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Know the West

The metalheads of the Navajo Nation

See photos of the thriving music scene in backyards, abandoned houses and parking lot shows.


On the drive through the Navajo Nation, twirling the radio dial yields country station after country station. The genre warbles about the American Dream, life’s struggles paying off, and frustration, loss and regret. Scan long enough though, and you might stumble upon Laydi Rayne’s weekly metal show on KSHI out of Zuni, New Mexico. It’s one of the only shows in the area that caters to the genre, which is popular on the nation.

Metalheads on the nation have long been making the style their own through “rez metal,” short for reservation metal. Bands record in abandoned houses, and host shows in backyards and empty parking lots. The musicians have embraced ingenuity and teamwork to create a scene reflective of their identities. And now, a generation of Diné youth who grew up listening to metal are shaping the scene themselves.

The heavy metal genre was born in 1980s England, but has translated easily to the Navajo Nation, said Jerold Cecil, band manager of I Don’t Konform. “Metal is disenchantment with everything,” said Cecil, a Navajo citizen. “Establishment, society, the frustrations you have in your life, socio-economic problems, family problems, not being provided the resources or the opportunities that most people are given everyday, just because you’re on the rez.”

Cecil jokes that the only difference between rez metal bands and other metal groups is that even if they’re not getting paid, rez metal bands will drive five hours or more to a show. “They do it for the adrenaline from being on stage, being able to hear your music loud in front of a lot of people that are like you,” Cecil said. That camaraderie extends to the competition inherent in the music industry: When one band is “discovered,” fame comes to the whole scene. “If one of us makes it, then we all make it,” said Cecil.

Members of rez metal bands see how important it is to foster a sense of community and expression in the next generation. Some volunteer teaching music lessons at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona. “The kids see that this music thing helps people,” said Cecil. “Just learning how to play an instrument allows you to have an outlet, to let out a lot of your built up emotions. It allows you to process a lot of those thoughts in your head: of doubt, of depression, of suicide.”

Producers Mike Martinez and Tyler Wray of Everything is Stories, an audio survey documenting “unconventional narratives of the past and present,” and photographer Clarke Tolton were drawn to the inventive spirit of the scene. Over six days they drove over 1,000 miles across the Navajo Nation to meet the musicians and fans of rez metal. Watch their video, and get a sample of the scene through Tolton’s photos. –Luna Anna Archey, associate photo editor

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Many Farms is located in Arizona, not New Mexico.