Heavy Culture is a monthly column from journalist Liz Ramanand, focusing on people of color in heavy music as they offer their perspectives on race, society, and more as it intersects with and affects their music. The latest installment of this column features an interview with Fire From the Gods vocalist AJ Channer.
Fire From the Gods released their third album, American Sun, earlier this month. The Austin, Texas, band — which blends elements of metal, hip-hop, and hardcore into its sound — is currently supporting the LP as an opening act on Five Fiver Death Punch’s fall U.S. arena tour.
At a recent Sirius XM acoustic performance in New York, Fire From the Gods played “Right Now” and “Truth to the Weak (Not Built to Collapse)” off American Sun, as well as a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”. We met up with frontman AJ Channer that day to speak about the band’s music and his heritage.
During our conversation, Channer spoke honestly about discrimination and obstacles he has faced in the industry. He also discussed the new album American Sun and his friendship with Five Finger Death Punch guitarist Zoltan Bathory.
Read our interview with AJ Channer of Fire from the Gods below:
On covering of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”
Bob was a rebel and at the time he was a rocker. He still exemplifies everything I stand for as a metalhead, he went against the grain. His idea of freedom — not even to involve any Rastafarian stuff — as a person Bob was as hard as they come. No matter how heavy or how brutal any song is no one goes harder than him.
“Redemption Song” is the song of freedom and I think the world needs a little bit of that right now. We’re walking that line of trying to be that light and that beacon of hope and unity and that’s what Bob was about and we need to be reminded of that every now and then.
On his background and living in different places
I was born in the Bronx, New York, the BX. My folks are from Jamaica; my mom is American but my dad’s side is from Jamaica. When I was young I went to the UK and then came back and went to school in New York up until I was 12 years old. When I was 12, I moved to Ghana, West Africa, and went to boarding school.
In 1999 or 2000 I moved back to the Bronx and that’s when I got into heavy music in high school and met different kids from all walks of life and different backgrounds, so the homies would show me Metallica and other bands. I was really into punk rock and hardcore, branching out from reggae you kind of learn ska and then from that you get into punk rock and then hardcore so it was a natural progression for me. So I’ve had a journey in my short years.
On living in Ghana
My mom had some friends that were sending their kids – Africans have this thing where they send their kids back to the mother land for re-education, re-program them from the Western culture. It’s heavy within African culture. Nigerians and Ghanians do it, people from Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire – if their kids were born abroad you send them back. The family my mom knew had all daughters and they were sending them back and the dad, I refer to him as an uncle, he was like, “I don’t have a son so send me this boy. Let him come here.”
My mom at the time had a religious journey in her life; she shifted from Christianity to Islam and back to Christianity and is not rooted in Islam. She heard a word from God – and you know how black folk are, “I felt it in my spirit!” and when the spirit talks you got to move. So she was like “The holy spirit spoke to me and I’m sending you to Africa.” I’m like “No, you just want to send me to Africa. You can say it’s you, it’s all good.”
So I went to Ghana and at first, as any kid is going to be, I was super rebellious, I didn’t want to be there. Now I look back and it was the most beautiful experience I had in my life. I’ve had a British upbringing as far as culture is concerned and Jamaican culture and I learned a ton in Ghana and I thank the universe that I had that opportunity.
I could have been dead in the streets in New York, it’s not a conducive place to the healthy life of a black man. My mom was like most single moms and struggled with the idea of “How am I going to raise this black boy to be a black man?” She had a very different way of teaching me. I had abandonment issues, but what she did was she wanted to give me the most and the best that she possibly could on a nurse’s salary from the Bronx. It wasn’t much but she gave me all she could. From that I gained a wealth of knowledge and culture.
Seeing your people, being taught and disciplined by your people, it gives you a different reverence for who you are. I think when Africans migrate to the West, why they do so well and prosper is they have a different respect for themselves. It’s terrible in the sense that we’ve been taught here in America, that we are inferior and everything is pushed culturally to put us in our place, so to speak. It means a lot when you have a sense of pride – being that I lived in UK with my Jamaican family, knowing that I am just as worthy and my life matters just as anyone else.
On growing up and being a part of a variety of cultures
I’m American, I still have the individualist in me, “The me, me, me culture” of American culture. I know that I am Jamaican [and many other cultures]. I think the Europeans have this idea of assimilation; if you push the fact that we are one people then there’s no need for division – no one is brought up with the idea of I am a British Jamaican, I am just British and for a time it’s like that. I think now people are becoming a little more conscious throughout the UK. There is still a black identity specifically if you’re African, there’s an idea they hold strong to.
