“They need the Frog Princess movie in here,” Stas half-joked, not sounding too surprised that Disney’s lone black face was missing from their Disneyworld vacation condo.
Even at an internationally-renowned tourist trap, the dearth of friendly, inclusive spaces for black women is an accepted reality for most of us. For Catherine “Cat” Harris-White and Stasia “Stas” Irons, better known as the funk/jazz/R&B/hip-hop/other duo THEESatisfaction, the reality is no different. The two are all too familiar with women of color’s limited visibility in mainstream art and entertainment. Instead of idly complaining to each other about it, they changed the narrative by taking their career’s direction in their own hands.
“When we were first starting, we would book ourselves at venues that weren’t considered hip-hop venues, and book ourselves with indie rock bands, or punk bands, or R&B—like, all kinds of different music. The people who were booking us kind of caught on,” Cat explained, when asked how they successfully found ways to make venues see past the labels “black” and “female.”
“We’re not gonna be pigeonholed to one situation; we have to perform with other people,” she went on.
THEESatisfaction’s approach to earning universal appeal has paid off. Since their March release of “awE naturalE,” their first studio album under Subpop records, they have received positive reviews from The Guardian, Pitchfork magazine, and the BBC. NPR raved over their first single. Music journalists still slather praise on their guest appearance from Shabazz Palace’s 2011 “Black Up” album. Now that people are paying attention, they’ve used their success as an opportunity to share the spotlight with others like themselves. Their very first music video, “QueenS,” is an understated homage to the beauty, diversity and uniqueness of black women.
To the average ELIXHER reader, the queer vibe in the “QueenS” video is likely obvious. Yet Cat and Stas, who have been a couple for more than five years, responded to those charges with what seemed to be a mixture of surprise and amusement.
“We’ve always wanted to shoot a video that highlighted black women. A few of the women weren’t queer, but obviously most of them were, since we are,” Stas clarified, laughing at my suggestion that the video was “aggressively gay.”
The lack of explicit intent to market their music to LGBTQ women does not mean they will be ushering their sexuality back into the closet anytime soon, however. When asked if they were ever unsure about presenting their sexuality publicly, or whether they worried it would impact sales, Cat quickly dismissed the notion.
“This is us, why try to hide it? For us, it just didn’t make sense. We’ve been trying to hide it or rearrange it for so long growing up, you know, trying to figure out how to display ourselves properly […] that now we’re just like, ‘Fuck that.’”
Even with their open, unapologetic attitude about their sexuality, it is what the “QueenS” video lacks that most gives it a polished, queer, feminist aesthetic: an all-girl party scene without the salacious flesh bearing, backbreaking twerking, or risqué girl-on-girl displays typical of a hip-hop video. Rarely do directors of black music videos acknowledge that a group of uniformly gorgeous black women do not need to show their asses (literally or figuratively) to be found worthy of attention.
“When we cast it, we wanted to make sure that it was a good representation of black women—of all black women. I mean, we couldn’t get every kind of woman in it, but we tried and worked with what we had,” Stas said, a converse approach to black entertainment’s usual Beyoncé standard of attractiveness.
Their inclusiveness jibes with the old-school vibe of their set. With wood paneling and all, “QueenS” harkens back to the best of the 70’s blaxploitation era, when cinematic standards for black beauty had not yet been totally whitewashed. Women of all shades, hair types and gender presentations grace the screen at some point. To achieve this end, friends from Toronto, California and Seattle flew out to join the cast in Brooklyn, expanding the array of looks on set.
Despite the two originating in Seattle, they say New York was their only real consideration for a video shoot. Yes, the location was easiest to coordinate with first-time director/feminist hip-hop journalist dream hampton, but THEESatisfaction had already established themselves as fan favorites in Brooklyn’s queer POC scene; the blackest, gayest borough of New York City has had their music on rotation ever since their appearance in bklyn boihood‘s inaugural calendar in 2010. Since their formal introduction, they’ve maintained connections with many of the city’s most prominent black, queer artists.
“There’s a lot of cool things happening in New York, like the Peculiar Kind, and i am QUEER in Brooklyn […] the in(her)view thing, I love all of that stuff. So happy that I know all of these people,” Stas continued.
“It’s just nice to see so many different web series coming out about black women, you know, it’s not typical,” Cat agreed. “Women taking media into their own hands.”
“Yeah, that’s fly,” Cat chimed back in. The two seemed honestly in awe of projects that have yet to garner half the national, let alone international, following that their own work has.
The love they show to fellow artists is reciprocated. The two say they’re gratified by the warm reception so many black women have given them. Essence recently published an interview with the two. During the same trip where they playfully badgered Atlanta’s DJ E about her role in “Between Women,” Janelle Monae made an impromptu appearance at their show. bklyn boihood regularly updates their followers on their new music. The presence and support of black women is even more significant when you consider that most of the radio outlets currently playing THEESatisfaction are indie rock and college stations.
“It’s cool seeing all the queer, black women out there, or even black women in general, and they come and say, ‘Hey, we came to see you.’ That’s a big deal. It’s mindblowing,” Cat said, and the brief pause that follows her statement suggests the genuineness of her appreciation.
It’s encouraging to see the community continue to support them, even as they appeal to a broader fan base. Cat says their European tour has seen as at least as many white, male fans as black women.
“Which is cool, because we kind of put them in an area that they have to stand by each other, you know,” she elaborated. “People who are used to being around a bunch of queer people, or used to being around a bunch of straight white people, they all have to stand in a room together in order to see us.”
“There haven’t been any fights, there hasn’t been any rioting,” Stas added quickly, before I’m even allowed to ask the question. The two laughed hard enough to make me wonder if they were expecting trouble more than I was.
The interview was coming to a close when they reassured me that I was not interrupting their family vacation—apparently, they had just been on the phone with a German magazine before me.
“You’re big time!” I half-shouted, admittedly with a lot more pride than was warranted for my lack of contribution to their success. After letting out an audible sigh, the two got uncomfortably quiet.
“I don’t want too much praise or too much criticism,” Stas said, reminding me how hurt feelings can get when artists start monitoring people’s feedback too closely.
“We still got more music to make, more places to be at, more countries to see. I’ll get bigheaded when I can play an instrument like Stevie,” Cat said, before Stas quickly pointed out she’d have to go back in time and master the piano at age twelve.
“We just keep it chill, keep it real chill,” Stas added and left her comments there.
The two have earned the right to remain calm about their success. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to go along with it.
– Ajené “AJ” Farrar
AJ has been working as an air traffic controller since 2009, after attending Old Dominion University and George Mason University as a journalism major. She currently lives in upstate New York.