Interview By Tia Williams
InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each month ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This month ELIXHER spotlights North Carolina native, Atlanta-based director of SisterSong and revolutionary soul singer Monica Raye Simpson.
ELIXHER: Tell us about yourself.
MONICA: I am an artivist (artist plus activist). I am a Doula. I am a Southern Belle…with an edge.
ELIXHER: For those that don’t know, could you tell us more about SisterSong and the role you play?
MONICA: SisterSong is the national reproductive justice collective for women of color, and I have the honor of serving as the Executive Director — in other words, I am the boss.
ELIXHER: What essentially is reproductive justice?
MONICA: The SisterSong concept of reproductive justice emerged at a Black women’s caucus in 1994 that married the concepts of reproductive rights and social justice; thus creating what we now know as reproductive justice. The reproductive justice framework – the right to have children, not have children, the right to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments, and the right to bodily autonomy free from violence, exploitation of coercion — is based on the human right to make our own personal decisions about our lives, our families and our bodies.
Reproductive justice goes beyond the choice framework that focuses heavily on a woman’s right to not have a child. Women of color don’t always have the privilege to make a choice, but our options for making the choices that we can have to be safe, affordable and accessible. The intersectionality of the reproductive justice framework allows for a more broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power.
Essentially, reproductive justice addresses the social reality of inequality, specifically, the inequality of opportunities that we have to control our reproductive destiny.
At some point we had enough. I’m not sure if was our fear, our rage or a combination of both, but we started to organize.
ELIXHER: Where did your activism and organizational work begin?
MONICA: My activism started as a young child growing up in the Black church. I always had a lot of questions, and I had no problem making them known. I would ask questions like, “Why can’t she talk from the pulpit?” or “If all of the girls are getting pregnant in the church, why aren’t we talking about sex?” Or I would often wonder why a sudden hush would fall over the adults when they would talk about the failing health of our church choir director. It was obvious there were some larger issues going on in the world that my young mind didn’t have the language for quite yet.
But it wasn’t until I came out on my Black college campus that I realized that I was an activist and an organizer. Being gay on a college campus in 1999 wasn’t too cool back then. It was as if you were a part of a secret society. For the most part, folks were fine just being in our own little circle, but then they started to slide death threats under our doors and beat our brothers with bats. And instead of punishing the perpetrators, they ostracized the victims. At some point we had enough. I’m not sure if was our fear, our rage or a combination of both, but we started to organize. We reached out to national and local organizations to help us start a task force on our campus. Soon we found ourselves hosting the first LBGT summit on a Black college campus…in our chapel!
From that moment, I was no longer just a student, I was a student organizer and my activist journey was ignited. After graduation I was the first person of color hired at the LGBT Community Center in Charlotte. I was also a founding board member of the first Black Gay Pride Celebration in NC — and the only female in leadership.
Over the past 13 years I have organized extensively around many civil rights and human rights violations, the prison industrial complex, and the systematic physical and emotional violence inflicted upon the minds bodes and spirits of African Americans with an emphasis on African American women and the African American LGBTQ community in the South.
ELIXHER: What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced advocating for reproductive justice?
MONICA: I think the major challenge I have with advocating for reproductive justice is that most people think that my work centers on abortion. Although, I am unapologetically in support of women having access to legal and safe abortions, reproductive justice is not a single issue focused framework. Why? Because we do not live single issue lives. I am African American. I am a woman who is also a lesbian born and raised in the South in a low income community. All of my identities impact my lived experience and my decision-making around my body.
I call myself a Revolutionary Soul Singer. I sing songs for the soul. I sing about freedom. It is all about love for me when it comes to music.
ELIXHER: When did you know this was the path you were meant to walk?
MONICA: Not to get too mystical on you all, but I believe we chose our paths before coming to this plane. Then we go through life and we have experiences that bring us closer and closer to our destiny. Honestly, I can’t tell you the exact moment, but I know that I have been prepared for this time, and I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
ELIXHER: You’re a very talented singer. Were you vocally trained? What do you typically sing about?
MONICA: I come from a family of gospel singers. Our family get-togethers are like mini concerts. So I would say my first training came from the church. But I also took music as a minor in college and was classically trained. I call myself a Revolutionary Soul Singer. I can’t take full credit for that because Meshelle Ndegeocello said it in one of her songs, and it seemed fitting to me. I sing songs for the soul. I sing about freedom. It is all about love for me when it comes to music.
We have to remember that there are so many other movements — other than the fight for marriage equality — where our time, our talent, and our money is needed. Children are dying; women’s clinics are closing; we are still fighting for Medicaid expansion; our economy is plummeting; there are food deserts in the U.S.; our prison system remains a major issue; violence against women and our transgender brothers and sisters is out of control — and these movements need us.
ELIXHER: If people want to listen to your music, where can they find you?
MONICA: I am a live performer. I don’t like the studio. But I am stretching beyond that because there are so many folks who reach out to me and want records. So I have to give the people what they want! This fall you will be able to find me everywhere when I release my first full-length album. In the meantime, you have to make your way to Atlanta — or bring me to your city.
ELIXHER: Tell us about an elder that has touched your life.
MONICA: I have to say my grandmother, Mabel Hailey. She was everything to me. She had strong hands, a stern voice, and a heart of gold. She would say, “Light always rises to the top, so stay in the light baby.” Best advice I have ever received.
ELIXHER: What kind of healthy critique do you have about our community? What are some areas for growth?
MONICA: I believe it is time for us to show up for more than a party. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good party, and celebration is necessary, but I believe we have to remember that there are so many other movements — other than the fight for marriage equality — where our time, our talent, and our money is needed. Children are dying; women’s clinics are closing; we are still fighting for Medicaid expansion; our economy is plummeting; there are food deserts in the U.S.; our prison system remains a major issue; violence against women and our transgender brothers and sisters is out of control — and these movements need us. I believe we have some amazing outlets that are fun, but we should also use every outlet to talk about issues impacting our communities.
I will also say that I am concerned about our YouTube shows. I think we have to be mindful of our younger generation and what representations of our culture we give them to model themselves after. It is all about balance.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Monica Raye Simpson?
MONICA: A vacation. But after that I will concentrate on finishing the album and plan a small tour. I also plan to make my way to the television screen. It is time to become more visible to the world.
For more information about SisterSong, visit www.sistersong.net.
Tia N. Williams is the woman behind The Buddha In Me, an agency of artists, speakers, poets, and activists based in Atlanta. The Buddha In Me specializes in providing quality programs to educate, enlighten, and entertain. Tia recently received her M.Ed. from the University of Georgia in College Student Affairs Administration.