On the guitar, we have 12-year-old Malcom Brickhouse; on the bass, we have 12-year-old Alec Atkins; and on the drums, 11-year-old Jarad Dawkins. While their peers spend the weekends playing video games or skateboarding, this tweener trio rehearses with their band, Unlocking the Truth. And when the sun finally comes down and most their age are getting ready for bed, they can be found performing in New York City nightclubs for metalcore devotees—all of whom are twice as old as them. But youth isn’t their only distinctive attribute. Being Black heavy metal musicians in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Flatbush, Brooklyn, where R&B and hip-hop dominate most Black kids’ playlists, also earns them their share of attention.
“Just because I’m Black doesn’t mean I have to listen to hip-hop and R&B,” says Alec, sitting in between guitarist, composer and songwriter Malcolm and drummer Jarad on a couch in their rehearsal room/manager’s basement. (The band’s manager is none other than Malcolm’s affable mom, Annette Jackson.)
In the modern era, in which genres morphing into one another is now commonplace, the question of what constitutes blackness in respect to music is still one the boys have to address. Malcolm, who’s simultaneously bored and perplexed by this topic, says (rolling his eyes), “I don’t know why they have to categorize music by race. Everyone should be able to listen to whatever kind of music they like.”
What these Brooklyn boys like is loud, hard thrashing metal. “I don’t like hip-hop. It’s all about money, drugs and girls,” adds Jarad, who actually does favor R&B from the likes of Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton and Charlie Wilson. While they’re confident enough not to let their race define their musical palate at an age where standing out is not encouraged, they’re savvy enough to recognize that their race and age are effective marketing tools. “Sure it makes us unique and gets us attention,” says Dawkins, “but adults wouldn’t be at our shows if we sounded like a kiddie band.”
They were first introduced to metal watching wrestling and Japanese anime. “It was exciting, new and different from everything else we would hear,” explains Malcolm, who composes all their songs—35 in total so far. Inspired by what they heard, they decided to form their own metal band back when they were 5 and 6 years old (with the support of their parents).
Malcolm took guitar lessons when he was 5, and Dawkins taught himself how to play the drums. Alec, the relative late bloomer, learned how to play the guitar and bass last September. “I was really trying to keep them busy and give them something to do besides watching TV all day. This just happened to be what they picked up,” says Miss Jackson, wearing a Poetic Justice-era Janet Jackson T-shirt. She doesn’t listen to metal, but like any loving mother and self-described “momager,” Jackson enjoys Unlocking the Truth’s music.
What started off as a hobby quickly developed into a serious part-time gig. Unlocking the Truth have graced the stage of the Apollo Theater (winning Amateur Night), made appearances at clubs around the city and serenaded pedestrians with their energetic instrumentals. Their most talked about live show to date was on the street in Times Square. The YouTube video of that performance went viral, with over 1.4 million views.
“We were pretty relaxed about it, but inside we were very excited and proud of ourselves,” confesses Jarad. They held live shows in Times Square for almost a year. Despite the group earning $1,200 a day, Jackson and Tracey Brickhouse (Malcolm’s dad and the group’s co-manager) decided to pull the plug on the Times Square shows for fear the boys were getting too overexposed—especially since they have a number of high-profile concert dates coming up that will no doubt transition the band from buzzworthy to what they long to be: “famous.”
“It’s all about the music, but fame definitely doesn’t hurt,” says Alec. “We’ve made friends with fame and money too.” With fans like Jada Pinkett Smith, Unlocking the Truth’s dreams of fame may soon become a reality. On August 1, she tweeted that she couldn’t wait to see Unlocking the Truth at Brooklyn’s upcoming Afropunk Festival. Smith, who also performed at the festival with her metal band Wicked Wisdom, requested that event planners switch the boy’s set because she wouldn’t be in town the day of their show.
“I didn’t even know she played or liked this kind of music,” says Malcolm. Besides the excitement of meeting the Hollywood star, they looked forward to rocking alongside other Black alternative musicians like Death and Living Colour. “It makes me happy that I can see my own culture playing the same music that I like,” says Jarad.
In between performing this summer, the group’s been working on a five-song EP with Grammy-winning producer and musician Steve Jordan (Eric Clapton, Keith Richards), who was blown away by them when he saw their set in Washington Square Park. There are also plans to record a full-length album. With the summer wrapping up, they’ll be back to juggling school and the band come fall.
“We love the music, but we understand how important school is,” Alec acknowledges. Not everyone at their respective schools share their enthusiasm for metal. “I get bullied for the music I play and the way I dress. It just makes me feel even more excited about the music,” reveals Jarad, who says he gets called gay for wearing skinny jeans. Malcolm faces the same taunts at his school for his affinity for black nail polish, but he’s certain his bullies will regret it. “If they didn’t bully me, then they’d have a famous friend. But now they don’t.”
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.