In 2003, Theo Hilton was a solo artist playing songs about being queer in front of mostly straight audiences at punk venues around Athens, GA, and the southeast. What started as an artistic outlet for his own personal experiences became a band called Nana Grizol in 2007, a four-piece punk project birthed from Hilton’s isolated existence as a small town queer boy.
On South Somewhere Else (Arrowhawk/Don Giovanni, 2020) Hilton uses the band’s fourth album to shine a light on the southern queer experience beyond feelings of isolation and onto his own privileged experience as a white man who grew up in a left-leaning, affluent college town. 17 years in, it is not enough for Hilton to simply sing sad love songs about boys, but to examine his personal concept of home, and to look unflinching at his own distant feelings about “the south” and his own complicated history of place.
“We Carry the Feeling” is about my experiences of what it felt like to be a queer person in the Athens, GA punk scene of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In that community I discovered leftist politics and aesthetics, and my queerness found some sense of acceptance but never quite inclusion. I didn’t have the language for it then, and I was unable to see how heteronormativity rigidly shaped the expectations of people around me and my self-perception. The collectives we create are always imperfect; we perpetuate what we critique in ways that are often difficult to see.
The song is also about finding and creating spaces of affirmation. I mean, that’s what drew us into DIY punk rock shows to begin with! Afternoons cruising downtown in drag, coveted hangouts with rare queer touring artists after shows, or all-night dance parties at the Go Bar, where I slowly came to feel quite welcome over its 20 years of existence and where we filmed the music video on the eve of its closing in 2019. Queer spaces are ephemeral. They are imperfect, and they are closely tied to place. I am shaped by my experiences in Athens: by the ways I experienced encouragement and rejection there, by my loneliness, and by little collective explosions of joy.
These themes pervade my band Nana Grizol’s forthcoming album South Somewhere Else. The songs collectively interrogate the notion that our lives ought to easily transcend the places we came from. I was raised in families that taught me a measured distance from “the South,” a mythical and essentialized place where my mother and stepmother were from, my father was not, and where we decidedly did not live. I have come to see that disavowal as both unintentional and essential to our experience as upper-middle class white people. Simply put, the fiction of whiteness is perpetuated when white people access upward mobility by denying our complex ties to place, history, and present inequity. This can happen in a family, a university, or a punk scene.
We can spend lifetimes unlearning internalized narratives about who we are and who we are not. It might be our most imperative task as we pursue self-acceptance and something akin to a just world. For me, that has meant slowly learning that I am worthy and capable of love and that my gender and queerness are not things to suppress or be ashamed of. It has also meant accepting that my own expectations have been shaped by other forms of privilege. At many points in my life I have desired to construct myself and build community outside of the messy world where we live. But there is nowhere “else.” Transformation and liberation come through vulnerable acts, collective courage, and connections across difference that we make together, right here.