Arts & Entertainment Critics’ Picks 2019

Some may say the arts had a tough year, but we beg to differ. Just because the taxpayers won’t be funding arts in our city, that doesn’t change the fact that the scenes have been getting stronger here every year. From visual artists to musicians to actual circus performers, these are the people leading that charge.

 

Best Creative: Jonell Logan

Jonell Logan is devoted to the arts. After working at various museums, the New York native moved to Charlotte in 2013. Following a stint at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture, she started her own consulting company, the 300 Arts Project, and became executive director of the Charlotte-based nationwide nonprofit, the League of Creative Interventionists. The organization identifies people working on projects that can benefit communities throughout the city, Logan says, then encourages those individuals to apply for fellowships which provides them with the funds, mentoring and peer support that can make their work succeed.

Jonell Logan

Recent fruits of the League’s intervention can be seen in an Afro-Caribbean garden that grows traditional medicinal plants, a mobile maker space that brings creative programming to all ages and a storytelling project that preserves the culture of neighborhoods falling prey to gentrification.

Best Muralist: Georgie Nakima

There’s no mathematic muralist quite like Georgie Nakima in our city, and that’s what makes her work so damn intriguing to look at. Putting to use her degree from Winston-Salem State University, where she studied biology and chemistry, Nakima’s geometric and often symmetrical work is a melding of the right and left sides of the brain. Her murals include themes of Afrofuturism, environmentalism and animals.

Artwork by Georgie Nakima

We may potentially lose some quality street art from Nakima and Nicholas Napoletano on the side of what used to be Solstice Tavern, but not to worry, she’s always putting more up. Most recently, she did her part for Talking Walls mural fest with a beautiful rendering of women on the side of Salon 1226 that’s reminiscent of the Manifest Future she worked on in the abandoned lot across from Mosaic Village in west Charlotte last year with Janelle Dunlap and Sloane Siobhan. She also blessed the east and west sides of Charlotte with symmetrical designs in the lanes of the basketball court at McCrorey YMCA in northwest Charlotte and on the walls of East Town Market in east Charlotte. You can even find her newest work at The Bottle Tree in Belmont — not the neighborhood, the town, but we’re sure she’ll hit them both soon enough.

Best Arts Organization: SouthEnd ARTS

While South End gets more culturally homogenous by the year, one organization in the neighborhood is fighting for equity, diversity and social consciousness in the arts community that’s historically found a home there. Founded by K. Liles, SouthEnd ARTS is a nonprofit whose mission is “creating equity art exhibition space, building cultural bridges, empowering artists and their communities in South End.”

Each month, in the Charlotte Trolley building on Camden Road, the organization holds a two-night juried art exhibition featuring underrepresented artists. A speaker is paired with these exhibits to create the Social Justice Speaker Series, which invites the community to engage in a conversation around the theme of the exhibit. For example, September’s “Clearing the Air” addressed air pollution in the Historic West End and featured Charlotte City Council member Dimple Ajmera as speaker.

Behind the scenes, SouthEnd ARTS works with artists to help them professionalize their portfolios to prepare for a world that expects corporate-style presentations for funding consideration.

Best Exhibit: ‘Modularity’ – Stephen Wilson

Mixed-media artist Stephen Wilson’s Modularity exhibit wasn’t just a reflection of his own creative vision, it was a window into the unique perspective of a group of 13- to 17-year-old foster children from Children’s Home Society of North Carolina (CHS). Together with Wilson, the teenagers produced 30 pieces that were displayed alongside his own work for Modularity, which ran in March and April at the New Gallery of Modern Art.

A wall of work at Stephen Wilson’s ‘Modularity.’

As with much of his past work, Wilson worked in fabric, embroidery and applique to embellish and overlay his designs. It was Wilson’s idea to collaborate with CHS, whose mission it is to provide every child with a “permanent, safe and loving family,” whether that is through foster care and adoption or additional social services that help parents provide a more stable home for their children and preserve families in crisis.

He said he aimed to make the kids’ artwork flow well with the pieces he had already developed for the project. “The kids all came into my studio one day, and instead of painting like individual works of art, they actually decorated and painted individual pieces of paper and fabric and really spent the whole day throwing paint around the room,” he told Queen City Nerve before the opening. “And then I took those painted fragments and used those in the photographs and stitching … The unique part was that they didn’t know, really, what I was going to be doing with them. So they’re expressing themselves in one way, and I’m taking their pieces and turning them into something else, which is really cool.”

Best Art Show: Bree Stallings – ‘Where I’m From’ opening reception

Bree Stallings’ aptly titled Where I’m From exhibit was designed to take a deep look into her past, including the spaces where she’s lived and the body — or bodies — that’s she’s occupied. One couldn’t blame Stallings for focusing on herself during the April 5 opening reception at C3 Lab, where she keeps a studio, but she brought on help, and that made all the difference.

Bree Stallings at the ‘Where I’m From’ opening reception. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Before attendees perused the room, which included family photos dating back a century and viewing stations that offered a literal peek into Stallings’ psyche, they sat for local poet Jay Ward’s performance of Things I Would Say, in which he described his experience as a biracial man in America. As a white-passing descendant of Japanese immigrants on her mom’s side and Charlotte natives for four generations on her father’s, Stallings felt Ward’s performance was the perfect contradiction to her own self-reflection.

“We have these very different perspectives on the same kind of issue, and I thought it would be the perfect thing to tie in all the stuff,” Stallings told Q.C. Nerve, and in the end, perfect described the evening quite well.

