Make Some Noise for Heavy Metal in Academia: Christian Keough in Finland

(Christian Keough presenting his paper at the Modern Heavy Metal International Academic Research Conference)

The field of popular culture has grown tremendously through the years. As we follow new trends such as what clothes to wear, music to listen to, video games to play, and books to read, we are always on the lookout to explore new content the world has to offer. The same way we would share the top meme of the month and apply it to our everyday life, we want to find a way to use our passion and incorporate it with our career. This is the expectations that Christian Keough demonstrated as he represented the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus (UPRM) at the Modern Heavy Metal Conference (MHMC), in Finland, this past summer.

For the last 9 years, Christian Keough has been an active student at the UPRM, where he began studying Kinesiology at the Department of Physical Education, and then later moved on to the Department of English where he focused his major in Linguistics. Currently, he is an Instructor of Record who is completing a Master of Arts in English Education at the UPRM, where he teaches Intermediate English I & II. As far as his own hobbies and interests, he gets really involved in different aspects of popular culture, such as cosplaying his signature “Dora the Destroyer” costume in the many conventions across Puerto Rico and being involved as the treasurer of the Popular Culture Student Association (PCSA). However, out of the list of items, one of Keough’s main passions is his “love [for] heavy metal.”

Similarly to how most memorable characters begin their great journey to the far lands and the unknown, Christian Keough began to feel a little discouraged about his future, and what it holds to him. “I’d say about a year and half ago I was considering dropping from the master’s program and just find something else I was really into, but little did I know that the way I saw everything was about to change, I was able to go on this cruise called 70000 Tons of Metal. Before we board the ship hundreds of metalheads visit Miami’s South Beach I met Emily Harris; a young Canadian Metalhead, who curiously enough also had an academic background. Emily recommended me to look up an academic conference called MHMC.”

Immediately after he read the description and vision of the Modern Heavy Metal Conference (MHMC), he was extremely interested in it because he never imagined in his life that he could potentially turn his passion for heavy metal and incorporate it in his graduate studies. In addition, Keough always had this thing for Finland, “primarily because of a local band called Korpiklaani. The mere sound of the Finnish vocals was enough to captivate my interest for the country, and after reading that Finland was one of the leading countries in education, while also realizing just how many finnish bands I actually listened to, I figured I might as well go and live their for five years to experience their culture while also attaining a PhD, which seemed to me like nothing less than a planetary alignment.”

(Disclaimer: All images used in the article were provided by Christian Keough)

During Keough’s experience in the MHMC, which happened from June 27th to July 1st, he had the opportunity to meet a lot of professionals from the music industry and researchers of the field, and networked with other MA and Ph.D. graduate students who attended and presented during the conference. Before Keough presented his research on the heavy metal scene in Puerto Rico, Dr. Nelson Varas, a leading metal academic in the Latin American area who was also a keynote presenter on the first conference day, presented topics involving the heavy metal scene of many Latin American countries and their connections with colonialism. Keough highlights that listening to the other presenters added perspective to his current interest in metal music studies and future research on the genre itself. He mentioned that “while it's being viewed through the lens of heavy metal, it can really apply to anything, and the current political status of Puerto Rico is no exception.”

(Christian Keough networking with other presenters and heavy metal enthusiast from the MHMC)

Keough’s presentation titled Live After Death: The Puerto Rican Metal Renaissance, focuses on how the “enchanted island” has endured over five hundred years of colonialism. Passed on as war loot from one nation to another, Puerto Rico continues to suffer the admonishment that is to live under another, more powerful, sovereign country. Needless to say, the lives of citizen and the socio-cultural elements of the island have been affected tremendously on all fronts since their inception, including the heavy metal scene. By examining and analyzing the events which took place after the Spanish American War of 1898 and the practices employed by the foreign power on the island, it is my hopes that the current state of the heavy metal scene in Puerto Rico becomes apparent. While also “taking into account historical facts, interviewing semi-prominent local musicians; promoters, and sponsors, while also taking a look at band management; expenses, booking availability, wage per gig, and cost of recording, common denominative factors will prove indicative as to why the metal scene is on the raise after surviving its withering state during the 1990s.” Finally, Keough analyzed the progress of prominent local bands such as Dantesco, Puya, and Zafakon proving paramount for the understanding of the island’s metal scene’s growth.

(Christian Keough with the Dr.Toni-Matti Karjalainen)

What is interesting about Cristian Keough’s presentation is that it didn’t take form or shape in the beginning. Keough traveled to San Juan to interview key people of the heavy metal scene in Puerto Rico who lived through the time when heavy metal was at its peak moment in our island. The first person he went to was Erico Morales, who is the lead singer and composer to the band Dantesco, one of the most prominent Puerto Rican bands within the local scene for those who are metal enthusiasts. Through Morales he also encountered Rafael Bracero, along with many others, who would influence and shape his researching experience. During his quest to find answers, Keough had cleared a few misconception of what he thought the heavy metal scene was like in Puerto Rico. “I had thought the heavy metal scene was at its strongest during the 90’s in Puerto Rico. The idea came across talking with some friends and other colleagues, where we all shared this belief. I found out that it was quite the opposite because heavy metal died in Puerto Rico during the 90’s, and this is where my inspiration on colonialism began. As we know, Puerto Rico receives a lot of influence from the US, so what happens over there affects us here in one way or another and so the same thing happened with music. Over in the US, punk and grunge took over the entire scene and literally ate everything that was out there, including heavy metal”, as stated by Erico Morales. Therefore, heavy metal didn’t appear until later in the 2000s. Based on the information he acquired, Keough wanted to based his paper on what happened here with Puerto Rico’s history, the United States, and how it all ties in Puerto Rico’s current state.

