Kelcey Ledbetter walks us through the night that she performed at a highly protested drag show in Southern Pines—a night that ended with an act of vandalization that caused 45,000 homes and businesses to lose power.
Kelcey Ledbetter, known as SunQueen Kelcey on Instagram and Spotify, is a singer, songwriter and performer. She is also a native of Southern Pines, North Carolina. On the southern edge of Moore County, the picture-perfect, Hallmark-esque town masks the tension and long history of racial and economic divisions between residents.
On the afternoon of Dec. 3, Ledbetter was preparing her set for the Downtown Divas drag show at the historical Sunrise Theater. The venue, which at one point held firm to the Jim Crow policies of the South, was the site of choice for a show headlined by Black artists celebrating the queer community. The drag show’s announcement was swiftly met with positive feedback from the LGBTQ+ community and intense backlash, including threats and protests, from conservative community members and far-right extremists. By the end of the show, two power substations were vandalized, plunging the theater and 45,000 Moore County homes and businesses into a state of emergency for up to five days.
We interviewed Ledbetter about her experience leading up to the show, the power outage, and its aftermath. Listen here for the full interview.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Cardinal & Pine: I’ll bring us to the day of the show. What was the atmosphere like in town before the show started?
Kelcey: Surprisingly, the atmosphere was like a hustle and bustle type of vibe to me, but it was still very calm prior to the show. I was surprised. I’m a Southern Pines native, but I live in Greensboro and I haven’t been back often. Prior to the show, I don’t think I’ve been back since maybe 2020, possibly 2019. It’s one of those things that if I am there, I just drop right through. Seeing all these people downtown, just living their lives, not even there for the show, people just literally downtown enjoying a regular day for them, that was kind of surprising to me. I didn’t see the protestors until right before the show began.
What were you expecting?
Kelcey: I was expecting to feel a little bit of grief. I was expecting to feel a little bit of hostility when I was down there. When I grew up in Southern Pines, it was peaceful sometimes, but a lot of times, you could feel tension and so I didn’t really realize that there was such a positive vibe down here. Nowadays in 2022, I was not expecting that. So that was a huge surprise to me. One of my sisters was talking about how when we were kids, we went to a parade and the KKK was marching right behind us in Southern Pines. Southern Pines was welcoming such violent groups to be around kids, to be in positive environments, and they thought nothing of it. So to me, it was like, damn, I was not expecting to feel this way and expecting to see this Hallmark movie type of vibe. Like where everybody falls in love and no one has any problems or anything like that. That’s what I saw when I was down there and I was not expecting that.
When you first got there, would you say that the difference was a lack of hostility, or was there an openness for the queer community or the Black community?
Kelcey: I like what you said there, so I would say the first two. A lack of hostility and more of an openness for everyone. And now, when it comes to an openness for Black people, that’s still something I don’t feel Southern Pines has yet. I still feel like there is maybe an unofficial segregation still happening in Southern Pines. But again, I don’t live there, so maybe someone from that area that lives their daily lives there now would have something different to say. But I feel like Southern Pines will always be very white, very divided, very rich. But also, there’s a huge gap between the socio-economic levels that Black people have versus white people.
When the show was going on and the power first went out, what was going through your mind immediately?
Kelcey: I’m going to be honest with you. When it first cut out, I was like, okay, ‘We really having a good time, it’s real lit in here, maybe there’s a lot of power being drawn from the theater.’ Because it’s old, so that’s understandable. Plus, I’ve been to quite a few shows where we had so much power on stage, that we knocked out the power to the venue. So that was something that was not new to me. But as time passed, we kept getting reports like, ‘Oh no, it’s the whole block.’ And then my sister texted me and she was like, “Yo, do y’all have power at your show? Because I don’t have power here.” And she lives in Aberdeen. And so I was like, okay, so maybe it’s just Southern Pines and Aberdeen.
Then she gets a message from the food bank and she’s like, “So the whole county doesn’t have power, no one has power.” And she’s like, “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but y’all must have pissed somebody off.” So at that moment, once she says the whole power is out, I immediately think it’s the Proud Boys. I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s the far right extremists, we really pissed them off.’ They said that it wasn’t anything but maybe 40 or 50 of the protestors from that side out there. But to me, I was like, ‘Well then where the rest of them at? Oh, they’re cutting the power out. That’s what they’re doing.’
[Editor’s note: While there is speculation about who vandalized the power substations and its connection to the show, police and FBI investigations remain ongoing and no conclusive determinations have been made].
What kind of feelings came up within you and that you could feel from the crowd when it cut?
Kelcey: There was so much love and support and just beauty and enthusiasm. People were happy to be there, people were happy to be in a space for a cause and to show people what love really looks like. And to be honest with you, throughout this show, if I hadn’t known that there was a protest going on outside that so many people had issues with us doing that, I never would’ve known anything was happening outside because of how much community and how tight knit everybody was and how packed it was inside. The energy was crazy. But again, if anybody wants to see what true love looks like, that show was it. It was everything.
