Featured photo: Justin “Demeanor” Harrington performs during the 2021 NC Folk Festival (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
Chris Meadows was frustrated about the sound.
As the late-summer sun waned above him, light streaming in through the mesh of Janet Echelman’s “Where We Met” sculpture overhead, Meadows urged the sound team to crank up the volume on his mic. His voice, which filtered through autotune as he rapped, was getting lost in the cacophony of instrumentals and backing tracks.
On Saturday, the rapper performed as part of the “Rap is Folk” set during this year’s NC Folk Festival in downtown Greensboro. The performance, which was made up of six different artists, attracted a large crowd in LeBauer Park, which was newly outfitted with a Little Brother Brewing satellite location and plenty of green for people to sit and enjoy the music. But for whatever reason, on the busiest day of one of the biggest outdoor events that the city was hosting this year, Meadows’ voice was being washed away.
As he rapped into the mic, echoes of his autotuned vocals could be heard in occasional wisps. The technical difficulties had delayed his set and when he was finally able to perform, he asked the audience if they wanted to wait for them to fix all of the kinks, or if they just wanted the show to go on.
“Just play!” someone shouted. And so, Meadows did.
The problems the LeBauer Park stage was facing could be chalked up to some random issue that didn’t have anything to do with the “Rap is Folk” set. It could have been an inexperienced technician who didn’t know how to balance the sound properly or the result of a faulty wire. But when time and time again, situations go awry for those who have always been sidelined and looked over, the questions arise — “Why me?” “What now?”
For Justin “Demeanor” Harrington, just getting hip hop to be recognized as part of this year’s Folk Festival was a challenge.
The local organizer and musician, was chosen as one of three guest curators who had the opportunity to create a unique set for the event. As a local rapper, Harrington wants people to see rap and hip hop as a folk art.
“Rap is like the illest folk music of all time,” Harrington says. “I’ve been telling Folk Fest for a while: We need to have a rap stage. If we’re acknowledging all of these other art forms as folk, rap has to be there. Like we have gospel, rock, house music. It’s all folk music once we look at it through that lens.”
Harrington is no stranger to music making and folk artistry. Being the nephew of renowned artist Rhiannon Giddens, he grew up in a family for which music was a way of life.
“I grew up in old-time traditions,” he says. “I grew up going to bluegrass festivals and playing banjo with my aunt. My grandpa would play the Isley Brothers. I come from a very musical family. Everything was like roots music.”
Historically, the Folk Festival in Greensboro — both in its current iteration as a statewide celebration, and during its 2015-17 run in the city as a national festival — has focused on the kind of folk music that most people would gladly recognize as such. Lots of banjos, swing and a myriad of global traditions. This year was the first time that hip hop was added as part of the festival, according to Harrington.
“Folk music has encoded political meaning,” he says. “It’s protest music. It’s the same as hip hop. There are all of these throughlines that run between the two art forms. So yeah, rap is folk.”
And it’s not just about hip hop. It’s about the preconceived notions and expectations society has about certain genres of music, Harrington explains. As someone who recently played with Giddens at the Tanger Center and who is proficient in banjo, Harrington says he experienced microaggressions as soon as he went to perform with his aunt.
“They were like, ‘Oh, how did you start playing the banjo?,’” he says. “Like they would ask racially insensitive questions. So it’s always been a fight.”
Just over a year ago, on the same stage that rapper Chris Meadows was performing on, hundreds of Black Lives Matter activists, rallied during the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. They, like Meadows, were fighting for their voices to be heard.
But that’s always been the case, Harrington says.
“Like we’re always having to convince them that people are worth of attention and love; that’s crazy,” he says. Sometimes I feel like they’re only letting you in at the grassroots level, at the ground level. But we are the change. Like the folks at the top, they’re saying diversity and inclusion, but words are just words.”
Harrington says the curated opportunity was a good start in getting the wider Greensboro community to see, hear and acknowledge hip hop in ways they might not have before. But what he really wants, and what marginalized communities have always asked for, is the ability to amplify their voices on their own terms.
“I think it’s changing because we’re inside,” he says. “I think it’s up to them to provide us with the infrastructure they’ve built over the last 20 years and get out of the way.”
As Harrington prowled through the crowd on Saturday in a bright red Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls jersey to see how well Meadows could be heard, he looked stressed. But what he didn’t notice was Meadows’ mom, just a few yards away, swaying and singing along to every lyric that her son offered. Because to her, the message was getting across. Because for those who wanted to hear, like those who danced and swung their arms back and forth right in front of the stage, Meadows’ words reached them.
“I know we don’t sound right but imagine what it would sound like if you could really hear it,” Meadows said.
But for many, they didn’t have to imagine. They never had.
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