Ysaye Maria Barnwell at a Sisterfire festival in the '80s.
Ysaye Maria Barnwell at a Sisterfire festival in the '80s. Credit: Photo by Sharon Farmer, courtesy of the Roadwork Oral History Project

The women’s festival Sisterfire debuted in 1982 at Takoma Park Junior High School as a fundraiser for Roadwork, a multiracial women’s arts organization that worked to foster cross-cultural connections between communities. From the very start, Sisterfire showcased an array of female artists with an emphasis on women of color, performers like Sweet Honey in the Rock and other musical activists who tackled social justice issues both local and global.

Sisterfire’s final year was 1989, but it is being resurrected this weekend as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrates Roadwork’s 40th anniversary with a Sisterfire tribute that will feature poetry, spoken word, and reflections from past participants as well as musical performances curated by Toshi Reagon, whose mother, Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, created Roadwork with Amy Horowitz and others in the late ’70s. The lineup includes Toshi Reagon & BIGLovely, Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Be Steadwell, Venus Thrash, Carolyn Malachi, Ariel Horowitz, and the Urban Bush Women, as well as a segment titled “The Bernice Johnson Reagon Songbook.” For more information and a detailed schedule, click here

City Paper checked in with Horowitz and Toshi Reagon to discuss this Sisterfire celebration and why, in the Age of Trump, it really matters.

Washington City Paper: Amy, you’ve been promoting women’s music for a long time. What was your role in the first Sisterfire?

Amy Horowitz: We first cooked up Sisterfire in 1982 during Ronald Reagan’s drastic cuts to the arts. We were at a board meeting around Bernice Johnson Reagon’s dining room table on Kennedy Street, trying to figure out how to keep going as a non-profit activist arts organization when we came up with a one-day concert fundraiser. The artists all donated their performances: Holly Near, Alexis De Veaux, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Michelle Parkerson, Retumba Con Pie, Women of the Calabash, The Harp Band, Cris Williamson. Margie Adam was in town working on a big ERA concert at Constitution Hall, so she made a guest appearance.

WCP: What inspired Roadwork to create Sisterfire?

AH: Women’s culture is many cultures, and we wanted to show what a multiracial coalition looks and sounds like. There were eight acts on that original Sisterfire, and six were women of color. We created a working model of multiracial coalition in an urban setting—a women’s festival open to all people, where everyone would feel welcome.

WCP: Sisterfire was in many ways about the concept of coalition, both spiritually and politically. What connected Sisterfire to other women’s cultural festivals of the late ’70s and early ’80s?

AH: I think of all the festivals as a patchwork quilt where each is viable, durable and has its own integrity… Some of the patches are huge, like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, but the small ones are also important. In 1972, in Ashland, Oregon, we created Sisterspace as a one-day festival, and that’s not even on the historical map of women’s festivals. I wonder how many other small festivals were happening even before the bigger festivals were created? Now, we have social media, and we know that there were maybe a thousand demonstrations last week against the racist policies of the Trump administration. But back then it was a different world: We had mimeograph machines, not computers! It was difficult to track our collective power.

WCP: How did Sisterfire impact the women’s music movement specifically and the wider cultural landscape in general?

AH: I think that Sisterfire sent a message that racism is real within the women’s movement and within all the progressive structures that we were creating. The fight against racism is not only external; the fight against racism by white folks is also deeply personal. It is about taking on that challenge internally and not being afraid of the hard work that requires. We were born into a white supremacist structure, so unlearning is a lifetime commitment.

WCP: Looking back at Sisterfire now, 40 years later, how would you describe its legacy? 

AH: The Sisterfire legacy was to foreground women of color artist activists in a coalition mix. Sisterfire was one of the first large stages that Toshi Reagon performed on in 1983 when she was 19 years old. On the same festival was 90-year-old Elizabeth Cotten. We presented the Moving Star Hall Singers from the Georgia Sea Islands and a local singer from D.C., Flora Molten, who used to sing in front of the Hecht Company on the same program with Meg Christian and Ferron. We presented Israeli and Palestinian singers and poets. I think our legacy is self-evident in our body of work. Younger generations might throw the whole thing out or find something that resonates; that’s really for them to decide.

WCP: In the past, female artists who specifically addressed women’s issues were locked out of the mainstream culture. Has that changed?

AH: I believe that the work we did created change in the mainstream music, dance, theater, poetry cultures. Still there is much more work to do, and this is being taken on by next generations. One of the brilliant aspects of Toshi’s curatorial vision for the Sisterfire reunion is a mix of legacy, new voices and forward motion.

WCP: You once said that “women have always been the carriers of culture, that we come in a moment in a historical stream that’s always been true but never acknowledged.” Do you still believe this to be true? 

The Sisterfire staff in the 80s.80s. Credit: Photo by Sharon Farmer, courtesy of the Roadwork Oral History Project

AH: If I were to rewrite that today, I would create a more nuanced statement that foregrounds race and class. I think the category of women writ large has to be questioned. After all, many white women voted for 45.  

WCP: In these troubling political times, how important is it for us to hear the voices of performers like Toshi Reagon, Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Alexis Deveaux, and Be Steadwell?

Toshi Reagon: It is most important that every individual human make a decision that they will not resort to hatred and violence as a foundational resource—even when scared. We have to reject leadership that is based in ultimate wealth, power, white supremacy, and the destruction of the earth. We must do this right now. We do not need famous people; folks can get together and try with what their genius is to build bridges. There are lots of books and revolutions to learn from. Of course it helps that there are so incredible community artists. Finding them and making a circle rejuvenates the spirit and educates the heart.

AH: We must gather, celebrate our victories and and not get sidetracked by the challenges that have always been there. Every time I feel discouraged, I draw on lyrics that refuel me, Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes” from “Ella’s Song,” and also Toshi Reagon’s “There and Back Again.” Throughout the world, music, dance, and verbal arts have always been the healing force; that’s what we are doing here.

WCP: Just about every day, we’re seeing the civil rights of black and brown Americans denied in the seemingly endless struggle for social justice and equality. How does the Bernice Johnson Reagon songbook speak to that?

TR: We are all speaking to this. This country has a systematically and horrifically violent relationship to brown and black bodies. This place, this land, is so beautiful. There are enough resources for us all. The U.S. government is literally stealing and harming every human, no matter who you are. They are using the same founding voice of race hatred and white male supremacy, and once again we are letting them do it.

We have to stop. Shock them and take your country and make a better life for all. My mother’s music is so specific to issues, and sometimes it is the best way to hear the truth.