Show Stopper

Adeem the Artist

Show Stopper

For queer performer Adeem the Artist, a shortened set at a concert in Farragut raises questions about whose families are included in “family friendly.”

by jesse fox mayshark • August 27, 2021

Adeem the Artist

Adeem the artist, the "Cast-Iron Pansexual." (Photo by Madison Miles)

Adeem the Artist had no reason to expect an unfriendly reception when they arrived to perform as part of a free public concert in Farragut last Saturday.

A songwriter who explores Southern and sexual identities finds a fault line.

Adeem — whose full name is Adeem Bingham, and who uses they/them pronouns — had played at the Lawn Chair Concert Series several times in previous years, without incident. They said that when the promoters of the event invited them back this year, it was with the full knowledge that Adeem’s latest album is called Cast-Iron Pansexual and is full of songs taking a heartfelt and often humorous look at Southern culture and sexual identity.

“Even if they had told me when booking the gig, ‘Hey, just don’t say pansexual,’ I probably would have told them, ‘I don’t think you should have me at this gig,’” Adeem said in an interview this week. “I don’t need the money that bad to hide what I do.”

Instead, what happened at the concert in Founders Park is that about 30 minutes into what was supposed to be a 45-to-60-minute set, organizer Shandy Dixon asked Adeem to wrap it up. Thinking that the event must be running behind schedule, Adeem obliged. It was only later that they realized the issue wasn’t time but sensitivities — specifically, those of some audience members who were offended by Adeem’s performance. 

In a Facebook comment responding to questions about why the set was cut short, Dixon wrote, “A fellow fan of Adeem let me know that there was chatter amongst parents about dialogue. I book Adeem every chance I get because I love Adeem, love the music, love what they stand for. When this information was relayed to me, I looked at my watch and considered the time while feeling overwhelmed and worried that their message would be lost if a social media battle were to ensue over use of language and children.”

Adeem disputes that there was anything inappropriate in their stage banter and suspects it had more to do with discomfort at their presence at all. They said they wish the organizers — who they had considered friends — had stood up for them.

“I don't think that they're bigoted people, I don't think that they're homophobic people, and I don't think that they did anything that they did out of malice,” Adeem said, noting that they had been paid the full agreed amount for their set. “I think that their main sponsor is a Baptist church, and they stepped a little too far in the mud. And they didn’t realize the backlash they were going to get.”

The Lawn Chair Concert Series is presented every summer at Founders Park and lists as its sponsors First Baptist Concord Church and the Town of Farragut, in addition to several local businesses.

But Dixon, in an interview, said the church had nothing to do with the on-the-spot decision to cut the set short. She had not been watching the whole set, because she was busy tending to logistics. She reacted to concerns raised by a parent about use of the word “sex” on stage, which she was afraid could blow up into an unnecessary social media controversy. Adeem, for their part, said the only mention of “sex” was in the word “pansexual” — which is in the title of their album.

“In the moment, I didn’t have time to go do a deep investigation into this,” Dixon said. “I just thought, ‘I do not want to wake up tomorrow and have Adeem be the target of Farragut mom blogs.’”

By ending the set quickly, Dixon said, she thought she could head off controversy that could hurt Adeem. But she acknowledged it ended up creating ill feelings that still linger. Over the past week, local social media has lit up with support for Adeem, but there have also been complaints on Farragut neighborhood groups about the concert not being “family friendly.”

“This is my fault, and I’m sorry to everyone I hurt by making a series of poor judgments,” Dixon said.

Southern Discomfort

Adeem, who was born in North Carolina and raised both there and New York, moved to Knoxville with their partner in 2010. At the time, they were playing Christian-inflected folk music. But that changed as they left the church and absorbed the influences of indie-folk performers like The Mountain Goats and Pedro the Lion, before moving deeper into country-folk roots music. Since 2015, they have become a fixture of the Knoxville music scene — and of the Lawn Chair Concert Series.

“Adeem is hands-down my favorite writer within 300 miles,” said Dixon, who has booked them in one capacity or another at every edition of the concert series.

Cast-Iron Pansexual, which was released online in March, represents Adeem’s full embrace of sexual and gender identies — pansexual and nonbinary — that they said were suppressed throughout their Southern childhood. (You can listen to it on their Bandcamp page.)