Best Art Pop-Up: Battle Walls

You may have seen Southern Tiger Collective live-painting on wooden canvases at our Scallywag Social event in July, where they built four 4-by-4-foot boards into a cube and got to work. The STC team has been live-painting at events for some time now, but for a new event series that launched in June and turned the live mural painting into a competition between the four artists on the cube, collective co-founder Alex DeLarge decided it was time to bring it up a level and go 8×8.

Bree Stallings (left) and Dammit Wesley compete at Battle Walls at Mint Museum – Randolph. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“Because all we do is street art and all I know is street artists who go big, we decided to go much larger in scale.” The first round of the tournament kicked off at Mint Museum’s Randolph Road location and featured renowned local artists like Bree Stallings (see above), Dammit Wesley, Matt Moore, and husband-and-wife pair Arko and Owl. Attendees vote by buying raffle tickets — a buck buys a vote — and things have gotten straight up tense at some events, as the tournament continued at spots around the city like Camp North End and The Collective.

Best Multimedia Project: ‘Brooklyn: Once a City Within a City’ at Levine Museum of the New South

The newest addition to Levine Museum’s #HomeCLT series tells the story of Brooklyn, a neighborhood that once housed more than 7,000 African-American Charlotte residents before being razed by urban renewal. While before and after photos mixed with portraiture give great context to the scale of demolition and displacement that Brooklyn saw between 1958 and 1973, staff has also implemented new technology to help put it all in context. Museum goers can download an augmented reality app developed by UNC Charlotte professor Dr. Ming-Chun Lee and graduate student Aashwin Patki to help inform their walk through the exhibit.

Using the app at the ‘Brooklyn’ #HomeCLT exhibit at Levine. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

On one wall, portraits show former residents and others who frequented the neighborhood. When one points their phone at the portraits using the app, they can hear the voices of former residents while seeing pictures of the neighborhood in its prime. In another part of the exhibit, a large map of Charlotte sits on the floor. When using the app, museum goers can flip through interactive statistics that appear on the map, showing how different demographics changed in Charlotte between 1960 and 2017. Look for the addition of augmented reality walking tours in 2020 to truly allow visitors a chance to step back in time and into Brooklyn.

Best Photographer: Logan Cyrus

As budgets have deflated in the journalism industry, the importance of a good news photographer has been lost on many, but it can’t be overstated what Logan Cyrus’ visuals add to the stories he works on. Whether covering breaking news like the April mass shooting on the UNC Charlotte campus, going in depth on stories like Michael Graff’s reporting for Charlotte Agenda on HEAL Charlotte founder Greg Jackson’s efforts to steer a young boy named Haji off the wrong path, or hitting the campaign trail as he’s done multiple times for national outlets this year, his work adds an emotion to the stories that otherwise might not hit the same.

Logan Cyrus

Best Dance Troupe: Basic Instinct

Dee Smith and Gereme McConneaughey say they were fixed up by their respective mothers — but not romantically. Instead, the pair became friends and dance collaborators, tearing up the ballroom and turning heads at Scorpio nightclub. A hobby became a career when they were joined in their impromptu choreography by Stephon Fonseca. Today, as Dzirre, Fudg3 and Onyx, the trio is dance troupe Basic Instinct.

Basic Instinct (from left): Stephon Fonseca aka Onyx, Dee Smith aka Dzirre and Gereme McConneaughey aka Fudg3

They’ve shared dance floors and stages with Fantasia and Dawn Richard of Danity Kane, but their most prized gigs are their recurring performances for the Charlotte Pride Festival. Basic Instinct’s routines are precise, yet not lockstep. Subtle shifts in body placement reveal each performer’s individuality. “The great thing about the three of us is that we all have very distinct styles of dance,” McConneaughey says. “That is our art, mixing the styles all together.”

Best DJ: AXNT

When AXNT DJed the very first party Queen City Nerve ever threw last November, before we had published a single page, he put off driving to Charleston to spin longer for us when another DJ fell through. Then, when his car got booted in the Johnston YMCA lot while he was spinning, he vehemently refused to let us pay to get it off. Is that the reason we’re naming him Best DJ? No, we have more journalistic integrity than that, but he deserves a shout out for it regardless.

AXNT at work (Photo by Brian Twitty)

That being said, AXNT’s mix of influences range from classical to dubstep to hip-hop, and it shows in the eccentric sets he puts together at local parties like Repainted Tomorrow. “I like to make people go, ‘Oh wow, he played that?’ or just catch people off guard,” he told Queen City Nerve. “So in the middle of playing a bunch of heavy beats I’ll play Radiohead, just turn it into a dance track. Once you catch people’s attention, from there you can kind of just control what they do.”

Best Free Agent: Jason Atkins

You might know Jason Atkins from a couple of his regular east Charlotte gigs: as Greazy Keys, the organ player at Charlotte Checkers home games in Bojangles’ Coliseum, or as himself behind the keys at Smokey Joe’s for the Smokin J’s Open Mic Jam — or any number of other gigs going on at the old dive bar. Some nights Atkins finishes up work at Bojangles’ and walks right next door to play with whomever’s on stage at Smokey Joe’s for the rest of the night.

He’s also a great gun-for-hire in the recording studio, and has recently helped record albums like Joe Middleton’s Highway Tremolo and his daughter Maya Beth Atkin’s amazing debut Maya Beth Presents: Whatever You Are, which dropped this year. According to Jason, he’s played with more than 100 Charlotte bands and played on countless local albums in the 20-plus years he’s been in the Queen City. So even if you don’t know him … you know his work.

