Justin ‘Demeanor’ Harrington on being honest and being heard
“Uh-oh, is he going to do that rap stuff?” said the silver-haired white lady in front of me when Justin Harrington joined his aunt Rhiannon Giddens on stage at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s 125th annual Founder’s Day concert in October 2017.
The young black man on my right had a different take.
“Why didn’t you tell me Demeanor was part of this?” he said to his date, referring to Harrington’s hip-hop handle. “His rhymes are tight!”
Afterward, both seemed impressed, albeit one more grudgingly than the other.
“Well, he does have a way with words,” said the woman in front of me, while the man on my right expressed admiration not just for Harrington’s rhymes, but his skill playing the bones.
“My grandpop used to do that with pig ribs, but never sounded near so good.”
Almost two years after Harrington performed with Giddens at UNCG, I sat down with him for an interview at Tate Street Coffee, where he talked at length about the challenges of playing banjo and bones at hip-hop shows and rapping in front of folkies. In our conversation, he had just as many questions for me as I had for him.
Harrington had become aware of the Marcus Smith case, something he would speak about during a performance at the Blind Tiger two weeks after I talked to him. He asked me how a journalist untangles one story from the web of other stories every person, and every story is connected to. (Here and elsewhere, I’ll save myself embarrassment by not including my stumbling answers to his incisive questions.)
Harrington said that writing his new album has been hard, because “there are so many stories, and to tell one specifically requires the context of other stories around it. So, how do I take 10 stories, and key points of those stories, and try to tell one story that feels bigger and feels accessible?”
“In something like your articles on Marcus Smith, you’re giving a space for one person to tell that story,” Harrington said. “You gather information, you bend to the medium, and you let somebody tell their story, even in the way that you’ve written it. And then you contextualize it with your other stuff.”
“But me, when I’m working on this music, I’m trying to figure out all of these voices, and how to let them all sit together in a musical space that’s pleasing to the ear, but lends itself to action, and not just people agreeing and being jaded,” he added.
He mentioned the 1969 siege of A&T when the National Guard invaded that campus and student bystander Willie Grimes was killed.
“When we students at A&T hear about something like that, it’s easy to just be sad, until someone says, OK, let’s get together and figure out what action we can take,” he said. “So, how does your journalism inspire people to do something about it, rather than just recognizing that it’s bad? And how do I, as an artist, inspire people to do something about things, rather than just agreeing with me?”
He said he’d thought a lot about the spaces, musical and otherwise, in which he performs, especially because music gets so compartmentalized.
“Do I try to get in these spaces that clearly I’m not celebrated in? I mean, now I am because rap has become pop music, and doors have opened, but 10 years ago, I would have had to decide: Do I create something to challenge that, or do I accept that it’s just reality? And I think that, in the political sphere, we all have to make a decision. Do we accept that this is just the reality, and maneuver accordingly?”
He talked about what he called the ”hoodie metaphor.”
“Do I have to avoid wearing a hoodie for the rest of my life, or I do choose to wear one and speak in a way that defies some people’s expectations of how a black man in a hoodie talks?”
From there, he moved to the subject of bridging the folk music of his famous aunt Giddens, whom he’s been performing with since he was very young, and the hip-hop he loves, too.
“In the past, I was either in the folk world or in the rap world. And when I was in folk world, I got weird looks when I talked about rapping, and when I was in rap world, I got weird looks when I talked about folk,” Harrington said. “I say this all the time, and suspect people are tired of hearing it, but I had to realize that, one, rap is folk, and that two, people don’t really know what they want until they see or hear it.”
He said that, for him, the most important thing in any medium is honesty.
“I think it’s the duty of every artist out there to be unapologetically honest in all of their music. And for all of the people who are willing, to be honest, to put their foot down and become players in this big chess game right now for the future of humanity. We have to be honest about the future, but how do we make honesty a trend? That’s why the honest people have to make more noise. The companies that run Instagram and Facebook algorithms, they’re only going to push what people are willing to like and tweet because the only currency that matters is data. Google, Facebook, Twitter, they’re all data miners.”
“So, if honest people start making more noise, and honest journalists keep doing what they’re doing, then those companies that only care about likes, tweets and subscriptions, they will have no choice but to go where the attention is because that’s where the money is. Instead of capitalism killing the planet like it’s doing, can we make capitalism sustain the planet?”
I told him I’d been very moved when I saw him perform with his mother, UNCG professor, singer, poet and activist Lalenja Harrington, at the concert Lalenja organized with her sister Rhiannon and friends Laurelyn Dossett, Molly McGinn, Charlie Hunter and Sinclair Palmer as a benefit for the Experiential School of Greensboro, held at the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant this last May.
He said the idea of performing with his mom started when she asked him to write a verse to the Oscar Brown Jr. song “Brown Baby,” famously performed by Nina Simone.
“I wasn’t as comfortable a year ago as I am now with putting rap into other genres of music, fitting my sound, which is relying upon hard snares and kicks and stuff, with noodling jazz. But then I started writing this album where I was combining rap and folk, and I wrote a verse for my mom on a song called ‘Not Just A,’” he explained. “Later on, when my mother was doing jazz night at the O. Henry [Hotel], she was planning to do ‘Brown Baby,’ so she asked me to do a verse. I decided to just speak the verse I wrote for her, and it worked really well. The crowd just kind of stopped existing, and it was just me and my mom.”
Harrington said it was different when they performed it together at the benefit concert in May.
“Onstage, with all of those amazing musicians, I knew that my mom was hearing and that they were hearing me, and was now more comfortable with everyone else hearing me,” he said. “So, in that particular rendition, I performed it less to my mother, and more to the crowd, so it was almost like doing a different song. It means a lot to us every time we do it, and changes according to the audience, but at the church, it really felt like people were hearing me, too.”
He described that as a rare experience for a self-described young black rapper, who likes to say things to make people uncomfortable. “It means a lot to know that my mom has my back when I’m honest and that I have her back when she’s honest. And in that room, it felt like everybody was ready, to be honest.”
I asked him about O Henry, his second album, released at the beginning of 2019.
“That was a combination of my singular experience in growing up, going to contra dances with my aunt Rhiannon, going on tour with her, playing banjo with her, the influences I received through her. I did my own research in terms of new songs and stuff like that, but that’s what I grew up playing, and that’s what I channeled into the album. And so, it was almost like taking something old and putting it with something that’s new. That’s how I view it in my head, taking this rap thing and pushing it back to the past, and taking the past and pulling it up to the future.”
But he said, after cutting that album, he realized something. “Folk isn’t behind us, old-time music isn’t behind us, racism isn’t behind us, honesty isn’t behind us, and so I guess I’ve been looking toward the future and the past at the same time.”
He said that he wasn’t sure what he could tell me about the album he’s working on now. “I will say this, I’m going to be making a project with some really great musicians who are all honest, and I’m going to be supremely honest about love, about acceptance and about reality. Looking toward love while knowing your reality, and the idea of, if not now, then when?”
He’s also working on a “musical collage called One Beat,” which he described as a residency and then tour with 24 other artists from all over the world. “From Nepal to Egypt to North Carolina to Russia. We’re meeting in Florida for a couple of weeks, and then we’re going to go on tour in the South, Florida to Georgia and a couple of places in between, and we’re going to be leading workshops for young people, we’re going to be performing this record, and I’m super honored to be part of it. So that’s taking up the rest of my year.”
Demeanor’s album O Henry is available on ReverbNation, Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify and SoundCloud. Follow him on Instagram @demxmusic and at his website, demeanormusic.com.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.