What Does an Escaped Civil War Slave Have to do with Black Metal?

At pretty much exactly the same time as I started this project to create a graphic novel about Robert Smalls, the American Civil War-era slave who daringly sailed himself to freedom, I also came across the music of Zeal & Ardor – a band created around the music of the Swiss-born, mixed-race African-American/Swiss musician, Manuel Gagneux.

Manuel Gagneux of Zeal & Ardor

Very soon after I started this project, I realised that the photo used on the cover for their debut album “Devil is Fine” was of none other than the man I was creating a graphic novel about: Robert Smalls! What a coincidence!

Zeal & Ardor's "Devil is Fine" album artwork, featuring Robert Smalls
Zeal & Ardor’s “Devil is Fine” album artwork, featuring Robert Smalls

I had been enjoying their music and was intrigued as to why Smalls was on the album cover so I looked into it.

According to their Wikipedia page, when he was younger, Gagneux used to upload his musical output to 4chan  “to get feedback because they’re brutally honest and don’t give a shit about you,”.  He would ask users for two genres to fuse, and then create a song in half an hour as an exercise to stimulate his creativity.

Two of the suggestions he received were “black metal” and “nigger music”. In response, he created Zeal & Ardor, later expanding its scope and purpose as stated in a 2018 interview for The Guardian newspaper, creating links between the two types of music: 

“There’s the emotional extremism of it, but there’s also the thematic thing where Christianity was imposed on the Norwegian people and they rebelled in very dubious ways in the 1990s, and Christianity was also imposed on the American slaves.

There’s the embracing of the self and the ego, and being at peace with the fact that you have needs and wants, and the pursuit of those to a degree where you get as close to fulfilling yourself without stepping on other people’s toes. As opposed to some Christian tendencies to just suppress those urges. 

That’s why I chose Robert Smalls for the cover of the first album. He was very determined about what he wanted – freed himself, freed others, stole a ship, became a politician. It’s pretty extreme.” 

I’m going to be honest here, while I get where he’s coming from; I find the explanation of the links between the music a little tenuous and possibly a little trivialising of the plight of Civil War-era slaves.
That said, I don’t know much about Christianity’s imposition on Norwegians, particularly during the 1990s, or how much it actually had to do with artists like Varg Vikernes, members of Emperor, and others getting involved in church-burning and murder.

However, I do really like the fusing of black metal with chanted slave music and ring shouts. For me, the track “Blood in the River” is a great example of this fusion from this album, and “Don’t You Dare” is another great one from the follow-up album, “Stranger Fruit”. It’s not a combination I’ve heard before and I enjoy it!

What do you think of the music?
What do you think of Gagneux’s explanation of the music?
How about the usage of Robert Smalls’ image on the album cover?
Leave me a comment below and let me know, or reach me via my Contact page.

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