Fact: SassyBlack was a theatre kid.
That might not surprise some who've been following the career of the local multi-faceted artist since her breakout with Seattle duo THEESatisfaction. The fiery artist (real name: Catherine Harris-White) has always known how to command a stage. But, did you know she played "Rizzo" in the stage production of Grease?
"Most people don't know that about me," SassyBlack tells KEXP over Zoom. "I performed with the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, the last production they had at the Paramount Theatre. I have a picture from the Seattle Times when I did that, and I was 17-years-old. Before I really started gunning into music, I was doing stuff in college. I was at the Intiman Theatre, doing a bunch of shows."
And now, over a decade later, life is coming full circle for Harris-White as her past and present collide for the future: she will be writing a musical for Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, as part of their First Draft: Raise Your Voice commissioning program. The annual program seeks to "foster new musicals by writers from populations that have been left out of the musical theater canon; encourage and support brand new stories from authentic perspectives; and introduce new, creative voices to theater professionals and producers to amplify their work so that it is seen, heard, and developed by the greater musical theater community."
"I've always wanted to write a musical," she admits. "I have this show/musical/weird thing I've been thinking of for, like, five years. This thing's always been matriculating, living in my brain. And then I was like, let's spew it out and see if anyone catches on."
SassyBlack's lifelong love of song can be traced back to her childhood. "I have kind of a silly musical family, like, we just like to sing a lot," she shares. "When I was telling them I was doing a musical, they're like, [sings] are you doing a musical? And then, [sings] "I'm doing a musical!" And we just started busting into song and we kind of did it for like an hour or two and it would be obnoxious to literally anyone else in the world. But for us, it was just a wonderful day. "
SassyBlack's submission is titled Emerald Jett, described as a "sci-fi funk musical about the trials and tribulations of a 34-year-old Black woman based in Seattle." It continues:
Soooo... any autobiographical elements?
"Oh, yeah," she laughs. "Yeah, I definitely feel like an alien every waking hour, every waking moment. Sometimes I feel I'm of this planet, but other times I'm like, no, no, just beamed here at one point or, like, I don't know when my ancestors were beamed here. So, I feel like Emerald is definitely experiencing that. And then, just to have it at this time in your life. People don't really talk about like your mid-30s — it's always like your 20s, your teens, and then your 40s and 60s. It's like all these weird gaps that are just jumped over. So I was like, let's have a weird mid-30s crisis."
"Emerald lives in me," she continues. "My name is obviously Catherine Harris-White, and I've been finding more peace in sharing that and moving through that, because it was a struggle for a while. I was like, 'everyone, call me Sassy,' and things like that. So, I'm reclaiming myself and it feels really powerful. A little stressful sometimes, but yeah, you know. Sassy is a part of me. Emerald is a part of me. So, she's telling this story, too. And it's really interesting. She'll just pop up in my thoughts. Well, all right. I gotta go jot that down. What else happened, girl? And then she's gone. I'm like, you're only gonna gift me half? And she's like, you must work out the rest. I wish you would just tell me the whole story... Yeah, sounds kind of bonkers, but that's literally how it works."
For the first draft of Emerald Jett, SassyBlack has teamed up with local interdisciplinary artist Anastacia-Reneé, an award-winning author, educator, TEDX speaker, and podcaster. The two met at Hedgebrook, a writer's retreat on Whidbey Island. Emerald Jett will be their first collaboration.
"Anastacia-Reneé is amazing," SassyBlack enthuses. "I just love her and I'm really inspired by her. She's done a lot of one-woman shows, she has books, and all kinds of crazy stuff going on. She just finished a show at the Frye Art Museum that happened at the beginning of the year."
"So, we've just known each other for a while, and knowing that I was going to be applying for this thing that was nerve-racking... I've never written a script — I write a lot, but like a script? I've read a lot of scripts, but writing one? I was like, I need someone I feel safe with, who I know is thoughtful, also a Black queer person. She was an easy pick and she was available. She's incredibly busy. I'm so grateful."