(Christian Keough with Iron Maiden’s drummer, Nick McBrian)

Christian Keough identifies as “the black sheep of [his] family, in the sense that no one in my family likes heavy metal. My mom likes Phil Collins, but of course that isn’t even remotely close to Heavy Metal.” His interest in the genre happened during his high school years when a friend recommended a few heavy metal bands for him to listen to. For those of us who lived our high school years back in the day where we listened to Slipknot, System of the Down, Linkin Park, and other bands, Keough describe those memories from the past when he retells when he first got interested in heavy metal on his 16th birthday. When Borders still existed, he “saw this Iron Maiden album, and my friend was like ‘oh they’re pretty old but they’re good,’ so I didn’t pick up the album because of that and boy do I regret it because today they are one my favorite bands.” In fact, most of his shirts are from Iron Maiden. “Eventually. I came across Dragon Force and their album Inhuman Rampage I picked that one out, went home to listen to it, and immediately fell in love with the Power Metal subgenre. But it wasn’t until later on when my friend recommended me Rhapsody. when it all changed; Rhapsody for me was groundbreaking. They were the reason why I went to the cruise because, since they were doing their final tour.” Keough believes his 13 year dream not only lead him to see his favorite band live and to meet them in person, but also lead him to the academic conference in Finland.

During the academic conference, Christian Keough learned a lot about the academic environment and career of it. Presenting in conferences is a key part to develop one self, but the networking one does during coffee breaks, and the conversations one has with other scholars are essential in any academic trip. As Keough express, one has to “be vocal, charismatic, but not overexert yourself to the point where you are being annoying. Don’t be scared to talk to them, or ask for their Facebook, since its the main social media we use to keep in touch. But if you’re not the talkative type, then you could always go with business cards, though I highly encourage the former”

(Christian Keough with Amanda Digioia. She is a published Ph.D. student in UCL, London, who focuses on Gender Studies, primarily female)

“Prior to attending the conference, through Emily Harrison I met Amanda Digioia through Facebook, whom would later take me under her wing in Finland. She is a Ph.D. student at University College London in the UK. She had met her thesis advisor at the MHMC, and I for sure was one hoping to have a similar fate”. As far as the future goes, Christian Keough is always open to any possibility. For now, his goal is to go to Finland and complete a Ph.D. The main reason why he wishes to seek out graduate studies in a European country is to be exposed to a completely different culture, environment, and lifestyle and in a way to change his own thinking and point of view.

When Christian Keough was asked about what advice would he give to other graduate students based on his experience, he would focus on the importance of studying something that one cares about and sees value in it. “Academia is not an easy thing. If you do something out of obligation and not out of love, like I was, you’ll end up hitting a brick wall. Barely a year ago I on the wrong path and I did not know what to do. But after recollecting on one my professors teaching, Dr. Nick Haydock, I felt reinvigorated once exploring this new field. He would always encourage us to pursue academic conference and to do the very things which I engaged in while this small but fascinating journey, and like he always said during Models for Teaching Literature, ‘Teach what you love, but love many things’ and so I did”. I love heavy metal, but I want to expose myself to many other things. Dr. Haydock advise us on, and so hopefully times soon to come I’ll be going to more conferences, gaining new experiences.”

(Christian Keough with Doug Blair, a famous musician from the renowned band W.A.S.P, and a music professor at Turku, Finland)

Keough points out that the mentorship of his professors, such as Dr. Haydock, Dr. Irizarry, and Dr. Batra, were crucial during his time in the BA and MA in terms of how to conduct research and acquiring skills to develop a strong paper to present in an academic conferences.

Most recently, Dr. Rosa Roman also represents a key person during his academic uprising. In Dr. Roman’s INGL 6010 course, were students learn key strategies and skills to teach English as a Second or Foreign language, she noticed how Keough was struggling at the moment, when he didn’t know what to do next in his career.  “I like to say that Dr. Rosa Roman saved me from this ‘dark place’, as she would say. With a very motherly nature, she appeared as beacon of light or something of that nature, who showed up and talked to me with love about the reality of things, and how I was going to end up if I continued the path I was walking on. From there, as my thesis advisor, she began to work with me”.

After the conference, Keough was also given the opportunity to be invited as a guest speaker for the very same class were it all started. “Being invited to talk at Dr. Roman's class was a pleasant surprise, since it's a rare occasion for a professor to invite me into their classroom to talk about something. At first I felt a little hesitant, since I had not told anyone except her, but I gave it a shot anyway, hoping that my soon to come experience would encourage others to do the same -to go present at a conference. While presenting some of the bright faces inside that room were more rewarding than I first expected. Months later it pleases me to know that most of them have, or are soon to incur on a similar experience.”

After Christian Keough’s epic adventures in Finland, he decided to make it his goal to improve himself each semester. Besides his academic responsibilities, he also enjoys going to the gym and being healthy, and playing video games, specifically Dungeons and Dragons (DND). Christian Keough is thankful to the UPRM, the Dean of Arts & Science Dr. Fernando Gilbes, the Dean of Academic Affairs Dr. Betsy Morales, and the Chancellor M.Arch Wilma L. Santiago who provided funding for him to be able to participate in the MHMC at Finland.  As a food for thought, Christian Keough reflects on his experience as a “second wind” and that it would help him “think more clearly on what I wanted to do for the rest of my time in the masters program, and what I want to do in the future.”