Art & Soul, the popular annual showcase of Black art and music in central Indiana, celebrates its 25th anniversary in February, and women have been an important part of the festival since the beginning. The very beginning. In 1996, Denise Herd, an Indy Maven editorial board member and owner of Herd Strategies, planned and programmed the first Art & Soul at downtown’s Indianapolis Artsgarden.
“I remember thinking this was an awesome responsibility with no room for error,” said Herd, who even hosted a music industry panel featuring hip-hop artists that first year. “We were making history at the time whether we realized it or not. I remember the looks of people passing through the Artsgarden, heading to the mall. They would stop right in their tracks, watch for a moment. Then they would take a seat and end up experiencing the entire performance.”
Since then, some of Indy’s most legendary Black female artists have made memorable appearances at Art & Soul. Aletra and Virtue Hampton, the energetic matriarchs of Indianapolis jazz, played crowd-pleasing renditions of “God Bless America” and “What a Wonderful World” at multiple Art & Soul festivals. In 2004, author Mari Evans helped Art & Soul pay tribute to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.
When “Honoring the Right to Vote” was selected as the 2020 theme, spoken-word artist Manon Voice (also an Indy Maven editorial board member) wrote tributes to Harriet Tubman, NAACP co-founders Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, 19th-century poet Frances Harper and Mississippi civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.
Unfortunately, no one will be stopping in their tracks at the Artsgarden this year, as Art & Soul 2021: Black by Popular Demand, has moved online throughout February to keep audiences and performers safe during the pandemic. But, the Arts Council of Indianapolis has partnered with WISH-TV, Indy Jazz Fest, and Asante Art Institute to present music and art performances and special content, including news and feature segments with the artists, from Feb. 2-26 at indyartandsoul.com.
—Headlining act AshLee “PsyWrn Simone” Baskin says she is guided by Nina Simone’s words, “An artist’s duty…is to reflect the times,” and uses her art as a weapon in the fight for racial equality. The vocalist, songwriter, and poet/spoken word artist recently told the Indianapolis Recorder, “When we tell our story, oppression and hardships are necessary to talk about. But I also think it’s important to show and talk about, in spite of that trauma, how we’ve been able to rise up. How brilliant we are, and so I wanted to reflect that in the show, too.”
—Performing alongside AshLee is her mother, Kathy Baskin, a spoken-word artist, and Tenéh Karimu, pianist and vocalist.
—Marrialle Sellars, a Top 30 American Idol competitor in 2014, will make her Art & Soul debut seven years after a successful audition for Idol panelists Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. Then a 17-year-old Lawrence Central High School student, Sellars sang Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” on the TV talent search.
—Versatile singer Brenda Williams could stake claim to the title “Ms. Art & Soul,” thanks to event performances stretching from the 1990s. Known for attracting crowds at the Indiana Repertory Theatre and Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, Williams has warmed up audiences for headliners ranging from the Beach Boys to Ray Charles.
—Valerie Phelps met her husband, Kenny, when she was performing at Clowes Hall; now the two perform together as The Phelps Connection, with Valerie as the soulful lead vocalist and Kenny, who has toured with Dee Dee Bridgewater and played with Wynton Marsalis, on drums. The couple runs the Owl Music Group and dedicate a lot of time to mentoring kids and teaching them about the music industry.
—Other women to watch include Goldie & Friends’ Goldie Ingram, a jazz/R&B/blues and rock vocalist who has opened for national acts including Eric Benet and Lalah Hathaway; Megan Simonton of the Megan Simonton Group, who is also a playwright, actor, and stage director; Teresa Reynolds, who sang backup for Gloria Gaynor (and who performs alongside keyboardist Mina Keohane); Kathy Morris on electric violin with Bulletproof Soul; and vocalist Staci McCrackin, who has worked with Keith Sweat, Kelly Price, and other major artists.
To learn more about Art & Soul 2021, including a calendar of events and info on two takeout Art & Soul food specials offered by Chef Oya’s The TRAP and Pa & Ma’s Backyard BBQ, visit https://indyarts.org/about/art-soul.
Photography by Wildstyle Paschall