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.
C. Richard King, professor in critical culture, gender, and race studies (CCGRS) at WSU, studies white supremacist culture. King says that music is “one of the two most important pathways by which someone goes from wherever they’re at to being engaged or committed to something we might call white power.” The other pathway is the Internet, and the two are often bundled together. “If you wanted to be into white power thirty years ago, you had to show up at a bookstore or go to a Klan rally or a Nazi march. Now, one can simply log on and hit some keywords in Google and you can find the music and the websites,” King explained. While white-power music circulates now through online communities instead of between teenagers’ backpacks, King said that live shows, by giving people a reason to get together, continue to nurture white-supremacist communities in the real world.
As King and his co-author David Leonard, CCGRS associate professor and chair, write in Beyond Hate: White Power and Popular Culture, it was only once overt racism became impolite that there was reason for “white power” music to occupy its own subculture. In the contemporary era, too, the boundaries between white-power music and mainstream punk and rock are more porous than one might assume.