Major props are in order for the Bay Area founded, all female hip-hop collective the Sisterz of the Underground (SOTU), who are celebrating their seven year anniversary with a big show this weekend in San Francisco. As with many other fine organizations before them, SOTU, which features b-girls, emcees, spoken-word artists, DJ's, graffiti/street artists, and others, began almost by accident.
But since its inception in 2001 it has grown by leaps and bounds. Besides the numerous showcases, spotlighting women artists, SOTU also branched out and created a wonderful sister organization called DEF ED which holds workshops and classes for youth throughout the greater Bay Area.
As outlined on their website SOTU is "an open collective for women to: feel comfortable and not intimidated, to share or learn hip hop skills, be open to be who we are while being respected in how we choose to express that, choose to represent hip hop, & feel hip hop no matter what level of skill."
Perhaps what is most commendable about this organization is that through their passion and positivity for hip-hop, coupled with their genuine concern for their fellow sisters, Sisterz of the Underground and its offshoot group DEF ED, have transcended hip-hop itself to create a family structure and provide a much needed support group for young women (especially in this current sexist era of popular hip-hop where women are constantly objectified and degraded) in which they can learn invaluable life lessons. What they do is bigger than hip-hop.
To celebrate their seven successful years of putting on shows, workshops, and other events the Sisterz of the Underground are putting on a highly recommended show Friday night (March 21st) at Club Six in San Francisco with a talent packed bill, hosted by Melina Jones, that will include DJs Celski & Deandroid, DJ Zita, DJ That Girl, Medusa, Shredone, Butterscoth, Lady Fingaz, and the Extra Credit Cru. Showtime 9:30PM. More show info.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Sarah "Smalls" Saltzman, the founder of Sisterz of the Underground and co-founder of DEF ED, to talk with her about the past seven years and the politics of gender in a male dominated music form.
AMOEBLOG: When you started Sisterz of the Underground seven years ago did you think it would be at the place it is at today?
SARAH "SMALLS" SALTZMAN: Never. The thing is, Sisterz of the Underground was never really a plan. It was all a manifestation of talent, hard work, community, and hip-hop. If you plant a seed, water it, and give it sun, it will grow. And that's exactly what happened with Sisterz of the Underground.
AMOEBLOG: What was the one thing that inspired you to begin SOTU initially and did you have a 5 year or 10 year plan or something along those lines?
SARAH "SMALLS" SALTZMAN: I guess I'll go way back for this one. I grew up as a tomboy, always having all guy friends and never really getting along with other girls. As teenagers we're socially constructed to hate and compete against other women, and I just felt like I never fit in. So, I never experienced the feeling of support of other girls/women. When I moved to San Francisco in 1999, I started producing club night events. I was hanging out a lot with two amazingly talented females: Inchant, a female emcee and Arouz, a female graffiti artist. After putting on two successful events in SF, the owner of the Justice League (now known as The Independent) asked me if I wanted to do a night in January 2001. I was super inspired by these ladies at this time, myself being a graffiti artist and freestyling a lot with Inchant, that I decided to organize an all female hip-hop show representing all elements of hip-hop. I only had about two months to put this show together, so I went out almost every night trying to scout out talented females in hip-hop. Some of the artists I found included Syndel (Old Dominion), DJ Celski & Deeandroid, Lady Wonders, Tenashus. I decided to call the event "Sisterz of the Underground." Long story short, the event turned out to be more than a success. We sold out the Justice League to 650 people with Medusa as the headliner. People were literally hanging off the walls. It was so packed! The audience was amazed at the fact that there were so many talented females they had never seen from emcees to DJs to b-girls to graffiti artists. We had it all. Everyone at the end of the night asked "Who's Sisterz of the Underground?" So I asked all the ladies if they wanted to form an all female hip-hop collective. And here we are today; seven years later, stronger than ever! No business plan or anything like that.
AMOEBLOG: In a nutshell, what is the real role of Sisterz of the Underground as you see it?
SARAH "SMALLS" SALTZMAN: I believe that the real role of SOTU is and always will be the same. I started it as a comfortable place for women to express themselves through hip-hop, a place for women to feel supported in, historically, what was known as a male dominated arena. I've seen girls who didn't even feel comfortable hitting a cypher at first, come and practice with us for a month or two and then to to the club with us and get down like she had been doing this her whole life. I also believe that we serve as role models to young women. After the first two months of our inception, we started working with all girl youth groups - specifically Girls 2000 (in the Hunters Point Projects) and Oasis (South of Market). That soon turned into our hip-hop education program DEF ED. DEF ED now serves over 3,000 youth a year in six counties of the Bay Area, using hip-hop as an educational tool to teach youth about values like acceptance, non-violence, physical fitness, and creative self-expression.
AMOEBLOG: What accomplishments or events of SOTU are you most proud of?
