His words were timely, more than anyone would have liked.
“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?”
Brandon Flowers posed that question in song mere hours after Friday’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Backed by UNLV choir members, he performed that tune — The Killers’ soulful, searching “Land of the Free” — while closing out the Protest showcase at the Emerge music, art and activism conference at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Beforehand, in a poignant address, Flowers explained why he decided to make such an overt political statement.
The 37-year-old Las Vegas native traced the origins of the song back to the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012. Flowers chronicled the development of the long-gestating tune, which also addresses concerns about immigration, racial prejudice and the justice system, recognizing the role his own forebears played in shaping his perspective of what it means to live in the Land of the Free.
“To escape the U.S.S.R’s oppression, they chose to come to America and work grueling jobs,” he said of his Lithuanian ancestors and the value of the opportunity they sought here.
It was a tone-setting moment for the second annual Emerge.
The event serves several purposes: a showcase for up-and-coming acts; a platform for addressing issues such as surviving childhood sexual abuse, the efficacy of mandatory minimum prison sentencing, and gun violence; a chance for established acts to share their viewpoints; and, of course, a big, two-day party.
“We get to talk about the intersection of activism and music, but we’re going to do it in a really fly way,” rapper Talib Kweli explained Friday during his set at The Joint.
There was a lot to take in over the course of 48 hours. Here are few other highlights:
Her words flowed like a waterfall roaring down from high above.
Yet there was one word that rapper Ana Tijoux couldn’t put her finger on.
“What’s the translation?” the French-Chilean MC wondered aloud after speaking a phrase in her native Spanish, seeking its English counterpart.
“Empowerment!” a crowd member bellowed in response.
Tijoux smiled affirmatively.
This wasn’t just one of the prevailing themes of the Protest showcase but of Emerge as a whole, especially for the many female performers and speakers.
Much has rightfully been made in recent years of the gender imbalance between male and female performers at music festivals. A survey by music website Pitchfork on 19 leading American festivals in 2018 found that women made up just 19 percent of the artists booked.
But at Emerge, there were as many, if not more, women participants as men, consistently delivering some of the weekend’s most memorable performances, from Tijoux’s fired-up set at Protest to Bishop Briggs’ boundlessly energetic alt-pop at the Hope X Human opening party, to Tank and The Bangas’ Day-Glo New Orleans funk incantations to Laura Jane Grace’s stirring acoustic performance.
Grace under fire
“Music has always been a refuge for me,” Grace explained, “but when I discovered punk rock, it became an armor.”
The Against Me! frontwoman was detailing how music helped her come to terms with being an “other” — in her case, a transgender artist who transitioned publicly in 2012.
Before her short set at The Joint, Grace spoke about the significance of pronoun usage to the transgender community, sharing anecdotes about the frustrations of constantly being referred to as “sir” everywhere from Jiffy Lube to the Hard Rock front desk.
Grace’s point was to underscore the importance of visibility and recognition for all, even when engaged in something as routine as getting one’s oil changed or checking into a hotel room.
Her songs doubled down on this sentiment, performed with vigor, her voice a cocktail of earnestness, frustration and resolve.
“No more troubled sleep, there’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me,” she sang as that world was opened up and turned inside out.
Big Easy bounce
Their backsides quaked and trembled like they’d just seen a ghost.
“Let’s go! Formation!” came the command that ceased the jiggling momentarily.
With that, a phalanx of dancers assembled in place around Big Freedia, a booty-wagging LGBTQ rights advocate, reality TV star and musician who battles for inclusion in song.
“I’m that queen that makes you bounce,” the tall, talkative Freedia thundered during her performance at the Self & Sex showcase Saturday at The Joint.
In case you’re unfamiliar, bounce music — which heralds from New Orleans, as does Freedia — is loud, straightforward and as raucous as an overcrowded house party outfitted with a surplus of kegs, buoyed by rhymes that aren’t really rhymes so much as bellowed invocations to get loose.
“Release ya anger / Release ya mind / Release ya job / Release the time / Release ya trade / Release the stress / Release the love / Forget the rest,” Freedia ordered on “Explode.”
Shortly thereafter, she swung her derriere toward the crowd and showed everyone how it’s done.
The message was clear: Free your mind, and your rump will follow.