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Emerge takes a meaningful step forward during its second festival edition

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Musician, author and activist Laura Jane Grace performs during the Emerge Festival at the Hard Rock Hotel Saturday, June 1, 2019.
Photo: Yasmina Chavez

Emerge got a whole lot right during its second go-round. Decisions to reduce the festival’s footprint to a single property—the Hard Rock Hotel—and strip back the number of acts and events so nothing conflicted were spot-on, creating a user-friendly, two-day experience this past Friday and Saturday.

The festival also opted to strip “Impact + Music” from its name for its second edition, but it felt impactful and musically nonetheless, mostly succeeding in its mission of blending spoken and sonic content, intertwining activism and social consciousness with live performances by both known and rising music artists.

2019 Emerge Festival

What’s left for a potential third Emerge? Drawing bigger crowds, across the board. The main showcases took place in the 4,000-capacity Joint but were attended by several hundred people apiece. Programming this interesting deserves a greater reception, so Las Vegans, in particular, ought to pay more attention in 2020.

PROTEST SHOWCASE The Killers have become more political in recent years, but frontman Brandon Flowers is hardly known for discussing his views onstage. But then, Emerge’s stage isn’t like most others.

Capping off the festival’s Protest showcase, Friday’s main event, Flowers marched to a podium and read a prepared speech about the climate that pushed him to write The Killers’ 2009 protest single “Land of the Free.”

“I hate that my country has more school shootings than anywhere else,” Flowers said, describing the way 2012’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting affected him as a father to young children, before turning to other issues addressed by the song, which features an affecting video directed by filmmaker Spike Lee. “I hate the way immigrants … are being treated in my country.”

Brandon Flowers performs during the Emerge Festival at the Hard Rock Hotel Friday, May 31, 2019.

Upon finishing his remarks, Flowers sat down at the piano and, backed by touring Killers guitarist Jake Blanton and students from UNLV’s choral program, performed “Land of the Free.” Some of the lyrics: “So how many daughters, tell me, how many sons/Do we have to have to put in the ground/Before we just break down and face it/We got a problem with guns/In the land of the free.”

Memorably stripped-down versions of older Killers hits “Read My Mind” and “When We Were Young” followed, but Flowers’ short appearance was most notable for his words, a powerful ending to a night that produced several highlights even if it felt disjointed at times, in comparison to Saturday’s more thematically consistent showcases.

Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, backed by a three-piece live band, and eight-member New Orleans jazz-funk collective Tank and the Bangas played what seemed to be fairly straightforward sets—both of which would have benefitted from the up-close crowd energy of a smaller venue like the Hard Rock’s adjacent Vinyl.

Showcase host John Forte, who also performed, and Native American singer-songwriter Nahko (of Nahko and Medicine for the People) commanded more attention with their stories than with their solo-acoustic songs, which felt overwhemed inside the cavernous Joint. And teenage activists Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg—survivors of last year’s Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida—sat down for a wide-ranging, if sometimes overly rambling, conversation about gun control and the importance of galvanizing young voters for the 2020 election.

But if Emerge’s second-year Protest showcase had a champion—Flowers aside—it was veteran hip-hop hero Talib Kweli. Rather than simply run through his best-known songs, the 43-year-old MC tailored his performance to the night’s theme and setting, spotlighting activist musicians who have impacted his own approach to musical expression—Joan Baez, Public Enemy, Nina Simone and others. “I like artists that speak to what the people are going through, [especially] the oppressed people and marginalized people out there,” Kweli said, before ending with his 2003 hit “Get By,” packed with Emerge-appropriate rhymes:

“Yo, I activism, attackin’ the system, the blacks and Latins in prison/Numbers have risen, they’re victims lackin’ the vision/Sh*t, and all they got is rappin’ to listen to/I let them know we missin’ you, the love is unconditional.” –Spencer Patterson

SEX & SELF Emerge’s second day started an engaging note with the Self & Sex session, as sex researcher Dr. Zhana Vrangalova discussed issues like non-monogamy, monogamy, the #MeToo movement, consent and more. Vrangalova is a New York-based sex educator and writer focusing sexuality and well-being who currently teaches at NYU.

