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How Philadelphia Artists Are Celebrating The City's Black Music Legacy

Sister Rosetta Tharpe — the inspiration behind singer-songwriter Erin Dillard's Black Music City project — poses for a portrait holding a guitar in circa 1940 New York City.
Michael Ochs
Getty Images
Sister Rosetta Tharpe — the inspiration behind singer-songwriter Erin Dillard's Black Music City project — poses for a portrait holding a guitar in circa 1940 New York City.

From John Coltrane to Tierra Whack, Philadelphia has historically been home to generations of forward-thinking, boundlessly creative Black artists. This year, the Black Music City program celebrated that legacy with a series of projects ranging from community concerts to unique compositions and more.

A collaboration between public radio stations WRTI and WXPN, as well as marketing startup / talent incubator REC Philly, the project awarded a total of $48,000 in grants to 23 musicians, DJs, writers and more to produce new artistic works inspired by Philadelphia's rich Black music history. The grantees presented their work this summer in an event on Juneteenth; some projects were full and complete, others were works in progress getting off the ground.

The full rundown of Black Music City grant winners can be explored here; read on for a deeper dive into three of the projects.

The Seeds of Black Lily

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a tiny Bank Street venue called The Five Spot played host to a legendary open-mic jam session called Black Lily that provided a launching pad for Philly artists like Jill Scott, Kindred The Family Soul, Floetry and more. Philly writer, photographer and scholar Stanley Collins is exploring that moment of time through his Black Music City project, The Seeds of Black Lily, a documentary podcast that examines the event through the lens of history, media, music industry infrastructure and more.

"When you look at Philadelphia, its long history of soul music and Black music traditions in general, there's also a really rich history of gospel music," Collins says. "And that all starts to make sense when we look at the late '90s and early 2000s. A lot of the musicians and artists who are making these records, are literally going from church rehearsal to Black Lily. So you look at someone like James Poyser, or Keith Pelzer, or Dre & Vidal. These are all like the children of pastors, or they all played at church in different choirs. So it helps build a bridge between historical context and sonic context."

Culture Cypher Magazine

John Morrison is a DJ and writer for WXPN and contributor to World Cafe, as well as a composer, producer and lifelong consumer of music journalism. For his Black Music City project, he teamed up with designer Patrick "Peuce" Quinn and cover photographer Mike Béon to develop Culture Cypher Magazine, a music and culture publication with bold visuals and imaginative layouts inspired in part by the Beastie Boys' free-spirited Grand Royal magazine, which circulated for a few years in the mid-90s. The inaugural issue served as a compendium of Morrison's interviews and essays from recent years, and he hopes to see the project continue and grow. "As a kid, I always wanted a magazine and an indie label," he says. "That desire is still in me."

Morrison hopes a publication like Culture Cypher could also address disparities in music media ownership: "So much of Black music and Black culture is written about, profited from and contextualized by non-Black people, specifically white people, white writers at white-controlled publications. I would do the opposite of that. Like, the polar opposite of that. ... It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: That doesn't mean I don't want to work with white writers, but I would absolutely center Black voices. I try to do that in anything I do."

An Ode To Sister Rosetta

When singer-songwriter Erin Dillard first heard the music of Philadelphia's Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 2020, she was absolutely bowled over. "You always hear about old rock pioneers like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, which is cool," says Dillard. "But [hearing about Tharpe], I'm like, 'This queer black woman was out here shredding on guitar and no one told me? That is insane!' I wish I had known about her a lot sooner."

Dillard went on a full binge, consuming recordings, documentaries, reading anything she could track down. For her Black Music City project, Dillard recorded a rendition of Tharpe's "Didn't It Rain" under her stage name emospacebird., and produced a music video to go along with it. In the clip, Dillard performs in train stations and along abandoned subway tracks in homage to a video she watched of Tharpe playing the song at a rail station in England; she wears a floral dress and fur coat, a look Tharpe might have worn.

"When I did research on her, at the time it wasn't exactly okay to be queer. But I had read that she had went on the road with another woman, and it was said they had a romantic relationship," Dillard says. "So I kind of see the Sapphic queerness in her, and I wanted to do my take on her style but still add both feminine and masculine traits in it. I try to emulate that, and her style and the way she moves, and I can only hope I did it justice."

Copyright 2021 XPN

John Vettese is a music writer and photographer based in Philadelphia. He is the editor of WXPN's music blog The Key, producer of the audio/video live performance series The Key Studio Sessions, and a contributor to Magnet Magazine.