Greensboro rapper brings banjo to hip-hop
Greensboro rapper and musician Justin Harrington is highlighting some musical connections and extending a cultural legacy. Harrington, who performs and records under the name Demeanor, is releasing O Henry, a record that fuses elements of traditional string music, in the form of clawhammer banjo, with the beats and style of hip-hop. It’s not quite “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” meets “The Funky Drummer,” but something like that.
I spoke with Harrington by phone earlier this week. Demeanor will perform a free album-release show at Sternberger Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College in Greensboro on Friday, Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m.
As is becoming more and more commonly known and understood, the banjo is likely the descendant of a whole family West African lutes brought to America by enslaved Africans in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. American musicians like banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck have explored this connection, traveling to West Africa and collaborating with musicians who play instruments like the ngoni, highlighting the similarities in timbre and technique between the two traditions and continuing the musical dialogue between the Americas and Africa.
Harrington is part of a musical family with deep ties to the region. His aunt and banjo teacher, the Greensboro-based musician and singer Rhiannon Giddens, has been instrumental in driving home the connection between African-American string-band music and the styles that became known as old-time and bluegrass music.
The interplay between African music and American music has been going on for centuries. Most of what we call American music is, in fact, African-American music, on some level. The influence of African aesthetics on American music is so pervasive as to almost be easy to overlook: syncopation, call-and-response, high-contrast accents, and polyrhythms. Those qualities define a lot of American music, and American music has been exported around the world.
Harrington has been raised in both traditions. As he says on one of the many interview-style spoken-word snippets throughout the record, “I’d always listen to hip-hop because I am hip-hop, I guess. You know what I mean? Black boy in the South with an attitude.”
He’s hip-hop, but he’s also old-time, having traveled around the region attending banjo festivals and string band jams. His aunt started teaching him banjo when he was 12 or so. As a banjo player, Harrington zeros in on the insistent and strong offbeat stresses in the music, a quality that is often transferred to the vocal phrasing in hip-hop.
Harrington spent much of 2017 traveling the world performing with Giddens on her Freedom Highway tour.
It was that experience that gave Harrington, 20, the drive to pursue his latest project. Faced with an audience that was predominantly white and predominantly over 30, Harrington started thinking that he wanted to find a way to help further cross-pollinate the worlds of hip-hop and roots music.
“Rap is folk music,” Harrington said.
Protest is one link between the two worlds. The fight against political oppression and pervasive racism were central to the music of proto-rappers such as the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. Police brutality has been a subject of outrage for rappers going back to Public Enemy and extending up to the present.
Harrington enters into the territory, rapping about the student loan debt, racism, mental health, and the ways that black identity gets commodified, mass-produced, simplified and fed back to the culture at large in a hall-of-mirrors effect. The record was made with the help of Gabriel Clausen, who teaches sound design at Guilford College and elsewhere. And much of the musical backdrop is built around looped banjo lines (played by Harrington) set against booming beats. As a rapper, he’s eager to challenge received wisdom about who young people are and who they’re supposed to be.
“There’s a bunch of battles to fight,” he said.
Confrontations may be unavoidable, but one of the things Harrington seems interested in tweaking just a little bit is the degree to which hip-hop can be seen to radiate aggression and ego. Those might be necessary elements of a vibrant and vital youth culture, especially one that is sometimes invested in defining itself in opposition to popular notions of stability and comfort. But Harrington thinks a little self-love and communal vision is as radical a proposition for young people these days as swagger and exaggerated expressions of masculinity.
Harrington’s music doesn’t obviously fit into the mold of the dominant regional styles in contemporary hip-hop pop. It could challenge the ears of his peers. With tempos and textures that drift away from the twitchy pleasures of trap, Harrington’s record might require a little more focus.
“It wasn’t my purpose to make party music,” he said.
Speaking of the tendency of hit artists to make beats that deliver a quick, visceral body appeal, Harrington says this: “Our attention span is completely shot at this point.”
Harrington attended Weaver Academy in Greensboro as an acting student, and his work as an actor has shaped his development as an artist. “I love the craft of acting, the manifestation of human experience,” he said.
Taking that comfort with the stage, Harrington will blend banjo and hip-hop with a live audience for the first time when he performs at Guilford College. He also hopes to flesh out some of the spoken-word sections of the album, sprinkle in the style of a one-man show that touches on the history of minstrelsy in America and the role that cultural production plays in our own identities. Rather than viewing his performances as an educational tool, Harrington wants to latch onto aspects of music and culture and heritage that move him, in hopes of sparking a similar feeling in others, so that each little flash of connection resonates out in the world.
“There’s so much history,” he said. “There are so many conversations to have.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.