compound drew large numbers, the 2009 event was a flop. Today, there is no dominant label on the American (or the international) white power music scene. It remains to be seen if other purveyors of racist music rise to become as important as Resistance Records once was.


Heidi Beirich is director of research and special projects for the Southern Poverty Law Center.