It takes time to appreciate the powerful connection between Shirlette Ammons and Sookee, two cunning MCs who constitute one of the fall's most fascinating bills. For starters, there's that pesky language barrier — Shirlette, a Durham artist raised in the rural South, delivers her lines in English with a rich and inviting drawl. She draws out her syllables to give them extra impact. Sookee hails from Berlin, and her propulsive flow mostly comes packaged in crisp and cutting German. She's catchy and relentless, contrasting with the laid-back lilt of her American counterpart.
But deeper listening — and some light reading — reveals that they are united, not just by their queer lifestyles but by their thoughtful integration of progressive ideas into danceable jams. They're kindred souls who will perform at Snug Harbor on Sept. 12, and their alliance feels like destiny.
"I was in a place where I was wanting to learn more about international female hip-hop artists," Shirlette recalls. Earlier this year, she was preparing to release Twilight for Gladys Bentley, a vibrant collection that combats hip-hop's latent sexism and homophobia more purposefully than any of her previous efforts. Recognizing their similarities, Ammons' manager recommended she check out Sookee. "I dug what she was doing, in terms of her craft and how she was approaching hip-hop from this angle of non-misogyny and dealing with homophobia and being really intentional about that. On the heels of me doing Twilight, I felt like what I was doing with that project was a lot like what she is doing."
Thoroughly enamored with Sookee's music, Shirlette suggested Sookee be included on a remix of "Dandelion (Eatin Out)," Twilight's most aggressively sexual offering. She didn't come easily, sending Shirlette a litany of probing questions to make sure the North Carolinian's ideals matched up with her own. The song finds Shirlette playing the role of boastful temptress, bragging to a hapless dude that she's been sleeping with his girl — and that the two have enjoyed the oral activity implied in the title. Abandoning the smooth funk of the album version, producer Apple Juice Kid opts for brash blasts of synth and bass. Sookee tears through fiercely. keying on the remix's rapacious nature with a blitz of slashing syllables.
Their chemistry confirmed, Shirlette's crew invited Sookee to join them for a spring tour down to the South By Southwest music conference in Texas. It was a "debaucherous good time," Shirlette says, and it left the two rappers hungry to hit the road together again.
"Whenever I tell people that it is the second time I go to the U.S. to perform, I add that there is this very smart and charming queer rapper," Sookee offered via e-mail. "[She's] very different from me but shares the same values, someone who I am — though I have not known her for long — closely connected with. Someone who knows the spots where our music is appreciated."
Sookee's songs communicate vehement energy regardless of whether you speak her language. Her 2011 LP, Bitches Butches Dykes & Divas, sends her hyper-rhythmic flow streaking through taut, techno-driven beats. She advocates intelligence in hip-hop ("Wordnerd") and delivers a fine English verse name-checking various female pop stars who have challenged the status quo with their appearance ("D.R.A.G."). But she's at her best when she's advocating for solidarity among the marginalized. "Bitches, butches, dykes and divas," she declares during the title track, "sluts and fags united." Her approach is gentler on this year's lush, rock-leaning Parole Brückenbau EP, but her work remains fiery in its defense of outsiders.
"I think solidarity is the best invention of humankind," Sookee says. "Sexism and homophobia are quite closely connected. The idea of intersectionality is very helpful to understand how power and privilege, as well as discrimination and oppression, work."
Twilight's perspective is similar. Though it's not without its darker moments — such as the slinking stalker drama related by "Creeped On" — the tone is usually celebratory. Keying on the life of Gladys Bentley, an openly lesbian performer from the 1920s who was later blacklisted and forced back into the closet, Shirlette contemplates the advantages she enjoys that her inspiration did not. With a beat that typifies the album's percolating electronics, "Take A Chance" glorifies a street-level music experience. Even better is "Twilight," which finds Shirlette dealing with Bentley's complicated legacy as ace crooner Sy Smith adds her luxurious garnish. "So many before us took a chance to advance the cause," she opines. "In the name of them all, we pause/ And applaud the twilight."
Shirlette knows how fortunate she is to be able express herself so openly. As for her connection with a white girl across the pond who's pursuing similar ends — that might be even sweeter. "I just feel honored to be aware that this moment feels as ripe as it is for artists of different lifestyles," she says. "Nobody's doing the same thing and nobody's taking the same approach. But it's all relevant and important to this moment. It's defining, and I'm just proud to know folks who are doing it and to roll with them."