Best New Venue: Middle C Jazz

“Jazz is the American classical music,” says Jonathan Gellman, who owned and operated Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar in the 1980s and early ’90s and is now the director of Middle C Jazz, a 4,000-square-foot jazz club at 300 S. Brevard St. that opened in November. The venture is a labor of love for its co-founding partners and owners, father-and-son duo Larry and Adam Farber. Larry has been in the music business 46 years, and he’s currently a senior partner with agency East Coast Entertainment. The entire spectrum of jazz is reflected in the 200-seat venue’s projected lineup, which includes regional and national acts like SpyroGyra, Taj Mahal, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny. “I’m looking for people to walk into [Middle C Jazz] and be blown away,” Gellman says. “When they see the level of commitment and compassion these people have for their music, it’s going to be surreal.”

Best Band: Modern Moxie

It doesn’t sound like it, but Modern Moxie songwriter and lead singer Madison Lucas used to be painfully self-conscious, only playing guitar in her closet after her college roommates had left for the evening. Over time, Lucas honed and reshaped the songs she wrote, picking up a key collaborator in bassist and eventual husband Harry Kollm. There’s been some vague form of Modern Moxie performing around town on and off for some time, but since adding guitarist Phil Pucci and drummer Charlie Weeks, the four-piece have found their form and are a joy to watch perform, making us more than thankful that Lucas confronted her demons and took to the stage.

Modern Moxie (from left): Phil Pucci, Charlie Weeks, Madison Lucas and Harry Kollm. (Photo courtesy of Modern Moxie)

Best New Band: Petrov

Local post-pop indie rockers Petrov formed in 2018 when guitarists Syd Little and Michael Backlund began writing with bassist Matt McConomy and drummer Garrett Herzfeld. After the group had a handful of songs down, they began the search for a vocalist, and they found a great one in Mary Grace McKusick.

McKusick has been doing some writing of her own since joining the band permanently. Her deeply personal lyrics cover everything from relationships, sexuality, sexual assault and manipulation to identity and insecurity. It’s her first time in a band, but she’s settling in. “Joining a band is a whole new experience for me,” McKusick told Queen City Nerve upon the February release of the band’s first single. “Writing music and interacting with other musicians creatively is a challenge, but I’m looking forward to what’s to come.”

Petrov (from left): Syd Little, Michael Backlund, Garrett Herzfeld, Mary Grace McKusick and Matt McConomy. (Photo by Houston Ray)

What was to come was the band’s debut EP, Sleep Year, which they showcased strongly with a bustling schedule of local gigs that made 2019 anything but sleepy for the group. It’s been a hell of a thing to watch the five-piece prove themselves and go from fledgling to a force on the scene in such a short time.

 

Best Rapper: Da Baby

There’s a strong argument to be made for Da Baby as Rapper of the Year in any publication, local or national, and that much is undeniable. The rapper formerly known as Baby Jesus has been bouncing around the local scene since 2014, so it was big news when he signed to Interscope back in February. That in itself would have been one of the most buzzworthy stories to happen in Charlotte music this year, but nobody could have guessed what was going to happen next — except probably Da Baby.

The Vance High School grad struck a chord around the country, and before long he was everywhere. In October, his sophomore LP Kirk made history, making him the first Charlotte musician to top the Billboard Top 100 charts. Not only that, he charted 18 songs on the Hot 100 this year — yes, 18 — including all 13 songs from Kirk. This man has been on fire. And yes, we’re here to represent what’s real, not just praise what’s popping off in the mainstream, but he’s got the skills to justify the success. We don’t have to tell you, though, because you couldn’t have missed him this year if you tried.

Best Emerging Rapper: ReeCee Raps

In February 2018, Shauna Respass drove to North Carolina from her old home in Kansas City, Missouri, to flee an abusive relationship with nothing but two outfits and her dog. Upon arrival, she slowly started writing raps again, a skill that had been suppressed by her violent partner, and eventually started recording and performing around the city. Since then, she’s been unstoppable, winning the Queen City Award for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist two years straight and getting a nod at the 2019 Carolina Music Awards.

Her relatable stoner-girl style and preference for performing with a live band have built her a solid following, especially in north Charlotte where she can be found performing at some University City venue or another damn near every night. “It was just a drive, I forgot how much I really loved it from when I was a child,” ReeCee told us of her persistent drive to perform. “I thought that was just a childish thing, but it really wasn’t, that was instilled in me. I’ve always been a performer, but I was letting [my relationship] stop me from being who I wanted to be … Everything I wanted to do I was shot down, and I didn’t understand why I was living life that way.” We can’t speak for the past, but we can confidently say the future couldn’t be brighter for ReeCee.

Best Producer: FLLS

FLLS is your favorite rapper’s favorite producer. He’s worked with all the area’s best lyricists: Jah-Monte, SideNote, C. Shreve the Professor, Jay Pluss and the list goes on. One of his latest gems came on the track for Jah-Monte’s “Jewelry Rap,” in which the Charlotte rapper effortlessly glides over one of FLLS’ signature boom-bap beats, proving why the two have been a formidable duo over the years.

 

FLLS, pronounced “Fills,” has also cultivated other partnerships that have CLT hip-hop heads checking for specific collaborations. On Dec. 7, Cuzo Key’s Nionek 2 will feature four FLLS tracks, an exciting follow-up for anyone who bumped the pair’s Universal Player EP when it dropped in October 2018. Jay Pluss recently told us that he and FLLS are also working on a collaborative project that should drop in 2020, which he teased with the Black Friday release of the FLLS-produced “My Aaliyah Joint.” We can only imagine the amount of work the tireless producer is sitting on that we don’t know about yet.

