In the wake of HB2, musicians are fighting discrimination through the North Carolina boycott as well as concerts to protest the discriminatory law. These socially conscious musicians join artists throughout history doing important cultural work.
In April 2016, the state of North Carolina passed HB2, a law that not only limits the rights of LGBT+ people in the workplace but also dictates that people use the bathroom of the gender listed on their birth certificate. This highly controversial move forces transgender people into potentially deadly situations. Transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, currently face some of the highest rates of deadly violence of anyone in the United States. Laws such as HB2 that force them into dangerous situations are likely to increase the violence they face.
Shortly after the law passed, musician Bruce Springsteen released a statement that he would be cancelling all shows in North Carolina in protest of the discriminatory laws. “To my mind,” he said in a statement released on Facebook, “it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress.”
The North Carolina boycott caught on quickly, with many artists cancelling concerts and other events. Other artists, such as Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, who came out as transgender in 2012, decided to play North Carolina but engage in acts of protest from within the state. Onstage in Durham, Grace called out, “Good-bye, gender!” while burning the birth certificate that listed her as male.
Many North Carolina–based musicians have banded together to create the Stand Against HB2 concert series, which will conclude November 6 at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina, and donates all proceeds to Equality North Carolina and their fight against HB2.
The concert organizer, Mike Allen, is a self-described “de facto activist” who for years has been organizing concerts to benefit animal rights in North Carolina. He became involved when a friend, Rod Abernathy, called him to discuss the cultural boycott. Allen believes that the North Carolina boycott is not the most productive method and devised the concert series in the wake of it. Allen believes that 99.9% of the artistic community of North Carolina opposes the law.
“I’m furious about this,” Allen said. “I want my state back. This was the most effective way to try to make a positive change. It does no good to rant and rave on social media, because the people in the capital don’t care.”
Equality North Carolina’s Ben Graumann is grateful for the series and the acts of protest by those engaged in the North Carolina boycott.
“The Stand Against HB2 concert series has been a wonderful grassroots-grown community event that features North Carolina artists who strongly believe that HB2 does not represent North Carolina values. The event raises awareness, brings the community together and raises vital funds for LGBT+ advocacy groups, like Equality NC, and direct service groups, such as QORDS [Queer Oriented Radical Days of Summer, an arts and social justice camp for LGBT+ youth]. Boycotting the state over HB2 sends a powerful message, and we are grateful for artists such as Bruce Springsteen who have used their influence to bring attention to this deeply discriminatory bill. However, we also encourage artists to come to North Carolina and use their concert as a means of raising awareness and voicing their opposition to HB2.”
As much as it has dominated the news, the North Carolina boycott is nothing new. Socially conscious artists have been engaging in forms of boycott and protest as long as repressive laws have existed. In 1961, Ray Charles was set to play Augusta’s Bell Auditorium when he learned the theater would be segregated. His refusal to play resulted in a breach-of-contract fine but brought more attention to the laws that created the situation. Twenty years before that, Billie Holiday engaged in her own early civil rights protest through artistry by singing “Strange Fruit” in one of New York City’s few integrated clubs.
In the ’80s, in the wake of the apartheid of South Africa, Steve Van Zandt organized the cultural boycott of Sun City. Artists who engaged in the boycott included Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Run DMC, Lou Reed and Joey Ramone. Similarly, hundreds of artists including Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Jean-Luc Godard and Arundhati Roy have declined to work in Israel over human rights violations against the people of Palestine.
Whatever their tactics, the role of the artist in society is to create culture. By sending messages about what they will and won’t stand for, artists appeal to the moral senses of those around them and create art with relevance and societal impact.
Bev Grant, a musician and longtime activist best known for her work in the women’s rights movement and her protest song “Inez,” considers the combination of activist and artist to be a “cultural worker.” She’s been involved in cultural work, protest, and boycott work since the early ’60s.
“I don’t think there is one specific tactic more useful than another. It depends on the situation. There are a lot of progressive people in North Carolina. They are the ones who are going to have to overturn that bill. I think Ho Chi Minh said something like, ‘Let many flowers bloom’ in expressing his opinion that there are many ways to wage struggle. I believe that.”
Has an artist inspired you with their cultural work, protests or boycotts? Tell us about it in the comments.