Sarah White has been an integral part of the Twin Cities scene since the early 2000s, when she began her hip-hop career in the group Traditional Methods — an act she started with one of my colleagues here at the Current, Sean McPherson, aka Twinkie Jiggles of Heiruspecs. She first landed on my radar when she started the band Black Blondie.
One of my favorite anecdotes from those early Black Blondie days was reading the story of how the band got its name. The effortlessy stylish Sarah White, who is hands-down one of the hippest and best-dressed women in the Twin Cities, showed up to a band meeting sporting a fro-hawk and dressed to the nines, causing her bandmate Samahra Linton exclaimed, “You look like a black Blondie!”
I still think of her in this context: combining all the best elements of punk and hip-hop culture into a genre-blurring style. Her latest solo work combines the cosmic ambiance of Afro-punk with the new wave of soulful, electro R&B, and she plays with a live band that is well-versed in both jazz improvisation and hip-hop beats.
I can’t think of another artist in town who is quite as cutting edge, as interested in where music is headed next, and as connected with larger socio-political and artistic movements. Sarah White is a beacon, and we’re all watching to see where she’s headed next.
All of which brings us to today, and her appearance on the O.K. Show, which I’m super excited about. In addition to being a creative force in the Twin Cities, Sarah is also a vocal advocate for self-care and self-love, an issue that is particularly pressing for young African-American women who pour a lot of themselves into movements like Black Lives Matter. She is frequently posting updates to social media about her yoga practice and her own journey toward self-love and inner peace, and she hosts private healing gatherings for women in her community who need to decompress.
I was intrigued to learn more about Sarah’s journey and find out how all of these things come together. How does yoga affect an artist’s ability to command a stage? And how does her work on herself and her outlook impact her art?
It’s an honor to share today’s conversation with you.
Andrea Swensson: To start with, can you just take me back to the beginning, and, and tell me what it was that first got you interested in music, and made you want to be a musician?
Sarah White: When I was young, I grew up in church. And so music kind of goes hand-in-hand with church – I would sing with the kids in the choir, at school I did band, I was in concert choir in high school. I think the first thing that really actually like sparked me, though, was when I got to be a part of a musical. It was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. And I got to like miss junior high, miss our classes, and go get paid to be on this like broadway show. And it was at the State Theatre. And I was surrounded around these, like, adults that were making a living doing this.
And something kind of clicked, where I’m like, “Whoa… you know, this is- this can be a business, this is something else.” From there, I started to experiment a little more, but it wasn’t until I found hip hop that I was kind of like, “Wow, I could use this as expression, like I could use this as a way to get out emotions, and get out all of these frustration that I felt like nobody would listen to.”
That’s interesting. So it was almost like a business opportunity first…
Well, yeah, kind of. But I didn’t see myself as actually having any kind of way to be successful doing it, you know? I was just something I saw other people doing. I think that, at first I thought of it as a career. But then when I found hip hop, it was kind of like a pulse. It was like a rhythm. It was like a community. It was like a heart song. Like, I realized… for me it was really powerful. Like, when I found that it changed my life.
What was your gateway into hip hop?
I started going to, like, Headspin. And me and my crew, they called us the Southside Hot Girls, we would just kind of go and hang out – under age, fake IDs, and watch all the shows. We watched Battle Cats, got the mix tapes. I started by imitation first, you know? I would do it behind closed doors, but until I got comfortable enough to start to kind of like poke my little head into the cyphers. And, you know, it wasn’t easy, but once I started, they were like, “Oh my God, there’s a girl rapping!” You know, and I’m like, “Hey!” And that was kind of like my first little way to push my way in.
Were you treated like a novelty? Just being female?
On some sides. But on other sides, I was definitely challenged a lot. You know? There were so many times where I felt like, I’d kind of get treated as a joke in the cypher, like… “Cool. You’re here because you’re a woman. But let’s hear your bars.” You know? And that kind of fueled me and taught me to work harder. I would seriously sit and write raps, like, all the time. I cannot believe how much time I put into writing raps when I was younger… because I wanted to really be tight. I wanted to be good because I was good, and not good because I wasn’t a guy.
How much time passed before you started performing in Traditional Methods?
