“Rap is one of the illest folk music that’s ever existed”: In conversation with 2019 OneBeat Alumnus, Justin Harrington

Found Sound Nation
Sep 11 · 10 min read

Found Sound Nation’s Nyokabi Kariuki talks to the first round recipients of OneBeat’s Accelerator Grant

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Justin at OneBeat, 2019 | Photograph by Alexia Webster

Justin Harrington (aka Demeanor), a 2019 OneBeat Fellow, is an MC, banjo and bones player from Greensboro, North Carolina. He will be using the Accelerator Grant to fund his non-profit initiative, Haus of Lacks, which aims to connect socially-engaged artists to develop + share strategies for using art and music creation to affect direct and actionable social change in their communities.

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Nyokabi: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but you’re a hip-hop artist, who plays the banjo. These are two sounds most people would never think to put together, but you don’t shy away from merging them in the music you create. Can you tell us about your musical journey and why you thought it was worth exploring the fusion of these two different sound worlds?

Justin: I grew up in North Carolina, where a banjo is not rare, right? And I grew up learning that it’s a ‘white’ thing, that it’s ‘white’ music. But when I was eight or nine I went to the Black Banjo Gathering, where I learned that the banjo is descended from instruments from West Africa, and then over the next couple years I learned more and more about the history of Black music in America; and how the enslaved Africans and the Irish exchanged a lot of fiddle and bones traditions, dance traditions, and how the music kind of evolved from there. My aunt, Rhiannon Giddens, used to play in two Black string bands, one called the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the other called Sankofa Strings. Sankofa (a word from the Akan tribe in Ghana) means ‘go back and get it’. It’s about looking back to where we come from and contextualizing it for ourselves. And so, I grew up playing the banjo and exploring all this Black music from a side of my culture that was hidden from me.

At school, all we’d be listening to was rap. I love hip hop, so I started rapping, and everybody was like, ‘yo, why don’t you like, play the banjo and rap at the same time?’ And I was like, these are two separate worlds, I don’t know if anybody’s ready for that. But I made an album called O Henry, where I fused 90s DJ Premier-style hip-hop production, with banjo samples. I learned that it’s not that folk is separate from rap; folk music just means music of the people. Rap is one of the illest folk music that’s ever existed. I’m very anti-genre and anti-colonialism in any way. So my journey has been exploring what it means to be a ‘folk’ artist, moving forward.

“I learned that it’s not that folk is separate from rap; folk music just means the music of the people. Rap is one of the illest folk music that’s ever existed.”

Nyokabi: On that note of Blackness and identity, given how the push towards racial justice has gained all this momentum in the past few months following the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks — what has all that meant to you, firstly as a Black man in the States, and as a Black artist? Has it affected the art you’ve been making recently in any way?

Justin: It’s kind of funny because all my life, I’ve considered myself an activist in a way where I was always using my platform to speak out against things that were happening, in the the way that I looked up to Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino and J. Cole, who always spoke out against injustice in their art. But I was never really that involved in social work before the past couple months now — it feels so fast. In September 2018 in Greensboro, Marcus Smith was killed by our police very similarly to how George Floyd was murdered. And back when this happened, I held a concert where I could teach people about what was going on, but nothing happened.

And then when George Floyd was murdered and the world turned up, those protests came to Greensboro and I went outside with masks and water and milk just to keep people safe. I didn’t really have an interest in being an organiser or a leader; but when I went out to the first couple of marches, it was my friends, other artists in Greensboro, Black women specifically, who were leading these marches, and I felt I had a responsibility to stand by them, and to stand in front of them. One of the main organisers, Virginia Holmes, had to step down for a couple days, and I kept going outside. One day I was just walking down the street, dropping off water at the different little underground havens throughout the city, and when I turned around, a crowd of people were following me with signs. I ended up leading marches for the next week, developing this huge platform in Greensboro surrounding the protests and social activism. That’s when I formed my nonprofit with our group. We held a protest music festival and got a lot of beautiful energy from it, and we decided that we wanted to keep going.

The protests haven’t affected my art, aside from the fact that I have new experiences, and new trauma, to draw from — it was very life or death a couple of times, so there hasn’t been that much time for me to really process everything. We’ll have to see in a year what the lyrics and the music is going to be like. For now, I’ve written a couple songs. I’ve got an album coming and everything, but, we’ll see how it affects the art. I’m sure I’ll be very angry.

Nyokabi: I think it’s really powerful that you looked behind you and just saw all these people following you.

Justin: Yeah. It’s kind of like the saying, either sh*t or get off the toilet, you know? I have to do something. There were a couple days where I was really hurt and my friends were all hurt; and we weren’t sure if we could go out the next day. But I had a bunch of people DM-ing me like, where do we go? What are we doing? Everybody wanted to go outside. So I just have to do my job.

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Image: Justin Harrington by Darius Brim

Nyokabi: The nonprofit you mention that started as a result of the protest music festival is Haus of Lacks, which is what you received the OneBeat Accelerator Grant for. Can you tell us about it? What’s the goal? And where’d the name ‘Haus of Lacks’ come from?

Justin: The name comes from a Black woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks. She was the first documented case of immortal cells: the science community calls them HeLa cells, and they used them for all this medical advancement, like the polio vaccine. She was never compensated, her family was never compensated, you know. They stole her body. So the name came to me based on the metaphor that the songs of our communities, the voices of our communities and the truths of our communities are these immortal cells. We use the German spelling ‘Haus’ to point out the fact that this is not just an American issue, it’s a human rights issue that we’re talking about.

