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Navigating the metal minefield 

Race, gender, celebrity & headbangers: wicked wisdom in the Ozzfest moshpit

Attention intolerant metal-heads: Jada Pinkett Smith ain't skeeerd'a y'all. As the dark pageantry of Ozzfest Tour 2005 -- the bacchanal of hardcore ring-led by heavy metal and reality TV icon Ozzy Osbourne -- rolls through your corner of the Dirty South, know that the actress and her metal band Wicked Wisdom are braced for impact. Go ahead and boo. Unleash your toxic waste. Flip the bird. Spew. Wicked Wisdom got a l'il sumpin' fo' that ass, fo' sho'. She just thought you'd like to know, thank you very much.

For all the rest of you who haven't followed this saga -- and considering the prolepsis that is Ozzfest, you are legion -- the addition of the LA-based Wicked Wisdom to the second-stage roster of performers has extricated the collective bile of some of the headbanging faithful. Message boards at both Sony (Ozzy Osbourne's label) and the Ozzfest websites were deluged with harsh critique, invective, even death threats and talk of riots. At many of the dates, Wicked Wisdom has been saluted with half-peace signs, "F-U" bombs, water-bottle barrages and demands that the band leave the stage during its performances. On some dates, Pinkett Smith and company have cut their sets short.

As celebrity/race/gender controversies go, this one hasn't resonated as violently with the public as did the O.J. Simpson trial (or even Paris Hilton's alleged abuse of the "n-word," for that matter), but it does raise the question of how far we've collectively evolved (or devolved, as the case may be) in this wild and wooly enterprise called rock. In one corner, an earnest, multicultural hardcore band on the rise. In the opposite corner, indoctrinated lily-white heavy metal fans attending the biggest annual tour of the genre. As the two sides clash, it's caused a dust-up in industry circles and the media. The rights and wrongs of the matter are murky at best. As is invariably the case, the truth is somewhere in the epicenter.

Paying Your Dues To Play The Blues

Presumably, Pinkett Smith knew what she was getting into when she signed on to Ozzfest. Since the flap broke, she has vehemently maintained her dedication to her band, her music and her right to rock. "It's who I am, who people believe that I am," she told Billboard.com of the misconceptions of her. "Of course it would seem really bizarre and awkward and just completely out of line and out of place, so people come in with preconceived ideas because unfortunately we're all taught to think so limitedly. Even myself, even when I got the invite, I wasn't jumping at the opportunity to do Ozzfest. I had to really open my mind, and I'm glad I did."

Oddly enough, Wicked Wisdom is the only band listed on the Ozzfest website without a single representative PR photo (guess Jada's trying to pull the same invisibility = audience dollars ruse as country exec Roy Acuff and his permanently tanned artist Charley Pride did in the 1960s).

For her part, Pinkett Smith, who has put her acting career on hold to establish footing for the band, has vowed to stay the course. "I'm not here asking for any favors," she told Billboard magazine. "You've got to show and prove. And not every audience is gonna go for it."

Wicked Wisdom has developed camaraderie among other bands on the tour. "Everybody gets along with each other," said the band's guitarist, Pocket. "Everyone shows up for each other's show when they can when they're not signing autographs, and they support each other. And I think fans need to see that more and more."

From a tour stop in Texas, Pinkett Smith told Creative Loafing that tour organizer and celebrity rocker wife Sharon Osbourne knew what she was doing when she invited the band to perform at Ozzfest. "I know that Sharon's not going to tear down something that she's built for 10 years on the little Wicked Wisdom band," Pinkett Smith said. "Our first week and a half was a little rough, you know, but we just kind of plowed through it and it's gotten better and better."

The singer added that she had no fears of coming to the South. In fact, Pinkett Smith noted, she attended North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and knows this area well.

Still, early on, the animosity had apparently reached such a boiling point that Sharon Osbourne issued a statement on the band's behalf, declaring Wicked Wisdom would remain on Ozzfest. "Let me tell you, I was blown away," Osbourne told Billboard magazine. "When you see and hear Jada with her band, it's apparent that she has nothing but love and respect for this genre of music. I totally respect that the band wants to pay their dues playing the second stage."

"In an ideal world, you just tour with the best or the most popular bands, depending on your objectives," said Bill Toles, independent tour producer and former president of the Black Rock Coalition. "But given America's perennial racial anxiety, scripts get flipped, particularly when you have the so-called ruling-class suffering delusions of exclusion of the so-called underclass. You know, these people are 'allowed' to do this and these people aren't. Never mind that the people you're excluding created what you're preventing their participation in.

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