[Photo by Martyna Wisniewska]

Ithaca are pushing conversations around fatness and feminism to the forefront of metal

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When Ithaca bandleader Djamila Boden Azzouz first entered the music industry, she battled a double standard. On the one hand, she felt pressure to overly feminize and overly sexualize herself to stand a chance of being included. On the other, Boden Azzouz was made to feel as if she couldn’t be feminine if she wanted to be taken seriously. She couldn’t win. “It’s metal. It’s hardcore. You have to be one of the boys. That’s something I’ve struggled with my entire career, particularly when I was younger,” she explains.

There were other dimensions, however, to this struggle. Even as the scene has begun to warm up to women, more often than not, the ones who were first to be celebrated were white, straight and thin. Boden Azzouz is none of these things. “It’s always been really hard for me,” she confesses. While great progress has been made in starting dialogues about race and queerness, fatness has been left out of the conversation.

“People don’t want to talk about it because it’s fucking uncomfortable,” Boden Azzouz reasons. “Thin people don’t like to acknowledge thin privilege in music, particularly in metal music. Regardless of gender identity, being thin is the one constant. There is no representation for people like me in this music scene. You’ve got people like Lizzo in pop music who are breaking ground there, but heavy music is a million fucking miles away.”

Read more: Inside the next wave of British heavy metal

But now, Boden Azzouz is done with feeling beaten down: “I’ve reached a point where I just don’t care anymore.” That fury has become blazing defiance on Ithaca’s second album, They Fear Us, a record that celebrates difference and aspires to it. Brightening the metallic hardcore template with influences from new wave, ’80s power pop and ’90s industrial, they’re here to be a splash of color — quite literally, given Boden-Azzouz’s love of orange dresses — in a scene that’s a little too fond of black. 

“We were really just thinking, ‘How can we as a band write this music that we really love and pay homage to these bands that we really love and make it new and fresh and interesting?’” Boden Azzouz says. “There are so many bands out there that are just writing the same riffs. I don’t want to listen to 10 bands that sound like Botch. I’ll just listen to Botch. You really have to bring something new.” 

The same goes for visuals. “A bunch of white dudes stood in a forest? I don’t want to listen to that,” she continues. “I don’t care what the music sounds like because I’m bored looking at the photos.” The London five-piece steered as far away from the tropes of metal album artwork as possible — in fact, they hoped to create something that wouldn’t look like a metal cover at all. “We wanted something that was definitely more dramatic. We wanted the visual to match the intensity of the record.” It sees Boden-Azzouz sitting on a throne in the big orange dress that’s becoming her trademark, flanked by her bandmates — James Lewis, Will Sweet, Dom Moss and Sam Chetan-Welsh — who are all dressed in white and gray. Above their heads, the album title is written in a curly font exported from the ’70s. It looks regal as it deserves from a band who, on its title track, deliver a mosh call as powerful as “Bow before your gods.”

The cover is also designed to tap into one of the record’s key themes — what Boden Azzouz terms “divine feminine power.” As an antidote for the trappings of a patriarchal scene, Ithaca are here to demonstrate that femininity ought not to be scorned, but embraced. “A lot of people associate that word with very specific ideas, but there is no right way to look at or describe femininity,” she asserts. “One of the big things is that embracing femininity is not just for women. It’s something everyone can and should take a look at. Men think that feminism is an attack on them and they’re missing the fucking point. We all benefit from feminism. No one loses. What we’re doing is putting divine femininity and feminine power on a pedestal.”

It’s a vital exercise when Boden Azzouz finds herself constantly frustrated by what she perceives to be a constant show of performative feminism within the scene. “I find it really frustrating that bands and people love to talk about feminism and say they’re a feminist, but they don’t actually practice it. I’d rather they didn’t. I’d rather they just fucking go away. It’s easy for bands to say that they’re feminists and stuff, but then let me see your [tour] lineups. Who’s in your crew? Who do you work with? Lots of people like to attach themselves to it because it’s the thing to do, and so many people don’t want to be seen as not doing the right thing, but then they don’t actually do [anything].”

Ultimately, Ithaca want to both push open the gates to metal, inviting in people who didn’t think metal culture could be somewhere they would be welcomed. They want to look out at the crowd when they play and see a more diverse array of faces. (In fact, the more girls Boden Azzouz can see stage diving, the better). They’re just as happy to reach beyond the scene and get into the ears of people who might have ever encountered the genres in which they play. 

“By getting a bit weird with it, and putting all these different influences into the record, I do feel like it has the potential to reach people who wouldn’t call themselves a metal fan,” Boden Azzouz says. “My hope is they might hear it and realize there are other ways of doing this music, and you don’t have to stick to the confines of the genre. We really want to diversify the scene, but also diversify the music itself. Metal is for you, and there is space for you there.”