Sounding out recruits: Music remains instrumental in the US far-right radicalization

Despite the proliferation of new technologies that can reach wide audiences, music remains a potent radicalization tool

The United States is seeing an increase in right-wing terrorism. In 2018, the number of hate groups operating across America rose to a record high 1,020, making it the fourth straight year of such growth, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation currently has around 850 open domestic terrorism investigations, most of them involving anti-government and white nationalist extremists, FBI assistant director for counterterrorism Michael McGarrity told the House Homeland Security Committee on May 8.

About half of the 850 involved “anti-government, anti-authority actors,” and another 40% are racially-driven extremists, he said.

“Within that a significant majority are racially motivated extremists who support the superiority of the white race,” McGarrity added, blaming the internet and social media for the recent rise in domestic extremist threats.

White power groups of the far-right are always looking for new forms of media to exploit for their ideology, Jessie Daniels, Professor of Sociology at the Hunter College, told The Defense Post.

“I refer to them as ‘innovation opportunists,’” she said.

Right-wing radicals are motivated by a number of distinct ideologies, including neo-Nazism and white nationalism. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, better known as START, defines right-wing extremism as violence in support of the belief that either personal or national way of life is under attack and is either already lost or faces an imminent threat.

Since the 1980s, music has been a potent tool for right-wing extremists to spread their messages in the United States and other parts of the world. Despite the proliferation of new technology, music remains a part of propaganda efforts and a helpful avenue for radicalization, along with leafleting and face-to-face recruitment.

A 2016 START report said that white power music proved to be the most common and effective strategy, allowing recruiters to cloak radical beliefs within lyrics.

According to Daniels, far-right extremists use music not as a direct recruitment tool, but to propagate their message and make it more accepted by a wider audience.

“It makes more sense, in my view, to place music alongside lots of other available media, such as YouTube videos, websites like The Daily Stormer, as components of radicalization for some (leading to violence), and for others, the more mundane mainstreaming of white supremacist ideas into what is acceptable,” she explained.

One of the subjects interviewed for the START report, Sebastian, explained what role music played in his radicalization.

“I was all about it [the music]. That was it. If it wasn’t for the music, I don’t think I ever would’ve got completely into it,” he said. “Screwdriver, I don’t know, their songs get in your head. I still f– listen to it. The songs get in your head and those lyrics. I don’t know. It’s just weird. The music was definitely a major part for me.”

Tech-savvy approach

Some 30 years ago, white power music was especially appealing to activists because record companies did not operate online, and extremists had to exchange bootleg tapes of white power bands.

“The fact that these tapes were taboo and difficult to obtain made them even more appealing to certain youth,” the START report said.

White supremacist groups have always been technologically savvy, and in the 1990s, the internet became central to the movement globally, Pete Simi, Director of the Earl Babbie Research Center and an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Chapman University, told The Defense Post.

With the internet playing the central role, the far-right music presence largely moved online, particularly in terms of the scene’s organization.

“The music shows were still happening on the ground, but even those were organized to a large extent through online activity,” explained Simi, who was one of the authors of the START report. “Online networks would organize a music show in Denver, or a music show in Florida, or a music show overseas in Europe. A lot of that coordination and planning … was being done online.”

Gradually, right-wing extremist music became more mainstream, no longer confined to labels like Resistance Records, but available through popular services such as Spotify.

There have been continuous efforts by mainstream services to get rid of easily available extremist music, but the degree of their success varies.

Daniels argued that the greatest obstacle to tracking and removing music files online is not technological.

“The biggest challenge is the political will to do anything about it. Technically, it’s quite straightforward to track objectionable content and have it removed. Just try posting something on YouTube that has copyrighted music! That will get taken down almost immediately, easily within 24 hours,” she said.

“It’s the same technology that could have far-right music removed, but people in the U.S. don’t have a strong commitment to opposing the spread of the far-right, so it skates by, unchecked.”

Apart from easily shared music, online gaming is another avenue for radicalization.

“White supremacists have viewed gaming as a viable option. They developed their own gaming systems. Ethnic Cleansing was a video game that the National Alliance [neo-Nazi, white separatist organization] developed way back” in 2002, Simi said.

He noted that music is still an important radicalization tool, but it has become one of many.

“I don’t want to say it is not as popular, it’s just not the only tool in the arsenal,” Simi said. “You still have, for instance, this national socialist black metal which we’ve been hearing a little bit about recently because of the arsons, the church burnings in Louisiana.”

In April, local authorities charged 21-year-old Holden Matthews in connection with fires at three historically black churches in Louisiana. His behavior was likely influenced by a specific sub-genre of black metal music, according to investigators.