Parkland shooting survivor and activist Emma Gonzalez speaks during the Emerge Festival at the Hard Rock Hotel Friday, May 31, 2019.

“The bar on how we’re expected to treat each other is being raised,” Vrangalova said, speaking on recent societal shifts ushered in by #MeToo movement and other feminist and equality and rights-based movements. “Now we’re saying we expect to be treated—and treat each other—in ways what are more honest and with more respect and compassion.”

Vrangalova’s talk centered around creating “healthy, ethical and authentic” relationships based on a variety of identity and lifestyle factors, including monogamy, non-monogamy, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex drive, domination, submission, kinkiness, where and how you want to live and more. “There’s so many different options to figure out, and we have to be able to sift through all of those in a way that honors who we are and also critically examines all the cultural conditioning we’ve been given as to what we’re supposed to want,” she said. “What’s authentic to each and every one of us is going to vary from person to person.”

Vrangalova went on to say that emotional maturity, healthy coping mechanisms and education are vital to expressing our own desires and boundaries while understanding others’ desires and boundaries.

“That’s a tall order,” she said. On one hand, people are more accepting and open toward different lifestyles, but the “severe lack” of sexual education in the United States also makes access to this knowledge more difficult. Couple that with “this systematic dismantling over sexual and reproductive rights and access to health services,” she continued, noting the abortion ban in Alabama, and you have a recipe that works against having a healthy, self-actualizing sex life.

She ended her talk on a positive note. “Rejecting black-and-white thinking is challenging, but I think it’s worth putting in the effort. Only by acknowledging and embracing the complexities of human sexuality do we stand a chance at building self-actualizing relationships—and I think we all deserve it.”

Feminasty hip-hop artist Miss Eaves followed Vrangalova’s talk with a short set that ping-ponged through her powerful-yet-playful discography. Songs like “Thunder Thighs” and “Bush for the Push” championed chub rub and pubic hair, while “Fuccboi Salute” gave the middle finger to the plague of non-committal men who want everything out of a relationship, except, well, a relationship. “F*ck boys get no love,” she repeated before diving into her next song. Similarly, “Left Swipe Left” takes a stab at Tinder culture and humorously traverses the cutthroat and tiresome landscape of online dating.

Next, artist and illustrator AlecWithPen and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve spoke (separately) about mental illness, and the bandana-masked MC Leikeli47 delivered an explosive set, moving the small but attentive crowd to its feet.

For the last talk of the panel, Paula and Jonathan Williams took to the stage to talk about their journey of support, love and spirituality. When Jonathan’s parent—a pastor and church planter—Paula came out as a transgender woman after two decades leading her own evangelical church, it sent Jonathan into a soul-searching tailspin. “I came out as transgender and lost every single job. Turns out if you spend most of your life working in the conservative religious world, coming out as transgender is not that great for your career,” she joked.

Talib Kweli performs during the Emerge Festival at the Hard Rock Hotel Friday, May 31, 2019.

While Paula and Jonathan’s speech was informative, moving and heartfelt, it also left some in the crowd wondering, what about the 20 years they spent in the church proselytizing and condemning the same people they now claim to accept? While that would’ve made for an even more interesting conversation, Paula and Jonathan still made numerous interesting observations and anecdotes. “While my father was finding her truth, I was losing my truth,” Jonathan said. “But what’s interesting, is this journey, this life thing that we’re all doing, we start to find truth in unconventional ways.”

“I discovered that truth does indeed set you free,” Paula added, “but it’s going to make you miserable first.”