On the idea of where home is
I lived in Norfolk, Virginia, for about three years, my sister was stationed there in the navy. Big up to USN because I got a big military education as far as growing up with members of the military, I have respect for what they do and who they are. In Norfolk, that’s where I did a lot of growing as a person so at times I do call it home.
I live in Texas now and my band is based out of Texas so now I have a bit of Texas pride in me. The way I’ve been welcomed by people in Austin, Texas, and the way they show Fire From the Gods love, I have affinity for them. But then New York City will always be home, too.
On addressing political and societal issues
I have my own personal views on politics in America and globally but I feel that there is something bigger than that and that’s humanity — the human experience and how we interact with each other, our unity is more important than left or right. At the end of the day I don’t give a shit – we aren’t a political band. Am I a person that gets political? Yes. I’m a black man that lives in America, my very existence is political. I’m a political chip people move on the board to get what they want.
There’s a lot of divisiveness now and pointing the finger and I have to remind myself that I have to rise above that. There is something that is so much more important and that’s the existence human race and survival of things that matter like love, unity, compassion, understanding. I don’t need people to like me or love me just respect my existence and right to live. When racism and hate are involved in politics those are tools that only lead to destruction and that does nothing for the bigger picture that is unity.
On facing criticism and racism
When our first record came out, people were like, “Here’s another scene-bro who thinks he has a message or voice.” I’ve been called everything under the sun. I’ve been called the N-word. I’ve been told, “What does that motherf**ker know?” I’ve dealt with it all. Education is so important to our message and an important part of our future. If we can educate people on who we are and learn about who they are, then we can find some commonality and resolution.
On diversity within rock and metal
I do. I think rock and hip-hop and traditional American styles of music have influenced so many people of my generation. You can’t but help infuse that into one sort of musical genre, like Tyler Carter from Issues – you can hear the Prince, the Michael Jackson, the R&B, you can hear the soul in [Sevendust singer] Lajon [Witherspoon’s] voice.
There’s a lot of diversity that happens across the board, look at Korn, it’s heavy dark wave vibes with hip-hop, kind of, Deftones, and then there’s newer bands like Palisades and Hyro the Hero, who is a dope-ass Houston MC but his voice and energy compliments rock and metal. If you go hard, you’re definitely going to make it when it comes to rock and metal. I think there’s a lot of diversity.
I think some people might have a slight bit of ignorance when it comes to it and I think that comes from a lot of the older guys and they’re like “My metal’s got to be pure. If it ain’t fast, you’re last. Keep that rap shit out of my metal. Keep the singing out of metal.” F**k those dudes. Let them go to Slayer shows, and Slayer’s probably not going to play anymore so you’re going to have to find a new band that you dig. The faces at shows are changing.
On the title American Sun and what it means to him
It’s about the future, the sun represents a new day, a new dawning, a new time. It’s about realizing a new day and the full manifestation of the American dreams, so to speak, basking in the light of a new American sun. If we want to continue to be this cultural leader that we say we are and I still think we are. American culture is still so much more and is still sought after and admired by many across the globe. his, a nation of forward thinkers and progressive society and American Sun represents that future and brightness of a new day.
On what we hear on this album about who he is as a person and artist today
There is a lot that has changed since [our first two albums] Narrative and Narrative Retold. We, as a band collectively, have matured as people and individually we have matured. So many things have happened in our lives, two of us now have kids. We’ve moved in different places so we’re learning and absorbing different ideas and different cultures from different areas in our lives and where we live so American Sun fully exemplifies that. It showcases who we want to be as a band and as artists. [The album] might not be as metal but it still rocks, it’s still heavy, it’s still Fire From the Gods.
There isn’t a lot of screaming on the record and it wasn’t because we were trying to appeal to the masses and big radio hit. It’s just that we figured that at this juncture, the songs that we wrote is what they deserve. We haven’t turned our back on who we are as a band, we still play the heavy songs, we’re still metal as f**k.
On what the rest of this year has in store for Fire From the Gods
Just touring, touring, and more touring. On Narrative, we did a ton of touring and on this one we’ve got a lot that’s coming our way. [We’re close] with [current tour mates] Bad Wolves and Five Finger Death Punch. [FFDP guitarist Zoltan Bathory] is kind of our big picture manager. Zo is the kind of guy that bridged the gap for us. [I’ve also known Bad Wolves’] Doc [Coyle] and Tommy [Vext] for ages. I knew Tommy when he was in Vext and in the Brooklyn scene running around and doing what I did to basically get where I am today. Doc and Tommy are my big homies in the business. Doc has such a history in this industry, I’ve always looked up to him.
Our thanks to AJ Channer for taking the time to speak with us. Pick up Fire From the Gods’ new album, American Sun, and catch the band on tour with Five Finger Death Punch, Three Days Grace, and Bad Wolves.