Neofolk’s Divergent Ideals – What I am and What I am Not

Portals-Bindrune

May our families thrive!

(UPDATE: It has come to my attention that, as I had been using Wardruna’s album cover as the blog image for this article, it was unclear as to whether I was pointing a finger at them as a racist band. Let me clear that up. To my knowledge, Wardruna has no racist ties, and I personally adore their music. I posted their album cover as a representation of Heathen magic, which I am deeply inspired by. I have replaced it with a Bindrune of my own creation.)

Greetings friends –

A variety of events have converged in the past few weeks that compel me to veer off topic a bit for this post. I normally strive to keep my focus here on cultivating a sense of beauty and poetry, retraining our perceptions to bring a sense of magic and wonder – enchantment, if you will – into our lives.

But today I am going to delve into darker territory and explore the topic of racism. After all, part of shaping a world that amplifies beauty is  addressing those things that mar the lovely face of beauty. And racism is definitely one of those things for me.

This morning I read a blog post from a writer in my local community, Jo Crawford of Crafting the Sacred. As Samhain approaches, she was exploring her relationship to her ancestors, both the elements that made her proud and the elements that made her not so proud. (Being a European woman raised in South Africa.) This really struck a chord with me, as I had recently been engaged in two dialogs which involved racism. One was on the Asatru Assembly and White Nationalism  (over on The Wild Hunt) which stirred up a lot of feelings for me about the delicate line that must be walked as a European seeking to keep her ancestral folk traditions alive. The other was an incident on Facebook, where I had accepted a friend request from someone I didn’t know, and they then proceeded to post the most offensively racist crap imaginable.

Needless to say this person was unfriended and blocked, but it left a very unsettled feeling in me. I feel called to address this, for the topic came up again today with a call from a friend who felt compelled to tell me that when purchasing my new album, she felt nauseated by my use of the term ‘Neofolk’.  To her mind, it was associated with neo-nazis.

This was devastating news. I have spent months searching for, mulling over, and contemplating the perfect genre description for my music. It is not easy. I have steered away from ‘Celtic’ because Celtic traditionalists have decried my (admittedly far from traditional) music as “Not Celtic” enough times for me to seek out a new genre.  After much consideration, Neofolk Romantique was the choice I returned to over and over. My music brings a new twist to the preservation of folk tradition  (Neofolk) and combines it with an air of romanticism and a love of antiquity (Romantique).

It was perfect. Until my friend confronted me with nazism.

I went into identity crisis mode. I didn’t rehearse. I didn’t book the tour I am working on lining up for the winter. I didn’t design new postcards that were going to have Neofolk Romantique plastered all over them. Instead I spent my day re-evaluating my identity.

I contemplated loads of different names – Mythic Folk. Pagan Folk. Folk Nouveau. (I do rather like that one). Neo-druidic. Sonic Alchemy Folk. Gypsy Folk. Folk Rock. Etc etc etc.

None of them have the ring to it that Neofolk Romantique has for me. And really, why should the Nazis get to own that description? ‘Neofolk’ by itself is a pretty broad term, one that would be fitting for any number of artists currently exploring a more modern expression of folk music. Faun, Stellamara, Heather Dale, SJ Tucker, Wendy Rule, could all be described as Neofolk.

So what is going to be my stance? To run from a description because it has some controversy? Or to stand by the genre and be one of the people who make it good?  Choice B is harder. But in my opinion it is also more noble.

I want to use the term Neofolk. I do not intend to let neo-nazis take this away from me any more than the Heathen community at large will allow nazis to sully their own mythic traditions. (Any more than they already have). May my declaration to use Neofolk in my genre description be one of defending something good. Let me show you what Neofolk can be.

I am Neofolk. I may not be the Neofolk you’ve heard of. Or expect. I am one new voice of folk music in a growing folk revival. And regardless of what other Neofolk artists declare – or don’t declare – let me say this clearly: I am not a neo-nazi, nor will I ever support white supremacy in any way.

I have fought for the word “Witch”, and I have fought for the word “Pagan”. And I will fight for my right to co-define Neofolk, rather than shrink from it in fear of guilt by association. Words and concepts evolve as people invest in them. I am investing in Neofolk. And thus do I claim my right to add to its definition. I do this because, if we allow the words with which we define ourselves to fall into disrepute without a fight, then we risk losing a piece of our identity.

In love and respect for all beings – Sharon

23 thoughts on “Neofolk’s Divergent Ideals – What I am and What I am Not

  1. I am happy that you arrived at this decision. Ceding ground on words, feels like we are giving into them, giving them a right to own something that is personal to us. The neo-nazis do not own the Mjolnir, though they do use it. The swastika is still a beautiful image when used appropriately. Now to go find some music by Qntal (who I was not familiar with).

