“I’m a writer and a storyteller. Different stories need different kinds of voicing.”
These are the words of SassyBlack – aka Seattle’s Catherine Harris-White – an artist, producer, writer, and all around versatile expressionist who generates work at such a high volume that it can feel at times that she’s doing so that no one genre, label, or category can catch up to her.
SassyBlack’s latest project is the 9-song, 30-minute LP, New Black Swing, a part jazz, part R&B, part hip-hop record touching on ideas of connection, break up, and (queer) love. The record comes on the heels of 2016’s No More Weak Dates, the musician’s first solo LP, which followed the breakup of her popular duo, THEESatisfaction.
As an often femme-presenting, queer-identifying black women living in the northwest, there are a “ton of stereotypes” superimposed onto SassyBlack. “And I don’t need anymore added to the pot so people can hold me back from things,” she says, sort of laughing, sort of sighing. So SassyBlack bristles if you try to imply she’s, say, just a rapper.
A graduate of Cornish College of the Arts with a degree in jazz singing, SassyBlack, at most, will tell you she’s a vocalist. She also makes the beats over which she vocalizes, books her own gigs (like an upcoming halftime show with the Seattle Storm), and manages the minutia of her blossoming solo career. All while creating music that challenges the psyche and doesn’t conform to the zeitgeist of the Billboard 200 (though one gets the sense she’ll invariably end up on the charts despite it). “I tour a lot,” she says. “I get to see how people respond to my music once given the opportunity.”
New Black Swing begins by the artist establishing her jazz chops from jump. A careening and carefree vocal run reminiscent of a 1920’s standard meets the ear before constructs of relationships, distance, and confusion fill the processing mind. “I always want to go up and down with the mood,” says SassyBlack, who considers her new work similar to a collection of short stories, “but I might describe that differently on any given day. I might find something new about the record or about myself.”
Whether you read the album as a bunch of short stories or as a novel, there are lessons imbedded to help navigate connection and absence. In each, SassyBlack speaks to a “you,” creating a sonic specificity and a chance at self-investigation depending on which side of the conversation you identify with. “I wanted you to feel like I was talking about someone,” she says, “which is how a lot of R&B music goes. Ideas of ‘You light up my life’ or ‘You are my sunshine.’ It’s a thoughtful intention.”
The record continues its progression, moving from more speak-singing to dead-on rap on the album’s final two tracks, the bouncy “Glitches” and the late 80’s rap-like “Worthy.” But maybe the most nuanced turn on the record comes on the banger, “Satisfied,” where SassyBlack honors the idea of the lover. “I wanna give you everything,” she says, “Make you my king or queen.” It’s subtle and perhaps an easily glossed over lyric, but, upon reflection, it’s rare to hear a performer speak openly and clearly about a freeness to “share my world” with a person of any identity. It’s one more example of SassyBlack resisting the pigeonhole.
“Fear runs lives,” she explains. “A lot of people don’t want to take any risk that might make them look uncool or unconfident or inept in any way. There’s a lot of taboos about being openly queer in your music. But it’s just like any other song – give me that beat, give me that melody. I wanted to say ‘king or queen’ because that’s how I roll. I just want to make sure you’re good in your life and know this is what you’re asking of me. And, in return, I will try my best to provide it.”