From social work to soulful music, Debbie the Artist infuses their music with their truth

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Debbie the Artist perfomed at Mindful Supply on First Friday. (photo by Todd Turner)

The sound of car tires spinning across cold rain on South Davie Street pairs with the sprinkle of the rainmaker in Miata Yomo’s hands. She’s performing with her friend and mentor Debbie the Artist (Debbie Long) this first Friday of April, with a snake plant and mod standing lamp bookending the duo who sit under cobalt script reading “Be Mindful” on the shop’s largest wall.

The two NC A&T students, joined by Julian Gordon on djembe, radiate warmth in Mindful Supply Company, a store in downtown Greensboro dealing in sustainably sourced clothes. When Debbie the Artist, who is gender non-conforming, isn’t playing shows — on stages at bookstores, food festivals and the living rooms of secret late-night gatherings — they’re dabbling in other endeavors like screen printing and painting, poetry and songwriting workshops for kids, and activism, which they also view as a creative endeavor, not at all separate from the music.

“My degree is in social work, so my concern is with bringing folks together,” Debbie says. “I don’t call myself an entertainer anymore. I want to establish some commune of emotion. I want us to collectively grow and transform through experience. I think using every inch of my resources to make that happen is artistry, some sort of craft.”

They consider music-making the most universal language of their creative talents, the one that holds the most attention and allows them to reach people from disparate walks of life.

“When I’m just a student or a social worker — perception is reality — I might be this black femme with a message people don’t want to hear,” Debbie says. “But when I’m singing to them, they’re lulled into it; their ears perk up. So, then I’m glad to have your attention, but what do we do with that?”

Tonight, with soulful bluesy vocals, Debbie delivers acoustic renditions of Kanye West’s “Heartless,” Radiohead’s “Creep” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” with lips painted royal purple before offering up an original, “Soul Cry.”

“With ‘Soul Cry,’ it’s a very political message,” they say. “I’m going to take you there, even if it’s not a place you might be willing to go. You may not be ready to hear about the blood in the street, and especially the blood on Greensboro’s hands, but artists are supposed to change the world, and that’s what I’m here for. I’m seeking real change in this city.”

Debbie left home on the south side of Chicago at 16, eventually finding their way to North Carolina where their experiences as a first-generation HBCU college student have shaped their perspective on what it means to be a creative of color in a small, Southern city.

“When I’m just a student or a social worker — perception is reality — I might be this black femme with a message people don’t want to hear,” Debbie says. “But when I’m singing to them, they’re lulled into it; their ears perk up. So, then I’m glad to have your attention, but what do we do with that?” (photo by Todd Turner)

“[Greensboro] is oversaturated with artists, but there’s not a lot of recognition for those artists, and this city treats artists of color the way it treats people of color,” Debbie says. “Especially as a queer femme of color, it’s difficult having to vie for spaces maybe with people who are friends with A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Then there are people willing to pay you, but they don’t pay you your worth; they pay you enough to get you to come back. It’s not just one type of person who will exploit you, either; I’ve been exploited by people who look like me.”

Debbie names a recent exception: NC Represents, a weekly live-music series at Joymongers Brewing Co. that local musician Molly McGinn created to feature marginalized musicians. (NPR invited the two to interview and perform on “The State of Things” last August after Debbie’s series appearance.) But Debbie also notes that there aren’t yet spaces spotlighting black musicians, specifically, on a regular basis, and is frank about the barriers of being a queer, black artist in a segregated city, about realities like paying other artists of color out of pocket to perform alongside them when venues refuse.

“I’ve had to fight tooth and nail to be invited into spaces, so I feel at this point there’s a lot of unfinished business because I am getting these opportunities now,” they say. “I’m grateful to be received, but it’s not about me. Even if people are uplifting me, if you’re killing folks in my community and destroying their opportunities, then what I’m doing doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter if I’m afforded places if other people aren’t eating, don’t have the spaces or opportunities.”

So post-graduation, when faced with deciding whether to stay or go, they ask themselves, “What can I aspire to in this town? Am I supposed to stay in Greensboro for 20 years just to see people get to a table where they still might not be able to eat?”

Later tonight, when Debbie begins to parcel out the contents of Mindful Supply’s goodie bag to their fellow performers, they find that the business is providing gifts for them, too — in welcome contrast to years of managed expectations.

“I don’t think I can go into a space and not try to transform that space in some way,” Debbie says. “I think every space should be left with a touch of magic, but I’m not egotistical enough to think the magic is just the music; the music has to have a message… and I’m relentless in mine. I’m inviting other people to become more self-aware.”

And Debbie the Artist is doing it through community-building, week after week after week. During their finale with the original song “Magic,” their co-hosts hand out percussive instruments to the audience and everyone is out of their seats dancing, singing along, while the hot whistle of the train, which cleaves this old textile town into parts, joins the chorus.

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