Christian Picciolini joined the white-power skinhead movement in 1987, when he was just 14 years old. With his friends, he started one of the first white-power hate bands in the country, White American Youth.
“The music was everything,” said Picciolini, who’s now 38. “It was the number one draw for me. It’s the number one weapon that neo-Nazis have to draw in young people. . . . It’s a propaganda tool.”
Picciolini left the movement after eight years, when his children were born. He’d decided that it was a “negative” influence and he didn’t want them exposed to those beliefs. He’s since co-founded Life After Hate, a nonprofit group that works to promote compassion and forgiveness.
The music “was violent, aggressive and inciting,” Picciolini said. “That’s sort of the M.O. It really hasn’t changed very much.”
White supremacist hate music, a small subculture of the white power movement, made its way into the spotlight this week because of Wade Michael Page, the Wisconsin man who shot and killed six people and wounded three at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee. Page was involved with multiple white power bands.
The music is akin to heavy metal and grunge punk, a loud, coarse type of rock with thunderous drumming, but with one major difference: The lyrics promote racism and violence against minorities. Skrewdriver, a popular white power band, sings: “Waiting in the lane way, waiting for the scum. Smash their yellow faces, kick their . . . bums. When they plee (sic) for mercy, we will show them none.”
Research has shown that hate music influences the way listeners treat the minority groups targeted in the songs. In a study by Heather LaMarre, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Minnesota, people who weren’t white supremacists who were exposed to hate music at low volume for as little as seven minutes treated minority groups differently from the way they did before they listened to it.
The effect would be even stronger for somebody who intentionally listened to the music repeatedly, she said.
“They’re getting confirmation that other people think and feel like them,” LaMarre said. “It reinforces their belief system. . . . For them it becomes a confirmation of their thoughts and feelings by solidifying them and making them stronger.”
Byron Calvert owns Tightrope Records, an Arizona record label that distributes the music and sells white power paraphernalia. Calvert, who’s in his 40s, has been involved with white power music since he was a teenager.
"You listen to what they’re singing about, and there’s nothing else like it. . . . It reinforces your beliefs,” he said.
Calvert said the music didn’t promote violence, but experts and civil rights advocates say hate crimes are strongly connected to the concerts. They’re a major part of the white power music subculture, in which skinheads can come together from across the world and bond over their shared hatred of minorities.
The concerts are violent, alcohol-fueled events, with “way too much testosterone,” Calvert said.
“You’re going to get drunk; you’re going to raise hell. There’s a good chance of someone getting the s--- kicked out of them.”
Playing onstage is an experience in itself, Picciolini said.
“It’s pretty intoxicating, because you wield a lot of power when you’re onstage,” he said. “You see what your music is doing to get these people excited. . . . You felt like you had these hundreds of people at your command and you could get them to do anything you wanted.”
Hate crimes frequently occur after the concerts.
“There has been a lot of violence connected to the white power music scene,” said Marilyn Mayo, a co-director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “Incidents happen after people get revved up at the concerts. It’s a chance for racist skinheads to network and meet each other. They get revved up and get drunk and commit hate crimes.”
After one concert Picciolini attended in the ‘90s, a dozen heavily intoxicated skinheads entered a low-income housing project across the street from the venue and began attacking and terrorizing its minority residents, he said.
The music is easy to find.
“The primary tool or medium used to get it out now is online radio stations,” said Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington office and the organization’s senior vice president for policy and advocacy. “The music is aimed at young people to buy into racist ideology. . . . It’s hard to say at what point someone says something enough times that it becomes a reality.”
Mayo and Shelton said their organizations closely monitored hate bands and concerts to expose white supremacists and their ideology.
“They certainly have a First Amendment right to express their music and their views,” Mayo said. “But it’s a very violent subculture.”
Throwing up roadblocks against the bands and their music would only fire them up, Picciolini warned.
“It’s not going to go away,” he said. “No matter what the movement is, the minute you try to shut it down, their influence grows. You can’t try to shut it down. You just have to try and educate people not to belong.”