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Visibility, with the volume up loud, in Tennessee

"Hate on me," Jake Wesley Rogers sang on stage at the Love Rising benefit concert in Nashville's Bridgestone Arena on March 20. "You might as well hate the sun."
Jason Kempin
Getty Images
"Hate on me," Jake Wesley Rogers sang on stage at the Love Rising benefit concert in Nashville's Bridgestone Arena on March 20. "You might as well hate the sun."

This essay originally appeared in NPR Music's weekly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

I want to take you to a rainbow-lit room in Nashville where laughter and the scintillating light of mutual adoration created a sanctuary, momentarily, in a state full of hunters. And then I want to take you to another, smaller room, with walls made of glitter that kept out the cold of a rainy night. I need to tell you about two shows I saw this week, one in an arena and the other in a dinner theater, that reminded me of something I've long believed but recently doubted: that music can sustain people, and if not change things itself, make change conceivable. But first I need you to come with me back to Alabama, where I lived before Nashville, to a moment that changed my perspective on how political activism works.

In 2017 Doug Jones ran for Senate in a special election. Jones is a Democrat, and his win would mark the first time in a quarter century that the party captured one of Alabama's seats in the U.S. Senate. I am telling this story not to endorse a party or a candidate (who's no longer in office, by the way), but to show how awareness and empowerment spreads at the grassroots level. The polls and the pundits often treat the cultural shifts that shape politics as linear and quantifiable. But sometimes they bloom like clover across a meadow, and you have to know how to recognize the efflorescence.

Right before the election, I found myself on book tour in my old hometown of Tuscaloosa. My reading was sparsely attended; many of the folks I knew as a former university spouse were out ringing doorbells and working the phones. I did run into one of them, though, a woman devoted to civic life who'd herself served and struggled in Alabama politics. I asked her what she thought would come of Jones' campaign.

My friend is a very cleareyed person. She said she recognized that a victory was less than a sure thing, and that if it came, success could be brief. But, she said, something important had come out of the race. People who for years had been fighting their own blue battles in a famously red state had met; their efforts, and their potential, became tangible to each other. My friend and others in my college town — mostly white women involved with the university — encountered organizers, many of them African-American women in the so-called "black belt" of the state, and as they became aware of each other, everyone redefined their own approaches. Scattered efforts became a movement. "Before, we were unable to see it," my friend said. "We became visible to each other, and that won't change."

Visibility — it's a catchword, especially among members and allies of the LGBTQIA+ community, that can sometimes feel a little hollow. In the past half-decade, as some key civil rights have been codified into law, there's been exponential growth in LGBTQIA+ representation within popular culture. At the same time, a new wave of moral panic (especially about trans people) has arisen, endangering lives and inspiring the many laws currently making their way through state legislatures. In Tennessee, the past few years have seen country stars from Kacey Musgraves to Dolly Parton celebrating drag and diversity, and yet the state has led the way in restricting the rights of the very people these celebrities embrace. The question arises, given these circumstances: What is the worth of the visibility that manifests when stories are told or songs are sung, when threats to safety and full citizenship are an everyday reality? "We're not metaphors," the trans writer Thomas Page McBee wrote in a 2018 analysis of this predicament.

Music is one way visibility can go beyond the symbolic and bolster vital connections, but only when those who make it and those who love it gather, forge alliances and sustain each other over time. As I reveled in the spirit of defiance and, yes, joy that permeated Monday's Love Rising extravaganza at Bridgestone Arena and Tuesday's We Will Always Be revue at City Winery, I felt what visibility — and audibility, the amplifying force that moves through voices, rhythms and melodies — can provide when crisis is at the door.

These events were, in some ways, standard benefit concerts with multiple artists touching down on the stage in endless succession, their quick turns punctuated by public service announcements and pleas for donations. But an important difference gave these shows a power even historical charity fests like Live Aid or, more recently, the concerts for Charlottesville and Ukraine, did not have.

Those mega-events were anchored by notables reaching out toward perceived victims who, even when able to join in the shows, remained mostly at a distance. Love Rising and We Will Always Be came about because LGBTQIA+ people themselves willed them into being. Allison Russell, the singer-songwriter whose recent commercial breakthrough has shed so much light on Nashville's potential as a home to a truly progressive music scene, was a main driver, as were artist-activist-entrepreneurs Hunter Kelly and Holly G, whose work on efforts like Proud Radio and the Black Opry have been reshaping Nashville's scene for a while now. Allies behind the scenes supported their vision without stepping into the space they needed to define.

From the ground up, these events brought together community members holding space for each other instead of foregrounding well-intentioned stars swooping in to do a good deed. Instead of staging tableaus in which marginalized people were trotted out for public consumption, these events created the chance for LGBTQIA+ folk to stand front and center and hail each other in power and hope.