“It’s about the intersection of class and sexuality, especially as it pertains to being in and of the American South,” they said. “I think it’s part of a larger movement that’s happening right now. It’s just this reclamation that’s happening. I see it in my Black friends who are letting their hair go natural — things that they were embarrassed by or ashamed by or made to feel like weren’t OK are what make them beautiful. I see it in my queer friends who are saying, ‘Wait a minute, this is my music.’ And I’m part of that movement.”

Cast-Iron Pansexual has attracted the most notice of Adeem’s career to date, earning a warm write-up from Rolling Stone, which called it “equally clever and poignant.” It also won the attention of the website Country Queer, which covers LGBTQ performers in country and Americana genres. In a positive review, writer Syd Miller said the album “sends the message that it’s okay to be yourself.”

For Adeem, that includes sometimes wearing feminine clothing, makeup and nail polish. For last Saturday’s show in Farragut, they said, they wore “a yellow floral romper and a red blazer, a la The Golden Girls. It said ‘Dollface’ on the lapel. And I had my nails painted pink.”

They suspect their appearance alone was enough to discomfort some parents at the all-ages show, which included some small children dancing in front of the stage. Adeem, who is parent to a young child themself, bristled at the idea that there was anything not ”family friendly” about open expression of queer identity.

As they put it in an Instagram post with a photo of them with their child, “I want to be real clear about something. The message here is *not* that I should not have been hired for a family friendly event such as @lawn_chair_concertseries. The message here is that Queerness *is* family friendly and that nothing I said or did was inappropriate for families- PERIOD.”

Adeem, meanwhile, is preparing for their next show: the pandemic-delayed record-release concert for Cast-Iron Pansexual this Saturday, Aug. 28, at the Old City Performing Arts Center. (Information and tickets here.)

A Farragut Issue?

Farragut has long been one of the most politically and culturally conservative corners of Knox County. It is the home base of state Rep. Jason Zachary, the Republican firebrand of the county’s legislative delegation.

The town made national news in 1998 when the then-principal of Farragut High School canceled a free concert by the lesbian folk duo the Indigo Girls, ostensibly over concerns about inappropriate language at a previous show. Students and local LGBTQ activists charged that the real issue was the singers’ sexuality, and pointed fingers specifically at the local influence of First Baptist Concord.

But Adeem said they don’t think it’s just a matter of which town Saturday’s concert was in.

“It’s not an issue with Farragut, it’s not an issue with (Dixon), this is a societal issue that we’re experiencing,” they said. “It has a lot to do with Christian puritanism, it has a lot to do with heteronormativity and the patriarchy, and I mean it's just stuff we're gonna have to get in the mud with and talk about and have uncomfortable conversations with. That's the only way it gets better.”

Dixon echoed those sentiments. But she insisted her actions arose from haste rather than any kind of bigotry. She said earlier in Adeem’s set, before she started hearing crowd concerns, she was marveling at what they had achieved.

“I was so proud,” she said. “We were in Farragut, and there stands Adeem in a yellow romper with the little animal-print booties, just singing their butt off.”

She said she hopes to be able to mend relations both with Adeem and with any supporters of the concert series who might have questions about it. She said she has already heard from First Baptist Concord that it will continue to support the series.

“The church called actually and let me know that they’re with us and they’re going to move forward with us,” Dixon said. She is meeting with Town of Farragut officials today.

In fact, much of the reaction online even from those who attended the concert has been positive. One mother wrote on the Facebook page for the event, “My kids and I LOVED Adeem!! What a talented, wonderful performer. They definitely gained 3 new fans! Xoxo”

And a TikTok video Adeem made this week playing one song that some audience members apparently objected to, “Asheville Blues,” unexpectedly went viral and has racked up more than 230,000 views.

As for the Lawn Chair experience, they said they’re mostly hoping for acknowledgement that it is OK for LGBTQ people to be themselves in public places, on stage or off.

“I'm not expecting everybody to know everything, and not to do anything fucked up or bigoted or ever make mistakes,” Adeem said. “I'm not a cancel culture person, I don't want Lawn Chair to be shut down. But when you make a mistake like that you just own the mistake and say, we're going to make it better, we're going to do better, we're going to do different. That's it.”