In bars and clubs nationwide, white power bands are on the rise. But anti-racist activists are trying to get them off the stage.
Dressed in black leather vests with dark balaclavas covering their faces, the members of the Texas-based black metal band Nyogthaeblisz looked out of place on the stage of the Final Score Bar and Grill, a sports bar in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, a working-class suburb of Philadelphia. Most of the patrons were dressed demurely in jeans and T-shirts. The band appeared to be covered in blood. They were as out of place as goths on a golf course.
As the group strummed its first chords, regular patrons began leaving the bar in horror. But a small group of the band’s fans, people who had followed Nyogthaeblisz to Bensalem after a bar in Philadelphia canceled a previously scheduled show, cheered as red liquid ran down the musicians’ arms.
The shocked employees at Final Score weren’t sure if the liquid was real blood or stage make-up. They say they were tricked into booking the band because the musicians got the gig under an assumed name. (Nyogthaeblisz’s social media pages are known for promoting anti-Semitic, satanic, and neo-Nazi rhetoric.)
“There was some guy who called and said that their event was canceled and gave a fake name,” says the employee at Final Score who booked the band, who asked to remain anonymous. “We try to give all bands a chance, but once they came in it was a disaster.”
White-power bands are nothing new in the United States. During the 1980s and '90s, anti-racist bands battled with racist skinhead musicians for prominence within the punk rock scene. But in the current political climate, as white supremacists fight anti-fascist activists on the streets of cities like Berkeley, California, and Charlottesville, Virginia—to name just two—observers say white-power bands and groups with far-right ideologies are performing with increased frequency, and music venues have once again been transformed into an arena for ideological antagonisms.
Responding to a request for comment, members of Nyogthaeblisz wrote simply: “The boundary between Art and War has been erased.”
Devin Burghart, a researcher at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights who has tracked white supremacy in music since the early 1990s, says there has been an increase in the number of white-power bands playing since Donald Trump rose to prominence in politics.
“Within the last year, they have been emboldened,” Burghart says. “And for the first time in a long time there is a bigger opposition. There’s a network of anti-racists and anti-fascists in the music scene, so this battle for the streets has suddenly seen an uptick.”
Burghart estimates that white-power bands play between four or five concerts around the country each week. And instead of remaining primarily within the punk scene, as they did in decades past, white-power ideologies have seeped into diverse genres such as neo-folk and black metal. The Anti-Defamation League estimates that there are hundreds of white-power bands playing around the country at any given time.
Meanwhile, members of the anti-fascist group Antifa are painstakingly documenting white-supremacist musicians and actively pressuring music venues to prevent events like the one that look place in Bensalem. It was only after members of Antifa succeeded in lobbying venues in Maryland, Delaware, and Philadelphia to drop Nyogthaeblisz shows that the band was forced to book Final Score using a fake name.
One of the bars that canceled on Nyogthaeblisz was Bar XIII in Holly Oak, Delaware. A few weeks later, the owner of Bar XIII canceled another concert by the hardcore punk bands Banged Up, Combate 49, the Sentinels, and Embattled after members of Maryland Antifa sent him a 118-page dossier outlining the relationship between the musicians and far-right groups.
Matthew Jester, the owner of Bar XIII, says he canceled the show because he was afraid his bar would turn into a war zone if it went ahead. But he also says he was never convinced that the bands he booked were actually white supremacists, and he says that Antifa launched an aggressive smear campaign against him and his business.
“They sent an anonymous email in the middle of night to my personal email account. They said they would ruin my business if the show wasn’t canceled,” Jester says. “I told them I needed to confirm the information myself, but they weren’t happy with that. They made bad reviews, which are still there today, even though they said they would take down the one-star reviews if I canceled the show.”
Jester says he received hundreds of phone calls from people who mocked and threatened him because of his decision to book the bands and claims that Antifa spread his bar’s phone number across social media platforms. But as a business owner, Jester argues that it is not his job to vet musicians or decide who has the right to express themselves in public.
“[Antifa’s] assertion was that anyone with ties to white supremacists should be blacklisted from life in general,” Jester says. “I don’t necessarily agree with that any more than I agree with a bakery not baking a cake for a gay couple.”
