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Sistas in the Pit: Black girls rockin’ the mic

Photo by Erin Shroeder

Contrary to appearances at most rock shows these days, rock 'n' roll is a black art form. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, James Brown, Etta James and Jimi Hendrix, to name just a few, were pioneers in the genre, and in more recent times, artists like Fishbone, Bad Brains, Lenny Kravitz, Mos Def, and J'Davey have been keeping up the tradition.

Most recently, black rock 'n' roll groups are making a resurgence: Living Colour recently finished a new album and is currently touring, and with the self-release of their debut, The Missing Piece, Oakland's Sistas in the Pit are also, as bassist Kofy Brown said, "taking it back to the roots" of rock.

And take it back they have. Sistas – which include guitarist Anita "Pa" Lofton, and drummer Ieela Grant – have been making music individually since they were very young: Brown is a well-known R&B and soul artist and Lofton, an internationally renowned house DJ.

"I've been a rocker since I was 9 and have been DJing since I was 12," said Lofton, sitting with her bandmates outside of a popular coffee shop on Piedmont in Oakland.

That experience shows on Missing Piece, a solid rock release that reflects the three women's deep musical knowledge and diverse influences that range from Chaka Khan to Nirvana.

There's a hardcore track "Liar," the blues-inspired "Walkin' Cane," an acoustic guitar-driven folk-rock tune "Open," and then there's "Beautiful," which is just that.

Its slow, rhythmic, and sexy sound showcases how in the pocket these three musicians are, after playing together for only two and a half years. Other songs like "Black Girl" demonstrate how unified the Sistas are on the subject of the invisibility of black women in rock music.

Amid heavy guitars and a passionate attack, Brown asks in sultry tones: "Black Girls rockin' the microphone / Ain't got no place to call our own / Just got to do what we feel inside / Should we stay or should we run and hide?" The triumphant answer is, "Black girls in America / We're going to rock 'n' roll."

Sistas recently performed at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, which brings together female players from all over the country, and as Brown told me, they realized "there are lots of sistas in the pit," and it's important for them to come together. That's why the band contributed a song to The We That Sets Us Free: Building a World Without Prisons, a new benefit compilation for Justice Now, an Oakland legal teaching clinic that helps female prisoners work toward better healthcare access, parental rights, and sentence mitigation.

The project inspired "Breathe" as well as Missing Piece's hidden track, "Women on the Inside," which begins with the sounds of police sirens and a deep funky bass line and tells of the dangers faced by incarcerated women (the fastest-growing prison population). Eventually the Sistas would like to play for female prisoners to share their message and offer support.

They obviously have a lot to impart. Leaving Sistas, I came away with the distinct impression that the band is unique – although they reach back to the traditions of black rock 'n' roll, they also have a real passion for social justice and as female players, they've distinguished themselves as musicians to be reckoned with.

They certainly live up to the lyrics of "Black Girl": They're "Black girls rockin' your world / Black girls rockin' the mic / Black girls rockin' your space / Black girls rockin' through time / Black girls rockin' ya'." It might seem like hype but after listening to their album multiple times, I think they might be one of the best rock bands coming out of the Bay right now – what is undeniable is the fact that they are providing a missing piece in the Bay Area's music scene.