Jonathan’s closing remarks left the room thinking about the difference between allies and accomplices, and what people can do to assist their marginalized friends and family members. “Allies don’t have to give up anything,” he said. “I can say gay and lesbian lives matter and watch as laws are put into place to diminish their livelihood, and I can say trans lives matter and watch as people like my father lose jobs and friends. I can say that women and men deserve equal pay and then not have that show up on my payroll. I can say black lives matter and watch as systems 100 years old have diminished those lives and sit back and say that doesn’t affect me, [but] it was time for me to give up a ton of my privilege, it was time to start affirming people, it was time for me to become an accomplice,” he said. “An ally sits on the sidelines and cheers people on. An accomplice gets in the trenches and works to change systems at the direction of those who are marginalized and oppressed.”

Bounce artist Big Freedia closed out the showcase with a set full of neon green-colored short shorts and booty shaking—but before Freedia and her backup dancers took to the stage, Freedia talked to the audience about her place as an artist in this challenging political landscape. “My job is to keep on making people happy and bringing joy to people’s lives with all the bullsh*t and drama that’s going on in the world. I’m here to just give them a little bit of hope in knowing that even in turning on the news and social media, there’s still hope on the other side and you can still get through all of that and have a good time.”

Women, Wellness & Reclamation Showcase This Saturday event did as promised, honoring women’s stories and voices through a variety of talent onstage—from musical performances to spoken word poetry to one-on-one conversations on topics including mental health, pay parity, community service and speaking truth to power.

Whitney Bell, a public speaker, writer, artist and activist, served as host and introduced the acts, starting with SWSH, an LA-based singer, rapper and producer who opened the showcase with a rousing performance that had the crowd on its feet. Wearing only an oversize Las Vegas T-shirt and socks and sporting closely cropped hair dyed in blonde on one side and black on the other, SWSH owned the Vinyl stage with her modern take on soul and R&B. Afterward, she sat with Bell and joked about her moniker of “gender-queer Cruella de Vil” and spoke about her struggles with bipolar disorder. When asked what advice she had for young people who might be struggling with the same issues, the singer laughed and said, “If you’ve got any advice for me, I would love some.”

Co-founder of the #blacklivesmatter movement Patrisse Cullors speaks during the Emerge Festival at the Hard Rock Hotel Saturday, June 1, 2019.

Podcaster Katie Dalebout was up next, reading a personal essay about developing an unhealthy relationship with food at a young age. She spoke of women talking about “soft stories that make us vulnerable,” and while she looked palpably nervous onstage, she nonetheless walked the walk and put herself out there with her daily struggles, offering no easy answers but simply giving voice to her journey.

LA-based singer Bedouine—who sounds like a cross between Joni Mitchell and Karen Carpenter—followed with a performance that had the audience swaying and slow-dancing to her folk-pop songs, including one she sang in her native Armenian tongue. Afterward, she sat with Kevin Abbott, managing partner of Joe’s Pub in NYC (and the showcase’s lone male participant) and talked about how she became a singer-songwriter. They also touched on topics such as gentrification, pay parity and how women navigate their way in the entertainment industry.

New York City-based J.F Seary, a Nuyorican spoken word poet and actor, gave one of the most stirring performances of the afternoon. She performed three poems about women in vulnerable and dangerous situations beginning as children, where they’re preyed upon by men who seek to destroy their innocence and break their spirits. The crowd fell into a hush as they hung onto Seary’s every word. She was followed by Chicago-based singer-songwriter Tasha, who performed a moving acoustic set full of tenderness and quiet strength. She later sat with for an interview with psychologist Dr. Joy Bradford, founder of a mental health platform called Therapy for Black Girls, and they spoke of women’s roles in the community, as well as the importance of self-care and holding on to that magic for yourself (and not feeling guilty about it).

Brooklyn-based rapper and multimedia artist Miss Eaves, who performed earlier in the Self & Sex Showcase, took the stage for two numbers, one about being single and the other about being comfortable as an introvert. The overarching theme of both is that women do not have to subscribe to roles assigned to them by society. “The whole point is it’s OK to be different,” she said.

