One of my favorite heavy metal releases so far this year is Nervosa’s Downfall of Mankind. Nervosa thrashes hard, but it’s also socially conscious beyond mere lip service. When Prika Amaral, Fernanda Lira and Luana Dametto aren’t throwing down headbangers about sleep paralysis and mental anguish, they’re slinging moshers about civil rights. The foremost example is “Raise Your Fist,” which opens with quotes from well-known thinkers, writers and activists.
Some of the speakers are more familiar than others. To my chagrin, I was unable to name one at first listen, so I leapt at the chance to look up the quote and delve into the other speakers while I was at it. In our informationally overloaded but historically challenged times, a review of what we think we know can never hurt. And given how past injustices return to haunt us, review is crucial for the ongoing struggle.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
Everyone knows this one. Indeed, Martin Luther King Jr. has become such a fixture in the American cultural landscape that he has faded into the background as a safe figure posing no threat to, and even cited by, white supremacy. In Black Prophetic Fire (2014), Cornel West says that MLK has been “Santaclausified” into a “jolly old man with a smile giving out toys to everybody from right-wing Republicans to centrists to progressives.” Despite the civil rights icon’s adherence to civil disobedience, West insists that King’s message was so radical it should be “scary.”
Sure enough, this side of the Baptist preacher, civil rights activist and socialist is on display in the speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and quoted above. King wants action, he wants it now, and he promises to raise a fuss until justice is achieved:
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
“Who taught you to hate yourselves, from the top of your head to the souls of your feet?”
— Malcolm X
If Martin Luther King Jr. was more radical than commonly believed, Malcom X is less so. This quote is from a speech delivered in 1962 at the funeral of Ronald Stokes, whom the Los Angeles police shot from behind while his hands were up. In the speech, Malcolm X talks tough as usual, but even at his most militant, he only advocated violence for self-defense, something believed by all but the purest of pacifists. In America, white killers often take black lives even when it isn’t self-defense, but we’re supposed to worry more about the man, the woman or the community that fights back.
In 2015, I wrote admiringly of Malcolm X after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). I was impressed with his self-reinvention. In his youth, he was a drug dealer and a pimp. In prison, he turned himself around and joined the Muslim Brotherhood. During that time, he was a black supremacist. But then he underwent another revolution upon making the pilgrimage to Mecca. After witnessing the diversity of peoples in Africa, and the diversity of Muslims, a diversity including every color of human skin, he began using the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and adopted a greater focus on the equality and oneness of all humanity:
“My pilgrimage broadened my scope. It blessed me with a new insight. In two weeks in the Holy Land, I saw what I never had seen in thirty-nine years here in America. I saw all races, all colors — blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans — in true brotherhood! In unity! Living as one! Worshiping as one!”
“I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunity.”
— Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela is another Santaclausified figure. To many, he begins and ends as the kindly, wise old man who was released from prison and elected to president of South Africa in the Nineties and went on to unify Africans and Afrikaaners in post-Apartheid South Africa until his death in 2014. The Wise Old Man Himself, Morgan Freeman, has played Mandela in film (Invictus, 2009), and the Nelson Mandela Foundation has a Twitter account churning out tweets with safe nuggets of wisdom such as “Our society needs to establish a culture of caring” and “However small the action, you can help to change the world for the better for all.”
But like the real Martin Luther King, the real Mandela presents more of a challenge to the status quo. Mandela was that most dreaded of things — a communist — and in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, he describes non-violence as merely a means to an end and not an absolute principle, as it was for Mahatma Gandhi. Thus, when the African National Congress directed him in 1961 to establish an armed organization (Spear of the Nation), he was willing but sought to limit loss of life by focusing on sabotage.
It was for such activities that Mandela came to be known as the Black Pimpernel — after Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel — and was eventually caught and imprisoned for 27 years. Even late in life, when many criticized him for emphasizing racial and national unity over radical emancipatory vision, he remained an anything but trite figure and knew how to stick a finger in the eye of smug imperialism.
“In the midst of darkness, light persists.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
I didn’t know until I began researching this post that Indians played such an important role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela regularly mentions coordinating his efforts with the Indian community. In Satyagraha in South Africa (1928), Mahatma Gandhi explains how the South African government established a policy of bringing Indians to South Africa to serve as cheap laborers who were in reality all but slaves. And it was in South Africa that Gandhi, before Mandela was born and before his fight against British rule in his home country, coined the word satyagraha, a distinct iteration of non-violent resistance.
