I’ve been wanting to interview Justin Harrington, aka Demeanor, for awhile now after I saw him perform at the Newport Folk Festival in 2021. To my surprise, they had announced they were having a rapper perform on the main stage of all places… as many people had gotten up from their chairs & blankets because they thought it was a good time to roam the grounds, I was able to move up closer to the stage & witness one of the most refreshing new acts to add to my discoveries that year. Here is my interview with Demeanor.
Q: I first saw you perform in 2021 at The Newport Folk Festival. So many legendary artists have graced that stage, talk about that experience for you and the fact you were on the “main stage”, it takes some artists years to get to there.
A: It felt like a dream honestly, going in, I figured I’d be on one of the smaller stages. When I arrived and the golf carts brought me to the main stage, it felt surreal. I had performed on that stage with my aunt some years prior so it felt like a beautiful full circle moment. Plus, I was able to bring out dear friends to perform with me, it was really important that I was able to share the experience with them. Newport is such an iconic festival, and to be the first to do an all hip hop set is something I will always cherish. Rap is folk! That felt like the first time I was able to show that side of my mission.
Q: You have musical talent in your blood, your aunt Rhiannon Giddens, the incredibly talented singer/songwriter & composer. Did you realize you wanted to be in the music industry at a young age? When did you first pick up the banjo?
A: Growing up, I wanted to be an actor. I went to a performing arts high school and went to Cincinnati College of Conservatory Music as an acting major my freshmen year of college. I started writing rap verses my senior year of high school just for fun. I had always been interested in music as a passion, yet never really saw myself as a professional music artist, I just knew I wanted to perform. Always a heavy fan of hip hop, once my aunt started teaching me how to play the banjo, certain rhythms and messages started to click for me. I dropped out of school, have been recording or performing everyday since and have never looked back. I started a non-profit with a few colleagues and now we’re working to empower the artist community to make it more feasible to others to create their own path.
Q: Growing up in North Carolina, you can find string band music almost around every corner. But a lot of people don’t realize that bluegrass originally came from African American string band music and sort of evolved or intertwined into stomp & holler/bluegrass. Give us a little history on the two genres and the connection between the two.
A: Growing up it was actually a rarity to ever hear or see an actual string band, especially composed of musicians of color. Greensboro is a college town, most of the shows and performances that I was exposed to were country bar gigs, punk house shows, open mics, hip hop shows and jazz nights on campus. Although we have a North Carolina Folk Fest at home here, I didn’t get to see any string band performances aside from my aunt. I didn’t even see people playing banjos. I’ve heard some bluegrass acts that come through every once in awhile, but I was never really a part of bluegrass culture. The old time music I was brought up with is made up of traditional Black/American banjo/fiddle music that was passed down from folks of color who were playing contradances and square dances for both black and white audiences. Both bluegrass and old time are pretty rooted in Blackface minstrelsy and in my experience one of the key differences between the two is that old time players seem to feel more of a responsibility to speak on that history. In old time, you don’t really get banjo solos like you do in Bluegrass, most people would be playing claw hammer style. Banjos are also built differently, bluegrass banjos have a big resonator around the head, old time banjos are a bit simpler in build. They are of two different sides of the same coin, of a traditional Black American music legacy. However…..ask black musicians which space feels safer for them.. Which is not to cast a net on all of the people in bluegrass, I personally have a good relationship with and much respect for Ganstagrass, Bela Fleck is a legend, and I’ve had incredible experiences with players at festivals of all kinds. but it’s important to speak about that reality. Especially when on another side of that coin – Country – you see unbelievably talented women of color who have been trailblazing for years – fighting constantly simply to be included, respected, and protected. A sad reality of the larger culture which is inclusive of all of us. We are all a part of This American history. It’s looking up though… Shout-out to Jake Blount, Rissi Palmer, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah, Kaia Kater, Brandi Pace and everyone who’s making these spaces more vibrant every day.
