July 8, 2018
Today is the big Sisterfire Festival day. We get a slow start, though, opting to skip the picnic. Instead we get carryout sandwiches and head for the 2 pm Narrative stage. Our Uber driver doesn’t know her way around DC. She finally drops us at the opposite end of The Mall from where we need to be (I really think she thought we were going to a shopping mall). We’re relieved to be out of her car and make the trek to the Folklife Festival site. Along the way we see Catalonians building a human tower and spot the location of our evening concert.
We’re late, but we do hear poetry – Black Radical Lesbian Poetry. I especially like the butch who spoke of her feminism not pleasing anyone: too masculine for some (not feminine enough), not masculine enough for others (too feminine). I want a copy of that poem, for I identify completely.
In another piece, this same poet refers to Gil Scott Heron: “The revolution will not be televised…the revolution will be LIVE.” This reveals myself to me as no longer believing that a revolution is coming – though it’s needed now more than ever. Total systemic change, Really? In my lifetime?
Leaving the Narrative stage, I freeze when I have a chance to approach Toshi Reagon. This is a very different me than the one who was boldly confident enough to get interviews from Alice Coltrane and Mary Lou Williams. How do I expect to get this project done; to reach goals I’ve set for myself and for which I’ve been funded?
In looking for a spot in which to eat our sandwiches, we stumble upon the festival picnic area and are urged to join those who are still there. We meet Kali Morgan, a dreadlocked leather merchant/sexuality expert who tells us about Sister Space, an upcoming festival. Her festival partner, Jo-Ann McIntyre, gives me an interview right then and there, pulling in a longtime producer of women’s events, Polly Laurelchild-Hertig. All three express an interest in our music and my project, which Z keeps urging me to talk about. My different endeavors, though related, seem compartmentalized in my brain, making it hard for me to promote everything at once.
We arrive late to the next event but hear most of the introductions and the performance by In Process, giving me a glimpse of what I might look like on stage five or ten years from now: old, lively, not elderly. The discussion and Q&A center around creating spaces for WOC performers (a Roadwork mission) and passing the torch to young women interested in “the work.” The daughter of one of the In Process singers speaks to the importance of Roadwork when, as a teen, she got a chance to learn many aspects of concert production through that organization, paving the way for her work as an adult.
After this session, we choose our place on the grass in front of the Ralph Rinzler Stage and await the main event, which opens with a welcome by the director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Sabrina Lynn Motley. It’s inspiring to see a black woman in that position. As she describes the Smithsonian’s plans for the coming year, I can see us applying all of our performing entities, there and at the Kennedy’s Millennium Stage.
Toshi Reagon and Big Lovely come on as pure fire, black lesbian rock and roll. Toshi’s energy and command of her band and the stage defy her difficulty walking on the festival grounds. Big Lovely is a tight band, made even more impressive as it serves as house band throughout the evening, including performances by Martha Redbone, a singer-songwriter whose message reflects her identity as Black and Native (Cherokee, Choctaw) and Sudanese-American performer Alsarah.
In addition to Big Lovely and Martha Redbone, my favorite performances of the evening are:
- Urban Bush Women, represented at first by a lone dancer – tall, thin, dark, wild haired, powerful warrior kind of woman. She enthralls the audience with her strength and grace, as she creates lines and shapes across the stage. She is then joined by three other women who match her in beauty and power. Their feet become percussion instruments, in choreography reminiscent of the South African gumboot dance.
- Holly Near, veteran of the Women’s Music movement and crowd favorite. Her lyrics and banter speak to the current political climate, the need for activism, and the personal experiences of love, loss, and aging. There is an earnestness to her singing that touches and opens the heart and a familiarity with her songs that inspires the attendees to sing, dance, and rejoice. Surely the roar of “We’re still here!!” can be heard for miles.
- Ariel Horowitz, classical violinist (who also played in the house band). Daughter of Roadwork co-founder, Amy Horowitz, her virtuoso performance is stunning.
- The Bernice Johnson Reagon Songbook, featuring the retired master of song herself under Toshi’s leadership. Although this closing set is rather long, it includes enough soul-stirring renditions of Sweet Honey in the Rock favorites and freedom songs to send us off full and satisfied.
I am left, however, with a question about why this festival, a celebration of diverse women's voices, is not attended by more people of color. What is the disconnect between women's music and black music lovers, especially in "Chocolate City?" Is it the lyrical content? homophobia? distrust? a lack of outreach/partnerships?
I long for the day when walls fall down.