I feel like right when people started to hear me rap, even though they didn’t like all my raps initially, they were like, “Okay, wait… what did you just say?” And then I did freestyling more, and that was when Zack was kind of like, “Me and Twinkie [Jiggles, a.k.a. Sean McPherson] had a talk. We decided we were going to teach you. And we’re going to form Traditional Methods.” It didn’t have a name at the time. So, we did our first show at Bryant Lake Bowl, with three songs, just kind of like cameoed at a High Respects set, and that was the beginning.
So, how long into performing in that way was it that you started to sing as well, in that setting?
Well, when I was in Traditional Methods, singing was a situation. They would try to get me to sing on things, and I loathed it. I would be so nervous, I would sing so quiet that they would have to turn me way up in the studio. Because, like, I was taking voice lessons at the time, and my teacher was just kind of letting me know that like, my range was never going to be like a normal woman. Something was wrong with my range. I should try to figure out what was wrong with my throat, get it fixed, just… I shouldn’t sing the way that I sing, or be the way I was. And it made me feel bad, obviously. I was like, “Well, dang.” So that’s why I focused on rapping: because I could be good at that, because my voice is raspy, and it sounds good over beats. And I sing, I think, like two songs on Traditional Methods album. Maybe three? And that was it for me for a while. And then… I don’t know, something happened around Black Blondie time, I think a lot of it was working with Samarah, and I just started singing more and more, and I was like f*** it, you know? This is my voice, this is who I am.
Yeah, yeah. Well, that surprises me, because I think your voice is so distinct and cool. And it’s so you. And someone was trying to tell you that that wasn’t right.
Thank you. Yeah. I think it’s a part of just accepting you for you. I mean it’s hard to accept yourself, especially in the music industry, where there’s all these standards of ways you should be. So, I think, being a woman who was trying to, like, embrace hip-hop, number one, and also I was just like a weird black Uptown girl who loves skateboarding and like, Deftones… You know, I already felt like I was having a hard time accepting who I was. So, then, to have someone else from the outside kind of like give me a nudge, I just kind of went into this self-loathing, as a musician. Where I was just like, “Well, my voice sucks. This is who I am. But I’m going to try to like it.” And then all of a sudden, I just kind of like, dug it. I dug the raspiness. I dug the scratchiness, I dug my limited range. You know, I just accepted it.
Looking back now, as you’ve seen, specifically, women in hip hop, and that presence get more traction, do you feel like you were a part of kind of opening doors for some people, and making things more accessible for women?
I do. I also feel like women have changed. I feel like women now — not saying we don’t need those doors, but they’re bad. They’re ready, you know? They’re gonna do it. And it’s so great, I wish that there would have been more of that when I was younger. But I do think that the scene was ready, because of people like me and Desdamona, and even Dessa. There were a lot of underground women in hip hop, and soul, and rock, that were kind of like loosening up, you know, just like the sausage fest of a scene. We were kind of like, “Hey! We’re already here.” And then now that these like younger women are coming in that are just like — their music is tight, their style is tight, their confidence is tight, it’s like… it’s… it’s time, you know? And now I’m being inspired by them. You know, I’m watching and taking notes by all the other women that are killing the scene right now. And not killing the scene as women, killing the scene as musicians. And as artists.
The O.K. Show, Episode 1: A candid discussion on mental health with Charlie Van Stee
The O.K. Show, Episode 2: Mary Beth Mueller and her one-woman crusade against cancer
The O.K. Show, Episode 3: Adam Levy’s devastating loss and beautiful new solo album
The O.K. Show, Episode 4: Irv Williams, the elder statesman of Twin Cities jazz
The O.K. Show, Episode 5: Lydia Liza on empathy, anxiety, and staying grounded in the music business
The O.K. Show, Episode 6: Hard-touring rapper Astronautalis talks about staying sane on the road
The O.K. Show, Episode 7: Mayda on her health and her journey as a Korean adoptee
The O.K. Show, Episode 8: Manchita on feminism, rapping, and her relationship with Eyedea
The O.K. Show, Episode 9: Lizzo on self-acceptance and falling in love with herself
The O.K. Show, Episode 10: Rock ‘n’ roll dreamer Dan Israel comes to terms with his divorce and his health
The O.K. Show, Episode 11: Claire de Lune on anxiety, imposter syndrome, and finding herself through music
The O.K. Show, Episode 12: A conversation with Greg Grease on self-care and community building
The O.K. Show, Episode 13: The evolution of Holly Hansen