The Smithsonian Folklife Festival joined Roadwork in celebrating its fortieth anniversary as a D.C.-based multiracial coalition that puts women artists on the road globally. The 2018 Festival closed with two evening concerts featuring Roadwork performers and millennial women artists whose sounds led us into the future. Our daytime stage offerings included poetry, spoken word, and activist reflections on women’s cultures past and future.
Founded in 1978 by women leaders from African American civil rights, women’s, global justice, and lesbian-feminist movements, Roadwork aims at transforming consciousness and creating new movements in global arts and social justice. The organization produced concerts, festivals, tours, and rallies that inspired tens of thousands of people to work for social change. It built coalitions across race, gender, sexual orientation, and economic class—the foundations of intersectional activism today.
Folklife Festival co-founder Ralph Rinzler saw artists as more than entertainers. To him they were leaders of social change. An early Roadwork supporter, Rinzler provided its office on Harvard Street NW and, along with Smithsonian Folkways artist Pete Seeger, remained an unwavering advocate of the organization’s local and global work.
Today Roadwork artists shine on international stages, in college classrooms, and major cultural institutions promoting social justice, and collaborating with new generations of visionary activists.
Sisterfire at the 2018 Folklife Festival was a part of the Roadwork Oral History and Documentary Project. All concerts and narrative sessions were recorded for a feature-length documentary and an online oral history archive featuring dozens of artists, activist, technicians, producers, and audience members who built the coalition.
Alsarah is an East African retro pop music singer, songwriter, and bandleader. Born in Khartoum, Sudan, she relocated to Yemen with her family before abruptly moving to the United States. She feels most at home in Brooklyn, where she has been residing since 2004. Working on various projects, she has toured both nationally and internationally.
With her main outfit, Alsarah & the Nubatones, she has toured nationally and internationally and released two albums, Silt and Manara (Wonderwheel Recordings, 2014 and 2016). She has also released an album with French electronic producer Débruit called Aljawal (Soundway Records, 2013). She was also featured on the Nile Project’s debut, Aswan (2013).
In between albums, Alsarah also works with the Sudanese artist collective Refugee Club Productions on a variety of projects, including the critically acclaimed documentary Beats of the Antonov.
Tattiana Aqeel is a native Washingtonian performance artist with extensive training in music, theater, and dance. She promotes healing and self-expression through a Black-mixed queer womxn lens, using art to reverse trauma, violence, and exclusion. She received vocal and theatrical training from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the Mason Gross School at Rutgers University.
In July 2017, she produced the first Garden Concert Series, a gourmet dinner concert featuring music and produce from artists and farmers of color in Washington, D.C. She stars in the independent short film Vow of Silence, directed by fellow Roadwork artist Be Steadwell.
Ysaye Maria Barnwell is a composer, arranger, author, actress, and former member of the African American female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock. As a vocalist with a three-octave-plus range, she appears on more than twenty-five recordings with Sweet Honey and other artists.
For almost thirty years, and on three continents, Barnwell has led the workshop “Building a Vocal Community: Singing in the African American Tradition.” It uses oral tradition, an African worldview, and African American history, values, culture, and vocal traditions to build communities of song among singers and non-singers alike. Her pedagogy is highly respected among musicians, educators, health workers, activists, and organizers.
Trained as a violinist for fifteen years beginning at the age of two-and-a-half, she also holds degrees in speech pathology, cranio-facial studies, and public health. She was a professor at Howard University College of Dentistry for over a decade, and in the years following she developed training programs at Children’s National Medical Center and administered community-based health programs at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Bernice Johnson Reagon is a scholar, singer, and activist who has been a profound contributor to African American and American culture. Born in southwestern Georgia, her singing style and traditional repertoire is grounded in her experiences in church, school, and political activism. Her contributions to African American and American culture for over fifty years remains unparalleled.
Reagon has a long history with both the Smithsonian and Roadwork. In 1969, Folklife Festival co-founder Ralph Rinzler invited her to curate Black Music Through the Languages of the New World. In 1972, she founded and directed the Smithsonian’s Program in Black American Culture, a research group that developed the Folklife Festival’s unprecedented African Diaspora program that ran from 1973 to 1976. She also produced and performed on many Smithsonian Folkways Recordings albums.