Best R&B/Soul/Funk: Cyanca

Cyanca’s sultry soulful vocals and clear-eyed honesty drew comparisons to Solange and Erykah Badu when she dropped her Isle of Queens EP in 2017. That EP’s breakout jam “New Phone, Who Dis,” rode skipping beats and tinkling ivories borrowed from Hiroshi Suzuki’s 1975 jazz cut “Romance” to beguile and intrigue listeners. After consolidating her artistry with the You Can Tell EP in 2018, Cyanca released her most powerful and emotionally honest work to date in July with I’m Staying Home.

Cyanca (Photo by Aaron Kasey)

For Cyanca, the title of the EP, though inspired by a drunken quote from a friend during a night out on CIAA weekend, represents a state of mind. “It’s a perfect representation of me. I’m introverted, but I’m social, too,” she told Queen City Nerve. “In the morning times I love being home by myself. I’m just a homebody. It’s like I’m staying home, but I’m also letting you inside my life and my home.”

Best Emerging R&B/Soul/Funk: Leone

Leone’s debut EP Angst, which dropped in February, is a funkadelic throwback to a bygone era. Beginning with the release of his first single “Cut U Loose” in 2016, the now-23-year-old Breland is following the lead of contemporary inspirations like Anderson .Paak, Solange and Blood Orange to breathe life back into the dance floors of America. As the title denotes, however, Angst isn’t all about having a good time. Leone’s lyrical content covers heavy themes like depression and anxiety, issues that he has struggled with throughout his life. “I like to put the medicine in the candy,” Leone says. “You can enjoy it rhythmically, you can dance to it, but then also when you listen to it, there’s a message.”

 

Best Singer/Songwriter: Emily Sage

From the jazzy phrasing that sets her feathered alto spiraling into freefall to the hazy trip-hop beats that propel and intensify the lilting melody, Emily Sage balances control, romance and insouciant cool on her dreamlike single “Nearer to You.” The jazz and soul artist believes her lullaby-like songwriting style is influenced by her time spent growing up in Portugal. “The Other Side,” Sage’s cinematic collaboration with Charlotte R&B artist Greg Cox is a bright and soaring spiritual offspring of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” that’s drawn heavy rotation on NPR’s World Café. Sage is currently recording a full-length album with producer Dylan Byrnes in Nashville.

Best Comeback: Ashlee Hardee

The loss of a child is the worst nightmare of any parent. When Ashlee Hardee’s 21-month-old daughter Cecilia passed away suddenly and mysteriously last July, Hardee, who fronted lyrical indie folk band Matrimony for five years with then-husband Jimmy Brown, turned to activism and music to heal. Her tragic loss fueled the creation of The Cecilia Moon Project, a foundation to benefit the Levine Children’s Hospital and LifeShare Carolinas, an organization that coordinates the recovery and distribution of life-saving organs, eyes and tissues for transplantation. This year, Hardee started recording again.

Ashlee Hardee at an Evening Muse performance earlier this year. (Photo by Jeff Hahne)

“My music is different than Matrimony,” Hardee told Queen City Nerve. “It’s not folk. It’s more introspective, dark, pop and lyrically focused. This is me, naked as an artist. I call it pop noir because it even has a hip-hop influence. It’s me, in my bedroom, not giving a fuck. The music is raw, real, organic and in-the-moment.”

Best Community Response: Jonathan Hughes benefit shows

On August 20, after complaining of an intense headache, former Milestone owner Jonathan Hughes suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in his brain. He was rushed to Atrium Health Lincoln from which he was then airlifted to Charlotte. He has since partially recovered but is going through strenuous physical therapy in order to regain his ability to function as he did before the stroke. While his wife has updated his supporters through the couple’s GoFundMe page, the community has stepped up, hosting shows from Milestone to Petra’s to help Hughes get back on his feet, figuratively and literally. They’ve been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars thus far, but unfortunately, it’s only a fraction of what he’ll need to pay for his recovery, so help out if you can.

The Hughes family (from left): Jonathan, Nora and Stephanie. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Hughes)

Best Dance/Pop: Future Friend

Charlotte indie-pop duo Future Friend, made up of brother-and-sister pair Mitch and Faith Froemming, released all four tracks from their debut EP Secret Handshake in the months leading up to the project’s release in July, and they all came together to create the perfect short summer playlist, but the two didn’t stop there. They got back to work trying to capture some more autumnal vibes so that, come October, they were ready for fall with “Fire,” a toned-down, more seasonally appropriate relationship song just in time for cuffing season.

 

The two record all their music in Mitch’s bedroom studio, where they’ll continue to create pop hybrids that fit any time of year. “We’re both massive pop music fans and are always looking for ways to meld that influence with new sounds and ideas,” Faith told Queen City Nerve. “Our bedroom studio has become a little bit of an experimentation laboratory and we can’t wait for the world to hear what we’ve been working on!”

Best Hard Rock/Metal: Reason|Define

“It shouldn’t be surprising when a girl walks up onstage with her giant bass cabinet and Marshall stacks,” Paolina Massaro says, “but it is.” As lead vocalist for Charlotte-based hard rock and metal band Reason|Define, Masssaro is doing her part to make rockin’ women a commonplace sight on stages across the country.