What would you say are the foundational points of the queer community that you’ve experienced?
Kelcey: To me, the foundational points are being there for each other, being able to be transparent and to be your true self, and allowing other people to be able to do that with you. There are some people that have come out to their families and have been completely disowned or abused from that. And when you go to the queer community, the way that they accept you and embrace you, it’s something that I have not experienced since I moved out to Greensboro. In Southern Pines, I didn’t even feel that, to be honest with you.
I think the other foundational points would be to truly learn how to love yourself as well as loving your community, because I don’t think that you can truly do self-care and truly be about yourself unless other people are taking care of you. It starts with where you come from. It starts with the people that love you the most, that hold you close. And so, those foundational points will be love and support and making sure that people can be their authentic selves around you as well. I used to say, ‘positive vibes only’ or ‘good vibes only,’ but that’s not real life. I think that you should allow people to show up when they’re in a bad mood, show up when they’re not feeling their best, and let them just breathe and let them live and let them go through that experience. But also protect yourself at the same time, because there’s no excuses for certain behavior, but you can’t expect everyone to always be on the same wavelength.
There’s so much love in this community, and it has been targeted by hate groups and extremists – is this the first time you’ve been at an event that’s been directly targeted by extremists in your adult life?
Kelcey: In my adult life, this is the first time I’ve performed at an event that’s been targeted. I’ve been in plenty of protests, but not necessarily performed at these protests. So yeah, this was the first time. I hadn’t experienced anything like that.
How has the whole experience impacted you in terms of your outlook on the world?
Kelcey: I kind of went through a range of emotions. There were certain layers that I thought about. I thought as far as, what can I do to help protect the people that are close to me if I were to be targeted as an individual? And then I thought about how all this got started. Who started the protest? But then, sometimes I’m like, you got to pick and choose your battles, because I think the most important thing was the fact that there were so many people that still wanted the show to go on, regardless of how many threats we were getting and regardless of what other people were experiencing.
That actually fueled us to want to do the show even more. Because again, love wins in the end. And to know that the show was sold out and people were still trying to get tickets in there, to know that security was tight, to know that all the performers, we had each other’s backs, we took care of each other. I don’t know. That… just was so overwhelmingly beautiful to see and to experience, that it canceled out almost everything else that was happening. I was like, yeah, I’m sure these people want to inflict violence on us, but the fact that I feel so protected in here, I’m not worried about anything right now.
If you were asked by a younger person or even an older person, what advice would you give to someone from a rural area in North Carolina who may not feel safe about coming out?
Kelcey: My advice would be, there’s power in being brave, but there’s also power in knowing that the world is so much bigger than what you know right now. And that if you were to step outside of your own world, you would be able to find your community. I think that probably would be the first thing is, try to find your community now. It’s hard to tell somebody to not be afraid when I have no idea what you’re going through. People’s circumstances are just so different.
I guess I should add, when people talk about loving yourself and everyone should be able to love themselves, or if you don’t want to be alive or if you’re going through something that means you don’t love yourself or something like that, but I think that’s bullshit. I think that you don’t have to completely love yourself to want to be alive, to want to enjoy life, to want to experience life. I know I’m not the first person to say this, but I feel like there are other people around you that can love you more than you do, and they can show you how much you are deserving of love.
After the power went out, I saw that you did a lot of outreach on your social media platforms to help people find resources around the community. How did you see the community of Moore County come together?
Kelcey: Listen, I honestly didn’t know that there were a lot of mutual aid efforts being done in Moore County, but I’m telling you, when I started looking for the resources, I was like, ‘Oh wait, people are truly using their own generators, using their own foods and water supplies and trailers and things like that to help their neighbors, to help out everyone else in Moore County.’ I saw people coming together like I had never seen it happen before. To me, Moore County is in such a racial, social, and economic divide, that I had never expected to be able to see people like that come together. But you have people making authentic Mexican dinners on the grill with their generators and things like that. And then you had people offering showers and laundry for people that needed to come by. And it was amazing to see something like that. I did not expect it. I’m not even going to lie, I don’t want to talk shit, but that is not the Moore County that I remember.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
Kelcey: Yes, I would love to talk about my sister. My sister is Jessica, and she works at the Sandhill Food Bank as a network supervisor. And she is absolutely awesome in her activism, in the way that she shows up for people, and how hard she works at the food bank, because she was sending me a lot of those leads that I was getting, and I would find some of them on my own, but the food bank leads and stuff, she was like, “Can you please share this?” And she has been working her ass off, and I just want to give props to her. She’s somebody, if you call her, if you need her, she is going to hit the ground running. She will drop everything to make sure that you are taken care of and that you feel loved. And so, shout out to her because she put in so much work trying to make sure that she could help serve the community with no cost distribution meals and just, I don’t know, she’s just amazing. She’s absolutely wonderful. So that’s who I want to shout out.