“If you build it for black women, you build it for everyone.”
By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
The last time Sondra Woodruff was part of the Sunstar Festival was in 2011, as a performer.
This year — having returned to her hometown of Pittsburgh after a decade as a student and guitarist in New York City — she’s running the show.
The festival, which is hosted by the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, was founded 11 years ago with the intention of creating a platform for women in music. Over time the programming expanded to include writers, visual artists, dancers, and other creatives.
But this year, Woodruff says, “we wanted to bring it back to music, back to the roots of it.”
This year’s two-day festival begins on Friday, March 13 with Classically Intimate, a program of classical music curated by Anqwenique, the stunningly accomplished vocalist, teaching artist, and founder of the multidisciplinary collective, Groove Aesthetic.
The following afternoon, Pittsburgh-based podcast Girls Running Shit hosts a brunch and panel discussion centered on what it means to be a black woman making music in the city.
Then that eventing the festival closes with Mic Check, featuring individual and collaborative performances by genre-melding hip-hop/r&b artist Clara Kent, soul/r&b powerhouse and multi-instrumentalist INEZ, hip-hop artist Brittney Chantele, and rapper and classically-trained dancer Rhyme.
In the past, national touring acts were brought in to headline Sunstar. This year, Woodruff — who works in production, engagement and social impact at the Kelly Strayhorn, wanted to focus on what’s happening on a local level.
“There’s such a vibrent ‘women x femme’ community that’s active right now [and I thought] ‘Lets make it all about them,’” she explains. “That’s what [Sunstar] is about. It’s about being based in Pittsburgh, how you’re navigating Pittsburgh as an artist, how you’re performing.”
The fact that the lineup is made up entirely of black women and femmes wasn’t necessarily intentional: It just so happens that many of the city’s most exciting artists are women of color. But considering Pitt’s recent report ranking Pittsburgh as the worst city for black women by nearly every metric, this year’s Sunstar offers an opportunity for discussions that should be considered crucial to anyone invested in the health of the Pittsburgh music scene, and of the city at large.
The Girls Running Shit podcast, which launched in August of 2018, exists, in part, to help facilitate these sorts of conversations. The three hosts — Keea Hart, Janita Kilgore and Mia Marshall — keep the laughs coming, chatting about personal projects as well as current affairs, celebrity gossip, and whatever else is on their minds. But they don’t shy from more serious topics like therapy, depression, and mental illness. Recent guests have included rapper Jordan Montgomery, and Khamil Scantling, founder of the business consultancy Cocoapreneur, and no matter who is visiting, self-worth, self-care, and mental health are always at the heart of the conversation.
They also take things beyond the studio, putting together “We Care Kits,” full of helpful items for the city’s homeless population, and hosting a series of open mic events called Speak Your Truth.
Hart, Kilgore and Marshall, who became friends while attending Edinboro University, in Northwestern, PA, are all in their late 20s, and all grew up in the Pittsburgh area.
“We saw [the city] before the gentrification started to pop off, East Liberty was thriving with black businesses and it gave you hope that you could start your own business,” says Hart, who left the city for several years to pursue a social media marketing job in Washington, DC. “To come back to it … and the only black-owned business that you see is Jamil’s, and then there’s a macaron station right next to it … ” She laughs, then continues: “I had a nice childhood, there were hubs for us to go to to keep us off the streets, and you don’t ever hear about that side. It plays a big part in recording the podcast … I have a great appreciation for the city because it morphed me into the woman I am.”
INEZ, who introduced Woodruff to Girls Running Shit, first met the hosts at a women’s networking event. The interaction was so inspiring that as soon as she got home, INEZ wrote all three women’s names into a song she was working on. After that she was a guest on the show, and ended up using a sample from the podcast on her excellent 2019 record, Voicemails and Conversations.
There are so many things that I love about what they’re doing, pretty much giving their platform for people like me, to tell my story as a woman,” she says.
Music is a topic near and dear to GRS, and Kilgore recalls being part of a summer program with the Afro-American Music Institute as a kid. “I knew how Homewood and the Hill had that old school jazz, blues and r&b music,” she says. “And then in college, we knew about Wiz Khalifa … seeing that kind of rap and hip hop morph into what it is today, and seeing r&b with INEZ, Clara, Brittney and Rhyme, … [the presence of] black women in the music culture here has grown immensely.
“We’re so excited to have all the women we’ve had so far on our podcast to talk about their art,” she adds. “And the panel is gonna bring a lot of focus to the music and I want us to grow from the conversations we have.”
Hart adds that the discussion will be a mix of “the fun side” of music in Pittsburgh, as well as stories and statistics related to the more difficult aspects of being a black women working as a musician in the city: “We’re going to talk about what’s been perceived in the media and what hasn’t been perceived.”
Thinking of the Saturday evening performance, INEZ appreciates that, while the show features four women/femmes of color, the event is meant for everyone. “Especially during Women’s History Month, we encourage all women to come out and support,” she says. “The kinds of things that we’re going to be performing and talking about in our pieces are definitely relative to black women first, but [also] to all femmes and women.”
Towards the end of our phone conversation, Woodruff recalls something a colleague once told her. “‘If you build it for black women, you build it for everyone.’
“In most design, most advertising, we’re unfortunately the last to be considered,” she says. “That’s where I’m coming from at this point. It’s for everyone. But there’s something about visibility and making sure everyone is included, and that does include black women. So we’re starting from there and moving our way out.”