After winning the 2016 award for Best Rock Band of the Year at the Carolina Music Awards, the hard-charging all-woman five-piece turned to recording their first album. On their energetic 2017 debut Far From Strangers, Reason|Define took on multiple styles of muscular and melodic rock and made them their own. The band’s latest album, In Memory…, is proof that Charlotte’s best metal band may be the next big thing to break out from the Queen City. Released last March, the album concentrates on the personal and sometimes painful issues confronting contemporary women, while rocking out with universal appeal.

Best Nerdcore: Gamebreax

At the University of North Carolina Greensboro, Gerreol Hoover and Sean Watson bonded over their love of video games, comic books and anime. Those shared interests rolled over into a mutual appreciation of hip-hop, rock and electronic music. Hoover and Watson are now both 38, and as Omega Sparx and SWATS respectively, they comprise nerdcore duo GameBreax, now five years into spreading the hip-hop gospel of video games.

Nerdcore is growing apace with gamer culture, says Watson. “You identify with reluctant heroes who don’t know they possess super powers,” he explains. “They’re thrust into situations that make them discover who they are.” Last summer, the duo stretched out, releasing solo projects. Hoover dropped the single “Don’t Touch Me,” a healing balm for sexual assault survivors, while Watson released “Never Stand Down,” a track dedicated to workers toiling in the confines of corporate America. Together as Gamebreax, they continue to display their super powers of dynamics, beats and compassion.

 

Best Album: Modern Moxie – ‘Claw Your Way Out’

Modern Moxie teased their debut album Claw Your Way Out in March with the propulsive single “Til I’m a Ghost.” In her fine-grained alto, front woman Madison Lucas namechecks a modern litany of scary monsters and super creeps including Brett Kavanaugh, and overcomes them all by determining to rock out. With a whirlwind of spiraling synths, crunchy guitar accents and an incongruous bossa nova beat, the tune plays like an update of David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” filtered through Canadian synth pop outfit Metric, and as good as it is, the other nine cuts envelope that single with a wide array of styles that all match well with “Ghost,” despite our fears that it would far outshine anything that came after it.

 

Best EP: Erick Lottary – ‘Summer on Central’

With the loss of Dairy Queen, summers on Central Avenue will never be the same. But fortunately, one of Charlotte’s best rappers was sure to capture that vibe for generations to come. Erick Lottary’s 5-track EP Summer on Central is an ode to Plaza Midwood that showcases a different side to the rapper. The more melodic, chorus-driven songs are less Player Made on a Friday night at Snug and more date night at Soul Gastrolounge before hitting a nearby dance floor with your main chick. Lottary has been stepping up his videographer game this year, too, and the EP came with a 10-minute documentary into what makes him tick: family, friends, music and the Queen City.

Best Song: Cyanca – “Patti Mayonnaise”

Behind Cyanca’s melodius vocals and the dreamlike keys of Harvey Cummings featured on “Patti Mayonnaise,” the first single off Cyanca’s three-track EP I’m Staying Home, lies a rollercoaster of emotions, from the nostalgic ups of jump ropes and driveway alley oops on a summer day to the painful downs of a young girl losing her mother and violently warning listeners of what she’ll do to anyone who harms the family she has left. It’s a purposeful duality that plays out through the EP, a strong nominee for the best of the year, but never as clearly as it manifests itself on “Patti.” Cyanca told us the dynamic was a goal she pursued after being inspired by a conversation between her manager and Travis Scott.

 

“Two main things that were the goal for this project were to make it universal — very catchy, very relatable to what people have gone through in the past — and at the same time, open up more about where I’m from and what I’ve been through with my testimony,” Cyanca said. It never hurts to kill two birds with one stone, especially when that stone becomes the CLT song of the year.

Best Video: Gasp – “The Foe”

Rock Hill art punk band Gasp released “The Foe” more than 10 years after an odd incident in Uptown Charlotte that inspired front man Josiah Blevins to write the song. Blevins was stopped at a red light while riding his bike through Uptown in 2008 and felt the gaze of a man in a nearby car, only to turn and see McCrory staring at him. In that moment, Blevins felt a visceral judgment being passed. “I had never crossed paths with the mayor, but feeling judged by him in an instant led me to feel like we were natural enemies,” Blevins recalls. “The light turned green and I rode away, but I always remembered that feeling of crossing paths with someone powerful and their disdain.”

While being stared at by the worst governor this state has seen in modern times is creepy, what’s even more creepy is the TwinPeaks-themed video the band released in October. The video depicts an outdoor search over the grounds of a spooky house by blindfolded members of the band and others before the interlude comes, during which the video crosses the veil into a world with blatant tie-ins to the Black Lodge from the popular TV show. We’d like to stay up all night sifting through all the symbolism from the chilling, mysterious visual, but first, we’re going to need some more coffee.

Best Local Show: Carolina Style at the Station House

An unassuming venue hidden along the Blue Line tracks in the most northernmost part of NoDa, the Station House can be hard to find, even when you can see it from North Davidson Street. Once we trekked over the tracks and made it in on the afternoon of June 29, there was no reason to leave until late into the night. The show brought together rappers from both sides of the Carolina border, including Erick Lottary, 10CellPhones, Spaceman Jones & The Motherships, Buddy Cuz and Diamond Miller, with literal show-stopping headlining acts from hometown heroes Elevator Jay and a ‘loc-less Deniro Farrar. With drinks flowing, live painting on site from Southern Tiger Collective and DJ sets from AHuf and DR, there was no shortage of local love to be spread.