The above quote is from a speech delivered by Gandhi in 1931. It illustrates how inseparable God and revolutionary struggle were for Gandhi and how transformation of society begins with individual transformation of the self. It reminds us that the Good may be beaten down, but it will always rise.
“I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying there is underlying all that change a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves and recreates. That informing power of spirit is God, and since nothing else that I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is. And is this power benevolent or malevolent ? I see it as purely benevolent, for I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists. Hence I gather that God is life, truth, light. He is love. He is the supreme Good.”
“Feminist: A person who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The voice I couldn’t immediately identify at the beginning of “Raise Your Fist” belongs to novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This quote is from her TED talk, quoted at length in the Beyonce song “Flawless.” While most of the lyrics on Downfall of Mankind avoid specific hot-button topics, here Nervosa comes right out with the F word, and they clearly adore Adichie’s thought and work. In a video for Napalm Records in which they break down the album track by track, they excitedly and affectionately refer to her by her first name, Chimamanda.
The work by Adichie most relevant to this quote would be We Should All Be Feminists (2014), which was based on her TED talk, but I decided to familiarize myself with her by reading her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003). It’s a semi-autobiographical tale of a girl growing up in postcolonial Nigeria. I view a lot of so-called “literary fiction” today with suspicion because I find it to be preachy, cliché and overwritten. Purple Hibiscus, however, has a lucid style that presents an affecting portrait of a family in changing times, showing a complex interplay of values rather than telling you which ones to hold.
“It is for those voiceless children who want change, I am here to stand up for their rights, to raise their voice.”
— Malala Yousafzai
Terrorism fails. In 2012, a member of the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai and two other girls for their activism in the Swat District of Pakistan. Yousafzai, only 15 at the time, suffered a head wound and was in critical condition, but she recovered and has since resumed her progressive efforts with a focus on girls’ education and with greater influence than ever before. She was Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2012, and in 2014 she became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Nervosa has taken this quote from Yousafzai’s Nobel lecture. In it, she expresses her love of learning and reading. She mentions Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. She presents a vision of enlightened Islam. She emphasizes the oneness of humanity. She drops impressive lines like “Have you not learnt that in the Holy Quran Allah says: If you kill one person it is as if you kill the whole humanity?” and “I am not a lone voice, I am many.” And she mentions using henna to decorate her hands with mathematical equations when she was younger.
All of which is pretty cool. I hope Yousafzai continues to speak for years to come and, just as importantly, inspires others to raise their voices.
Nervosa is from Brazil, a nation with its own history of inequality. Indigenous tribes enslaved each other until the Portuguese arrived in 1500. Then Portuguese settlers enslaved the indigenous tribes. Even as that practice continued, Brazil enslaved more Africans than any other nation during the Atlantic slave trade. To this day, racial and economic inequality persists to a degree often described as social apartheid. This has naturally led to various forms of resistance, including political heavy metal bands.
The giant among political Brazilian metal bands, a giant in Eighties thrash, and a giant in metal in general is Sepultura. After its debut album Morbid Visions (1986) and its dirty, Satanic thrash, Sepultura quickly transitioned to more sophisticated styles and themes. Political themes — from police brutality to Palestine — began appearing regularly with the album Chaos A.D. (1993). Nation (2001) is packed full of protest songs and has cover art featuring raised fists. So it’s no surprise that, in an interview with Metal Recusants, Nervosa guitarist and vocalist Prika Amaral has said that Sepultura is a “huge influence.”
And while Nervosa is its own beast, Downfall of Mankind shows its three musicians are every bit as metal as Sepultura. Fernanda Lira’s snarled vocals are wicked, her bass is nimble, and her facial expressions are gruesome. She’s a triple threat in a lineup that is a triple threat. Meanwhile, Prika Amaral’s guitar is a threshing floor that regularly bursts into flames. And as someone who occasionally plays the drums, I’m in awe of Luana Duametto’s rapid-fire but physically lowkey style. Together, these women have created a thrash album to put many of the true greats to shame.
Downfall of Mankind’s politics don’t outshine it’s music, but politics is there. With “Raise Your Fist,” Nervosa raises the voices of distinguished activists in ordering us to speak up and take action or suffer the consequences: oppression. It’s a message worth heeding, but even apart from its message, Downfall of Mankind is a blast of thrash salubrious to the metal spirit.
Rating: 4/5 demonic alien skull eyes
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