Sistuhs Are Doin’ It For Themselves

Equality and justice are issues that drive singer, songwriter, dancer, and women’s rights activist Sayon Bamba.

When I first saw Sayon Bamba live in concert, I was immediately struck by her charisma and power. She has a bold voice and a stunning stage presence. I was taken not only by her mastery of different styles, from Afropop to singer/songwriter, but also to her unwavering commitment to human rights and women’s causes. While I never had the opportunity to see Bamba perform as onetime frontwoman for the iconic Les Amazones de Guinée, I am thrilled that this under-known artist will be making her US debut at the Skirball next Friday night as part of Women Hold Up Half the Sky related programming.

As we planned for the concert, it made me realize just how captivated I am by strong female artistic voices. Below is a short list, in no particular order, of some of my favorites, all of whom I have been fortunate enough to meet.

Patti Smith—From the earliest days of her career, Patti Smith captured my attention. There has never been anyone quite like her. Although she honors all the “strong female influences” on her art—check out this recent BBC Radio interview in which Smith acknowledges Janis Joplin and Grace Slick—she is a true trailblazer, with a unique voice and a singular ear for the English language. Her music and poetry have led me to a greater understanding and appreciation of literature and spirituality. It’s hard to pick just one, but as far as I’m concerned, her debut release, Horses, is the must-have Patti Smith album. And where did I meet her? I presented her in concert back when I was vice chair of the University of Pennsylvania concert committee. I won’t soon forget hanging out with Patti in a backstage bathroom of all places.

Doris Lessing—One of my favorite writers, the 2007 Nobel Laureate in Literature started her career writing about the injustices she witnessed in her native Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and has never waivered from trying to imagine a better world. Her attachment to the inequities of Harare and the apartheid system led her to political activism, both personally and through her writing. Lessing’s interest in all that is possible motivated her to create science fiction, which were really explorations of her utopian ideals. My favorite Lessing work? The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. It didn’t make a recent Huffington Post “Lessing Top 5” list (compiled in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of The Golden Notebook), but I stand by my choice.

Phranc—In the midst of citywide Olympic sponsorship fever, Phranc unofficially declared herself the “Official Jewish Lesbian Folksinger of the 1984 Summer Olympics.” Even if that seems like a narrow field in which to distinguish oneself, the singer, visual artist, and athlete—Phranc is a competitive swimmer and a skilled surfer—possesses a gold medal–caliber voice and a winning sense of humor, and is a torchbearer for social justice (is that too many Olympics references? Sorry…). Her cultural identity as a Jew has played a central role in her life’s work. Phranc has performed at the Skirball on three occasions and remains a favorite of mine after twenty-eight years.

Marianne Faithfull—The throaty British singer of Jewish Austrian nobility (she bears the title Baroness Sacher-Masoch), Marianne Faithfull—a pop-singer-turned-drug-addict-turned-girlfriend/groupie to the rich and famous—became a poster child for how things can go wrong. Notoriously abandoned by then-boyfriend Mick Jagger (with whom she co-wrote Sister Morphine from the Stones’ Sticky Fingers) during a drug raid wearing only a rug, she spent nearly a decade on the streets. After getting clean, she channeled her life into making music that reflects the fragile state of life. Now a sixtysomething grandmother, Faithfull has continually reinvented herself, not just as a pop icon, but as an actress and an interpreter of standards, most notably of songs by Kurt Weill. While her once gorgeous voice is now a wreck, one can hear every drop of pain Faithfull has survived, giving unique voice to the possibility of overcoming obstacles. A new Tate Liverpool exhibition, curated by Faithfull herself, takes an insider’s look at her life and career, including her troubled past.

Originally recorded in the 1960s, “As Tears Go By” is a Faithful classic. Here’s a more recent performance of the song, which to me reveals the transformation she has experienced over the decades.

Rokia Traoré—With a voice that is the epitome of calm beauty, African diva Rokia Traoré has made waves on the world music scene. She has released two brilliant albums, toured around the world, and won the Roskilde Festival World Music Award for her commitment to championing the arts for underserved youth in her native Mali. Her Foundation Passarelle aims to teach artistic and technical skills to young people. We are fortunate to have been able to present Traoré as part of our summertime Sunset Concerts seasons on one of her rare US tours.

Holly Hughes—The self-proclaimed “Poet Laureate of Saginaw,” Holly Hughes is a playwright and performance artist. An established artistic force before she came to prominence as one of the NEA Four, Hughes makes art that plumbs the depth of her own psyche and seeks to find a communality that transcends gender. A committed social activist and community organizer, Hughes is also one funny and very great writer. I find her writing insightful and deeply inspiring. Barely a week goes by when I don’t think of the hauntingly open-ended closing lines of her piece Snatches: “We’re not safe, we’re just …”

Me in Yayoi Kusama’s truly gleaming Gleaming Lights of the Souls at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Humlebæk, Denmark, November 2011.

Me in Yayoi Kusama’s truly gleaming Gleaming Lights of the Souls at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Humlebæk, Denmark, November 2011.

Yayoi Kusuma—The Japanese visual artist was quite a force in the New York art world of the sixties and seventies. After toying with a variety of styles, Yayoi Kusuma became obsessed with dots, with which she first covered canvases and then, in an act of playfulness, the human body. After retreating from the art world, she reemerged in the 1990s as a major figure, rediscovered and re-appreciated for her vision. Her work can be seen locally—have you seen the larger-than-life flowers on Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills?—and at leading galleries around the world. A recent installation in Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art places the viewer inside Kusama’s speckled world, while the current retrospective at the Tate Modern allows viewers to cover a once-white room in multicolored stickers.

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