Music expert found Nirvana before taking unique PhD

AUTHOR Keith Kahn-Harris has never been comfortable in the Jewish bubble.

Be it during his younger days as a student at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, Hertfordshire, or as a student at Goldsmiths University in London, the 47-year-old husband of Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris didn’t quite fit in.

Keith, the son of Paul and Margaret Harris, said: “At Habs, it was quite a turbulent social atmosphere.

“Socially, the culture created by the boys was often quite unpleasant.

“It had a reputation for being quite cocky, which I often found quite difficult to deal with.

“I was also an undergraduate at Cambridge and found the J-Soc quite off-putting.

“It had a reputation then of being quite close-knit, and, to a degree, Orthodox dominated.”

His Judaism was core to his upbringing, and his parents were among the first members of Radlett and Bushey Reform Synagogue.

Keith describes it as a “great community to grow up in”, of which you can see the influence of it in the father-of-two’s vast CV.

He is a senior lecturer and course team leader at Leo Baeck College, an associate lecturer at Birkbeck College, and an associate fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, where he runs the European Jewish Research Archive.

He was previously editor of the Jewish Journal of Sociology, and guest editor of the Jewish Quarterly.

And he has written many books, including his latest one, Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism And The Limits Of Diversity.

The book argues that the emergence of strange hatreds shows how far we are from understanding what living in diverse societies really means, and calls for us to abandon selective anti-racism and rethink how we view not just Jews and antisemitism, but the challenge of living with diversity.

He said: “Antisemitism has become selective in recent years. It tends to be a mixture of antisemitism and philosemitism.

“You accept and protect some Jews, and reject others, dividing the world into good Jews and bad Jews.

“When you look at Labour antisemitism, it’s like that. But it’s not just on the left, it’s on the right as well.

“I put that in the context of a wider process of selective anti-racism, where choose some minorities over others — for example, Muslims not Jews or Jews not Muslims.

“That is becoming the prevelant form that racism takes.

“I also call out to the Jewish world not to collude with this, and not to be anybody’s ‘favourite Jew’ or ‘good Jew’.”

Keith’s writing career began at Habs, but not in the form it has ended up being.

For some reason, he wanted to be a journalist.

“Why would I want to be a journalist?” he laughed.

“I wanted to do investigative journalism, but as time went on I started to think about academia, and, from the age of 15 or 16, I started thinking that it would be cool to do a PhD.

“My mum was an academic as well, so that was an inspiration — she is an emeritus professor at Aston University in Birmingham — and my dad was a solicitor.

“At Cambridge, I read social and political sciences, which came from my mother’s example.

“It was the sociology thing that interested me the most.

“I ended up doing an MA in sociology, which is where I did my PhD on extreme heavy metal music scenes.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Keith’s PhD explored different extreme heavy metal scenes around the world — focusing specifically on England, Sweden and Israel.

“I was massively into music from my teenage years, and extreme metal was just one thing I listened to,” he explained.

“I discovered it on John Peel’s BBC Radio One show.”

His first foray into journalism was writing a fanzine about all kinds of music, alongside a group of friends.

And his biggest guest, in 1990, was Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain — pre-iconic album Nevermind.

Keith discovered that there was an academic side to popular music during this time, and became the first person to do a PhD on extreme heavy metal music.

He recalled: “My interview was actually with all of Nirvana at the end of 1990.

“I can’t claim credit for having organised it, but the interview is one of my claims to fame.”

His PhD, which he said he “immersed” himself into, changed his relationship with Israel.

Beforehand, he went there “all the time”, went on tour and took family holidays, too.

But now he was meeting Israeli draft dodgers and other interesting characters who all happened to be into metal — including new Russian immigrants.

He said: “I ended up going to the West Bank with one group, and I saw a lot that way.

“It rekindled an intellectual interest in Israel, and the metal scene was really fascinating back then, and it still is today. I still write about it.

“My book in 2007, Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge, became the first works in what has now become a sub-academic discipline of metal studies, which I am still involved in.

“I didn’t expect it to become influential, as very few people were studying it when I was doing my PhD. It’s a community I’m very proud of.”

Going back to his Jewish roots — or more specifically, his wife’s — Keith is married to Texas-born Reform rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris, who is also the principal of Leo Baeck College.

The couple met during a Limmud conference in 1997.

He said: “Going out with a rabbi has never been as unusual as people think.

“She’s only been a community rabbi in a synagogue for a few years, and even then wasn’t full-time.

“It can be difficult being married to someone who has a community to deal with, but we’ve only had a bit of that to deal with.

“The career has been quite stressful, but only in the way others are stressful.

“I was never overawed with her being a rabbi, as my parents were friends with rabbis, so I was used to it.

“It’s got me more closely informed in the Reform world, but by the time we started going out, I was getting more involved anyway, via some research work I did for UJIA and others.

“The reason why we click is because we are insiders in the Jewish world, but also very unconventional.

“We have a wider perspective on the community.”

If you have a story or an issue you want us to cover, let us know - in complete confidence - by contacting, 0161-741 2631 or via Facebook / Twitter

© 2019 Jewish Telegraph