As a co-founder of Roadwork in 1978, Reagon served as a board member, a solo performer, a member of Sweet Honey In The Rock, and co-creator and enthusiastic supporter of Roadwork’s coalition efforts. Reagon’s songbook, Compositions One, was co-produced with Roadwork in 1986. Now in retirement, her strongest musical collaborator has been her daughter, Toshi Reagon.
The Bernice Johnson Reagon Songbook ensemble at the Folklife Festival featured Toshi Reagon & BIGLovely with vocalists Carla Duren, Marcelle Davies Lashley, Josette Newsam Marchak, and Karma Mayet Johnson.
Be Steadwell is a singer-songwriter from Washington, D.C. With roots in jazz, a cappella, and folk music, she calls her music “queer pop.” In her live performances, she uses looping, vocal layering, and beatboxing to compose songs on stage. Her original music features earnest lyricism and proud LGBTQ messages.
In 2017, Be sang at the Women’s March on the National Mall behind Maxwell and Janelle Monae in Toshi Reagon’s BIGLovely band. In September, she opened for Big Freedia at D.C.’s Honeygroove Festival. In 2018, she is supported by a fellowship from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and an award from the Astraea Global Arts Fund to produce her next album, Queer Love Songs.
With an MFA in film from Howard University, Be combines her love of music with narrative film by producing her own music videos. Her film Vow of Silence received awards at film festivals around the world, including Black Star, QWOCMAP, and Fringe Fest UK. She is currently touring her music and screening the film internationally.
Alexis De Veaux was born and raised in Harlem, New York. The second of eight children, she grew up with her mother’s view of life: “You got three strikes against you. You poor, you black, and you female.” But De Veaux was drawn to the world of words and books, and through literature she reimagined the world her mother understood.
In the early 1970s, she joined the writer’s workshop of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in Harlem where she published numerous works. In the years following, her reputation as a writer bridged multiple genres: fiction, children’s literature, playwriting, and poetry. Eventually her writing took the backdrop of the tensions between the Black Arts Movement, an emerging black feminist movement, and the Third-World Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement.
In 1980, she published Don’t Explain, an award-winning prose-poem biography of jazz great Billie Holiday. While working for Essence Magazine, she was chosen to interview Nelson Mandela in 1990 upon his historic release from prison, making her the first North American writer to do so. Her biography of Audre Lorde, Warrior Poet (2004) has received several awards.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a practicing poet, artist, educator, and scholar. She was the first person to do archival research on the papers of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Lucille Clifton, conducted while achieving her doctorate in English, Africana studies, and women’s studies at Duke University.
In 2002, at the age of nineteen, Gumbs founded Broken Beautiful Press, a grassroots publishing initiative that has published several poetry collections, educational zines, transformative workbooks, and online projects. She also founded the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, a transmedia-enabled community school and lending library based in Durham, North Carolina; the Mobile Homecoming Project, a national experiential archive amplifying generations of black LGBTQ brilliance; and Brilliance Remastered, an educational project to support underrepresented graduate students and community scholars.
Gumbs is the author of Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (2016) and M Archive: After the End of the World (2018) and the co-editor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines.
Ariel Horowitz is a violinist, composer, and activist who advocates for music as a medium for global healing. A student of Ani Kavafian at the Yale School of Music, she completed her undergraduate studies at The Juilliard School under the tutelage of Itzhak Perlman and Catherine Cho. She frequently pairs masterworks of the classical canon with her own political and interdisciplinary compositions.
She is also the director of the Heartbeat Project, an education initiative on the Navajo Reservation. Its annual summer workshop combines the fundamentals of music and math while cultivating a safe space for students and creating an atmosphere of cultural exchange.
In Process… is an a cappella ensemble of four women, each of whom brings her own voice, style, and experience to create shared harmony and rhythm in the African American oral tradition. Formed in Washington, D.C., after a 1980 performance workshop with Sweet Honey in the Rock, In Process… now boasts more than fifty alumni and a collective sound that bridges the gap between generations.
The quartet’s goal has always been to provide strength and hope through music. From contemporary social issues to personal struggles for love and respect, In Process... utilizes spiritual song for transformation and healing, for a world continually in process. Members were always deeply involved in the Roadwork coalition, volunteering for concerts and for the Sisterfire Festival in addition to performing on stage. At the Folklife Festival, the lineup was Paula Pree, Tiya Adé, Nketia Agyeman, and Pam Rogers.