Erick Lottary performs at Carolina Style. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Best National Show: Lizzo at Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre

As much as 2019 was Da Baby’s year (see previous entry), Lizzo had an equally big breakthrough to wrap up the second decade of the 2000s. In fact, her star shot up so fast that the folks at LiveNation quickly realized that The Fillmore, where they had already booked her for a show in September, would be too small for someone with a following that suddenly big. While we were thankful that Lizzo got moved from the Fillmore to CMCU Amphitheatre next door so that more people could enjoy her greatness in person, what we weren’t prepared for was the massive party that occurred at Charlotte’s smaller outdoor concert venue.

Lizzo performs at CMCU Amphitheatre. (Photo by Jeff Hahne)

From the moment the lights went down until the final notes rang out, Lizzo commanded the stage and brought fierce energy that was second to none. Her power of positivity and charming confidence makes her one of the most popular artists around these days. We almost want to get in line now outside of the box office to wait for her next show announcement. However, we can’t imagine the stellar singer ever playing a venue that small again.

Best Venue: The Evening Muse

The Evening Muse has been hosting quality acts from its corner on North Davidson and East 36th streets since April 2001. The venue teeters on the edge of quiet and intimate to loud and in-your-face. The Evening Muse is a place to gather inspiration at their weekly open mic on Monday nights or meet up with your friends for a drink at a local or touring show in the small NoDa space.

Colby Dobbs Band performs at The Evening Muse. (Photo by Joe Barbera)

Having the ability to bounce around to the other bars on the strip makes it a top contender in Best Venue. That isn’t to say that you aren’t going to have a good time making friends with owner Joe Kuhlman and the crew like Chris and Don Koster. It’s the top spot for cheap drinks, loud (but not too loud) music representing a wide variety of genres, from local rappers like Yung Citizen, regional talent like Asheville singer/songwriter Maya Beth Atkins to international acts like La Terza Classe. There’s always something new going on at The Muse.

Best Open Mic: Lisa de Novo at Legion Brewing

While attending college at Florida Gulf Coast University, Lisa De Novo began playing the guitar and using it as a way to make friends and help her deal with social anxiety. “I was always scared of people judging me too hard on my original songs,” she told Lara Americo upon the release of her debut EP in 2016. “But I still made myself play them and I was proud of myself when I did,” she said.

Lisa De Novo performs at Legion Brewing. (Photo by Jimmy Ski)

 

Now, De Novo has done perhaps more than anyone to encourage local up-and-coming musicians to come out from their shell and share their music on stage. She has participated in countless open mics around Charlotte over the last six years, and hosts a bunch of them throughout the year. One of the most notable experiences is at Legion Brewing in Plaza Midwood, where De Novo engages the crowd with The Word Game, passing around a piece of paper to get random words before improvising her way through a song or two.

Though it’s not clear that the Legion Brewing open mic will be returning in 2020, De Novo is always around where there’s a stage and a mic to be sung into. Most recently, she began hosting a new open mic in the Arts Room at Heist Brewery and Barrel Arts in north Charlotte on the fourth Friday of each month.

Best Performer in a Dramatic Role: Sultan Omar ElAmin as West in ‘Two Trains Running’

Sultan Omar ElAmin as West in ‘Two Trains Running.’ (Photo by Chau Nguyen)

Sidestepping his track record for grandiose humor, Sultan Omar ElAmin approached this role in Brand New Sheriff’s production of August Wilson’s play with a subtle intentionality that extended from his died-white beard to his gloved fingers. This smart approach to characterization unearthed the complexity of West’s unique relationship to power and money. By portraying a supporting character with such thought and intentionality, ElAmin added a realism to the peripheral world of the play, which bolstered the production’s overall exploration of the tension between personal and communal values.

Best Performer in a Musical Role: Allie Joseph as Little Alison in ‘Fun Home’

With an awareness of human growth well beyond her years, Allie Joseph balanced the anxiety of confusing desire with the unbridled joy of childhood to render a compelling snapshot of a young Alison Bechdel in this production from Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. Her striking characterization and remarkable vocals served as the uniting energy between Medium Alison’s teenage exploration and Big Alison’s careful reflection. Joseph’s ability to portray Little Alison’s distinct personal connections with each of her family members infused this musical with a much needed human honesty, helping the play to resonate clearly with Charlotte audiences.

Allie Joseph in ‘Fun Home’ (Photo by Fenix Fotography) 

Best Performer in a Comedy Role: Leslie Giles as Clarice in ‘Silence!: The Musical’

In an Actor’s Theatre script that could easily have come off as dated or insensitive, Leslie Ann Giles brought this production a comedic self awareness which effectively unlocked the humor embedded in the musical adaptation of Silence of the Lambs. Bolstered by a combination of bizarre facial expressions and a perfectly overstated accent, Giles’ Clarice became an endearing protagonist who seemed keenly aware of the audience’s contemporary lens.
Leslie’s ability to navigate the intricacies of playing an iconic film character from the early ’90s in a contemporary musical was achieved through a remarkable combination of technique, practice and smart self-awareness.

Leslie Giles as Clarice Starling (left) and Jeremy DeCarlos as Buffalo Bill in ‘Silence! The Musical.’ (Photo by Fenix Fotography)

Best Musical: ‘Cinderella’ by Little Opera Company of Charlotte

In the back of Birdsong Brewing, Little Opera Company of Charlotte presented a version of Cinderella plucked straight from a child’s mind and brought to life by professional opera singers. The magic of this performance captured the adoration of children and adults alike, proving the captivating power of authenticity and technique.

