With the notable exception of Lara Americo, a transgender singer-songwriter accompanied by an electric guitar, the A-list lineup of the Stand Against HB2 concert to raise money for Equality North Carolina at the Millennium Center in Winston-Salem on Sunday seemed to be heavily weighted towards allies.
Americo spoke briefly and performed one song during a changeover between two of the 32 acts crammed into the 14-hour benefit to raise money for Equality North Carolina. Her song directly addressed her experience of being transgender; she confessed during her introduction of the song: “Sometimes I wish I could turn into vapor, and rain down on your head, I guess.”
In a testimonial after the song, Americo said, “I’ve spent 29 years of my life pretending to be a guy. I didn’t realize there were people who weren’t trying to hurt me or marginalize me. So thank you.”
“You’re beautiful,” a woman shouted from the audience.
“I hope to get a hug from each and every one of you today,” Americo said.
The moment captured the feeling of gentle affirmation and community among musicians and volunteers, coupled with determination and anger directed at the politicians who rammed through the hateful HB2 legislation.
As a counterbalance to the allies-stacked lineup, the organizers of the benefit deserve credit for interspersing the sets with remarks by trans people, including Dr. Laura Levin, a pediatrician in Concord, who called out “a direct connection between the violence in Orlando and the hate that is spewed by our administration,” and Rylen Givens, who provided a brief history lesson including references to Christine Jorgensen, the first trans person to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and the role of trans people in the Stonewall rebellion.
To be sure, there were some notable exceptions to the normative whiteness and rock-pop-country spectrum, including a hip-hop set by High Point’s Tange Lomax; the ethereal guitar-keyboards mash-up of Foxture, a majority black group that defies musical category; and the mindblowing jazz-funk stew of the Camel City Collective. Molly McGinn and Quilla, whose collaboration fuses Americana and electronic dance music, perhaps came closest to an artistic statement that captures the political ramifications of the state’s aggression towards transgender people. While the McGinn-penned “Wild and Kind” is nominally about environmental despoliation, the song is imbued with an insistence on humanity, liberation and dignity, and is anchored by a beat that pulses with quiet strength.
Within the limitations of the lineup, the more mainstream artists grappled often movingly and sometimes painfully with the implications of their privilege.
The musicians, producers and promoters who have built the North Carolina music scene over the past four decades, largely in the state’s liberal cities and university towns have in a sense carved out an autonomous cultural space. Many of them enjoyed the luxury of remaining largely apolitical, with a series of moderate governors and legislatures keeping the worst demons of bigotry at bay and promoting at least the illusion of an enlightened culture. But the 2012 election, which gave Republicans a complete lock on state government and elevated a hard-right legislative leadership, forced many musicians off the sidelines with the enactment of an agenda that has bombarded the state with onerous policies, from punishing the poor to suppressing black voters and demonizing LGBTQ people.
The paradox is captured most succinctly in a song by Snüzz, a Fayetteville native whose birth name is Britt Uzzell, in a song that has become an anthem of the Moral Monday movement with the rueful refrain, “I grew up here so I’ll confess we weren’t always at our best, but North Carolina, we’re better than this.”
Snüzz, who has been in poor health recently, was not able to attend the concert, but his song was performed twice — first in a rousing Americana rendition led by singer-songwriter Kenny Roby and fiddler Caitlyn Cary, and then during a reunion of Snüzz’s old band Bus Stop, with former Athenaeum frontman Mark Kano filling in with a spirited vocal delivery.
Many of the artists pushed beyond the confines of identity and format to promote empathy with a numerically small and politically demonized group whose vulnerability they’re unlikely to have experienced firsthand.
John Howie Jr., a Triangle artist known as a honky-tonk purist, talked about learning values of inclusion and acceptance from his parents while growing up amidst blatant racism in Wake County. He applied his rich baritone and dexterous guitar fingerpicking to an affecting rendition of Billie Holliday’s “Don’t Explain.”
“This is a song about not being treated well, like a lot of Billie Holliday’s music — and being resigned to it,” he said. “We don’t need to be resigned to it.”
Sarah Shook, ranked No. 1 in a recent Buzzfeed list of “5 Women Who Are Kicking Country Music’s Ass,” proved that culture and upbringing don’t have to be a prison, singing with spine-tingling conviction and only the accompaniment of her electric guitar: “All I knew was what I was taught/ So I had to teach myself/ I knew what I was taught was too small.”
Laurelyn Dossett, who waded into protest music in 2012 with her song “Vote Against Amendment One,” articulated the challenge of welding creativity to an activist agenda introducing another cut, “The River’s Lament.”
“People were saying, ‘Write the fracking song,’” she recalled. “Then, after the coal ash spill people were asking for a song about that. I didn’t really want to write a protest song. I was just sad about it.”
While the artists on the bill who are white, male, heterosexual and cisgender simply don’t have to endure the daily experience of discrimination that burdens trans people — all the more acutely if they’re poor and of color — official betrayal proved to be a pervasive theme, whether by treating young people as cannon fodder in misguided wars (Jeffrey Dean Foster’s “Young Tigers Disappear”) or by abandoning them afterwards (Peter Holsapple’s “Don’t Mention the War” and Howie’s cover of John Prine’s “Sam Stone”).
Holsapple played keyboards during longtime collaborator Chris Stamey’s set. The two Winston-Salem natives formed the dBs, a New York jangle-pop band whose heyday in the late ’70s and early ’80s is considered a bridge between Big Star and REM. The first Stand Against HB2 concert at the Haw River Ballroom in May occasioned a dBs reunion, but this time the honor went to Little Diesel, a band Holsapple formed in 1973 with his chums at RJ Reynolds High School.
Billed as Winston-Salem’s first punk rock band, Little Diesel was a reaction to the laidback boogie of Southern rock, with a repertoire that favored MC5 covers and bracing originals. The choice of opening their set with David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” perfectly transported their loyal audience — many of whom danced to the band’s music as teenagers in church basements and rec centers — back to the period while joyously celebrating gender queerness (“You’ve got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl/ Hey babe, your hair’s alright/ Hey babe, let’s go out tonight/ You like me, and I like it all/ We like dancing and we look divine).”
Some of the songs bore a wistful sense of time slipping away, while also looping cruelly back again in a replay of the country’s worst traits.
Imagining what it would be like to attend his high school reunion at Reynolds High School, Stamey sang, “Here’s where we went to class a hundred hours a day/ And here’s where we smoked grass and laughed our cares away.” And introducing “Condition Red,” a song he wrote for the Sneakers in 1976 that dealt with narrow definitions of patriotism, Stamey said, “Today, a lot of people are talking about keeping Muslims out and which bathroom you can use. It doesn’t feel like my country, but I do feel like it’s my country.”
Before performing “You Are Beautiful,” a song from last year’s Euphoria album, Stamey said he admired several close friends for their courage to realize their true gender identities.
“When you were younger, did you hide away, afraid to say the truth?” Stamey sang. “Now let the sun shine on your rainy day, the whole world waits for you.”