Summer soul: Black women vocalists perform in Delaware River waterfront series

Reyhauna Yates (center) and her family listen to the Sistah Soul performances

Reyhauna Yates (center) and her family came to the park for a stroll and decided to stick around for Sistah Soul. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Black musicians don’t have to deal with performing in segregated venues anymore, but Philadelphia vocalist Shekhinah B., who is Black, says there are still few opportunities for performers like her to break out in the industry.

“It’s very difficult to have a platform where you are the center of attention as opposed to just being in the background,” she said.

In 2019, B. and The Women’s Coalition for Empowerment, Inc. started the Sistah Soul Series at the Aloft Hotel in Center City. The series focused on highlighting — and paying — Black, local, independent artists from the Philadelphia region. The pandemic inspired organizers to bring the series outdoors this year.

This summer, B. partnered with the Delaware River Waterfront, the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, and Wawa to bring three free, open-to-the-public shows to Spruce Street Harbor Park this summer.

The first live performance brought R&B and jazz vocalist Michelle “Songbird” Ray to the park Sunday afternoon.

As the mercury hit 90 degrees, park-goers took to the shade to enjoy some of Ray’s singing.

Reyhauna Yates lives in Cumberland County. She and 10 of her relatives made the trip to Philly to celebrate Father’s Day at the park. They stumbled onto Ray getting ready for her set while they snacked on funnel cake.

“I’m all for it,” she said. “I love women empowerment, I love Black women empowerment and I just think it’s perfect, even though it’s small it’s still something.”

Shekhinah B. and Michelle Ray perform at Spruce Street Harbor Park
Shekhinah B. and Michelle Ray perform as part of the Sistah Soul Series at Spruce Street Harbor Park. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Yates said a series like this also helps her get to know local artists she can support.

She and other music lovers will have two more opportunities to check out jazz, R&B, soul, house, world, and funk fusion at Spruce Street park this summer — the next performance is slated for July 18 and will feature acclaimed jazz vocalist Ella Gahnt.

To Ray, the series offers a rare opportunity to perform live and build a fan base. She said a lot of venues don’t book Black women vocalists like her and Gahnt. In her five years performing, Ray said it’s been her experience that venues look instead for country or light rock performers. The exclusionary practices she has seen continue a long tradition of racism in the industry.

Historically, Black musicians, even the most famous ones, were, like Chuck Berry, forced to share songwriting credits with white people or waive rights to songs, like Little Richard.

“That, of course, kind of negates Black performers who are traditionally R&B, jazz, or blues,”  Ray said. “So to be able to have a platform like this and an opportunity like this is just awesome. It allows us to come into the mainstream and for the mainstream to embrace us.”

A recent grant program in the greater Philadelphia region offered a glimpse at just how sorely Black musicians needed a way to amplify their work, and access funding. Some 600 artists applied for a grant with the Black City Music project, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.  Only 23 artists received funds.

“For independent, unsigned artists that are not affiliated with the Grammy recording chapter, that are not selling platinum albums, it’s very difficult,” said B. “There is a market and there is talent that are seeking those opportunities and really don’t know how to navigate those systems.”

B. said The Women’s Coalition is working to teach today’s unsigned performers how to navigate the industry, find opportunities, and use their talent to create a “profitable and sustainable enterprise.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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