The music was good, if you could overlook some artists’ fixation on Nazi death skulls.
That was the dilemma facing listeners like Shane Burley, a writer covering far-right extremism. “I like neo-folk,” Burley said. “I want to go to neo-folk shows.”
But neo-folk music—along with a handful of other genres like black metal, industrial music, and some spheres of the punk scene—has a white supremacist problem. None of the genres are inherently political; neo-folk artists are more likely to sing about nature than Nazis. Still, the communities have become organizing hubs for the far right, some of whom adopt Nazi imagery. And as far-right violence soars in the U.S., with recent incidents including a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a car attack at a white supremacist rally, some music fans on the left are looking for ways to save their scenes from the people they can’t stand.
For Burley, author of the book Fascism Today, that meant launching the anti-fascist neo-folk website A Blaze Ansuz late last month.
“We want a romantic art form that’s our own,” he said of the left’s claim to neo-folk. “We have the right to heavy metal, we have the right to neo-folk, and industrial, and those genres. The far right doesn’t own them in any real way.”
Neo-folk, which mixes traditional music with industrial and gothic influences, can be wildly experimental, a space for reinventing old genres and telling sweeping stories. But some of the genre’s founding bands, like Death in June, traffic heavily in fascist iconography.
The group has released multiple albums with Nazi imagery on the covers and takes its name from the Night of the Long Knives, a 1934 Nazi purge to eliminate possible rivals to Adolf Hitler. And while the band and others in its circles have dismissed their Nazi references as harmless provocation, anti-fascists argue the musicians are trying to build a safe space for true extremists.
Spencer Sunshine, a neo-folk fan and researcher focusing on the far right, said the imagery can be tightly interwoven with the scene.
“I'm not sure that any music scenes are ‘inherently’ political,” Sunshine said. “But if they were, neo-folk might qualify, since it almost entirely originates with a single band, Death in June, who it appears crafted their aesthetic approach specifically based on fascist political themes. Neo-folk has always had a far-right presence, with almost no left-wing one, until more recently.”
The problem is older than neo-folk and neo-Nazis. Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, traced the battle over fascist music to the movement’s beginnings, in early 20th century Europe.
“There were fascist and anti-fascist songs from the beginning, which played an important part in resistance during the ’20s and ’30s, and during the war,” Bray said, pointing to the Spanish Civil War songs that served as anthems for anti-fascists. On the other side, Nazis sang songs glorifying street-fighting brownshirts during their rise to power, and eventually made folk music an integral part of the Hitler Youth curriculum.
After the war, a bedraggled British fascist movement looked for a new face. “You get the development of different fascist parties in Britain right after the war that, by the ’60s and ’70s, are looking for new ways to recruit and infiltrate different forms of youth sociability,” Bray said. “One of them becomes a white power skinhead movement, the original skinhead movement being an inter-cultural blending of Jamaican and British musical styles and fashion.”
The racist punk movement sparked a responding anti-racist punk movement, which laid much of the groundwork for the United States’ current anti-fascist scene.
“In punk, anti-racism and anti-fascism have been really at the forefront, not only because of attempts by the far right to infiltrate the scenes but also because it’s a pretty widely accepted political value: fuck the Nazis,” Bray said. “Everyone can get into that, or should be able to.”
Another musical wave emerged for Nazis looking to present themselves as more wholesome and less violent: folk music.
In 2003, the decidedly not-Nazi folk band Molly’s Revenge told the Southern Poverty Law Center that they’d been duped. A traditional Celtic band with a Jewish member, they’d been booked to play “Euro-Fest 2003,” only to learn it was a Nazi jamboree with stalls selling swastika-embroidered baby blankets.
The festival was organized by the neo-Nazi group the National Alliance, whose founder (when he wasn’t inspiring the catastrophic 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) preached “European” festivals and European folk music as a means of subtly introducing white supremacist thinking to a less extreme crowd.
That tradition has continued with folk’s more futuristic cousin, neo-folk.
“These bands created a space that’s really focused on romanticizing Europe’s past, particularly pre-Christian Europe, creating a mythology about what Europe is and what Europeans are,” Burley said of the genre. “It’s sort of like a cultural struggle to change how people perceive things, so that down the line, politics end up changing: how they relate to things like immigration, national identity, and sovereignty.”
Neo-folk shares some of its musical DNA with black metal, another genre fighting a Nazi problem.
Across two days in late January, hundreds of black metal fans packed a Brooklyn music hall for a reckoning. Their scene was home to bands led by women, immigrants, people of color, and unapologetic anti-fascists. But a subgenre, often termed National Socialist Black Metal or NSBM, had become an unwanted presence in recent years, seeming to rise with white supremacist sentiment in the U.S.
Kim Kelly, a journalist and longtime chronicler of the metal scene, organized the two-day festival Black Flags Over Brooklyn as a stand against metal’s fascist creep. Metal’s more confrontational nature can make its Nazis easier to spot and harder to quash.
“In black metal it’s a lot more explicit, and I think a lot of that’s because of how black metal likes to play with provocation,” Burley said of Nazi imagery.
Some Nazi-tinged black metal bands say their fascist posturing is just for shock value. Horna, a black metal band from Finland, is currently the subject of a raging feud as it tours the U.S. The band, which has ties to explicitly NSBM bands, claims to be apolitical. Anti-fascists, meanwhile, say the band’s U.S. shows are a rallying point for neo-Nazis who love them. As if to prove anti-fascists correct, Horna’s Wednesday night show in Houston was attended by members of the murderous neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen who threw Nazi salutes outside the show, according to the anti-fascist media group Heresy Labs.
The scene’s appeal to Nazis is enough for some black metal fans to draw a hard line.
“Should metal stay dangerous and controversial and offensive?” Kelly asked in an interview with The New Yorker after Black Flags Over Brooklyn.
“Is it censorship to deny bands a platform for their genocidal views?” she said. “Is it curtailing their free speech to make it harder for a band to get booked or get signed versus at what point does it become critical to keep these dangerous fascist elements out of our scene? At what point is that record worth so much to you that you would buy it knowing that you were actively contributing to something that is harming other people?”
What makes a band anti-fascist?
Ideally, Sunshine said, “a band just needs to make a statement of those politics and ideally to promote anti-fascist ideas at their shows and in their releases (whether in the lyrics themselves or in the liner notes), and to refuse to play shows with fascist bands.”
Some black metal bands have made anti-Nazism central to their music. Last year, the band Neckbeard Death Camp released a debut album titled White Nationalism Is for Basement Dwelling Losers with tracks like “Incel Warfare” and “Please Respond (I Showed You My Penis).” The band sometimes collaborates with band Gaylord, whose 2018 album The Black Metal Scene Needs to Be Destroyed features tracks like “Nice Sun Cross Tattoo, Asshole.”
But sometimes making a clear break with far-right bands is enough.
“Inside neo-folk, you have the racialist bands,” Burley said. “But then you have a lot of bands that really don’t care. They’re going to go ahead and play with or collaborate with Death in June. They may not identify with those problematic politics, but they don’t do anything about them either.”
Since launching his site, Burley said he’s been contacted by otherwise apolitical bands that are contemplating an open split from the fascist imagery in their scene.
“I think when people are asked, when they’re forced to make a choice, generally people make the right one,” he said. “I think a lot of bands now are saying, ‘I didn’t speak up before because it wasn’t relevant, but I’m going to speak out now.’”