Demeanor prowls the stage of the Blind Tiger, knees flexed, gesturing emphatically and tapping his temple. Suddenly, he jumps down into the crowd, maintaining his flow, directing his rhymes at one person, then another. After he climbs back on stage, he takes off his shirt and pushes his voice to the edge.
“I’m a product of an entire discography of black,” he raps in “What It Really Is.” “I play bones; literally a part of me is rap.”
Justin Harrington sees no reason to choose between traditional instruments (bones and banjo) and the music he grew up with (hip-hop). As Demeanor, Harrington’s rapper alter-ego, he reaches deep into African-American musical traditions while spitting rhymes relevant to a 21st century audience.
“There are certain themes that resonate with my peer group when I perform, [like] aggression and comedy, and it’s kind of a moment outside of space and time when we’re all just together,” he says over coffee at The People’s Perk a week before the Bad PPL Collective concert at the Blind Tiger.
Off stage, Harrington shares Demeanor’s intensity but conveys it in a more conversational tone. His second full-length album, “O Henry,” splits the difference by mixing foreboding rap tracks like “Paradox” and “Say Less” with spoken-word passages where he talks about his background, influences, and approach to music. Part of that approach involves reframing the banjo for his peers.
“Banjo-centered work is very focused on a time that does exist, [which is] the past and present and what that means for the future,” Harrington says. “But I almost want to take everyone in the room out of that. Listen to it with fresh ears.”
The album title, “O Henry,” was inspired partly by a regular singing gig his mother, Lalenja Harrington, had at the O. Henry Hotel — where she still performs today. His passion for traditional instruments was inspired by his mother’s sister, Rhiannon Giddens, and her former band mates in the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Harrington and his mom perform with his aunt occasionally; they joined her in 2017 for cameos on her “Freedom Highway” tour.
Harrington created “O Henry” with several collaborators, including Gabriel “Pandemonium” Clausen, a sound engineer and designer, composer, and producer. Clausen had worked in theater with Lalenja. When he saw an informal video of Harrington rapping while playing bones, he arranged a meeting.
“I asked him if he ever thought about incorporating the banjo and the bones in hip-hop music,” Clausen says. “He said that he hadn’t really thought about it, and I said, ‘Well, let’s try to do that.’”
They recorded “O Henry” at Clausen’s G Quality Studio in Winston-Salem. The spoken-word passages came from an interview Clausen recorded with Harrington at the end of the sessions.
Jessica Schneider, lead singer for the Reliably Bad Band, added soaring vocals and haunting textures to several songs. Her relationship to Harrington goes back to their high school days at Weaver Academy, where she was a piano major and he a theater major. She had little previous experience in a recording studio, but Harrington “was just gassing me up the whole time,” Schneider says.
“His regular language is so motivational — he’s always amped about something, and he’s always ready to be inspired or to inspire,” she says. “That’s one great thing about Demeanor: he wants to inspire everyone with his art.”
Harrington and Clausen hope fans will take in the “O Henry” album as a whole rather than just sampling individual tracks. The concept involves a conversation between Henry — “a banjo-playing black kid with an attitude who’s angry” — and Demeanor.
“I’m a duality between Justin and Demeanor,” he says, “and Demeanor is an energy of aggression, authenticity, and unapologetic forward motion.”
The result is a fresh, unique sound that appeals to people who just want to dance and to people eager to hear hip-hop with challenging ideas and unconventional instrumentation.