SARAH "SMALLS" SALTZMAN: I have to say that DEF ED is probably the thing I'm personally most proud of. Like I said before this was never a plan either and it now is bigger than I could've imagined. I think we've made a huge impact with the youth and community at large creating this type of education program that was so needed in the Bay Area and in any urban area of the world. The other thing that I'm super proud of has been the transformation of two of the members - Michelle "Crykit" Kolnik and Traci Putkey. Crykit came to our crew as a shy dancer and is now one of the head organizers of SOTU, the program leader of DEF ED, and one of the top b-girls of Extra Credit. Traci Putkey came to our crew as an intern working alongside of me in the office everyday. Now she is our talent coordinator and event producer for SOTU. I love that SOTU gave these women the opportunity to transform themselves and grow within the hip-hop community.
AMOEBLOG: What programs or events are you planning for the future with SOTU?
SARAH "SMALLS" SALTZMAN: Currently we are looking to transition DEF ED to another parent organization. We've been part of the Cellspace family since our inception and that has been an honor. WIthout Cellspace, Def Ed wouldn't be where it is today. However Cellspace has suffered financially in the past year and Def Ed is in need of a stable home. So that will definitely be a huge transition and hopefully growth for Def Ed. As for events, we are always going to have our anniversary events, But I know that Traci P is working on more events and possibly putting together a larger tour for the ladies. We were also lucky enough to put out a compilation, Queendom Vol. I through Outta Nowhere Entertainment, and are hoping to eventually release a Queendom Vol II.
AMOEBLOG: How far ahead or backwards has sexism in relation to hip-hop changed in the past seven years?
SARAH "SMALLS" SALTZMAN: I personally think we've made huge strides in hip-hop as women. But there's always going to be a fluctuation. With more female emcees like Medusa, Mystic, Missy Elliot, and singers like Goapale we will only gain respect as talented women and not just sexy women. I'm a b-girl and in the b-boy/b-girl community, b-girls have taken a huge step up. I remember going to B-Boy Summit 2002 and being so excited that there was a 2-on2 b-girl battle. Now b-girls are ripping it and taking out b-boys in battles. There are huge b-girl events internationally. Like "She Got Game" in Australia, and there's even a 2-on-2 b-girl battle this weekend in San Francisco at the Renegade Rockers 25th Anniversary. I truly believe that women need to just come together, stop hating, and really make this happen.
AMOEBLOG: Where do you think sexism and the issue of equality is headed in hip-hop?
SARAH "SMALLS" SALTZMAN: Sexism will always be there because of media and mainstream hip-hop. There's always going to be a negative connotation that resonates with hip-hop as long as rappers continue to glorify things like drugs, partying, and women. All we can continue to do as women is be ourselves and never sell out. All we can do as a community is continue to respect the women who are doing their thing and not worry if they are wearing a skimpy skirt.
AMOEBLOG: What kind of things do you hear from women hip-hop artists when they are talking about dealing with the general hip-hop biz world: specifically promoters and bookers (other than SOTU)?
SARAH "SMALLS" SALTZMAN: Well, I know it's hard to gain respect as a woman in hip-hop or business. I've had many times where I felt that if I was a man I could've gained more respect. I had one situation where I was speaking with an artist's manager for about a month over the phone. We had never seen each other. I'm 5 feet tall and a woman. So one day I went up to a show and saw the artist and her manager next to her. I went up to introduce myself to this 6'3" man and the first thing he said to me was "You sounded taller on the phone." What does that mean? I guess I did seem powerful (taller) on the phone and when he saw this short little girl walk up to him, he passed judgment. But all we can do is look at this as a challenge to be better at what we do and prove them wrong.
AMOEBLOG: The SOTU rose within the Bay Area. How unique and special a place is the Bay Area for women in hip-hop?
SARAH "SMALLS" SALTZMAN: For real, there is no other place like the Bay. I grew up in LA and moved to the Bay for nine years. That's where I began my life and found my path. At the end of 2006 I moved back to LA to pursue more of the music business and let me tell you, I'm definitely only here for one reason - to hustle. The Bay is supportive of the arts, community, and equality and that's hard to find anywhere else. I personally think as women we wouldn't have been able to gain that same kind of respect in LA or New York.
AMOEBLOG: Anything you wish to add about SOTU or hip-hop or other?
SARAH "SMALLS" SALTZMAN: The only thing I would like to add is that SOTU and DEF ED wouldn't be where they are today without the tremendous support from the Bay Area community that we've received; from the SF Bay Guardian to the SF Weekly, to CraigsList Foundation, to Project Ahimsa, to Cellspace, to the DJ Project - all these places and people have helped us be who we are today and the list can go on and on. Major thanks to Traci P, Crykit, Extra Credit Kru, Hound Dawg Truckers, Rockforce, Machine, and everyone else in the Bay Area that has helped us grow as individuals and as a collective. For any women out there seeking a family or just some ladies to hang with please don't hesitate to reach out to us. You can find us at WWW.SISTERZUNDERGROUND.COM or MySpace/SISTERZUNDERGROUND.