“Information investigators have uncovered, and that Matthews has offered, suggests a possible connection with a genre of music called ‘black metal’ and its associated history with church burnings in other parts of the world, which have been documented in movies and books,” the state fire marshal’s office said in a statement.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, national socialist black metal, a sub-genre within black metal music that promotes Nazism or similar ideologies and political philosophies, is not readily available in record stores, but it is just a few clicks away on the internet.

White power music scene

White power music extends across many styles and genres, including techno and white power rock. While originally heavy metal and punk-type of music was popular, activists have branched out into other more-popular styles, like country and neo-Nazi folk, to reach wider audiences. But regardless of the genre, white power music reflects ideas typical for far-right groups, including white pride, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigration.

Hate music groups are typically white power music labels that record and distribute racist music, and at the moment, the United States has at least a dozen of them, according to the SPLC.

One example is Label 56, which was founded in 2005 and operates from Baltimore. It has released songs by End Apathy, a group fronted by Wade Michael Page, the man who shot and killed six people at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Milwaukee in August 2012.

The label tried to distance itself from the shooting.

“Please do not take what Wade (allegedly) did as honorable or respectable and please do not think we are all like that,” it said in a statement.

After the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, record labels deemed racist found it harder to operate, with some being silenced or otherwise shamed, but Label 56, the only white-power label in the capital region, continued to thrive.

Lack of attention to the far-right

Domestic extremists killed at least 50 people in the United States last year, according to an Anti-Defamation League report released in January, making 2018 the fourth-deadliest year for such killings since 1970. These murders were overwhelmingly linked to right-wing ideology.

“Every one of the perpetrators had ties to at least one right-wing extremist movement, although one had recently switched to supporting Islamist extremism,” the report said.

In 2015, a New America Foundation study established that since the September 11 attacks, right-wing extremists have killed more Americans in the country than jihadists by almost two-to-one. However, despite the rising right-wing extremist activity, U.S. government agencies haven’t been paying as much attention to these activists, Daniels said.

“In fact, the U.S. has been cutting funds to address far-right violence. And, not just under the current president,” she noted. “In 2009, when DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano issued a report warning about the threat of far-right groups in the U.S. and domestic terrorism, Republicans objected and forced her to withdraw it and apologize. Law enforcement in the U.S. continues to struggle with how to approach the issue of far-right extremism.”

When it comes to the role of music in radicalization, the attention U.S. authorities pay to it is “not zero,” according to Mark Hamm, a professor of criminology at Indiana State University.

“Counterterrorism officials within the government are aware of music’s historical influence on the radical right. The problem is that these same officials are guided by an institutional memory that fundamentally ignores the radical right,” he told The Defense Post.

Less attention is paid to far-right radicalization, in part because it may be easier for people to point towards out-groups as being a threat, according to Simi.

“In the U.S., obviously, Muslims are perceived as an out-group. And so to associate them with some form of extremism, violence, terrorism is much easier for the general public to do that it is people who are perceived as insiders,” he said.

“Because of a longstanding history of white supremacists in the United States, it’s a problem that’s much easier to deny than to actually confront in a straightforward fashion,” he added, noting that this “pernicious form of malign neglect” benefits these groups, allowing them to mobilize and operate off the radar.

New driver of radicalization

Hamm argued that music is no longer as potent a force for radicalization as it was in the past.
But far-right radicals can always find a new source of inspiration.

“Music was the primary driver of radicalization among neo-Nazi skinheads of Britain and America during the 1980s and 1990s. Skinheads are relatively passé today. They have been replaced by a more modified form of white supremacy, as exemplified in groups like the Proud Boys who dress like bankers or insurance salesmen,” he said. “They are inspired not by racist music but the xenophobic statements of President Donald Trump.”

When demonstrators assembled in Charlottesville for a white supremacist rally in 2017, many of them were dressed in khakis and polo t-shirts, a “uniform” different from clothing usually associated with such radicals as skinheads, for example. However, according to Simi, it shouldn’t have been shocking for the public to see “normally” dressed extremists. They have long attempted to present themselves as normal to create a mass movement.

“That’s how white supremacist have looked for a long, long time. It’s just now this strategy is finally starting to bear out fruit,” he said.

David Duke, a prominent American white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was advocating for this normalcy in the late 1980s. A decade later, Tom Metzger, an American white supremacist, skinhead leader and former Klan member, started telling people to cover up their tattoos, join the military, become police officers and school teachers.

“They’re all things that have been advocated within the movement for a long, long time. And I think we’re just kind of becoming aware of it, really,” Simi said.

He noted that in the current political moment, there’s somebody in the White House that speaks the language of white supremacy.

“He [Trump] does represent what they would say is a first step. He’s open to this possibility, he’s opened this window to talk about white identity in a way that wasn’t possible before his candidacy, it was harder to do,” Simi said.

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