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At SXSW, seeking exposure in the time of Trump with an anthropomorphic ape

AUSTIN, Texas  -- On Wednesday night at the South by Southwest music festival in the Texas capital, Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff addressed the crowd during her band's early-evening set. 

"There are a lot of people trying to divide us right now," Segarra said before singing "Pa'lante," a determinedly optimistic song  -- its title is Puerto Rican slang for "forward"  -- from her band's pointedly political album The Navigator. "And we're not going to allow that, are we?" 

Segarra was singing at the NPR Music showcase at Stubb's BBQ, a signature midweek event at SXSW, the sprawling festival and conference that took over the streets of this south-central Texas city in 105 official venues and probably at least that many unofficial ones.

That charming comedy was scored by Thomas Hughes and Gretchen Lohse, the Kensington musicians and visual artists who record as indie pop duo Carol Cleveland Sings and who were in town to spread the word and play a show at an Austin burger joint.  More on them later. 

Segarra's remarks about unity sounded semi-ironic at SXSW, which in many ways is the most fractured of festivals by definition.  

Every badge-holder and band member is united by a common calling of getting their hustle on in hopes of making their dreams come true in a Darwinian industry. 

Many of them were from Philadelphia, including the seven bands that played the REC Philly showcase Tuesday night, featuring indie rock and R&B acts. (Sorry, I missed it due to a flight-canceling snowstorm. It was said to be a winning event, "a neat mix of styles you wouldn't normally see together," according to Patrick Wall of Philly band Queen of Jeans, which was on the bill.) 

But SXSW is not defined by huge communal events so much as by thousands of micro-niched ones. 

The concept of #FOMO -- fear of missing out -- may in fact have begun in the '90s at SXSW, where you can't possibly be two places at once. Sure, I would like to have cut the blocks-long line and seen Solange on Wednesday (though she is coming to the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia on June 3). 

Instead, I was over at the Russian House, having my universe expanded by Qawalistan, the all-the-way-from-Islamabad band fronted by harmonium player Imran Aziz that combines the influence of incantatory Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and '70s heavy rockers Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Sorry, fellow festivalgoers, but I win!

Of course, Segarra wasn't talking about divisions in musical genres at SXSW. Wearing a "No Human Is Illegal" T-shirt, she was speaking to the politics of fear. And the sense that walls are going up to separate Americans, with arts and culture under attack.

Evidence of that broke during the NPR showcase, which had kicked off with PWR BTTM,  the fabulously glammy and proudly queer duo of Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins. Those keeping an eye on Twitter during the band's ferociously fun set saw news breaking that President Trump's budget proposes to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund NPR.