Love Rising did suffer from one major obstacle: To fill the 20,000-seat venue, major names were required. (Take a look at the poster if you want to know the big names who showed up, read these reviews to learn how these allies maximized their connections to the LGBTQIA+ community through song selection and featured collaborators, andlisten to this playlistto hear everyone that performed at both events.) All of their advocacy wouldn't have mattered, though, if not for the many queer, nonbinary and trans artists whose time at the mic brought something truly new to this hockey arena, where in any other circumstances only (overwhelmingly CIS-het) megastars can claim space.

The list was long, reminding me just how crucial LGBTQIA+ artists are within Nashville's current musical ecosystem: Autumn Nicholas, Fancy Hagood, Izzy Heltai, Shea Diamond, Cidny Bullens, Sparkle City Disco, Wrabel. The show opened with Jake Wesley Rogers, Bowie-glowing in silver sequins, damning his own erasure with "Pluto." "Hate on me, hate on me, hate on me, hate on me," he wailed, executing a backbend. "You might as well hate the sun."

Rogers was followed by that aforementioned array of artists who, at this point in their careers, would have never expected to stand before such a vast crowd cheering them on. Some, like Nicholas, seized the spotlight with such force it felt like an anointment. Others embraced their own vulnerability. Adeem the Artist — whom I'd last seen playing in a local record store's backyard to maybe 20 people — joked that this was "the largest karaoke crowd I've ever sung to," and stressed the mix of "jubilation and fear" they felt, enveloped by love but aware that the threats just beyond the arena doors remain urgent. Joy Oladokun, whose next album should gain the mass audience her wildly catchy, heartfelt songs deserve, spoke of a time when she felt she could not come out and expressed faith in the cyclical nature of life. Heltai, whose quiet presence created a kind of reverse osmosis in that huge space, declared that he would not have survived without gender-affirming care before singing the poignant "All of This Beauty." As his voice silenced the crowd, what would have been a touching moment in a nightclub setting became transcendent.

Most stirring was Mya Byrne, who is emerging as the warrior this crisis requires, having released two anthems (one with Paisley Fields) in just the past couple of weeks. Performing with her artistic and life partner Swan Real, Byrne commanded the stage like a 21st-century Rolling Stone. She finished by embracing Real in a truly epic kiss, after which Real declared, "That's trans love, people. Trans people are easy to love." The gesture felt visceral, risky, sexy. Happening smack in the middle of the long parade of people living truth and singing about it, it was the kind of catharsis that demands real action as a follow-up.

At the City Winery the following night, things began in a quieter but no less fully visible and audible way. Two short songwriters' rounds organized by Kelly and Holly G featured, first, all LGBTQIA+ singer-songwriters, and then a stellar lineup from the Black Opry. I've seen so many similar intimate exchanges among Nashville's songwriting elite, but the fundamental — and casual — queerness and Blackness of these two built a new Music City on that stage. Standout performances included Chris Housman's ode to a drag queen who's "never a drag" and the rousing testimony of the Black Opry's Ally Free, a trans performer who shouted out his mom in the audience and sang of surviving suicidal thoughts, building a chorus around the phrase "I'm not giving up just yet." He received a standing ovation. These rounds showed that the only way a real paradigm shift can happen is through strength in numbers; that's what changes a marginalized person's audibility from mutely representative to resounding.

The night proceeded with many singer-songwriters making quick appearances — including outstanding turns from Charleston's She Returns From War and The Shindellas and a perfect closer from Mary Gauthier and Jaimee Harris, "Drag Queens in Limousines." Interspersed with these warmly connected artists were those performers at the center of current debate — the toweringly charismatic drag queens who, for the past few years, have regularly appeared at City Winery's Sunday drag brunches. So many appeared that I can't list all of their names (you can find them here, though!). Suffice to say that host Vivica Steele and her sisters fully commanded the City Winery space, strutting and snaking through the crowd collecting tips, flipping hair and throwing hands to the delight of the audience.

It was, in truth, a strange juxtaposition — the quiet singer-songwriters and the clamorously out drag performers — yet it made perfect sense: This is Nashville, a city that prides itself on its welcoming nature, but whose acceptance of queer culture has taken time, a lot of work and the will to set aside stylistic and other personal differences in the name of uplifting the whole community. In a state like Tennessee, where communities are smaller than, say, in New York, and where oppositional forces don't distinguish between one "kind" of LGBTQIA+ persona and another, surprising alliances are central to survival.

The We Will Always Be benefit (for the aptly named Inclusion Tennessee) made manifest the spirit that keeps activists going even in a state like Tennessee, where queer lives have been historically deeply under-acknowledged. It's still crucial to address differences and power dynamics, but just as I saw in Alabama, at these shows I witnessed people looking beyond their own small circles and, in doing so, changing the baseline of who can be seen and heard, and what can be said. "Intersectionality!" Vivica, the night's emcee, shouted at one point, executing a high leg kick; that word may be as overused and misunderstood as "visibility" these days, but in that moment, it glowed in the dark.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.