Carolyn Malachi is a GRAMMY-nominated R&B singer from Washington, D.C. Her vocal talents, breathtaking live performances, and songwriting acumen have generated global excitement about American art. Using her music and social media platforms as forces for good, Malachi advocates for equal access to education and technology.
In 2016, she kicked off a Black History Month college tour with Amtrak, as well as a jazz education and exchange tour in Haiti. In addition, she released a new album, RISE: Story 1, inspired by her transition to life as a full-time artist.
Malachi and her all-women band were sponsored by the Department of Defense’s Armed Forces Entertainment to provide morale support for American and joint-force service members in Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in October 2017.
Roya Marsh is a New York native and a nationally ranked poet, performer, educator, and activist. As Urban Word NYC’s poet in residence, she works feverishly toward LGBTQIA justice and dismantling white supremacy.
Marsh’s work has been featured in Poetry Magazine, Flypaper Magazine, Frontier Poetry, Nylon Magazine, the Village Voice, Huffington Post, Blavity, The Root, Button Poetry, Def Jam’s All Def Digital, Lexus Verses and Flow, BET, and The BreakBeat Poets, Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket 2018).
Holly Near inspires people to work for peace, justice, and feminism through her music and activism, with a large, warm voice that draws people together. Her music has also supported the LGBTQ community, encouraging people to come out and live confident lives, regardless of their gender and sexual identities.
In 1972, she was one of the first women to create an independent record company, with a goal to promote and produce music by politically conscious artists from around the world and help open doors for outspoken women in the music world. Along with Amy Horowitz, Near co-produced the first tour for Sweet Honey In The Rock, and out of their work emerged Roadwork, an organization dedicated to putting women musicians on the road.
Near teaches master classes in the craft of public presentation for ministers, musicians, teachers, and public servants. Her historic papers at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library are regarded as an informed look at the last forty years of social change movements.
Alicia Partnoy is a poet, memoirist, and human rights activist born in Argentina. In her book La Escuelita (The Little School), she details her experience of imprisonment and torture as one of the many desaparecidos (“the disappeared”) held in concentration camps during the Argentine military dictatorship. Partnoy had been active in the Peronist Youth Movement when she was kidnapped.
After being released from the concentration camp, Partnoy came to the United States in 1979 where she reunited with her daughter and husband. She attended Roadwork’s first Sisterfire Festival as a recent exile in 1982 and wrote a poem, “Two Voices,” that she dedicated to the festival. Ysaye Maria Barnwell set the words to music, and it became a part of the repertoire for Sweet Honey In the Rock, In Process…, and several other groups.
Partnoy is closely associated with Amnesty International and has shared her testimony at numerous universities, conferences, and other venues. Her writings include Volando bajito/Little Low Flying, Revenge of the Apple/Venganza de la manzana, and You Can’t Drown the Fire: Latin American Women Writing in Exile. She completed her graduate work at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and now works as an associate professor of Spanish at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Toshi Reagon is a one-woman celebration of all that’s dynamic, progressive, and uplifting in American music. Since first taking to the stage at age seventeen, the singer-songwriter and guitarist has moved audiences of all kinds with her approach to rock, blues, R&B, country, folk, spirituals, and funk. Leading her renowned band BIGLovely, launched in 1996, she connects, inspires, and empowers.
In recent years, she has collaborated with tap dancer Michelle Dorrance and Dorrance Dance on the Bessie Award-winning production The Blues Project, Meshell Ndegeocello on the musical Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin, and world-renowned drummer and composer Allison Miller in a duo called Holler and Bam.
The BIGLovely band also includes Judith Casselberry on acoustic guitar and vocals, Robert “Chicken” Burke on drums, Fred Cass Jr. on bass, Adam Widoff on electric guitar, and Catherine Russell on mandolin and vocals.
Martha Redbone is an award-winning singer-songwriter and a vital voice in American roots music. She is celebrated for combining the folk and mountain blues sounds of her childhood in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky with the eclectic grit of her teenage years in Brooklyn. Taking musical inspiration from her gospel-singing father and the fighting spirit of Cherokee/Choctaw culture from her mother, Redbone broadens the boundaries of Americana.
Her 2012 album, The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake, showcases Redbone’s magnificent voice, Blake’s immortal words, and a masterful cornucopia of roots music: folk, country, Piedmont blues, gospel, bluegrass, soul, and traditional Native. Her 2004 album Skintalk is included in the collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Her newest work is based on the stories of her Appalachian coalmining family’s culture and legacy, fueled in a celebration of American music.
