By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Sierra Sellers claims there was a time when she wasn’t as strong and self-assured as she is today.
Seeing her, talking with her, hearing her sing, it’s a hard line to buy. The 24-year old soul and R&B singer/songwriter has a mature, confident voice with lyrics to back it up.
She sings on one of her latest singles, “Smooth,” “Hey sista, who you messin’ with? Is he a real brotha, or was he just a mess? Is he really down, do he come correct? And since you stuck around, do you get your respect? You ain’t playin’ no fool, no wonder he talks smooth.”
Writing songs with lyrics of empowerment is nothing new for Sellers who says, “I started writing lyric books in the third grade.” She took her cues from artists like Destiny’s Child, Jill Scott and India.Arie to name a few.
But it would take her a minute for her public mindset to catch up with the little girl drawing strength and power off of every word of songs like “Say My Name.”
“I knew I wanted to be a singer at an early age,” Sellers tells the Current. “I mean, I was obsessed with Destiny’s Child when I was in preschool.
“And then when I started writing songs at an early age, I was writing about the same things I write about now, being a strong, independent, empowered woman. That’s how I saw myself even back then.”
And despite some obstacles she had to overcome, that’s clearly who Sierra Sellers is today. She’s been performing live on an increasingly frequent basis since the release of her self-titled EP in 2017. This weekend she will perform twice at the Deutschtown Music Festival. At 10 p.m. Friday, July 12, she and her band will play the Pittsburgh Current Stage at Hip at the Flashlight Factory for the paper’s “Best Year Ever” first birthday party. The next day, she plays the Hughshows Main Stage at 8 p.m. (see map and schedule elsewhere in this issue).
Check out Sierra Sellers July 12 and 13 for two nights at the Deutschtown Music Festival. On July 22 at Club Cafe Sellers and Pittsburgh’s Clara Kent open for Chicago’s OMys. And on Aug. 10 at Mr. Smalls, she appears at Pittsburgh’s Very Own 2, a show featuring only African American women R&B singers.
Talking to Sellers, you don’t get a hint of insecurity or pain. But getting to that level of confidence, the place that made her into the songwriter and performer she is now and is trying to become, took some time and some pain.
Sellers grew up in the Sewickley area and attended Quaker Valley High School. It’s Allegheny County’s last school district on state route 65 before you hit Beaver County. For the first several years of her life she lived on the North Side before moving to Leetsdale and Quaker Valley. In third grade, her family moved to “the heart of Sewickley,” where she’d stay until graduation.
She often felt out of place. Her mother was white, her father was black and the whole family was what she describes as poor. But the move to Sewickley was to give Sellers and her siblings a safe place to grow up, something she is grateful for today. But things were rough. First, because she was poor and in later years because she was still poor and also black.
“I was the token poor black kid in an affluent area,” she says. “I can’t say I was ever afraid to be myself, but I was very reserved. I never asserted my character.” Early on she felt socio-economic discrimination and later, in high school, she started to feel the racial discrimination. “All of the other kids bought their clothes at Abercrombie and Fitch; we shopped at Kmart. I tried not to put much stock in it because in my mind we were perfectly equal.”
In high school, the differences between she and her classmates, began taking on racial overtones.
“One time I had a date to a school dance,” she says. “A week before, my date, who was white, said he couldn’t go with me because his grandparents were coming over that weekend and because I was black, he couldn’t take me to the house.
“Then I would hear comments like, ‘Sierra, you would be so pretty if you weren’t half black or you’re only as pretty as you are because you’re half white. Another time, I was shopping with a girl and she dropped a $100 dollar bill. I picked it up to give it to her and she snatched it out of my hand, telling me it was hers. I told her I didn’t need her money because I’ve been working since I was 15 and made my own.”
Sellers says she never felt like or played the part of a victim, but says she found her adolescence, “claustrophobic” and she was unable to fully be herself. She wanted to go to college and begin her life in a new place with new people. Since her family couldn’t afford to send her to school and her grades wouldn’t get her an academic scholarship, she relied on basketball to get her there. With her talent, she had offers from larger schools to play ball. However, as high school was winding down, so was her desire to play basketball. So instead of accepting an athletic scholarship at a larger school (that money is dependent on playing the sport for four years), she chose Division III St. Vincent’s. At that level, there are no athletic scholarships. However, if a player is good enough, the financial help has a way of showing up. But, unlike an athletic scholarship, it couldn’t be revoked if she decided that basketball wasn’t for her. She played for a few weeks before quitting and graduated four years later with a degree in early-childhood education.
Without basketball, she began focusing more on music in her spare time. She taught herself guitar and had a mic and a recorder in her dorm room to work on music. She’d even charge other students to come in and cut their own recordings. While she says, the situation wasn’t always perfect, her experience at St. VIncent’s was more than she could have hoped for.
“The people there were great, and so nice,” she says. “I was somebody who was always afraid to be myself but St. Vincent’s was the place that I became unapologetically Sierra Sellers. I became myself there, someone who is comfortable in their own skin and soul.”
That confidence was evident during a photo shoot for the cover of this week’s issue. Sellers moved with confidence, sang “Smooth” as the camera flashed and made her own technical suggestions for the shoot. It’s hard to imagine that Sierra Sellers was ever anyone different than the fearless, self-assured woman performing on more and more stages across the city. In fact, at one time she considered just being a songwriter because of crippling stage fright. But like everything else, Sellers got through this obstacle with power and grace.
“I would get to the point that I was shaking and sweating and I would just have to push through,” she says. “I would have these talks with myself, saying, ‘you have to sing, just do it! Just do it!.
“Then, in September 2018, I sang at an Aretha Franklin tribute concert. I just went out there and just performed. It was a huge adrenaline rush. At that moment, maybe it was the daydreaming Pieces in me, I decided I want to be a star.”
Check out Sierra Sellers July 12 and 13 for two nights at the Deutschtown Music Festival. On July 22 at Club Cafe Sellers and Pittsburgh’s Clara Kent open for Chicago’s Oh Mys. And on Aug. 10 at Mr. Smalls, she appears at Pittsburgh’s Very Own 2, a show featuring only African American women R&B singers.