Singer-songwriter Allison Russell was on the Cayamo Cruise when the legislature back in her adopted home of Tennessee began to rush through a series of anti-LGBTQ bills. First, SB1 and HB1, which ban and criminalize healthcare for trans youth, went through, and then the much-discussed drag bills SB3 and HB9 followed. “It was like, OK, this is the moment. Years later we’ll look back and say, ‘How did it happen?’” Russell tells Rolling Stone.
Russell has written and spoken openly about her experiences as a queer Black woman and survivor of childhood sexual abuse, chronicling them fearlessly on her debut solo album Outside Child. As she witnessed these laws being enacted in Tennessee, where she lives with her partner JT Nero and their daughter, she was restless. “I couldn’t sleep after I got back from this boat, where I had been feeling very conflicted about my presence, sailing through Caribbean waters,” she says. “Last time my ancestors were on a ship in those waters, it was in chains.”
The Grammy nominee reached out to musician friends as well as industry contacts including Thirty Tigers president David Macias, manager Tracy Gershon, Live Nation’s Ali Harnell, journalist Hunter Kelly, and sociologist/writer Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottem, for guidance. Together they hatched a plan for Love Rising, an all-star benefit concert set for March 20 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. In addition to Russell, the lineup includes Jason Isbell, Sheryl Crow, Amanda Shires, Brittany Howard, Hayley Williams, Maren Morris, and Brothers Osborne, among many others. Proceeds will go to Tennessee Equality Project, Inclusion Tennessee, Out Memphis, and the Tennessee Pride Chamber.
We asked Russell about what these laws mean for Tennessee, how the Love Rising concert came together, and how her musical community plans to keep fighting the good fight.
Tennessee has the horrible distinction of being the most inimical to our queer community. All of the red and even some purple states are passing these horrific bills — they’re going hard against trans community and now the drag community, but really, it’s all queer identity that they’re targeting. It’s been a problem in Tennessee for a long time. This has been happening gradually and now it’s gotten to this extreme juncture. We’ve got to do whatever we can to perform circles of protection in our vulnerable communities. It’s time for allies to step forward, and it’s time for us to link our arms and be in our powers together.
The trans community is not a threat to the cisgender community. Drag queens are not a threat to children. There are zero cases of drag queens grooming or sexually assaulting children. Do you know how many cases there are of youth pastors or religious leaders grooming and assaulting children? Hundreds in Tennessee. Some of these people are still leading their flocks. It offends me deeply as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, whose primary abuser was a white supremacist. I survived my childhood because of my queer community. That’s where I found safety. That’s where I was loved as I was. We find safety with our chosen family. And for that chosen family to be getting slandered and maligned and criminalized, I take it very personally.
The fascist playbook is divide and conquer. You convince people that they’re isolated and powerless and no one cares and no one will join with you in a cause. It’s always a lie. The truth is, most people care. Most people don’t feel good about that kind of overreach of government. Healthcare for trans youth is between that youth, their family, and their healthcare providers. It’s not the government’s job to step in and have deeply inexpert opinions. That’s absurd.
So I sent a text out and it was resounding — “Let’s do a big benefit concert. Let’s support the effort.” We needed to do as big of a benefit as we can to put money back in the coffers of all of the organizations that are in the trenches of this resistance fight, so that Inclusion Tennessee and OutMemphis and the Tennessee Equality Project and the Tennessee Pride Chamber are being shown love and support. There’s going to be lawsuits, there’s going to be bailing people out. There’s going to be the underground pipeline to get trans kids the healthcare they need. There’s going to be endless things we have to do to circumnavigate these laws.
I also needed the ally community to show up for us. And everybody was on the same page, because everybody’s feeling the same way. [Thirty Tigers president] David Macias said, “Jason [Isbell] and Amanda [Shires] are wanting to do the same thing. We were just talking about this.” So we decided to pool our resources. Looking Out Foundation said they would help with fundraising and match funds up to $100,000. And we started reaching out to people. We had pie in the sky people, and then Ali Harnell — who works for Live Nation and who’s been a mentor to me — said, “Let me see if we can get a hold at Bridgestone Arena.” March 20, the first day of spring, was available. How symbolic is that?
Then we said, who can we get? Because we have to sell those tickets. We need allies to show up now. We all formed this brain trust and started doing outreach. We’ve gone from, “Gosh we should do this” to this unbelievable coming-together of people who just said yes. There are special guests still yet to be announced and it’s going to be a very magical love-in of a night. With this concert, there will be people who got the ping on their Bandsintown that Hayley Williams is coming. They’re just going to go see Hayley Williams and they have no clue what we’re doing. But when they come, the medium becomes the message.
You’re going to see a stage that is fully integrated with beautiful artists of every identity coming together to support these organizations and the crucial human-rights work they’re engaged in. So that person who just came because they like Hayley Williams, they’re going to leave having been emotionally connected to all of us. That’s healing. That’s the work that art can do that politics can’t do.
I keep thinking about Labyrinth and Jennifer Connelly’s character: “You have no power over us!” They only have the power we grant them, truly. These are unconstitutional laws. I don’t care how many of them Governor Bill Lee signs, they remain fascist and unconstitutional and we are going to fight them. There are a lot more of us in this world who want equality, and who care about actual freedom.