  2. Thank you! This is still really uncomfortable, and I will most likely be contemplating it for awhile. If this turns into an ongoing problem, I may yet abandon the term. I really don’t want even the most microscopic association with those people, so am still exploring whether “Neofolk” is ultimately going to feel too tainted for me. But for now I am going to fight for it. Because as you say, ceding ground on words does indeed feel like we are allowing something sacred to be taken from us. We’ll see how it goes.

  3. Perhaps the easiest way to bring light to a challenging situation is to simply ‘be’ who you are. Neo is a term that the Nazis might use, but they don’t have exclusive ownership of it. If NeoFolk bands stick to their guns (metaphorically speaking), those expecting racist rants will be surprised when they tune in. And the gentle, earth loving folk who know better than to fall in line with narrow thought will have simply stood their ground!

  4. Sigh. In our world of political correctness it is virtually impossible not to offend someone at some time. I never even remotely considered Neofolk as something akin to NeoNazi. That someone would is surprising and the tailspin you went into isn’t surprising either. It’s hard to be criticized or misunderstood, especially when you have worked so hard on something important.

    I hope it doesn’t turn into an ongoing problem. Don’t let one person taint what you have chosen. If it does become a bigger problem then you might have to change, but you chose this label from your heart and soul. Don’t forget it!

  5. Identity and self-identity is such a tricky-tricky spot, as no matter how you self-identify someone else is going to use terms and phrases that don’t convey how you see yourself.

    For instance, I completely bristled at you describing me as a “European woman raised in South Africa”. I may be of European descent but I identify squarely as a White South African as my ancestors made South African their home from the 1600s. So I identify as South African, and specifically White South African in all the complexity that entails, before I connect with any of my varies strands of European heritage.

    I’m sharing this to say F*@k the neo-nazis and facists who lay claim to words that you self-identify with. Embrace what fits you, sing it out loud and proud and declare neo-folk romantique as being as ballsy, irreverent and non-traditional as it, and your muse, truly is.

  6. Thanks for writing folks. And Jo, sorry for the faulty description – I found myself wondering how you would describe yourself as I was writing that. Complicated topic, this.

  7. Am I missing something? I’ve never heard the term NeoFolk applied to anything NS or white supremacist before. Is this new? Or is the person’s objection to the prefix “Neo”? In which case I have to ask, did watching the Matrix movies also make her nauseated as the main character’s name is Neo? Now I’ve taken some flak for self-identifying as Neo-pagan, as some NS/white supremacists hide behind the term “Germanic neopaganism” (such as the musician Varg Vikernes), so I can kind of understand why that might be an issue to some and I’m more than happy to assure people that being proud of my European heritage in no way lessens my respect for the heritage of others. I’m just really confused by this…how anyone could make this association between you and Neo-Nazism is beyond me.

  8. Brava! Claiming and reclaiming our heritage, taking it back from those who seek to narrow down its definition to their own twisted, repugnant ideas, is indeed a noble act of courage.

    I have a related experience, very close to home: my grandfather. He was Polish, a Roman Catholic, and a teenager during the second world war. At the age of 17 he joined the resistance in the forests around his home town of Kielce. He was caught by the SS at the age of 19 and spent the rest of the war in a series of forced labour camps, and then finally in Dachau. And he remained an anti-Semite his whole life. I am immensely proud of him, and immensely angry at him. I do not make any excuse for his anti-Semitism — yes, it was (and is) the prevailing view in his combination of country, culture and religion, but that does not in any way make it acceptable — but I also don’t allow his bigotry to overshadow or occlude his immense courage, bravery and sheer determination that he and his family should survive.

    Here’s to complexity, diversity, and honouring our ancestral heritage, even when we don’t agree with or adopt all of it in our own lives.

  9. Gregor, they weren’t making the association between me and Neo-Nazism, but rather the term “Neofolk”. Anyone who has heard my music would find this laughable to be sure. But this person had a bad reaction to it based on real experiences, and also thought it might have been part of how I ended up with racists friending me on FB. As Neofolk, like Neopaganism, is an expression of a cultural revival, I suppose it’s inevitable that there are going to be some who express their pride in unhealthy ways. It is sad to me that this is becoming a concern in Neopaganism, but I am certainly not going to stop calling myself Neopagan, so I may as well defend Neofolk while I am at it. Why anyone feels the need to diminish others in order to celebrate their own heritage is completely beyond me, but apparently it’s a reality that will have to be addressed from time to time if I want to use this term as part of my musical description. Fortunately I do have bands like Faun and Omnia as examples, which is really the only kind of music I ever associated with Neofolk.