The cardboard sets and unconventional setting did not detract from the performance but created a space which invited those in attendance into the collective imagination of the work, thereby producing a delightfully close-knit connection between the cast and their audience. Most remarkably, this performance used their lack of resources to produce a high-quality, unique experience reflective of the company’s collective talents and vision.

Best Drama: ‘Two Trains Running’ by BNS Productions

Coming from a company committed to exploring August Wilson’s work, Two Trains Running reflected the contemporary power of this endeavor. Carefully chosen costumes, set and sounds placed the cohesive ensemble decidedly in 1969 Pittsburgh. This solid commitment to the realistic portrayal of such a specific moment allowed the contemporary themes of the work to resonate without becoming didactic. This production is a testament to the power of cohesion and intentionality when producing a classic script.

Devin Clark (foreground) and LeShea Nicole in ‘Two Trains Running.’ (Photo by Chau Nguyen)

Best Comedy: ‘Penny Pennyweather’ by PaperHouse Theatre

PaperHouse Theatre has a track record of taking funny seriously, and this production lived up to that reputation by every measure. From the pre-show ambiance of the space (complete with food, drinks, and thematic games) through the carefully practiced execution of the complex script, this show proved that good humor happens at the intersection of strong technique and an appreciation for play. With joy, dancing, carols and some uncomfortable plot moments, this play hit all the elements of holiday fun.

Best Collaboration: ‘Threads and Shadows’ by Sara Council Dance and JoyeMovement

Working together to create a site-specific modern dance piece for BOOM Festival, this pair of choreographers exemplified the compelling power of theme to put a work in intimate conversation with itself. Immersed inside the controlled chaos of the piece, the audience was invited to witness the ways each section reframed and refracted the others to examine the teacher between emotions and the body. Confident without being overbearing, this piece left audiences the sensory experience of a warm embrace from a protective mother.

Best Satire: ‘Leonce and Lena’ by Charlotte Ballet

Through remarkable technical skill and stylistic clarity, Leonce and Lena executed a clear vision with precision and fun. In this performance, the familiar narrative of young lovers pulled apart by fate becomes the framework for a layered interrogation of fate and power. From the Ubu-like king — a nod to the protagonist of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist fin de siècle parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth — to the contorted faces of the townspeople, the distinct choreography of each social group within this world disguised a biting critique of power with a humorous veil to generate a performance that was at once deeply meaningful and truly funny. This type of relevant, well-executed satire is a rare experience for Charlotte audiences and this performance delivered on all accounts.

‘Leonce and Lena’ (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Ballet)

Best Ritual as Performance Piece: ‘GUF (Thee Well of Souls)’ by XOXO

XOXO’s GUF (Thee Well of Souls) opened with the cast sweeping into the Goodyear Arts performance space on Halloween weekend — literally. Clutching brooms, Kadey Ballard, Jon Prichard and Cody Frye circled in a loose whirligig dance, and the energy and mystery never let up. What followed was a series of free-flowing vignettes, snapshots of moments strewn across time and space where the performance space seesawed between total darkness and sudden pools of light, a chiaroscuro of illumination and befuddlement, comedy and dread.

‘GUF’ cast (from left): Cody Frye, Jon Prichard and Kadey Ballard. (Photo by Pat Moran)

Because of the mix of ritual, absurdist comedy and full-blooded performances by Ballard, Frye and Prichard, the audience experienced the characters’ transformations with joy, hope and fear — all the while wondering what the fuck was going on. “It’s a theatre piece masquerading as ceremonial magic,” XOXO founder and artistic director Matt Cosper told Queen City Nerve. “Or it’s ceremonial magic masquerading as theater.”

Best Arts Festival: BOOM Festival

BOOM, Plaza Midwood’s annual three-day festival of avant-garde and grassroots performances returned in April with its eclectic mix of dance, music and theater. The festival’s fourth year featured over 120 performances at indoor venues including Petra’s, Snug Harbor, Open Door Studios, Rabbit Hole and Coaltrane’s, and on a free outdoor stage dubbed “The Intersection.” Newcomers to BOOM included Rhythmic Soul Dance Company, R&B artist Jason Jet, dance-and-activist troupe Yuhas & the Dancers, intimidating 8-foot-tall paper-mâché arts lecturer the Professor, and the transformative Sacrament of Reconciliation, a collision of live-action role playing and ritual. From its inception BOOM has been the realization of a dream to bring a first class fringe festival to Charlotte, festival founder Manoj Kesavan told Queen City Nerve. But this year BOOM exploded past that goal to become Charlotte’s largest, wildest and most diverse arts festival.

Yuhas & Dancers were some of the BOOM newcomers this year.

Best Circus Performance: ‘REVOL: Story of a Flag’ by Nouveau Sud

Circus arts ensemble the Nouveau Sud Project has never shied away from controversy. With REVÓL: The Story of a Flag, presented in August, the troupe’s aerialists and acrobats tackled their most difficult subject to date. Though it was never actually seen in the show, REVÓL’s titular flag is the Confederate stars and bars. Nouveau Sud founder and director CarlosAlexis Cruz and show co-creator and co-director Houston Odum turned this potentially heavy topic into a contemporary and energetic circus arts performance. The multi-faceted narrative followed multiple characters across several decades, all told through the movement, acrobatics, costumes and props of physical theatre. Characters portrayed by the cast included The Flag, The Spirit of the Flag and Vent de Changement, which is French for “Winds of Change.” The most unusual character, Heather, symbolized the mainstream media. By show’s end, Heather stalked the stage with a cathode-ray tube TV for a head, blind and unable to connect with others.

