Last year around this time, Shirlette Ammons was getting ready to open for The Roots, along with backing band The Dynamite Brothers, at Hopscotch Music Festival. Friday night, Ammons is returning to Hopscotch, this time fronting her own outfit and performing songs from her debut solo album, Twilight for Gladys Bentley.
Its been quite a journey for the Durham-based Mount Olive native and her hip-hop opus, which also salutes the late Harlem Renaissance artist in the title. Ammons wanted to drop the album on the 53rd anniversary of Bentleys death in January. But, after several delayed release dates (Ammons was looking for the right label, eventually choosing Chapel Hill-based Grip Tapes), the album was released in March. Nevertheless, Ammons is pleased with what shes created with the album: a tribute to offbeat yet distinctive black artists like herself and Bentley.
I feel like throughout particularly black history in the world of music thats what I know there have been a lot of black musicians who were always the odd person out, in a crowd of odd people, says Ammons, 39. But they were honored even in the odd people, like Grace Jones So, I think about her. I think about Sylvester. I think about Gladys Bentley as a progenitor of that whole idea.
Before she throws down at Hopscotch, Ammons will hop onstage at the Pinhook in Durham Thursday night and join visiting German rapper Sookee for a song or two. Ammons and the Berlin-based Sookee have been partners in rhyme ever since Ammons was looking for someone to appear on a remixed version of one of her Twilight songs.
I was interested in international hip-hop, particularly (with) international women, she says. And my manager was a fan of Sookees, and shes like, Check out this rapper from Berlin. And I checked her out, and I thought she was dope.
Sookee not only ended up adding a verse on an Ammons track, but she came to the Triangle to perform with Ammons when Ammons had a listening party for Twilight last December. Immediately after that, the pair went on tour together, making stops in Charleston, Atlanta and this years South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.
The women have nothing but admiration for each other.
I respect her a lot, says Sookee (real name: Nora Hantzsch), 29, via email from Berlin. She is so smart and I love her humor. The best people are the ones who are intelligent and funny at the same time. Shirlette combines this. She has an enormous stage presence and is a damn good vocalist. I appreciate her writing, the way she is able to find special words.
Ammons enjoyed showing her international visitor around the USA.
We just had a ball, says Ammons, and it was really nice to vibe with another female musician, particularly of the hip-hop genre, who is thinking about and challenging misogyny and [expletive] in a real way.
After Hopscotch, Ammons will once again hit the road with Sookee. Together, they are looking to enlighten audiences and give them another side of hip-hop, a side that women of all races, colors and sexual orientations can enjoy.
Often times, when you go to a hip-hop show, youre sacrificing something as a woman, like you end up dancing to, like, misogynistic [expletive] that dont really vibe with what you believe, says Ammons. So, its like youre always kind of compartmentalizing yourself just to enjoy the music that you love and the culture that you love. So, shes actively confronting that and I feel that with this Bentley project -- thats kind of what I was trying to do too.