In North Carolina, Musicians Face Off Against HB2

May 6, 2016
Originally published on May 6, 2016 6:04 pm

On a recent Monday night in Carrboro, N.C., local music venue Cat's Cradle is packed. The room has the makings of most clubs: a stage, a soundboard, a bar and a merch stand, but taped above the gender plaques on the bathroom doors are signs that read, in uppercase, rainbow-colored letters, "We are an inclusive venue. No proof required." Signs like these can be found by bathrooms or in storefronts of local businesses across the region.

"We're in an area that's sort of left of center," says Frank Heath, who has owned Cat's Cradle for 30 years. "Around here, it's kind of odd to think that you would be walking into a place that didn't have an 'Everybody's Welcome' sign or mentality."

The signs are a direct response to North Carolina's infamous House Bill 2, which Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law at the end of March during a special legislative session. Widely known as the "bathroom bill" because it bans individuals from using multiple-occupancy public restrooms that do not correspond to their "biological sex," the law also impacts the sovereignty of local governments. It limits the ability of cities to establish their own anti-discrimination ordinances and supersedes policies adopted by a local governing body that relate to compensation of employees.

In a letter to McCrory on Wednesday, the Justice Department said HB2 violates the Civil Rights Act and gave state officials until Monday to respond to the situation "by confirming that the State will not comply with or implement HB2."

The ultimatum arrives after weeks of controversy that has shaken big business and the arts alike. In opposition to HB2, Bruce Springsteen canceled his show in Greensboro, N.C., bringing the issue to the national forefront and sparking a debate about the efficacy of musical boycotts. Since Springsteen released his statement, there's been a concentrated focus on musicians with upcoming shows in North Carolina. Will they boycott? What type of statement will they make, if they make one at all?

And so there's a sense of anticipation brewing among the crowd at Cat's Cradle on that Monday night. The show's headliner, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, is winding down its set, and frontwoman Thao Nguyen hasn't engaged in much stage banter.

"It's a dilemma for anyone associated with music," says Diana Straughan, co-manager of Cat's Cradle. "There's a lot of groups fighting in the trenches, you know, to oppose House Bill 2. And what is the right way to go about that? So I think the idea is to make bands and folks in music as comfortable as they can be in their decision but also feel that they're making a positive impact."

Nguyen chooses to make her statement during the closer.

"This song is dedicated to those of you fighting HB2. We stand with you," she announces before the band launches into "Meticulous Bird," a song from the band's latest record that demands reclamation in the wake of abuses of power. Nguyen brandishes a sense of aggression uncharacteristic of her otherwise laid-back performance style. She prowls across the stage and knocks the mic stand to the floor as she howls, "I take my body back," at the song's pinnacle. The crowd erupts.

Nguyen's powerful declaration is one of the many ways that musicians use their platform for advocacy. In line with Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Pearl Jam, Boston, Ani DiFranco, Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas have all canceled their concerts in North Carolina. DiFranco was slated to play the Festival for the Eno in Durham, which benefits the preservation of the Eno River Basin. While she stands by the festival's mission, she says didn't feel she could play in North Carolina in good conscience. Inspired by the corporate responses to HB2, she decided to align herself with the boycott to apply economic pressure to North Carolina's government.

"I talked to the Eno River Festival about my decision to cancel my appearance and participate in a boycott, fully ready and expecting to be charged by them for backing out of our contract," she writes in an email to NPR. "But instead they waived their right for compensation from me in support of a boycott as well."

North Carolina-based musicians who have fewer options when it comes to canceling shows have found their own ways to show disapproval of the bill. For 16 years, bluegrass group Chatham County Line has hung the North Carolina flag onstage during its performances as a beacon of state pride. But following HB2's passage, the group removed the flag from its stage setup.

"We really felt like North Carolina was misrepresenting its true inhabitants in a lot of ways," says guitarist Dave Wilson. "We try not to be too political and so it was a very hard choice to make this stance because I really do feel like music is to entertain and it's to make people happy and get them to tap their feet and forget about their troubles ... but it's just so obvious that HB2 is wrong."

Touring heavyweights like Gregg Allman and Jimmy Buffet released statements condemning the bill but opted not to cancel their scheduled shows in North Carolina. Going a step further, artists like Mumford and Sons, Duran Duran, Brandi Carlile, Father John Misty and Cyndi Lauper also decided to keep their dates in North Carolina, donating proceeds to area LGBT nonprofits.

