Gaborone, Botswana — While Botswana is perhaps best known for its wildlife reserves, a burgeoning counter-culture is painting a very different image of the small south African country.
Clad in leather, adorned in spikes and topped off with cowboy hats, these are Botswana’s heavy metal heads.
CNN got up close to the hardcore rockers and discovered a passionate retro scene proudly celebrating its African heritage.
While Western head bangers are most commonly associated with sneakers and band t-shirts, Botswana’s fans have carved a unique image reminiscent of the 1970s New Wave British heavy metal scene.
Photographer Frank Marshall captured the rockers in all their Hell’s Angels-style glory as part of his Renegades exhibition, on display at the Rooke Gallery in Johannesburg.
“Metal was seeded here by a classic rock band that started in the early 70s. Since then, it’s evolved and grown,” he said.
“In the last 10 to 20 years, it’s come to be visually composed of what it looks like now — the guys dressed in leather. It started off with classic rock and later on more extreme forms of metals were introduced.”
Marshall described a macho scene with unique rituals, adding: “There’s a strong sense of camaraderie amongst them. That’s the first thing you’ll notice about them as an outsider coming in. They’ve got a very strong bond and friendship with each other.
“They’re very physical. At the shows, you don’t just shake their hands. They’ll grab your hand and shake you around.
“They embody the very aggressive elements of metal. It’s an expression of power. Everything is an expression of power for them, from the clothes to the way they speak to the way they walk. They walk with very deliberate lurching strides.
“To them, it’s perfectly normal. Maybe for an outside observer, from the west it might seem bizarre or comical but not here. They’re respected and revered in some ways as well.”
With names like Demon and Gunsmoke it would be easy to dismiss the rockers as thugs. But in fact, the titles come with a strong awareness of social responsibility.
“We try to portray a good figure. We’re trying to be role models. I know rock used to be a hardcore thing but actually it’s something in our heart too,” heavy metal head Gunsmoke said.
“It’s all about brothers in arms. Brothers in metal — we’re there for each other. That’s the way we identify ourselves.”
The leather-clad rockers share a similar aesthetic to notorious motorcycle gang the Hell’s Angels. But that’s where the likeness ends. According to Gunsmoke, the African head bangers are seen as a type of guardian angel, rather than the Hell’s variety.
“Kids follow us around. Parents approach us. We’re there for a good cause actually. We help people on the streets at night,” he said.
And for the hardcore fans, heavy metal is more than just a scene — it’s part of the national identity.
Even the Botswana president Ian Khama is a fan. Or at least that’s according to Gunsmoke.
“We want to make him proud. He made us proud with one man like him leading the nation. Why should we be scared when our president is a rocker?” Gunsmoke argued.
“Bots is known as a small country. People used to think it was a province of South Africa.
“But if we can stand tall on this family then we can be known as much as the country was unknown.”
It’s a uniquely African movement, and one that celebrates a special spiritual connection to the land.
Gunsmoke pointed to the use of animal horns in fashion, as a representation of Africa.
“Most of us are in a tribe. The totems are animals. We’ve got the crocodile, lion, hare, rabbit. You name it. It’s part of your culture,” he added.
African mythology and folklore loom large in the lyrics of Botswana band Skinflint. CNN caught up with lead singer Giuseppe at a gig just outside the capital Gaborone.
“We have a lot of ancestral beliefs – back in the day they used to believe that if someone dies and you touch the dead person then Gauna will come and take your soul,” he said.
“Gauna was created on a 7-inch vinyl and it was distributed by Legion of Death Records in France. We’re the first ever African heavy metal band to release something on vinyl.”
The white singer also pointed to the unifying powers of heavy metal, saying: “The metal nation knows no racial boundaries. We’re all one. We all speak one common language and it’s called heavy metal.
“Metal is a music about power, independence and freedom. That’s what I believe in –fighting for what you believe in no matter the consequences. Standing up for what you believe in and showing individuality.”