Featured photo: Justin Harrington, aka Demeanor (photo by Alexia Webster)

This is what Justin Harrigton has been waiting for.

The Greensboro-based musician who performs as Demeanor has been working the local folk-rap scene for years, and it’s finally starting to pay off.

“It feels like there’s a renaissance in the Black folk scene,” he says.

Harrington kind of does it all. He can strum, he can pick, he can rap, he can spin. In the past few years, he’s released both an EP and an album and played a bunch of local shows, including a concert at the Magnolia House. In 2020, he received a OneBeat Accelerator Fund to boost his nonprofit, Haus of Lacks, a multicultural artist collective. The following year, he organized a set for the NC Folk Festival titled “Rap is Folk,” a message that has become inextricably intertwined with his musical ideology.

“Rappers are the grios of modern society,” Harrington says. “Oral traditions are really important, and rap is just a really cool twist on an oral tradition.”

Justin Harrington, aka Demeanor (photo by Alexia Webster)

And as busy as he has been, 2022 may have been Harrington’s biggest year of growth. During the summer, he spent three weeks in South Africa to shoot a season of “Underground Everywhere,” a documentary-type show in which artists collaborate to make a new record from scratch. Then, just a few months later, Harrington was asked by folk artist Jake Blount to rap on his new album, The New Faith.

“[Blount] was with my aunt, and they were driving in a car,” Harrington says. “She was playing records that I had played on, and he said he wanted a rapper on the album.”

Harrington’s no stranger to the music industry. His aunt, Rhiannon Giddens, is one of the most accomplished musicians to have emerged from this little corner of the country. And when Harrington heard the afro-futuristic concept for Blount’s album, he felt it was serendipitous.

“It’s this idea that at the end of the world, there’s no more technology and all that’s leftover is folk music,” he says.

Of the 12 songs on the album, Harrington is featured on three. And that led him to be invited by Blount to perform on an NPR Tiny Desk concert in December.

“A week out, he asked me, ‘Can you be in DC on Dec. 7,’ and I just kissed my girlfriend, hopped on a train and did the Tiny Desk with him,” Harrington says.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Jake Blount (@jake.m.blount)

That was a moment that Harrington says was a culmination of the passion he has held for Black folk music for years.

“It’s one thing to be on a Tiny Desk in general, but doing it while making rap music with an upright bass, banjo and fiddle — it’s everything I work for,” Harrington says. “This community is just getting stronger and stronger every year.”

This year, Harrington is refocusing his efforts to create his own music. His album, titled Inhale, will be the first of a trio and is set to drop in March at the Fort Worth African American Roots Festival. It’s what Harrington calls “the most Demeanor record that has ever come out.”

Using banjo, synth and rap, Harrington says Inhale will offer a “colorful palette of sounds.”

The first single comes out later this month and will be performed by Harrington at the Flat Iron on Jan. 25.

“I think that for a while, I’ve been beating around the bush of the legacy that I want to leave behind,” he says. “I’m balancing between two worlds — folk and rap. I don’t care about genre at all; the only thing I care about is culture.”

Demeanor performs at the 2021 NC Folk Festival

The reason why the two musical traditions work, Harrington says, is because they are both rooted in storytelling.

“The point that I’m going for is the subtext behind these genres,” he says. “I think there is a shared history about people who fight back.”

In the new album, Harrington combines banjo, upright bass and traditional folk combinations with 808 lines and Arabic scales. He makes the argument that these seemingly dissimilar, disparate sounds are actually interconnected, which is the message of the album as a whole.

“I want to use it to inspire people,” he says. “It’s not a self-serving mission. It’s about being a part of something, about being a part of a global community that we all share.”

Follow Harrington on social media at @demxmusic on Instagram and Demeanor on streaming platforms. The first single from Inhale drops Jan. 25 on streaming platforms.

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

⚡ Join The Society ⚡