Raleigh, N.C. — One thing’s for sure when it comes to Orlando Parker Jr. – the man can sing. At a recent show at a new venue in Raleigh called Imurj, that is evident enough. The 36-year-old soul-pop singer belted through his single “Valerie,” showing off a power and range reminiscent of his musical hero, Whitney Houston. But even after giving a strong performance, Orlando is less than pleased.
He’s annoyed because he feels that a music promoter in the Triangle (who shall remain nameless) has been disparaging Imurj, and that that might have driven some people away from his show. He says it’s a level of pettiness he’s familiar with after nine years performing in the Triangle. Some people just don’t want to get along.
“It’s just unfortunate,” he says. “[The local music scene] is currently suffering and could definitely benefit from an influx in camaraderie in order to grow and survive.”
But that sense of camaraderie is missing, says Orlando, at least when it comes to artists like him. As a gay, black man who lives in the South and grew up in the church, Orlando knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity. But, he says, it stings when you feel marginalized by artists, who pride themselves on being forward-thinking.
And while he doesn’t want to call anyone racist or homophobic, he can’t help but notice that some artists have easier access to the new clubs of Raleigh and the hip venues of Chapel Hill than others.
“There’s a lot of resistance,” he says. “We don’t have straight, white people reaching out to us and saying ‘Hey, do you want to be on this show with us?’ I put my own shows together.”
And it’s not as if Orlando isn’t putting himself out there. In addition to booking his own performances, he has also produced several music videos, is a committee member for the Raleigh Walk to Defeat ALS (where he just sang the national anthem this weekend), and holds down a day job. Still, it can seem sometimes as if it all amounts to so much tire-spinning.
“I often travel to London for modeling work” – oh, and he models too – ”and over there, they think of me and my music as new and interesting. Here it doesn’t seem to get much reaction.”
It’s enough to make him wonder if the Triangle is, after all this time, the right place for him. And it raises the larger question of whether or not talent and hard work are enough to make it here as an artist.
Because Orlando is nothing if not serious about his career. Born and raised in Detroit, he was steeped in the hard-working ethos of Motown from a young age.
“In Detroit,” he says. “You were not considered a professional artist until you had been paid. So I set that as a goal from early on. My first paid gig was when I was 19.”
After a stint in Atlanta hunting for a record deal, he came to North Carolina to find that the kind of nightlife and arts scene that had faded from Detroit long ago was now starting to emerge in Raleigh.
“This time,” he remembers thinking. “I knew I had to produce my own projects if I wanted to get anywhere.”
And so that’s what he set out to do -turning himself into a one-man production company with himself as the main product. He has steadily gained fans since, and has moved beyond the days of playing shows for free, but at this point, he’s unsure what the future holds for him. He may stay in North Carolina, or he may move again, perhaps to London, to find a more suitable environment for his music to flourish.
Either way, he feels that speaking up now about the challenges he’s faced might do some good for other LGBTQ artists and artists of color in the region.
“The objective is to shine some light on these things -things like inequality in the industry -in hopes that my shared experience will help bring about change.”
Hopefully that change comes while Orlando is still in town to enjoy it.
Making Art Pay
This story is part of a Raleigh and Company series profiling working artists as they try to make a living in the Triangle. We’ll talk to musicians, dancers, performers, painters and poets about the state of the Triangle arts scene and the possibilities for its future.