  10. “I can’t be what everyone wants me to be. […] I am going to piss someone off no matter what I do. Also – if I run from something just because it’s controversial, aren’t I just being cowardly?”

    Brilliant insight, here. We have to be true to ourselves and live boldly if we want to change the world (or ourselves, for that matter). If someone gets pissed off or offended by our living, then that’s their problem, not yours. You’re not a racist, a NeoNazi, or any of that messed-up crap. You’re creating new and beautiful things – some people are deeply challenged by that, even in their own state of sensitivity for others. Some folks are so blinded by being an “activist” that they forget the big picture. Thank you so much for writing this out and sharing it – I know it must have been hard. You’re setting a wonderful example for others fighting for the big picture.

  11. It is more than just the Neo that makes the Neofolk movement Neonazi. It is about the music, the imagery, the heads of dead dogs on sticks and Nazi symbolism, veiled and unveiled. It is the history of the movement, the links in the early days of Neofolk to Skinhead bands like Screwdriver. It is the national pride of the racist youth, as Boyd Rice explains to Tom Metzger, a recist himself.

    It is about the sympathis for the Nazi ideals, it is about the aryan race, the persuit of being the perfect man. It is the denial of the holocaust, as clearly and explicitly indicated in Death in June’s the Rose Clouds of Holocaust: “Lies, it’s all Lies!”

    Neofolk is the representation of veiled swastikas, of SS symbolism packaged to the youth as pagan roots! It is a kick in the teeth for the gentle soul who thought he was listening to “Ancestral Music”, and I am suprised that neofolk is really the title of genre you choose, as you wish not to cower from controversy. This title will link you to a huge fascist movement, a family of musicians who know to well what they are promoting. I should know, I used to be a fan for a short period. I befriended many of the bands, saw the images of swastikes, dead animals and pure satanism. Of the Wand and the Moon – swastikes, dead dog heads, songs like Robe of Fire that hail the red and the sun and the 6 fold star of the Swaztika, the black algiz of the Nazi’s, the praise to Lucifer. Incidently, the Dog Head one is on an EP called Hail! Hail! Hail! Does that say enough yet? Lets see, Kim Larsen of that band was influenced by artists like Death in June, Blood Axis – a very Nazi band, and there are way too many others to list here. One thing to see, id the two dead soldiers – German, on the Darkwood cd. Enough said? Why not Just call your genre folk, it does not have the blood stains of the innocent, the revel in a party that took six million lives – that goes with neofolk.

  12. Wow. That’s a strong comment you’ve got there. Do you mind if I ask who you are, and how you know about me? I’d be glad to talk with you more about this, either here or via email.

    For example, what do you make of the more positive bands that also describe themselves as Neofolk? Faun, Omnia, Qntal? Are you familiar with these bands? I wonder what the ratio is of bands like these to bands such as you describe?

    Apparently you are from England, according to your email address?

    Anyway – I’d be interested in knowing more about you.

  13. Hello Sharon Knight :)

    I am Steve, and I do indeed live in London. I’m attracted to gothic, medieval and celtic music, and I love the bands you mentioned! They are a million miles away from neofolk in the main category.

    I found your page while looking into neofolk artists, as I alarmed and disappointed with the genre now. I was hoping to find some good ones – there are some I can think of, as far as I knoe In Gowan Ring don’t use neonasi material. I know they had a compilation with dodgy band Blood Axis, but I don’t hear any negative stuff in the music of In Gowan Ring. I am sorry if my comment was very harsh yesterday :(

    As far as I am aware, Qntal, Faun, Pinknruby, Moon and the Nightspirit and neoclassical bands like that are fine! They dont usually fall into neofolk unless there is confusin somewhere on my part. But those bands tend to be more in the medieval style of Dead Can Dance, Mediaeval Babebes – awesome and beautiful haunting music like your own. I really love the song Star of the Sea :)

    The thing with Neofolk is that it also formed from the racist band Sol Invictus, though lead singer Tony Wakeford made a backtrack on that, and did openly admit he was once part of National Front. Close associates with Death in June, and the bizarre nazi symbolism used in Neofolk, especially the main contenders, leads me to want to leave the genre behind. I think seeing a band called Genocide Organ clenched it for me :( These are my views, and perhaps somebody can prove me wrong. Looking at Sonne Hagal’s statement on myspace made me wonder a bit, until, I realised they must have had Nazi fans posting stuff. The thing with me, is if it looks like a fish, smells like a fish, then it’s a fish -no matter how they dress it with hype or romanticism.