Perhaps the biggest will-they-or-won't-they came this week when music's other Boss, Beyonce, was scheduled to play in Raleigh. Fresh off of her stunning surprise album Lemonade, the star performed in North Carolina and released a statement on her website urging fans to support Equality NC, an LGBT-rights group.

When looking to donate the proceeds of their shows, British bands Duran Duran and Mumford and Sons also found Equality NC with the help of an organization called North Carolina Needs You. Formed by husband/wife duo Grayson Haver Currin and Tina Haver Currin of Raleigh, North Carolina Needs You's mission is twofold: to persuade touring musicians to keep playing in North Carolina and to connect them to local organizations that are working to combat HB2.

"Concerts are chances for people to interact and for ideas to be exchanged — especially in the rural South, I think that's essential," Grayson says. "I grew up in an environment that was rural and going to concerts was huge for me, so I think the chance to have that as a kid is really important."

Grayson's experience identifies a hard truth about the value of music. Music's strength lies in its ability to be a chameleon of sorts — it can make you jump for joy just as easily as it can bring you to your knees. But in either case, it opens up a dialogue. Whether it's a song about love, loss, heartbreak or injustice — it's a challenge to think critically about what's happening to you or to the world around you.

"People look to the arts and music specifically for how to feel about things," Tina says. "They listen to music to understand issues and to learn and ultimately to find thoughtful guidance."

So where does that leave musicians when doing their work conflicts with their beliefs? What message do they communicate when they have a scheduled performance in a state that has just passed a law like HB2, for instance?

"This is a fundamental concern about how we live and how we treat each other," Grayson says. "Whether they can barely scrape by to pay rent because they're touring in a band in tiny clubs or if they're Bruce Springsteen, they're still people who have to make moral decisions about their lives."

It's something that members of Mipso, a string band formed in Chapel Hill, have grappled with.

"I've been sad and conflicted about what it means for my identity that this could happen in the place that I call home," says mandolin player Jacob Sharp. "Though I have a lot of issues with this law and how it was enacted, I'm still proud to be a North Carolinian and I think it's important that I'm there. So the shows go on."

While Sharp believes his band's presence on the ground is important, he understands that there are different ways to advocate.

"I wouldn't hold anybody, any other artist, accountable for speaking or not speaking or deciding to cancel a show or not. I think there's lots of great reasons to do either," Sharp says. "And so I hope that people just feel comfortable in their own skin, which is a lot of what HB2 is about, right, is letting people be comfortable and feel welcome."

And even when artists arrive at the same decision — that the show must go on — they take different avenues to get there.

"You have to find the balance of figuring out how can I be effective? How can I use my platform for good, you know, without jeopardizing everything so that I don't have that platform anymore," says folk musician Rhiannon Giddens. "You have to choose your battles. You have limited time with people, you know, and I'm not a politician, I'm not a speechmaker, I'm not a wonk, I'm not any of those things."

Already known in part for her activism, Giddens chose this battle. Because she's a native of the state and because she finds the bill "breathtakingly unbelievable," she kept her three scheduled North Carolina performances and provided a statement across her social media accounts.

Kym Register, who owns an LGBT-friendly venue in Durham called The Pinhook, believes that every performance by a musician should be a political act.

"I think it's actually a duty," Register says. "I think you have a platform and you need to use it because people need your help that don't have a voice."

The members of queer-identified rock duo PWR BTTM say being queer and living your own truth in public is a political act in itself. When it comes to HB2, they cite Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace's stance on visibility, stressing that it's more important than ever for transgender and queer artists to play in North Carolina.

"These laws are made by people who don't understand what it's like to be queer. You don't understand what it's like to be gender nonconforming. You don't understand what it's like to be trans," says PWR BTTM's Liv Bruce. "And when that is your lived experience, if you can write about it in a way that helps someone else understand what it's like to be you and to feel the way you feel then that's a miniature riot."

Although artists take on different forms of activism, there is a general consensus in the music community about what needs to be accomplished here: education and unity.

"I try to strive for how we can come together over this," says Giddens. "It takes a willingness to learn. If we don't take the opportunity that this presents, then it's our fault. At some point you have to take responsibility for who you are and where you are and being able to listen to other points of view, whichever side of the tracks you're on."

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