The spare, undulating desert blues emanated from the battery-powered speaker set up at the edge of the parking lot outside Wise Man Brewing, a spidery web of electric guitars, bass and percussion that was bracing and serene all at once, as yogis laid down their mats to begin a session.
“This music is Tinariwen,” the instructor said as she gestured across the parking lot towards the music venue, where a cluster of Winston-Salem police officers kept a friendly vigil. “They’re playing at the Ramkat tonight. Since they can be controversial, the announcement that they were coming caused some backlash. People said they were Taliban, but they’re the opposite of that. If you see a lot of police officers in the areas, that’s why.”
When the Ramkat started publicizing the concert by the acclaimed nomad desert blues band of the Sahara on Facebook in July, a stream of hateful comments quickly ensued, apparently based on nothing more than that the band members were wearing turbans:
“Go home; maybe your country will like your music.” “Gotta bring my AR, too….” “Take the fucking towels off your goddamn heads.” “Shootout at midnight?” Taliban rock?” “Ain’t looking at nothing Muslim. The wannabe religion that’s the plague of the world.” “Or bomb us, your choice.”
The backlash made international headlines.
But on Tuesday, a couple hours before the concert, Winston-Salem City Councilwoman Annette Scippio read a proclamation signed by Mayor Allen Joines declaring it Tinariwen Day in Winston-Salem. The Winston-Salem Symphony played a brief fanfare prelude to set the stage for the proclamation, while Imam Khalid Abdul Fattah Griggs and Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council, brought greetings.
At 6:08 p.m., shortly after the ceremony ended, Ramkat partner Richard Emmett received a letter from Gov. Roy Cooper. It was addressed to Tinariwen.
“North Carolina has a long history of excellence in the arts, and we are proud of the diverse community of musicians that have visited our state and called North Carolina home throughout the years,” it read. “As you prepare for your performance at the Ramkat, I hope that you feel at home here, and thank you for bringing your music and culture to our state.”
In a political moment fraught with fear, division, distrust and toxicity, at least for one moment and in one particular place, love won.
While ICE is deported hard-working community members like José Samuel Solis Lopez, a labor organizer at the Case Farms plant in Morganton, President Trump came to North Carolina last week, and whipped up fear, declaring, “North Carolina has released thousands of dangerous criminal aliens into your communities, and you see it. The charges against these free criminals include sexual assault, robbery, drug crime and homicide. Murder!” In what has become a regular drumbeat of official hostility towards Muslims, a Sikeston, Mo. public-safety officer resigned after stating on Facebook: “I get to choose whom I dislike and it just so happens to be all muslims [sic] and their beliefs.”
And on Monday, during a rally in New Mexico, Trump casually demonstrated the contingent status of people of color in the United States in 2019 when he pointed to CNN contributor Steve Cortes, and asked, “Who do you love more, the country or Hispanics?”
Sometimes white supremacy is shut down when community members show up and drive out extremists by crowding them and yanking away their platform, and no one should doubt that those tactics are effective. But it’s even better when a community comes together and makes a statement of affirmative welcome and interfaith, multicultural solidarity that speaks louder than hate.
“We don’t have to tolerate hate or anything bad,” Scippio told me after the ceremony on Tuesday. “If people would speak up and speak truth, and model behavior, we could defeat hate.”
Tinariwen proved during their concert in Winston-Salem on Tuesday that the North Carolina Taliban picked the wrong band to fuck with. Ultimately, the threats and bluster don’t affect them.
Ali Rogan, a producer with “PBS NewsHour” who brought a crew to Winston-Salem to capture the scene, told me two members of the band told her they weren’t even aware of the threats.
Among the three lead guitarists, founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s playing conveys the most weight and sadness — a desert-blues meditation reverberating with modulating tone patterns.
This is a man who watched his father get executed by a pro-government gunman in his native Mali at the age of 4, whose band members participated in violent uprisings against the governments of Mali and Nigeria in the 1990s, and whose band members escaped the persecution of al-Qaida-inspired Islamists in 2013.
“I have no hate left for anyone, my soul is confused,” Alhabib sings on “Tenere Maloulat,” the opening track on Amadjar — the new album released on Sept. 6. “I believe in no one now. I’ve become the son of gazelles who grew up in the meanderings of the desert.”