Photos by Eric Cash
Raury's “Devil's Whisper” video begins inside a dark venue, where he asks a crowd to clap along to his beat. His backup guitarist nearly fades into the background behind the 19-year-old rapper/singer, who's wearing his trademark sunhat. Quickly, the video cuts to a barn standing in an open field, and then a banquet table decorated with Christmas lights. Seated there with Raury are rappers Money Makin' Nique and OG Maco, pop-R&B singer India Shawn, and members of hip-hop collective Two-9, past (Key!) and present (Curtis Williams, OriginalFani). They are independent-minded artists, the majority of whom have been called "New Atlanta" years before national outlets caught on, yet they've been overlooked outside city limits in favor of more club-friendly artists like Migos and Young Thug.
As someone who has lived in Atlanta for five years now, recent talk of Raury being an industry plant strikes me as silly. But it makes some sense. Last year's inaugural RaurFest in Atlanta was Raury's debut live performance, and though few knew what to expect, Andre 3000's niece Malia was in attendance. “I think part of the reason for our success thus far, whatever level that is, is the fact that we’ve had a chance to kind of showcase what not everybody gets to see in Atlanta,” Justice Baiden, one of Raury's managers, recently said to Pigeons and Planes of the young artist's rise to fame. “There’s this huge underswell of kids who listen to every type of music, that appreciate art, that don’t only go to the clubs. And we’ve had the chance to kind of build a playground for them.”
Over the past few years Atlanta has seen the other artists with cameos in “Devil's Whisper” put in work: Money Makin' Nique has done shows at dives 529, Star Bar and Drunken Unicorn. Folk-soul singer Marian Mereba performed at a Emory University recreational center, with Shawn as an opening act, before she toured with Jazmine Sullivan and Cody ChesnuTT. Two-9 embarked on a headlining tour last year and brought out Mississippi rap duo Rae Sremmurd during its final stop in Atlanta, as if to properly introduce its fellow EarDrummers signees to the city. Raury made it a priority to familiarize himself with the locals who came before him. “[W]e're making progress, and we do little things as far as just building up the network in Atlanta, you know, getting to meet Two-9, ForteBowie, Marian Mereba,” he has said. The end result of these efforts was the second RaurFest, held inside a revamped fire depot in downtown on June 26.
One of RaurFest's featured artists was hip-hop duo Earthgang. Making comparisons to OutKast is tempting, though historically the group has taken more cues from another, more obscure Organized Noize group: Witchdoctor. “It's been really nice,” group member Doctur Dot says of creating music in Atlanta. “You get the full spectrum, especially if you're searching for it. You get your Key!s, your Young Thugs, your Earthgangs. We listen to all that shit.” “Exposing the talent is really what it's about, more than anything – not necessarily 'Oh, this is Atlanta' or 'This is Atlanta,'” Earthgang's other member, Johnny Venus, says. This brought to mind what Mereba, another RaurFest performer, once told me for Wondering Sound: “Yeah, I'm from Young Thug Atlanta – but I'm from the other side, too.”
RaurFest was a rare chance to see most of that other side at one place, even though these artists have collaborated in songs many times before. Shawn performed songs off Outer Limits, her 2014 experimental pop EP produced by James Fauntleroy. Mereba did the sultry, roots reggae-inspired “September,” before Earthgang stormed the stage to recast typically-hypnotic tracks as rap ragers. Art rock band Hello Ocho and Two-9 both sent beach balls flying out into the crowd. The fact that RaurFest doubled as Creative Loafing's annual Music Issue party makes total sense, as the local alt-weekly has worked for years to showcase the scene's diversity, to where its tastes in Atlanta music rarely overlaps with that of national outlets. (Full disclosure: I have contributed to CL since 2010.)
It's important to stress that, while the majority of RaurFest's artists claim membership in New Atlanta, that itch among artists to strike out against the mainstream has long been part of the city's music history. B.o.B., Janelle Monae and Yelawolf broke out from Atlanta's “Otherground,” which Maurice Garland, music journalist and co-host of AB+L's Day 1 Radio, documented for years since its 2005 inception. As Organized Noize's Rico Wade recently told NPR's "Microphone Check," OutKast used to argue with LaFace label head LA Reid over releasing “Elevators (Me & You)” and “Bombs Over Baghdad” as lead singles. It's just that now, while armed with his Columbia Records distribution deal, Raury has volunteered himself as a leader.
Raury didn't hit the stage at his own festival until close to midnight, or when bouncers said that that the even would end. (Meanwhile, Andre 3000 hung out backstage.) Instead of doing a solo set straight through, he would perform a single song in between two-song guest sets from Trinidad Jame$, Big K.R.I.T., D.R.A.M., Keith Ape, JMSN, an unannounced SZA and Post Malone, what felt like a whole night's lineup jam-packed into about two hours. And during those performances, Raury would sit on a chair in the middle of the stage, his body bent over his guitar and the brim of his sunhat obscuring his face.
Despite his own elaborate stage setup, which included two drum kits and several backup singers, Raury seemed far less interested in performing his own material than letting others take the spotlight. “Are you ready for a revolution, Atlanta?” he asked the crowd, before his mic got cut off by the venue. To those who watched RaurFest via Periscope, it might have seemed like Raury was talking about his music. But to those who have seen the festival's other featured performers before, it felt more an invitation to build on the groundwork laid out over years of New Atlanta excellence.
Christina Lee is ready for a revolution. Follow her on Twitter.