Urban Bush Women (UBW) brings the untold and under-told stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance. With a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African diaspora community, they seek to create a more equitable balance of power in the dance world and beyond.
Founded in 1984 by choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, UBW continues to use dance as both the message and the medium to bring together diverse audiences through innovative choreography, community collaboration, and artistic leadership development. UBW galvanizes artists, activists, audiences, and communities through performances, education, and community engagement. It strives to affect the overall ecology of the arts by promoting artistic legacies, projecting the voices of people of color, addressing issues of equity in the dance field and throughout the United States, and providing platforms and serving as a conduit for culturally and socially relevant experimental art makers.
Venus Thrash is a poet and fiction writer based in Washington, D.C. Her poetry has been published in various journals and anthologies, and her book The Fateful Apple was nominated for the 2009 Arktoi Books Poetry Prize, the 2012 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize, and the 2015 PEN Open Book Award. Between various residencies, fellowships, and teaching jobs, she is the co-editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, co-director of the Joaquin Miller Poetry Series in Rock Creek Park.
As a scholar, activist, and producer, Amy Horowitz is interested in the unlikely coalitions and inevitable contradictions in music cultures and everyday lives. She has over four decades of experience in the academic world, the music industry, and grassroots social justice arts networks.
Horowitz’s main research interests are global indigenous studies, music in disputed territory, contemporary Jerusalem, Arab Jewish popular music, and protest music as responsible citizenship. She has long fought against racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia. and misogyny. Her work in multiracial coalitions includes co-founding Roadwork and Sisterfire and serving as artist representative for Sweet Honey in the Rock from 1977 to 1994. Her activist work complements her academic background that combines training in Jewish studies and ethnomusicology with folklore.
Horowitz worked as a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and, in 1997, she received a GRAMMY for Anthology of American Folk Music while serving as acting director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. In 2010, her book Mediterranean Israeli Music and the Politics of the Aesthetic received honorable mention from the Jordan Schnitzer Book Award.
Born in Minneapolis, Netsanet Negussie is a documentary photographer, producer, and writer based in New York City. She has worked with organizations like POV on PBS, Chicken & Egg Pictures, New York Theatre Workshop, and Catalyst Films, where she currently serves as creative development associate.
Negussie believes in the significant power of the documentary tradition. As a response to the increase in development projects occurring in the Twin Cities and the devastating impact this had on the community, she began to archive stories of individuals who felt compelled to tell their truth as they confront challenges that pose the threat of losing their homes.
Currently, she is pursuing her MA in journalism with a special focus in documentary film at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Since 2016, she has been instrumental in developing the Roadwork Oral History and Documentary Project.
Urvashi Vaid is an attorney and organizer who has held leadership roles in philanthropic, advocacy, community, and academic organizations. She also serves as president of The Vaid Group LLC, a social innovation firm working for equity and justice.
With a commitment to LGBTQ and social justice movements, Vaid has also served as executive director of the Arcus Foundation; senior fellow at the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School; and executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. She is currently a board member of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, vhair of the board of the Roadwork Center for Culture in Disputed Territories, and a founding board member of LPAC, the lesbian SuperPAC.
She is author of Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics (2012) and Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation (1996); co-author of A Roadmap for Change: Public Policy Recommendations Addressing the Criminalization of LGBT People and People Living with HIV (2013); and co-editor of an anthology Creating Change: Public Policy, Sexuality and Civil Rights (2000).Vaid is a graduate of Vassar College and Northeastern University School of Law.
Visitors joined us for free concert featuring D.C. artists Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Be Steadwell, and Carolyn Malachi.
Poetry and spoken word with Alexis DeVeaux, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Roya Marsh, and Venus Thrash
Reflections on Roadwork with Alicia Partnoy, In Process…, Urvashi Vaid, Netsanet Negussie, and Amy Horowitz
Visitors enjoyed an evening on the National Mall with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely, Holly Near, Bernice Johnson Reagon Songbook, Martha Redbone, Urban Bush Women, Alsarah, Allison Miller, Alex Nolan, Ganessa James, Marcelle Davies Lashley, Juliette Jones, Ariel Horowitz, Maya Kronfeld, Josette Newsam Marchak, Carla Duren, Tattiana Aqeel, and Karma Mayet Johnson