Nouveau Sud performs ‘REVOL: The Story of a Flag.’ (Photo courtesy of Nouveau Sud)

Best One-Person Show: ‘The Wake of Dick Johnson’ by Luke Walker

Dick Johnson is a hot mess. He’s a drunk, a drug user, a whoremonger, and he claims he was abused by the supremely creepy Uncle Willie who raised him. He’s also dead. The Wake of Dick Johnson, which premiered in May, is a funny, fearless and bleak one-man show written and performed by journalist, playwright and producer Luke Walker.

The moment Johnson rolls out of his coffin and quips that he’s late to his own funeral, audiences are in for a challenging and uncomfortable evening encompassing pedophilia, video of JFK’s assassination, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and more. Poetic, profane and black as a starless night, The Wake of Dick Johnson is a comic, eloquent and upsetting rumination on a meaningless universe where even death will not relieve the pain of living.

Luke Walker as Dick Johnson. (Photo by Pat Moran)

Best Comedy Event: Revolt Comedy

Over the last year, standup comics and comedy fans in Charlotte have seen the art form rapidly expand, with independent shows and open mic nights suddenly becoming a regular occurrence around the city and not just at Comedy Zone. One such event playing a role in this rapid expansion is Revolt Comedy, a regular showcase launched by comedian Brian O’Neil and DJ Romante Rahim that takes place at Heist Brewery on the first Monday of every month.

Brian O’Neill performs at a Revolt Comedy Show. (Photo by Serendib Photography)

O’Neil brings in plenty of talented comics, but also likes to switch things up. This year, the duo invited N.C. Rep. Jeff Jackson, who came and tried his hand at making the crowd laugh, but not before taking plenty of ribbing and roasting. “He was funny when he got up as well but the fact that he sat through the whole show and he took a lot of jokes from comedians who pointed him out [was impressive],” said Rahim.

Best Book: ‘Genesis Begins Again’ by Alicia D. Williams

Alicia D. Williams has worked jobs as a flight attendant, a bank teller, an actress with the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and a middle school teacher, but her most important role has been one she began to play within her own family and eventually brought into local schools and libraries: a storyteller in the oral African-American tradition.

Alicia D. Williams (Photo by Jasiatic)

On Jan. 19, Williams added author to her list of jobs, as she released her debut children’s novel, Genesis Begins Again. The book, which tells the story of a 13-year-old girl with a dark complexion, dives into themes surrounding insecurity, colorism and poverty, among others. “When I created Genesis, I only saw her as this 13-year-old,” Williams told Queen City Nerve. “Typically, we like to protect our children and say they can’t handle it, but I really do believe they can.”

Best Storytelling Series: Muddy Turtle Talks

Hannah Hasan (Photo by D’juana Lewis)

Hannah Hasan is a storyteller. Not stories of fiction or elaborate tales of wonderment and far-away places. She tells the stories of people in Charlotte and gives life to voices that fall on deaf ears in the city. Partnering with Q.C. Family Tree, Hasan shared the stories of gentrification and those displaced in west Charlotte at Muddy Turtle Talks Gentrification and Conversation at Warehouse 242 in February. Hasan’s goal was to rouse the community into action to address the problems of gentrification and removal of black neighborhoods.

“To see how different the city is, all the changes that have happened is really interesting,” Hasan said. “But also I’ve always felt like Charlotte is this pot that’s on the stove and it’s boiling. And there’s the lid that’s shaking and a couple of years ago with the Keith Lamont Scott shooting, that lid popped off. But there’s still stuff in the pot and there’s a lot of different people and groups and efforts and artists that are working to try to figure out, ‘How do we address what’s in the pot?’”

Best Arts Programming: Charlotte Unconventional Film School

Just two years ago, The Charlotte Unconventional Film School was an idea that had not yet planted itself in Julie McElmurry’s brain. It wasn’t until May 2017 — when she was considering taking a $2,000 documentary filmmaking class — that she realized the money could be put to better use right here in Charlotte as funding for a workshop program to bring affordable film education to the community.

Julie McElmurry leads an Unconventional Film School workshop. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Between January and April, McElmurry partnered with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library to host 10 free workshops covering a wide range of topics from storytelling to documentaries to secrets of making a successful film. Following that series of classes, she’s continued to teach workshops throughout the year, including a horror make-up tutorial on Halloween week that took place right here in our office building and creeped us the hell out.

“I want to empower people to have the skills, knowledge, tools and relationships with each other that are going to enable people to make film so that there’s a new wave of Charlotte filmmakers making new interesting movies that haven’t been made before; maybe about things that people haven’t made movies about, and to hear voices that maybe aren’t always heard in mainstream movie making,” McElmurry said.

Best Fiction Podcast: ‘Case for the Cure’ by Stationary Hobo Productions

In a podcast released in January and produced by Stationary Hobo Productions, writer and producer Kevin Patterson and sound engineer Adrian Parrish create a detective mystery in a noir-style world of post-zombie-apocalypse Charlotte.

Kevin Patterson records an episode of ‘Case for the Cure.’ (Photo courtesy of Stationary Hobo)

Case for the Cure takes place several years after The Fall, aka the zombie apocalypse, and Charlotte is declared a “Free Zone” where survivors can live without fear of zombies invading to search for victims to turn. It’s in this setting that detective Samwel Sift charges people to find zombiefied loved ones and bring back their heads, but when a new case brings Swift to Hickory, things get gory.

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