Young, Gifted and Black... and Screwed Over

This article from the Daily Beast was just plain enraging. Many readers will likely remember when these kids went viral; they're amazingly talented and preternaturally skilled. The level of praise they've received that they have received carries with it no exaggeration: these three young musicians have as much to bring to the table as artists three times their age. Which is to say nothing about the fact that they are young people of color in a genre still largely associated in the popular imagination with American whiteness. All else aside, really what it comes down to is that the three musicians that make up Unlocking the Truth -- Malcolm, Jarad and Alec -- can play really, really great thrash metal.

None of which, unfortunately, exempts Unlocking the Truth from the music industry's typical fuckery. You name it, Sony did it to these kids: the dreaded "360 deal," the apparently generous advance that in reality comes with countless conditions attached to it, and yes, attempts to cash in on the supposed novelty of Black kids playing metal. The article is on a documentary about the group's run-ins with the harrowing realities of signing a major record deal. I won't recount the whole article for you here, but there are a few particularly jaw-dropping highlights:

“It was pretty difficult at times with these meetings—especially with this one particular lady at the label, who had a meeting with us once where she was just talking at us for six hours,” bassist Alec Atkins, 13, tells The Daily Beast. “We were pretty young at the time so we were pretty restless and wanted to get up and do something else, but she just had us in this meeting for six hours.”

Any middle school teacher will tell you how difficult it is to get kids this age to sit still and listen attentively for half an hour. But forcing them to sit while you berate them with preconceived notions of what you think their music should be? That borders on cruel.

The film also spends a great deal of time tracing the boys’ relationship with their manager, Alan Sacks—an industry vet best known for co-creating the TV series Welcome Back Kotter. It’s no mean feat trying to wrangle together a group of rowdy kids who, at times, are more interested in playing the latest Grand Theft Auto video game than practicing, but Sacks rules with an iron fist, banning Malcolm from skateboarding and, in one gripping sequence, taking a coveted bottle of soda and pouring it out in the middle of the street.

Like I said: cruel.

But then there's this, right at the beginning of the piece:

Breaking a Monster follows the band’s soul-crushing record industry journey. “It’s all about branding,” their label rep tells the perplexed boys early on in the film, before showing them a mock-up of the kids transformed into anime Boondocks-like characters for an accompanying cartoon.

And what seems particularly heartbreaking is that -- far from being the naive, easily manipulated urchins that label honchos would like them to be -- they seem to become aware that they're being used throughout the course of the film:

In one scene, Malcolm demands to see some evidence of the money, refusing to leave a van until he does. What he doesn’t realize is that the $1.8 million deal is a 360-deal that covers not only five albums, but also a cut of touring, publishing, merchandise, etc. In another remarkably self-aware moment, Malcolm turns to Sacks and asks if the only reason they were signed was because they’re these young, cute black kids who are into heavy metal. “You think Malcolm’s making this big discovery, but then you realize that he’s known this all along,” says Meyer [the lawyer representing the band and trying to get them released from their contract -- AB].

It shouldn't really be much of a surprise that Malcolm or the others make this realization. Kids aren't stupid; in fact they're very perceptive and often quite brilliant in a way that authority figures often miss or try to ignore (look at how most advocates of corporate "school reform" view children -- as empty knowledge receptacles -- and you start to get an idea of what I mean). 

They are, however, in possession of a sense of play that most adults have more or less learned to suppress by the time their teenage years are over. The three members of Unlocking the Truth are right at that all-too-precarious cusp: when their ability to think for themselves and develop their own interests start to germinate, but before the realities of society (pretty much summed up as "do as you're told or else you'll starve") have interrupted their notions of conformity and individuality. There are surely more precise ways to illustrate this via pedagogy, psychology and all the rest, but the basic upshot is that, setting aside the grandiose desires to become rock stars, the group's members appear to be about as close as you can come to "being in it just for the music." In other words they want to become rock stars not so much for fame as for the fact that it will enable them to play music all day, every day. That's not naive; in fact it's downright admirable and shows that they have reverence for their craft. One would think that this is the kind of spirit that should be nurtured rather than manipulated, berated and exploited. To be sure, this is what the recording business does to the vast majority of artists, regardless of their age. Unlocking the Truth's youth merely makes the industry's shamelessness that much more stark.

If capitalism is performative, then the revolution will be a masterpiece. "Atonal Notes" is Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet's blog on music, poetry and performance. Follow: @UbuPamplemousse