It’s a midweek afternoon and I meet up with an old friend in Dobsonville, Soweto. We used to go to hip-hop shows together. Now Trevor ‘Paranoia’ Macupe is a black man who pounds out white music. He’s a member of a black metal band, from Soweto, the urban township to the south of Johannesburg; his music is kicking down barriers.
Black metal is fast, with high-pitched piercing vocals and distorted guitars. It grabs you by the gut. The artists often appear on stage with painted faces, looking like corpses; a dark look for black metal.
The members of this metal band have taken the aggressive guitar music from the northern hemisphere and made it their own.
The five musicians met through skateboarding and hip-hop and now they spill black metal into the African night.
Macupe is the guitarist; Thapelo ‘Bellicose’ Mokoena, the bassist; Modiba ‘Belgaroth’ Rabothata, the drummer; Siyabonga ‘Thronum’ Mngadi is the other guitarist. Dreadlocked Sthembiso ‘Tyrant’ Kunene, the vocalist, lives up to his name on stage. They are known as Demogoroth Satanum and they are the first all-black, black metal band to come out of South Africa. They have been playing together since 2012.
The band’s technical skills have earned them fans in faraway places like Botswana and Germany. They didn’t have money, nor equipment, nor resources, to go to music school but they practised hard and taught themselves to rock hard.
“Upon discovering it, we didn’t understand it; we dived into it and upon exploring it we found the sound that we are known for today,” says Mngadi.
They acquired the taste while skateboarding and playing video games, with rock ‘n’ roll and punk music playing in the background.
The band usually meet at Mngadi’s room, in Zola, Soweto, sometimes to listen to what they have produced or to write songs before they head out to a community center to rehearse. Passers-by are stunned when they hear metal churning out in a place where township music is the beat of the streets.
“Not just our families, but the whole black community had a very negative view on what we’re doing because it’s not in the Sowetan comfort zone. They would say it’s witchcraft or Satanism with the corpse paint and the loud music and screaming,” says Kunene.
Kunene says that the younger generation accuse them of playing “white-boy music” and say they are trying to be white people. The older generation just say it’s witchcraft.
Mokoena had a bad experience while sitting on a train bound for Johannesburg. He was wearing a black metal t-shirt with dark imagery and there was a gentleman sitting in front of him and staring.
“He eventually had the courage to say something. The first thing he said was that I am ‘evil and Illuminati, you’re the one poisoning our children’. He attacked me and didn’t get to know my name. I let him vent because it was a scary situation because of mob justice. If half the train thinks he’s right, I would have got my ass kicked for wearing a metal t-shirt. I didn’t want to engage him in case I incite a violent situation,” he says.
On August 4, the band was in a safer place. The gig was in Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa, about a 91-kilometer drive from Soweto – in cultural terms, it could have been on Mars – at a pub called Arcade Empire peopled by whites. On the night, the only black people there were the members of the bands, the waiters and myself. Nothing unusual for Demogoroth Satanum.
Four bands are playing on the night; Demogoroth Satanum is the only one playing black metal. An ear splitting kerrang from the lead guitar announces them on stage with a swagger.
“This song is made out to two girls who tried to make it to hell but, unfortunately, they made it to heaven,” says Kunene before one of their numbers.
The audience cheers and the mosh pit – an area on the dancefloor where fans jump into each other as the aggressive music plays – comes to life more and more with every song. Before the song had finished I had to be careful with the camera; it was raining beer as the crowd jumped with bottles in their hands.
“As the mosh pit is happening and the crowd is going crazy, I know we’re doing the right thing,” says Kunene.
The last song ends and the lights go up. It was like the calm after the storm. The guys had just performed yet another show for free and didn’t mind because they love the music.
The band wants to play more international shows, especially in Europe, where metal is popular.
Demogoroth Satanum sustain themselves with day jobs. Mngadi works as a retention agent, Kunene trades online, Rabothatha recently left his job as call center agent to focus on the music, and Macupe freelances shooting and directing videos. When he is not playing the bass, Mokoena does street cleaning and sweeps bus stops.
“Metal is not one of those genres you’d get into for the money, because you going be sorely disappointed. Trust me, you’re not going to make money for free, not in this country,” says Macupe.
Just as well. With all the negative commentary from the township and stereotypes about the genre, the boys have turned their most unlikely fans; their families, into their greatest supporters. Their long-term aim is to get more black people into the mosh pit.