    Please forgive my anger posted on your page – you are free to call your music by any genre you chose, I have no right to say what you should or should not do. Just be cautious, and look into the history of neofolk on google – there is masses of info with arguments for and against. Curious question here though: I think your music is celtic in sound, I’m suprised it was not accepted. It reminds me of Loreena McKennit 😉

  14. hi
    first excuse me for my english if i cant write good :D!!
    let me thank u Sharon Knight for this website. its great! this help me very much to know many things about neofolk and this type of music.
    but i want to ask one question about the groups who work in this genre and they r neonazi. i want help me someone and give me their bands name . i know some of them like death in june but i want know more about these groups.
    good bye all.
    see u

  15. Hi there Sasan –

    Thanks for writing. The thing is, I don’t personally know the Neo-Nazi bands and this was all news to me. But if you follow the comment thread you will see Steve mentions several. I am still mulling over whether in the longrun this is going to be a useable description of my music. I would really like to reclaim the word, why should other folks get to taint words beyond use? But some folks do seem to have a pretty strong reaction, so we will see if it ends up being just too big a battle for me to fight. I hope not.

  16. I consider myself moderately left wing, or liberal, if you will. But to me, there is a difference between talking the talk, which is called free speech and walking the walk which may result in violation of one’s rights, dignity, harm to life, etc. The first one, represented by Arghoslent or Slayer will NOT make me shun the band. Who cares what you say and whose to say what is moral and what is not? Once we start censorship we will end up eventually in 1984. Besides, cocroaches do not scatter in the darkness but in the light. Allowing divergent and even hateful views to be publicized is bringing it to light. Now the walk is quite a different matter. If you acted on racism, mysogyny or homophobia by hurting someone in any fashion, DIRECTLY and purposely you just lost my money and support. The key is directly. If you are offended by a lyric it is your problem. But if I go and burn crosses in your backyard that is society’s problem and the courts. So yes to Arghoslent and Slayer, fu, rot in hell to Burzum and Varg Vaginus.

  17. Sorry, late to this discussion, but is it truly the position of some of these participants that somehow ‘neo’, added to the beginning of a word/thought/idea, makes it racist? It is a PREFIX for crying out loud! An artist labeling themselves neo-whatever doesn’t make them racist-spouting offensive racist ideals does. A racist group calls itself neo folk? That just makes them a$$holes. It does not make another artist who identifies with that genre a racist.

    I find it interesting that the individuals that so clearly think themselves right minded are the ones so very determined to define others using narrow, spurious labels. The fact that Sharon, clearly a thoughtful and compassionate person, must agonize over what little box to put her creativity in to make it palatable for others is ridiculous. The thought that someone might write it off out of hand because of a values neutral prefix is completely incomprehensible.

    Sharon, you seem a lovely person and I respect your artistry. Do not surrender the truth of what you do to the ignorance of others.

  18. Thanks for writing, Eddie. I hear ya. And for me – I am not even talking the racist talk, for show or any other reason. I am “Neofolk” because that describes my music best – a modern twist on traditional music. Like Omnia, or Faun, or Loreena McKennitt. I was sorry to find out that this stigma is attached to my chosen label, but would rather stand for Neofolk meaning something good than shrink away and hide.
    We have the power to shape our culture through our language. Why surrender a good music description to the haters?

  19. Hello there My Geek is Showing –

    (My geek always shows, BTW :+) )

    IT isn’t so much that the prefix itself is associated with racists, but turns out there is a pre-existing genre called Neofolk that originates in Europe, and as it is, in part, devoted to reviving folk traditions, apparently some people are reviving the “my race is superior” folk tradition.

    But yeah. I am not going to change my music description because of this. I would rather stand and say “Neofolk means other things too.”

    As my bass player says “You’re not Neofolk. You’re Neofolk Romantique” Suits me fine.

  20. Ah, the politics of neofolk. Reminds me of the joke I once came up with: “I’m so anarchist that I VOTE”.

    If you want good stuff, you’ll find it in neofolk. If you want bad stuff, you’ll find it there too. If you want confusing stuff, yes, you guessed right…it’s there too. Neofolk as a scene is so “anarchic” in nature, that you will find bands who are anarchists, marxist/communist, fascist/nazi, or simply non-political.

    And don’t be misled by some of the imagery that is used. Some of the imagery is actually pagan/ancient imagery co-opted by the Nazis for their own devious ends (the swastika is a case in point). And to add to some people’s confusion, some neofolk bands who are mistaken for nazis/commies, simply set historical war topic to music. Others might use them for “shock value”.

    I would recommend Andreas Diesel and Dieter Gerten’s book “Looking for Europe: A History of Neofolk”. It dispels quite a lot of myths about the genre, and includes interviews and biographies of many of the main bands in the scene.

    Kenneth Cassar from Malta

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