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Meet a Musician: Justin Harrington, aka Demeanor, uses his banjo to combine hip-hop and folk music

Meet a Musician: Justin Harrington, aka Demeanor, uses his banjo to combine hip-hop and folk music

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Justin Harrington, aka Demeanor, doesn’t claim to be an expert on what goes into crafting a good banjo. But he can describe in detail what he wants in an instrument.

“For me, I love a really lightweight minimalistic wood frame, like a light ash wood,” he said. “With metal pegs, nickel wound strings that have a nice pluck to them, but aren’t too intense.”

An alum of Greensboro’s Weaver Academy, and nephew of Grammy Award-winning Americana artist Rhiannon Giddens, Harrington combines hip-hop, which he sees as a form of folk music, with influences from other types of folk music. He played a virtual performance during the N.C. Folk Festival two weeks ago, has a movie lined up, and recently helped form an artist collective to create links between protesters and lawmakers.

In an interview he spoke about how he took up the banjo, people’s reactions to his music and a run-in with Faith Hill.

What got you into music?

My background is as an actor. I went to the performing arts school at Weaver Academy. I’ve been doing professional theater since I was 8 and did my first year of college at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music as an acting major. But, after my first year at the conservatory, I realized I didn’t really like the acting business. So I left school and had the opportunity to go on tour with my aunt. I did that all of 2017. And ever since then, I’ve been a full time musical artist.

But, I started playing the fiddle when I was super-young, just because my aunt was doing it, and I thought it was cool. I didn’t like it, though, and I started playing the bones, an old Irish instrument. Then, about five or six years ago, because I was going to all these different old-time jams and concerts, I asked my aunt to teach me how to play the banjo.

And, as far as rapping, I just grew up with a real passion for hip-hop. My dad used to play all these classic records from back in the day, so I started rapping, I think my senior year of high school.

Who are some of your inspirations?

Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino are guys that are really unapologetic in their merging of genre. They’ve never really accepted the box that they were put into, and they experiment with music.

How would you describe your music?

I would definitely describe it as hip-hop. But, I don’t see a difference between hip-hop and folk music. If folk music just means “music of the people,” then I would argue that hip-hop is some of the coolest folk music to ever exist. So, in my music I try to bring in elements of lots of other folk music to kind of paint the picture that there’s a common denominator that links us all, from Egyptian folk music to Colombian folk music to Southern American folk music to Irish folk music. I kind of want to bring everything together.

What are some of the commonalities that are often overlooked between hip-hop and other types of folk music?

When you’re outside of rap, all you may really know is what’s on the radio, but that doesn’t really represent all of hip-hop.

Hip-hop is a place for storytelling, and a place for poetry. It’s coded messaging about trying to overcome oppression, same as in a lot of folk tunes.

I think one of the commonalities also is that it’s not music that you go to Julliard to learn. It’s music that you play to the rhythm of your heartbeat. It’s music that was handed down from your great-great-grandparents. It’s music they were playing 200 years ago, and you’re trying to find a new voice in it.

What is your creative process like?

I’m one of those people who try not to force a song. If I have something in the back of my head, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, I’ll leave it alone, I’ll let it be. I like to respond to inspiration rather than to try to force inspiration.

It’s changed a bit, though, since I’ve started producing a lot of my own records and records for other people. I’m a lot more hands-on when it comes to the music. So, now it kind of starts with me messing around on the piano, guitar and the banjo. I try to come up with some chord progressions, and I’ll make an instrumental. Then, I’ll put my headphones on, and the way that I love to write is to just walk around my neighborhood — there’s a really nice path through this little break in the trees near my house — and walk up and down for a couple of hours and just write everything that comes into my mind. I’ve built a studio, and I’ll go in and just make it happen.

If you could open a show for any artist, who would it be and why?

There’s this artist out of Chicago, Vic Mensa, he’s a rapper. I’ve been such a die-hard fan of his since I was little. It would mean a lot to me to share the same stage as him, but honestly I think it would just be an excuse to sit in the green room and pick his mind about lyricism. I would just love to talk with the guy.

Do you sing karaoke or sing in the shower, and, if so, what do you sing?

I definitely sing in the shower. I used to listen to New Edition and the old Bobby Brown records from the '80s and '90s, and I would just close my eyes and sing along.

What’s the funniest or weirdest thing that has happened at one of your shows?

I was on tour with my aunt, and I think she was opening up for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and when we got to one of the first stadiums, I was super lost looking for a bathroom. I was going up to this door and pushed it open real quick, and just heard an “Oohh!” from the other side, like I had hit this lady. I was like, “Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry.” And I kept walking around. It turns out that I allegedly hit Faith Hill with that door, which is really embarrassing.

What’s your favorite song to perform?

A song called “Entrega,” which I wrote with a couple of people from Egypt and Nepal and Tuva, Russia. I was part of this program called OneBeat, where we brought in all these artists from different parts of the world, and we created music for two weeks, then went on tour.

So I wrote a song with them called “Entrega.” To this day, I’ll perform it, even though they’ve all gone back to their respective countries. I’ll keep the same structure of the record and pull in other musicians.

I like it, because for a lot of people it’s the first time they’ve ever seen someone rap and play banjo at the same time. I’m also using this Egyptian scale, and I think that’s something you’re not going to be able to find many other places. I always like the look on people’s faces, because they’re like, “Whaaat?”

Can you tell me about the movie you have coming up?

It’s a really cool film called “Mothman” (made by Adynaton Productions, a local company founded by UNCG students). I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a campy superhero flick, which I think is going to be really funny. We start shooting in October, and I’m really excited about it.

What’s next for you?

I’ve recently started a nonprofit called Haus of Lacks. We are an artist advocacy platform, where we’re working to provide equity and accessibility for people through the performing arts. We want to bridge the gap between protesting and substantive change.

And I’m just trying to figure out the best way to drop a couple of albums that I’m sitting on right now.

So, a lot of music and movies and paperwork is in my future.

— As told to Robert C. Lopez,

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