Ronnie Sterling isn't your typical high school assistant principal. He's also a guitarist in Protest, a local band known for its "unrelenting, no bullshit metal onslaught on stage." It often comes as shock to students when they find out he plays in a metal band. "Wow, there's no way," they say. After all assistant principals are known more for wielding wooden ass beaters than electric guitars that ignite the amplifiers and incite mosh pits.
"I think they just freak out on it," said Sterling, "because not only am I an African-American, but I'm an African-American principal playing in a metal band."
Sterling gets questioned about being a black man playing metal. "What's it like being black and playing metal?" is the question heard most often. But he just answers, "The same way it feels to be white and playing metal."
Breaking stereotypes is at the heart of good metal. Black Sabbath, the godfathers of the movement, formed as a response to the bullshit hippie music dominating the late '60s and early '70s. Instead of penning songs like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" or "All You Need is Love," Ozzy Osbourne and his metal cohorts sang dark tunes of corrupt politicians, the Vietnam War and drug use. The band harnessed the aggressiveness people felt at the time. Songs like "War Pigs," Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" and "The Wizard" inspired a generation of guitar players to tune that shit down.
In 1990, a 19-year-old Sterling was living in Lubbock when he first picked up the guitar. He'd always liked the sound it made. He grew up listening to blues by legends such as B.B. King. He'd play for hours inside vacant apartments. Nothing but an old electric, an amp and a small jam box. He'd mimic the basic chord style of punk bands like the Circle Jerks, while learning a few licks from friends who listened to glam rock at the time.
Then he discovered Slayer.
"Punk brought me into the guitar," Sterling said, "and Slayer took me over the top."
Sterling first joined a punk band called "Three Chords and the Truth" but eventually left and became a shredder in Motrifix, a more aggressive outfit. In 1994, his new band opened for Slayer at The Backstage Live, a metal bar in Lubbock.
"It was a dream come true for me," he said.
Slayer had recently replaced drummer Dave Lombardo with Paul Bostaph. The band wanted to play a small venue in preparation for the Divine Intervention tour in 1994. As the band performed a sound check before the show, Sterling and his band mates called out different songs like "Mind Control" and "Raining Blood." The metal legends shrugged their shoulders and crunched out the riffs.
This is a dream, Sterling thought. We're not really in front of Slayer.
But they were. During Mortifix's set, some of the guys in Slayer stood by the monitors and watched them destroy the stage. Later, one of the sound guys told Sterling that they were impressed with the local band's set up. Sterling opened one more show for Slayer with Mortifix and another one with his next band Blood Ties.
In Lubbock, Sterling also attended Texas Tech University. He wanted to be pathologist but later, "I realized I didn't want to be around dead people all my life." But he did want to be a benefit to kids beyond the stage. He'd always loved history and football, so he decided to become a coach and a teacher.
"The coaches in my life were like my second dads," Sterling said. "If I can impact kids the way I was impacted, then I'm winning."
After graduation, Sterling left Mortifix and moved to Dallas with his new wife and son. He needed a career to pay the bills, he said. He took a coaching/teaching job in Desoto. At the time he didn't tell anyone about his shredding capabilities.He was just another one of the thousands of guitar players making a living in the private sector.
In 2001, everything changed when he learned that his former drummer, Tom Brewer, in Mortifix had moved to Dallas. They started jamming together. Some of the other band members decided to move to the area. Mortifix reformed.
Sterling told the other coaches about his new/old band. "You're playing that devil music?" they asked jokingly.
"I'm not going to stop doing something I love just because I got a career," Sterling said.
When the students found it, they realized their assistant principal wasn't "a square" like they thought. They started telling him, "You're my favorite assistant principal now." And he saw the benefit of them knowing because it drew him closer to them..
"It's kind of cool because I can already identify with the black kids," he said, "but I cross over and identify with the Hispanic and white kids who are into this music. They realize that metal isn't just a white person's music. Anybody can enjoy the music if they're just into it."
Sterling tells students who love metal that people are going to stereotype a person based on what he or she listens to. "Be who you are," he says. "Don't change for anybody. Just be comfortable in your own skin, and it will work out."
But the positive vibes also flow both ways. One of his former high school students introduced him to his current band Protest. At the time, they needed another guitarist. Sterling met with members Jason Burris, Jason French, Cebo and Jono Garret and showed them his shredding skills. He's been with them since 2003. They're currently recording an album.
"I've never put a barrier on myself because I'm an African-American man," Sterling said. "If I want to do it, I'm going to do it. But I'm hoping that I'm breaking down some barriers."
That you are, my friend.
Be sure to catch Protest with Deadhorse on Saturday, May 10, at Three Links.