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'Scream for Me, Africa!': How the continent is reinventing heavy metal music

A screenshot from a music video depicting members of the Batswana heavy metal band Overthrust. Tshomarelo "Vulture" Mosaka, the lead vocalist, bottom center, talks to NPR about why his country has been a powerhouse in the African heavy metal music scene.
A screenshot from a music video depicting members of the Batswana heavy metal band Overthrust. Tshomarelo "Vulture" Mosaka, the lead vocalist, bottom center, talks to NPR about why his country has been a powerhouse in the African heavy metal music scene.

Skinflint. Vulvodyinia. Metal Orizon. Wrust. Demorogoth Satanum.

You probably haven't heard of these names, but they're just some of the many African heavy metal bands featured in Edward Banchs' new book, Scream for Me, Africa! Heavy Metal Identities in Post-Colonial Africa. The book examines the hard rock and metal scenes in Botswana, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Togo to understand why artists and fans flock to this extreme subculture — and how bands have turned this predominantly white, Western musical genre into something uniquely African.

/ Courtesy of Edward Banchs
Courtesy of Edward Banchs

Africans have been fans of popular metal bands like Metallica, Motörhead and Iron Maiden since the 1970s, says Banchs, 43, a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based researcher and freelance writer who calls himself a "lifelong metalhead since I was in grade school."

What draws them to this music, known for its screeching vocals, distorted guitars and nasty drum and bass rhythms, he adds, is that "metal bands are quick to hold a mirror right back to society — and [listeners] are responsive to the raw, human emotion."

While many African metal bands are heavily influenced by these early pioneers — they put their own spin on the music, writing lyrics that call for social justice and celebrate African heritage and traditions.

"The band Dark Suburb, for example, speaks of fighting the incessant poverty ravaging Ghanaians in slums," says Banchs. "And Arka'n Asrafokor from Togo uses their music to identify pre-colonial traditions they grew up being taught in their Ewe culture, like [preserving and caring for the] environment. They perform in the Ewe language as well."

Despite a growing fanbase, few African metal bands have been able to cross into the Western metal scene and gain international recognition. "The reality is the economics of Africa. Playing in a band is expensive. The ability to access good instruments is not easy," says Banchs. "Furthermore, electricity [required to power electric guitars, microphones and amps] remains inconsistent in certain places."

The band Overthrust from Botswana is one African act that's overcome barriers. In 2016, the band played at Wacken Open Air in Germany, the world's biggest heavy metal festival. Banch interviews lead singer Tshomarelo "Vulture" Mosaka — and we reached out to him to hear his story and vision. He lives in the village of Letlhakane in central Botswana, where he lives with his girlfriend and two young children, and works as a private security officer when he's not rocking out with his band. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get your nickname? Sounds hardcore.

One day when I was around 13 or 14, my parents were expecting visitors. They had food inside the kitchen. When my parents were chatting outside with other people, I went to eat the meat — all of it. I sat down next to the visitors like nothing happened. Then my uncle said to me: "Go get the food for the visitors." I went to the kitchen and got the food, which was covered with a lid. My heart was beating so hard. When the guests took off the lid, there was no meat. I was frozen. And my uncle [pointed at me and] said: "It's this guy! This guy is a vulture! He stole the meat!"

And ever since then, that's what people called me: Vulture.

And that's your stage name, too. You've been a fixture in Botswana's metal scene for decades. How did you get into heavy metal?

I think I was around 10 years old. In my home village of Rakops in Botswana, one of my uncles was always playing heavy metal music. He had cassette tapes by Motörhead, Metallica, Iron Maiden and Sepultura, and I fell in love with it. When he found out I liked metal too, he was like: "Are you sure you want to be a metalhead? It's more than just the music. It's a lifestyle." And I said: "I'm ready!"

And from that early fandom, you started getting into Botswana's metal scene.

Botswana had its own pioneering bands: Metal Orizon [which formed in the early 1990s and is regarded as the country's first heavy metal band] and Wrust, another group, followed. We were all part of one scene, and we were like a family. There were no limits between the artists and the fans.

And you say this scene supported your own musical journey. You're the frontman of Overthrust, the four-piece heavy metal band you started in 2008. What are some of the themes you sing about?

Our intention is to spread messages [about issues] that people don't usually talk about, like false prophets. For example, we know of some pastors [in Botswana] who will preach in one way, but behind people's backs they'll do something different. And so with our music we actually criticize them.

Can you share some lyrics from a song about that?

The name of one song is "Bogus Vicars." These are [some of] the lyrics:

"With the Bible you deceive
Congregate, blind, mystify them
[Gnash] their spirits with your phony parables
In trance rip their innocence
Consume their funds, awful priest"

Haha, you're telling me these lyrics while you're smiling and laughing — but yeah, that's pretty metal all right!

We always have this conflict between us and religious people.

What's the beef?

Most of the stereotypes we faced as a band in Botswana were from religious people. They fail to understand that nobody knows the truth and we are all the same.

When we first started our band Overthrust in our small township, they were against our music, especially because we were very extreme. So they started labeling us locally as the devil. And I remember around 2014, there were a lot of accidents in the township and they were blaming us, saying we were casting evil spirits in the town.

But luckily the leadership in the town was open-minded. They said: This is just music, let people do their thing. They're not doing anything wrong.

Apart from loving metal music, what does it mean to be a metalhead in Botswana?

We have our own unique style going on here. We have a dress code: spikes, chains, leather pants, cowboy boots and hats.

Cowboy boots and hats?

We have a huge cattle culture in Botswana.

Does the heavy metal scene help boost the economy in Botswana? According to the World Bank, 59% of the population lives under $5.50 a day — the poverty line for upper-middle income countries.

About 500 people attend our fest, the Overthrust Winter Metal Mania Charity Festival, every year. It's been going on for 14 years. People pay a fee to get in and part of those proceeds go to charity. We try to identify beneficiaries who are disadvantaged. That includes orphans, people or children with a disability or who are affected by HIV/AIDS. And then some of the proceeds of the festival are given to those people for their needs — basic things like food baskets, clothing or funds for education or to start a small business. In 2021, for example, we donated $400 to a maternity ward in central Botswana.

When we do these festivals, people who work around the festival also benefit: hotels (people do travel from other countries), people selling foodstuffs, even local game reserves and national parks [where artists and festival-goers from out of town go and sightsee before and after the festival].

It's hard to imagine religious groups calling you evil when you're helping the community.

The little I got I will share with those in need.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.