Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Shirlette Ammons

"I think that as artists that's part of our job, to question and to interrogate the system that we live in constantly and hold it accountable and make sure it changes where it needs to change." — Shirlette Ammons

Poet, musician, record producer Shirlette Ammons is a true artistic multi-hyphenate. Ammons has brought the lyrical intensity she honed during her early days as a young poet in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina to a number of albums, including her sophomore solo effort Language Barrier. Language Barrier also shows off her fondness for collaboration, featuring performances from artists such as Meshell Ndegeocello, the Indigo Girls, and Hiss Golden Messenger. She has also published in a number of outlets, such as The Asheville Review and Independence Weekly. You may also recognize Ammons's name from the PBS docu-series A Chef's Life, for which she serves as an associate producer. Ammons credits her upbringing in rural North Carolina as a primary factor in her career path. As she remembered during our telephone interview, "Just growing up surrounded by so much open space I think really encouraged and promoted creativity." Here's more from Shirlette Ammons on her job description, what exactly she loves about working collaboratively, and her joint venture with her twin sister Shorlette, SugarQube Records.

NEA: What was your journey to becoming an artist?

SHIRLETTE AMMONS: I'm from rural North Carolina, a small town called Mount Olive. Just growing up surrounded by so much open space I think really encouraged and promoted creativity. I was writing and doing imaginative play at a really young age…. I also grew up singing in the church choir and making up songs with my sister and my cousin. So I’ve always been creative. In high school I started writing poetry. I wrote a poem for our graduation that the valedictorian read, and I studied English at North Carolina State with a concentration in creative writing. I started attending different poetry events once I moved to Raleigh because I still was really overwhelmed by even just the difference between growing up in rural North Carolina and being in what I thought at the time was a big city. Being open and meeting different people and expanding my ideas and getting curious about the world really informed my desire to write poetry. My own process [of] coming out as queer was important to my own voice as a writer. Then I started going to local music events and got really into the music scene. I put together a band, first doing a spoken word/music hybrid. As I matured I started playing more rock and hip-hop music with some of the area's best musicians who really influenced me a lot. So it's been a steady but continuous process of self-discovery that I think is still happening at 40 and some change. 

NEA: If you had to write a job description for your work as an artist what would that be?

AMMONS: Constantly moving, active, nonstop artist, musician, writer, producer whose roles change from minute to minute and constantly overlap and who gets infinite joy from being able to live a life that is founded in creativity and questioning and challenging.

NEA: Can you talk about music and poetry and how they inform each other in the work that you do?

AMMONS: Poetry was my first love, the thing I gravitated toward. It was informative at a moment when I needed time to be more insular and just find out who I am in the world. I appreciate poetry for that, but then I started making music because it gave me an opportunity to collaborate with other people and share ideas with people in that way. They both for me serve the purpose of interrogating the world. Sometimes it's from a more personal, me looking in perspective, and then sometimes it's me looking out and gauging the world. I think both of those outlets have served as sources of strength and grounding for me. Also, the thing about music I think I've gravitated more toward as I've matured is the fact that I can mix and blend and blur boundaries as far as genre is concerned and that's really important to me. I think it's important as a political statement. I think it's important as a black woman who creates music. I think quite often we are pigeonholed in terms of what people expect us to create. I really value the ability to challenge that.

NEA: What are the questions you find yourself exploring over and over? The ones that are your obsessions?

AMMONS: Well, I'm a twin. I have an identical twin. I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what things are explicitly me. I guess it's an identity thing, trying to explore who am I when we were raised to dress alike until we were 18 and she's my favorite human. I've been curious about what are my own thoughts as an individual and how does my own experience contribute to the way I walk through the world as part of a lifelong team. I happened to be born with a sidekick, with a homie, and that's a great thing. I've been curious about how to assert my own self-determination, given that experience. [I’m] interrogating always the moment in which we exist, the time we live in. I think I, like many artists, are realizing how important that is in this moment when a lot of our friends who are brilliant and beautiful and from other places, their lives are being endangered. I think that as artists that's part of our job, to question and to interrogate the system that we live in constantly and hold it accountable and make sure it changes where it needs to change.