Harris-White has been gravitating towards collaborative composition over the past few years, crafting music for clients including Microsoft, WNYC, and the University of Washington. One of the more recent projects she's worked on was the 2020 film Keepers of the Dream: Seattle Women Black Panthers, produced and directed by Patricia Boiko, an award-winning documentary filmmaker. As the title alludes, the movie tells the story of the female members of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party, founded in 1968 and folded in 1978. The film opened early last year (pre-COVID) to sold out audiences at the Northwest Film Forum.
"I asked many people for a recommendation for a composer for Keepers of the Dream," Boiko told us over email. "I had the same composer for all my other documentaries and was not used to working with anyone else. A former music professor at Cornish, our editor-camera person, and Jack Straw all told me about her. All roads led to SassyBlack."
"She is such a delight," she continued. "We gave her full creative control and she guided us to ask questions that would point her in the direction of what music would best suit the material. She looked at footage of the five women [featured in the documentary, below] and composed variations that fit each perfectly. We recorded and mixed at Jack Straw. She showed up with all women instrumentalists — flutist, sax, trombone, and guitar."
"I was really honored," SassyBlack says, remembering being asked to compose the score. "It was what I was asking for from the universe. I was trying to put myself in a different position, because performing hadn't been as satisfying for a little bit. I didn't feel like people really understood what I was doing on the stage. I feel like people really wanted to see a band or all these other things, but they didn't really have respect for how much effort it took for me to do what I do, which is an overarching issue in the music community in general. But then add being Black and queer and a woman. So, it was losing a lot of its luster."
"But, I also wanted to focus more on strengthening my composing," she adds. "I went to school to study music, and so I got back into music theory and things like that. It was like, oh, this is kind of a gateway. So, it was really nice and really fun to work with Patricia. And it helped me strengthen how I work, because I have a certain way that I work with people who commission me to do work. It really helped me feel solid in that process. And she just was so kind. It was a really nice, kind team."
And, of course, the subject matter hit home for SassyBlack. "The funny thing is, they didn't know that as a young activist, I actually met [Black Panther co-founder] Bobby Seale! And I met [Black Panther chairwoman] Elaine Brown when she came here. I had a special private dinner with her and some other young activists. So, they didn't know that my activist history actually was embedded with some of the Black Panthers who are historically known as well. So really interesting, funny, universal. I was like, yeah, I'm into it, you know!"
But, don't think these other projects are slowing down her solo music career. "I'm working on two EPs that are coming out next year — one's in February [titled BLK], so, like, soon. I'm so excited because I have an outside voice. So, someone's voice other than mine will appear for the first time on one of my projects. I can't tell you who," she teases, "but when you see it, you'll be like, wow! And I will be coming out with an album in 2023."
The prolific powerhouse has also become "listener powered," releasing her latest work exclusively to her subscriber base via Bandcamp. "Most of the music I release nowadays is just for my subscribers. I just stopped putting it out on Spotify and all this other stuff. [It] has been really nice for me, like people who are really dedicated and interested in hearing the experience get to go there. It's only $7.70 a month, all the music I've released now is available as part of the catalog. So, you start today, you get, like, 20 projects immediately and then you get a discount as well on buying merch from me and things like that."
"But it's a really great way to support me directly. Streaming services exist, there will always be some kind of distribution service that exists... OK, cool. And then, they decide how the payout goes. I'm not fighting that battle anymore. Bandcamp's awesome. It's reasonable. It's realistic. They have their own community, they give back, and things like that. I'm able to set my own price points. I can communicate and actually see who my subscribers are, which is really special to me. So, it's been a really good outlet for me and I encourage other musicians to do it."
You can't reserve front row tickets to SassyBlack's forthcoming musical just yet — "the program is called First Draft, so I'm commissioned just to make a first draft," she reminds me — but she says there will be readings and campaigns to raise funds to produce it. And it's only the beginning. "I will be writing more scripts after this," she says, excitedly.
"I have done a ridiculous amount of things in my life and I'm excited to start sharing and talking more about some of them," she adds. "I don't know how I have time to do all this stuff, but the universe will provide. And that's how I navigate through the land. I was like, 'I will have space to do this.' I was on someone's Instagram story and they said, whatever you're asking [the universe] for, add 'and it comes easily.' So I was like, the universe will provide... and it will come easily."
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