Maryland Antifa denies sending Jester an email; they say they were polite and respectful when they called him.
“Maryland Antifa certainly did not threaten Bar XIII or its owner. ... What we did was publicize his personal phone number,” the group writes in a message. “Phone zaps (publicizing a decision-maker's phone number) are a common tactic that activists use in all sorts of pressure campaigns. If Mr. Jester received unseemly comments as a result of the phone zap, we think that’s unfortunate.”
Members of the Sentinels declined to comment, but members of Embattled say the concert that Jester canceled ended up being held at a private venue instead, and the group posted a message to its Facebook page the day after the concert took place.
“Thanks to everyone who came out to the show Friday night,” the group wrote. “Especially our brothers the Sentinels and Combate 49. Was a great crowd full of family and friends. Races of all colors, all patriots, reminiscent of the unity of the late ’80s early ’90s skinhead and punk scenes. So much booze was consumed, pity the bar that caved to Antifa. ... Maybe next time you won’t cave to a domestic terrorist organization.”
In multiple Facebook posts over the past several months, the Sentinels denied promoting racism, but they also frequently used the hashtag #FuckAntifa.
Members of Maryland Antifa, however, say that the bands that Jester booked are directly linked to the 211 Bootboys, a skinhead organization that has its own record label, United Riot Records. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called the 211 Bootboys a far-right, ultra-nationalist skinhead crew. Meanwhile, Maryland Antifa has collected the names of 18 regional bands, including Embattled and the Sentinels, that the 211 Bootboys have booked over the past several years.
Antifa activists say there are three main clusters of far-right groups promoting music in the region stretching from Virginia to New York: the Wolves of Vinland, a neo-pagan biker gang that espouses Nazi-inspired ideas about European heritage; the 211 Bootboys; and Label 56, a Maryland-based record label known to promote white power and far-right music.
“Label 56 ... is affiliated with Richard Haught Jr., a member of the Maryland Skinheads,” says Duke, a member of Maryland Antifa who asked that his surname not be used. “They have an annual Saint Patrick’s Day event. Label 56 also distributes neo-folk, Oi!, and black metal music that is popular with neo-Nazis.”
Duke says Keystone United, a racist skinhead organization based in Pennsylvania, also supports many Maryland-based bands, especially those promoted by Label 56, and attends the label’s annual Saint Patrick’s Day event in Maryland.
Representatives of Label 56 declined to comment; the label's Facebook page includes photographs of stickers that read “Love Your Nation. Hate Antifa.” Previously, the label had signed Michael Page, a white supremacist and member of the racist skinhead group the Hammerskins, who killed six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012. Page had played in a variety of white-power bands, including groups called Definite Hate and End Apathy.
Usually, the connections between far-right skinheads, white supremacists, and white-power musicians cross state lines and tend to be porous, with musicians switching nimbly between ideological sub-groups and bands.
Antifa’s work tracking these groups and attempting to keep them out of music venues can be risky. In February, a member of the 211 Bootboys was arrested for beating up two members of Antifa outside of Clockwork, a New York City bar. The assailant was ultimately sentenced to community service for the attack, which took place after a handful of 211 Bootboys traveled to New York to attend a concert of Oi! music, the racist skinhead genre of punk that originated in Great Britain.
Oi! music has a strong following in New York City, and several bars in Brooklyn hosted a controversial Oi! music festival last year. Black Bear Bar in Williamsburg hosted one night of the festival, but management canceled the second night following pressure from New York Antifa.
According to Richard King, a professor at Washington State University who studies how white supremacists exploit culture, white supremacists and far-right groups will continue to use music to promote their movement because it’s a good vehicle for attracting resources.
“I don’t think one should underestimate the importance of the revenue stream of these bands, which can then be put back into other ventures,” King says. “The music is ideal because it brings in money and people.”
Still, Antifa is succeeding in making it more difficult for these groups to book mainstream venues. The employees at Final Score, for example, say they’re determined to ensure they book only non-controversial artists in the future.
“Now we do just cover bands and karaoke,” the bar’s employee said. “We don't want anything like that to happen again.”