NEA: Can you say more about why collaboration is something you value? Also, what are the challenges and opportunities that come with working collaboratively?

AMMONS: One of the reasons I value collaboration is because it gives you a different perspective to consider when you work with people, because we don't all think the same, we don't all move the same, we don't all create from the same starting place. I value collaboration because it helps expand my community of thought. I always learn from people. I'm always challenged differently than if I'm working on something by myself. I also find collaboration a good way to jumpstart ideas. Whenever I feel stagnant, I reach out and say, "Yo, can you send me some music? What are you thinking about?"

Oftentimes when people send me instrumentals [to write lyrics for], I ask them to give the instrumental a title so I can have a working idea of what they were thinking when they composed it and try to include that so it's not like I'm taking an idea and doing something completely separate with it. I want to make sure it's cultivated in that same spirit. 

These days it's so easy to communicate with people across these virtual mediums, which is cool. It makes it easy to collaborate with people who are oceans away. But also you miss being in the room with people and coming up with ideas that way. I'm a big fan of sitting with my headphones on in a really isolated environment. I'm inspired by that environment. But also I like being in the same room with cats and working out ideas. Sometimes you just fiend for that old school way of collaborating. So that's probably the biggest challenge. And access and people's time and all that comes into play [as challenges].

NEA: What do you hope a listener takes away from your work?

AMMONS: I want people to listen critically. I prefer something beyond like or dislike. I hope it creates a dialogue and I hope it adds to their own thought process and perspective. I want people to be constructive and critical. I get no joy or validation from, "I like that." That's kind of flat and doesn't mean anything. I hope they share it and build a dialogue from it. 

NEA: You also have a record label with your sister, SugarQube Records. What was the need that led you to create that label? What do you want to accomplish with it?

AMMONS: We started the label because I wanted to put out a record and I shopped it around and I got really frustrated with that process. We wanted to start a label where folks like me—people of color predominantly, women of color—could create music that does not have to fit into this particular box of genres, that could be a free expression of where they are at the time and what they want to say. So that was the key motivation. Also [we wanted] to be transparent about the process of creating a record. People whose records don't get heard, it's quite often not about how good the record is, it's about how much money they have and their ability to get the record into people's hands. We wanted to be really transparent about that process and how much money we spent on a PR person. I think sharing that insider information with people is really important to changing the dynamic of who is heard and why.

NEA: What's your superpower as an artist?

AMMONS: You may have to ask the people I play with this, but I think I'm a pretty good front person. I'm good at bringing people together that I don't think would necessarily be in the same room. That's kind of what [my album] "Language Barrier" is about…. If I have an idea of making a song with a particular guest artist or a particular voice, I stick to it until that person says yes. So I guess that's it, just being able to bring a variety of voices to a project.

NEA: What do you wish you were better at as an artist?

AMMONS: Time management. I'm sure I'm not the only artist who said that. There's just not enough hours in a day. [It’s hard] just trying to stay focused on one thing without bouncing across the room to this other thing and then back across the room to this other thing.

NEA: Why do the arts matter?

AMMONS: I feel like there is no movement without art at the center of everything that happens. Proactively in the center of all the ways we resist is art and is the voice of the artist. I think that time has proven that to be true. We oftentimes take that for granted but it proves itself over and over again. I have always, even as a little kid, inherently needed it. It's not a luxury. I feel like it’s a necessity. It's something that chronicles each generation's moment. In and of itself, it's a form of storytelling and preservation and how we museum-ize our thoughts and critiques and our own contributions. It matters.

We first met Shirlette Ammons when she was a panelist for the NEA convening, In Pursuit of the Creative Life: The Future of Arts and Creativity in America. Check out our video on the convening here.

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