Q: Three words…. Tiny Desk Concert…. How amazing was that? Who else did you perform with? When will it be available for viewing?
A: It was the most nerve wracking thing I’ve ever done, partly because (love you Jake) I forget the words every single time we rehearsed. I thought I was going to wreck it lol. Plus this was the first time I ever actually met Jake in person, so it was a great show of faith for him to bring me out to do this tiny desk, I was so nervous that I was going to blow it. If he was concerned as I was, he sure didn’t show it. He just said, “I trust you” and on the day of filming everything went almost perfectly. It was absolutely incredible to be able to play with such a killer dream team of folks. And Jake should get his flowers because he does a lot of this stuff by himself, his band is phenomenal, but it’s so much work to also run the business side. I’m just glad to be a part of history lol, I’m sure that’s the first time anyone has rapped over a banjo on a tiny desk, a recurring theme in my career. It’s available right now on the Tiny Desk pages.
Q: Have you and Jake ever collaborated on any music together?
A: Yeah, I’m featured on a couple of his songs on his album, “The New Faith”, which is taking the world by storm right now. You should go check it out!
Q: Talk about your latest singles, “Like A Drug” and “Now and Again”. What are these songs about?
A: I’ve been spending a lot of time working on a pretty intimate and serious album. I feel a lot of pressure when it comes to the music I put out, so I’ve been sitting on it for a long time. Merging genre and exploring identity and figuring out ways to contribute to the culture in the best way that I can. I’m also 24 and I just want to have fun at the same time. I got together with a few good friends of mine, The Beat Monopoly and Chris Meadows, and we made this project, “Like A Drug”. I spent hours and hours in the studio with The Beat Monopoly trying to find my sound in the contemporary hip/pop space and I think we came up with a really colorful and fun project which is killer live. Now and Again was an attempt to merge my love for the pop punk bands I used to do the house show circuit with and the sounds of modern rap. Like A Drug is just my summertime love jam. Kind of like Sandy and Danny from “Grease” when they had their time at the beach, but this time it’s 2023 and the beach is in Greensboro lol.
Q: Life changing moments for you , I’m going to assume, was being able to travel to S Africa to work on a project and record music. Just the cultural and historical experiences must have been overwhelming to be a part of…how did that trip change you for the better?
A: I have too many lessons to know where to begin with my trip to South Africa. What I will say is that what started as a journey to explore similarities or differences between the Black American struggle for equality and the South African struggle for liberation became an unprecedented exploration of sound and identity and cultural empowerment and I can’t wait to share the documentary we made with the world.
Q: What do you like to do when not performing music?
A: If I’m not performing, I’m in the studio. If I’m not in the studio, I’m watching Avatar: The Last Airbender with my girlfriend.
Q: Is there any musician alive or dead, that has influenced you in a way, that you’ve tried to emulate their style, values or overall way of life?
A: Childish Gambino. Multi-disciplinary, genre bending, truth teller, writer, thinker, legend. Royce Da 5’9”, Kendrick, Cole, Chance, Vic all had impact on me but none stronger than Gambino. I hope once can hear that in my music.
Q: What is Demeanor working on now?
A: Right now, I just dropped a new single, All For Me, which is the lead single off my next album. It’s the first song I’ve ever put out that really sounds like me. Authentically Demeanor. I produced it, mixed it, wrote it and collaborated with my amazing friends to execute it. Everyone should go listen to it right now!
Q: Where can fans find your music?
A: I’m on all DSP’s, and I am the most active on Instagram @demxmusic
This was was one of the most interesting interviews I have done.. such great answers.. please go and listen to his music; superbly talented!!
I have a couple of interviews coming out soon. 12 Parsecs Band from Australia, Christian James Koch, recently featured in The NY Times and singer/songwriter from India, Jordan Johnson.
Thanks to everyone who takes the time to read these interviews.. my hope is to bring more recognition to indie artists who aren’t being noticed as much but with your help by streaming their music, reposting on your social media and buying their merch, that can change.
Until then, I’m Your Music Stylist.