Black Lily in bloom
The showcase for audacious African American female
Black Lily. To some, the name signifies the best that Philadelphia's African American alternative soul sisters had to offer.
During Black Lily showcases at Old City's Five Spot between 2000 and 2005, brash, funky acts Kindred and Jazzyfatnastees, rousing spoken-wordsmiths Ursula Rucker and Ryva and empowered R&B divas Lady Alma and Jill Scott - with a live band behind them - laid packed crowds out cold with their dazzling diversity of sound and vision.
The Black Lily brand came with the blessing of Philly's hip-hop heroes, The Roots, as they had a hand in starting the whole neo-soul shebang.
That's only half right, and only half of the story.
The second half starts this weekend when Lily originators Tracey Moore and Mercedes Martinez (the duo called Jazzyfatnastees) join with executive director/filmmaker Maori Holmes for the Black Lily Film & Music Festival.
"We want to be a safe space for women to show their work," says Holmes, who came to Philly from Washington, D.C., in 2004 to film Black Lily for her documentary, Scene Not Heard. "But we want to generate excitement in that work, too."
What about that first half of the story?
Black Lily was developed with the philosophy of creating opportunities for women outside the confines of commercial music. "To give them a platform, and to bring audiences to them," says Martinez, who with Moore lived in Los Angeles when they met Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson. Thompson asked Jazzyfatnastees to sing on The Roots' 1996 Illadelph Halflife CD in exchange for production services, in Philly, for the duo.
Not only did Jazzyfatnastees stay, but they also began hosting jam sessions at Thompson's home. When those gatherings got crowded and The Roots' notoriety grew, the house party moved to bigger venues. But it became more hip-hop-oriented and male-dominated.
"That's not why we started them," says Martinez. "We began to see ourselves and other female artists elbowed out."
Black Lily was born - at the Wetlands in Manhattan in 1999 and at Five Spot in 2000 - as a development showcase, something to bring audiences and labels to these quirky female artists.
"The Lily" immediately became the place for soulful women outside the norm of prepackaged imagery or songs solely about dancing or sex.
"I heard about Black Lily when I was in high school," says Nikki Jean, who moved to this area from Minnesota within weeks of Black Lily's close in 2005. With Dice Raw - a rapper within The Roots family - Jean formed Nouveau Riche that year. Now she's part of that circle of talented women. "It reminds me of Florence [Italy] during the Renaissance, or Paris during the Enlightenment," says Jean.
"Everybody heard of Black Lily - how impressive and intimate the vibe was, how they got things done," says Holmes, who found pitfalls for women in film before she got to Black Lily.
"Outside of documentaries, there're too few women directors and cinematographers," says Holmes, who moved here after wrapping up Scene Not Heard and landing it in more than 30 film festivals, but not the Philadelphia Film Festival or its Festival of Independents.
"I was crushed not to get in PFF, but more so that Philly didn't have other film fests," says Holmes. She liked the idea of women film festivals because that's where she found the best shared experience between filmmakers and audiences.
Black Lily never died. It just got put on hold.
In February 2006, Moore, Martinez and Holmes reconnected to awaken the musical showcase and expand the brand into the film-festival realm.
This first Black Lily Film & Music Festival offers panel discussions and workshops. There are award ceremonies that honor those crucial to the Black Lily experience. Like Jill Scott, who not only helped further the brand with satiny grooves in her songs and the powerful words of her poetry, but has expanded into acting in film. And Toshi Reagon, an unheralded African American folk artist whose roots with Black Lily go back to when Reagon played Wetlands showcases in 1999.
"That's what Black Lily is about - highlighting artists you don't know but should," says Martinez of the soon-to-be Lily award-winner.
Rather than awards, it is artists at work that makes Black Lily bloom.
Among those works are this weekend's U.S. premiere of Counting Headz: South Afrikan Sistaz in Hip-Hop, the tale by directors Vusi Magubane and Erin Chen-Ying Offer of three powerful women making powerful music. And director Bernadine Mellis' green-relevant The Forest for the Trees, which documents the environmental activism of her mother, Judi Barr. Journalist/director Dream Hampton's short I Am Ali is a standout. It is unusual not just because it eerily dissects celebrity obsession, but because it's one of the festival's few fictional films.
"We need more narratives," says Holmes. "That's the type of thing this festival stresses."
The festival's planners crave films from first-timers like K.S. Haskey, who made Sisters of Philadelphia (produced through Scribe, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization dedicated to using video for social change) about something rare and beautiful: women carpenters.
Musically, along with "Lilies" Reagon, Jill Scott, Jazzyfatnastees, Kindred, Lady Alma and Ursula Rucker taking part in the live proceedings with The Roots acting as backing band, the funk moves from familiar underground MCs like Jean Grae to up-and-coming locals like the sleek, soulful Taragirl and folk singers like Melody Gardot. "She's really amazing," says Martinez, who found Gardot through her MySpace page.
There's quirky jazz fusion to be found in Moisturizer. There are rockers galore in Alice Smith, Black Blondie and Nouveau Riche. "It's an honor being part of Black Lily's family," says Nouveau Riche's Nikki Jean. "The Jazzies, Jill, Kindred - they've all been incredibly supportive."
It sounds as if there'll be more support. Organizers already are seeking submissions for the next Black Lily Film & Music Festival. One of this year's participating venues, World Cafe Live, will house monthly Black Lily musical showcases on every second Sunday while its other venue, the Painted Bride Art Center, may be the scene of a quarterly Lily film series, according to Holmes.
"We just want our women to matter," says Holmes. "We're about being under the radar and underground. But we need attention."
Like a flower.
If You Go
The Black Lily Film & Music Festival opens today and runs through Sunday.
Tickets: $10 each, $8 for students and seniors for workshops and film screenings; $20 each, $16 for students and seniors for concerts. Workshops-only pass, $35; screenings-only pass, $80; all-access festival passes, $150. Honors ceremony, free with concert ticket; opening night reception, free with concert ticket.
Film screenings and festival passes can be purchased at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., 215-925-9914, paintedbride.org.
Concert tickets and festival passes can be purchased at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., 215-222-1400, tickets.worldcafelive.com
For a list of panels, awards, concerts, films and workshops go to www.blacklilyfilm.org or call 215-925-9914.EndText