Haus of Lacks is a platform for the expressing of our basic inalienable human right to culture — that’s a wordy way of saying we’re here to empower artists. We’re highlighting that artists have always been the truth-tellers, and are trying to bridge the gap between protesting and lawmaking through hosting events, putting out content. With the OneBeat Accelerator, specifically, we’re looking for support for one aspect of our programming, which is our musical recordings. As artistic director, I go to different cities (in theory, because obviously COVID-19 has kind of affected our plans), and find Black artists who want to use their voice, make an EP, which I’ll help produce. We’ll do that in five or six cities throughout the year. At the end of the year, we’ll compile two songs from each EP into an album which represents the soundscape of the social activist projects for that year, and then we’ll release them.

“The songs of our communities, the voices of our communities and the truths of our communities are these immortal cells.”

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Image: Justin Harrington by Darius Brim

Nyokabi: You mention going to cities ‘in theory’ because of the restrictions that have come with COVID-19. Has the pandemic affected your collaboration processes, both as Haus of Lacks, the nonprofit, and as Demeanor (the name that you release your solo projects on)? Are you approaching music creation in a new way, maybe?

Justin: The first event that we did as Haus of Lacks was a protest music festival called Black Elm Street (a main street in Greensboro is called Elm Street). We had Black artists in different places down the street, and one artist would perform, and then the next artist would perform, and then the next artists would perform, so that the crowd was marching down the street — it’s that symbolism of marching. We had masks available and all that stuff. Our original plan was to do these Black Elm Streets in every city, but then we realised we had an ethical responsibility to not put people’s lives in danger due to the coronavirus. So we’ve had to shift a lot of our programming online, and it’s working fine. It’ll be nice when we can see people’s smiles face to face. But honestly, because of Corona, we’ve been able to have harder discussions about what accessibility looks like, in terms of what happens when there are people that need this information that can’t just come to an event that we’re doing. So that’s how it’s impacted us in terms of immediate live events.

As far as Demeanor — it’s funny, I’ve actually gotten a lot of work since Corona started. I did a TEDx talk, then a set for the North Carolina Folk Music Festival, we live-streamed a couple concerts. It’s affected me because I always like to throw my own concert; I’m not a huge like venue-booking guy, just because I feel like they don’t ever really respect the music (it’s a personal thing). So I’m trying to do a concert the way that they do drive-in music theatres. We’re just having to be creative, and adapt.

Nyokabi: That’s a really great way of thinking about it. A lot of the time, really incredible art comes from situations that are, you know, sh*tty.

Justin: Yeah, especially Black art. This is what we live through, so the thing is, it’s really not that new to us.

Nyokabi: Exactly. The next thing I’m curious about is your experience as a OneBeat fellow, last year. What was it like, meeting and making music with all these people from everywhere? Have you taken anything from that experience into this year?

Justin: yeah 1,000%. In terms of how I’ve been gripping with my own identity of being a Black man from/in the American South, it was just seeing [other] Black men. There are all of these different shades of Blackness in the diaspora that I’d never previously had a chance to really talk to, like a dark-skinned Cuban man or an Algerian man with my skin tone. One of my best friends from OneBeat was Egyptian, and another was a rapper from South Africa, and we had some really phenomenal conversations.

And then, I’ve always been anti-genre; about putting unconventional things together in the first place. So going up and being able to play my banjo with this Mongolian lady playing an instrument that I’ve never seen before was absolutely incredible, and it shaped how I viewed the creation of music.

The thing about OneBeat is, I would’ve paid to do something like that. I would have paid to be exposed to all of these different artists and have a chance to create music and then go on the road with it. But they pay you to do that. As an artist, we are a commodity 99% of the time, and so for them to really empower us was really, really beautiful. And they’re all so sweet, and the home-cooked food, like I could go on forever about how awesome OneBeat was.

Nyokabi: Any projects coming up soon? You mentioned doing a Tedx Talk recently, as well as being part of the North Carolina Folk Music Festival.

Justin: Yeah, those will both be released in September. My talk at Tedx Greensboro — I don’t know what the title of the talk is going to be, but you’ll see some dude with a banjo and dreads and that’ll be me — and then I just performed a set for the folk festival. I’ve got an album coming out on my birthday, February 25, next year, but that’s so far ahead.

I mean, really, my project right now is Haus of Lacks. We’re really trying to get this off the ground, trying to draw in some funding for us to actually pull off what we want to pull off: curating exhibits for a couple of museums, doing podcasts and interviews and shooting videos. All of these things require so much time and so we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to eat.

Nyokabi: Best of luck with that. It seems like a really necessary and important project. Last question: what’s the last thing you listened to?

Justin: The last thing I listened to was…I mean, to be fair, I just recorded a new song last night, so I’ve been listening to myself today. But the last thing I listened to that was not me is called Compensating by Aminé. Phenomenal song, phenomenal rapper. Yeah, no, it’s incredible.

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Justin at OneBeat, 2019 | Photograph by Alexia Webster

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OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in collaboration with the groundbreaking New York-based music organization Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation that employs collaborative original music as a potent new form of cultural diplomacy.

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