sassyblack is the afrofuturist funk queen watching sci-fi to survive

As we premiere the track 'Watching You' off her upcoming album 'New Black Swing,' Catherine Harris-White tells i-D about getting in her queer black girl feelings.

by Hannah Ongley
12 June 2017, 9:40pm

Catherine Harris-White is the vocalist, writer, poet, producer, promoter, and all-around badass also known as SassyBlack. You probably also know her as one half of space age psych duo TheeSatisfaction or the R&B diva Ruth Brown on HBO's Vinyl. At 30 years old, the science fiction superfan has more jobs than most people will have in their lives. Part of the hustle stems from her being a woman-of-action. Part is necessity.

"Most people live in a constant state of fear," Cat says over the phone from her home state of Seattle. "That fuels some people, and it keeps some people complacent at the same time. With that in mind, there are always going to be some artists who are willing to say, 'Okay, I'm going to do it myself. I can't get management or a booking agent, so I'm going to learn.' We're in the age of technology, the age of the internet, and you have so many assets. And you can still go to the library!"

As a queer black woman inspired by everything from her IRL relationships to her sci-fi-heavy media diet, Cat is naturally out of this world. And if the choice is between tempering her extraordinary soundscapes or learning a new skill, she'll choose the latter. This month Cat will release her sixth solo release and second full-length album, New Black Swing. It's an expansive, vulnerable, psych-funk mind-trip, seamlessly layering her silky R&B vocals atop lush synths and throbbing bass. After swearing off weak dates last summer, Cat is riding a rollercoaster of relationship stages, from "Games" to "Passion Paradise." As we premiere her track "Watching You," she talks to i-D about somewhat nervously taking us along for the ride.

Do you get nervous before putting out work that's so present and personal?
Yes and no. It's very satisfying, because I've been wanting to do music like this for a really long time, and wanting to compose my own music and produce my own music. I was really scared about doing it, so that was the most nerve-wracking part — just getting myself up to the part where I could actually do any of it. This is a pretty empowering time right now.

What is so different about making music on your own?
I make all my decisions on my own, in terms of what's good enough for the record or what the record's about, what album artwork I want — it's very much internal. It's also much faster, to be honest. All the other groups I've been in, it just took a lot of time, because you're working with multiple energies and multiple personalities. There are multiple personalities I'm dealing with inside myself, which is fine. I have my vibrant self, my producer self, and my arrangement self — all these different sides of myself step up, and I get to know myself better every time I create a different project.

Do you have reservations about delving into such personal experiences when you're collaborating with another person?
Yeah. It is really freaky to start telling people about what you're going through — a personal issue that you might not tell anyone else, or you might only tell your friends, or you're still working through. While working alone, I don't really have to reveal any of that stuff until the project comes out. If there are some songs that didn't make the record, because they're too personal or something like that, I never have to share them with anyone. I find myself now becoming even more private about what people get to hear.

Why do you write about relationships?
The music I grew up listening to — Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Stevie Wonder — is all about relationships and interacting with people or beings. Even music that's about politics or the environment, it's about our relationship to Mother Earth, our relationship to one another, our relationship to elected officials, our relationship to ourselves. If we don't have a good relationship with ourselves, that's going to show up in our relationship with other people. That's why I write about relationships — they give you a reflection of who you are and what you're going through at the time.

A lot of these issues and feelings are very worldly. Is self-reflection also why you are drawn to Afrofuturism and sci-fi culture?
I love Star Trek and Star Wars, and my family is really into Marvel and DC comics — just otherworldliness. It can be easy to get trapped in our political infrastructure and the inhumane things that are happening regularly. It can take so much out of you that you don't know where to go. You don't see any future. I feel like it's a survivalist thing. To survive, you have to have something that gives you hope. Science fiction is definitely that for me. It's always been something that's been embedded in my life though. I didn't always talk about it because I was embarrassed. People tease you about it. I was getting teased about a lot of stuff, so I was like, "I'm not going to add to it." Whether you're talking about the Civil Rights Movement, or slavery, or the climate that we're in — any time frame for African Americans or anyone who is considered black, or anyone who has been marginalized, there's always a time when you have to think about your own survival.

There has been so much discussion recently about diversity, or the lack of it, in science fiction. Where did you look to see yourself reflected in it?
Yeah. It's super important to me. It was nice to grow up and see someone who reflected me. I always saw powerful black women in everything. Whoopi Goldberg was in Star Trek, I looked up to Oprah, I grew up with Missy Elliott doing her own kind of sci-fi thing. Badu was being very Afrocentric and science fictiony. Also with psychedelic music — I'm listening to Funkedelics, I'm watching disco. There has always been a place for me and my weird self in the world. My cosmic or spacey self has always had a place to exist because of these genres of music and genres of entertainment.

Are black and queer artists still being pigeonholed as much as they were when you first started out in music?
I do think it's changing, but I know people are still really afraid to take a risk. Artists are afraid to take a risk as well. On the promoter side, they're too afraid because they want to stay cool. The festivals and shows that are booked a lot are just the same people over and over again, because they know people will come. Their audience is people who want escapism, who are intoxicated beyond belief, and they're just about drifting through a show and barely remembering what's happening. The artists are afraid, the promoters are afraid, the audiences are afraid — everyone's escaping and trying to live a risk-free life.

How do you feel when you perform live?
I love performing. I absolutely love it. It makes me so nervous, and sometimes I hate the nervous feeling. But when I get up and I'm able to tell my corny little cheesy jokes, it is the best. I get to sing the songs that I love, that I wrote, I get to practice and get better producing stuff live. I practice on my own but there's nothing like practicing with real people. That experience is so special to me. I love it so much. Even when I'm exhausted — I can have the flu or strep throat but I can get on stage and sing, then fall off stage and crumble into pieces. It's always worth it.

How important are stage costumes and styling to you? It looks like you are very drawn to Afrofuturist aesthetics.
I love dressing up. It depends on whatever I have in my wardrobe. I try to make sure I'm stylish, whatever it is. I'm naturally Afrofuturistic and sci-fi, so whatever I wear is out of this world. I'm already naturally outside of this world, because people don't see black women doing what I do. Then I'm walking around with this red flat-top, a ducktail — I'm already spacey as hell. Then I have all these tattoos, and I forget I have this piercing on my face… I'm already outside of everyone's comfort zone. I try to accentuate it.

You experiment with so many different genres of music — synths, bass, jazz, funk. Is there a sound you want to create with that you haven't already?
I want to do a jazz record, I want to do a disco record, I want to do a house/dance record. I'm working with a producer in Milan on this project, like the Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer [track] — he's an Italian producer but he just has the idea of funk in his soul. He found me on Soundcloud two or three years ago, then I went to Milan last year to record this song. He's like, "Okay, we've got to do an EP now. It can't just be this one song." So when I go back to Milan I get to finish it. I don't really have a limit on where I want to go. Sometimes I'll be like, "Okay, I want to do this indie-rock album. I want to do this grunge album. I want to do something that's just instinctual soundscapes, something that goes for like 13 minutes." I just want to go wherever my soul desires to go and never stop releasing music. 

New Black Swing is out June 23 and available for pre-order now. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Amanda Lopez

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new black swing