Tayla Parx, and LA-based singer-songwriter and actress, closed out the showcase with a stunning performance of songs from her album, We Need to Talk, as well as hits she has written for other artists. (She co-wrote four top-10 singles in 2018 alone: “Love Lies” by Khalid and Normani, “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings” by Ariana Grande, and “High Hopes” by Panic! At the Disco. The number of artists with whom she has collaborated is far too lengthy to list, but suffice it to say, she has talent in spades.) Parx may be a hit-writing machine, but onstage is where she belongs. With an infectious energy that had the audience dancing to her smooth R&B stylings (including her mom, who was right in front), expect to see Parx headlining everywhere soon, including Las Vegas. This may be the first time she’s performed here, but it certainly won’t be the last. –Genevie Durano

BRAVE SHOWCASE This Saturday session proved to be an intriguing, well-paced three hours, built on a framework of legitimately inspirational stories of bravery. Even when the program took unexpected, breakneck thematic turns, or when some speakers or performers landed awkwardly—more on that in a moment—you still had the sense that you were witnessing something unique.

The evening began with Kristy Johnson, whose harrowing account of childhood sexual abuse—and the efforts of her church and community to cover it all up—ended in a moment of tearful catharis: “Keep telling your story until they believe you,” Johnson said. “Find people who believe you and believe in you.” After a brief poetry interlude by J.F. Seary, Atlanta rapper J.I.D—an artist from J. Cole’s Dreamville label—lit up the room with his rapid, dazzling flow; it was a strange transition, but the energy of his set was undeniable.

Andrew Bird performs during the Emerge Festival at the Hard Rock Hotel Saturday, June 1, 2019.

Immediately after came hip-hop producer Weldon Angelos, who spoke about marijuana sentencing reform, a topic he learned about the hard way: He served 13 years of a 55-year mandatory sentence for possession, a sentence so unjust that the judge who was compelled to give it stepped down from the bench. “It’s not about rehabilitation; it’s about warehousing people,” Angelos said, later adding, “They’re trying to keep black and brown people in prison. Keep them from voting.” His fire was contagious; I actually looked up his nonprofit (the Weldon Project) after his set, while Seary was unhelpfully explaining how social media worked. I felt more passion for him than I felt for journalist and immigration reform advocate Jose Antonio Vargas later on; his speech, while engaging, was too self-referential. (Though his parting comment rang out like an alarm bell: “Are you an American citizen? What have you done to earn it?”)

Also a poor fit: Doomtree rapper Dessa, who delivered a tame set that should have come before J.I.D’s, and later fumbled her co-hosting duties. And her contribution to the showcase theme—a longwinded suggestion that, maybe, we should post less flattering photos to our Instagram accounts, or something—stood out for unflattering reasons.

But the listed headliners brought the point home. Against Me! Singer Laura Jane Grace gave an incredible speech on the challenges of coming out as a trans performer in a world that might not be ready to receive one (though she also suggested “I think there’s a real power in being ‘other’”), and she sealed the deal with raw acoustic performances of “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “F*ck My Life 666” and several more songs. She also told a touching story about a really good day she had shortly after the 2016 election, suggesting that allowing yourself joy in hard times can be an act of rebellion, too. #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Patrisse Cullors made a similar claim later on: “While I love a good protest and a good disruption, I promise you this movement is about health and wellness as well … We have to truly imagine us living and thriving.”

Concluding the night was Andrew Bird, whose haunting and heartbreakingly beautiful violin-driven songs were a perfect coda. Between swooning versions of “Bloodless,” “Manifest,” “Tables and Chairs” and others, Bird spoke about his process and how closely it aligns with his personal politics. “I’m not a speechwriter,” he said haltingly. “I’ve never shied away from heavy topics in my songs, but after 2016 I felt like I was fully activated. … People talk about artists having a duty, and yes, that’s true—but that’s really not the way art works. If you’re awake and you’re paying attention around you, it’ll automatically come out in the art.”

At its best, Emerge’s “Brave” showcase proved him right. –Geoff Carter

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Geoff Carter

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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