Meet the artist: Yolanda Wisher

Yolanda Wisher and the Quick Fixx (Mark Palacio and Karen L. Smith) perform at First Friday in Philadelphia. Photo: Ted Boughter-Dornfeld.

Yolanda Wisher and the Quick Fixx (Mark Palacio and Karen L. Smith) perform at First Friday in Philadelphia. Photo: Ted Boughter-Dornfeld.

On November 5, Intercultural Journeys presents Yolanda Wisher in Pirate Jenny's Conspiracy at International House Philadelphia. Intercultural Journeys' program assistant, Eric Ziegelman, takes us behind the curtain to chat with Yolanda about her art, her creative process, and her inspiration.

Eric: I would love to start by talking about the title of your upcoming project, Pirate Jenny’s Conspiracy. I enjoyed researching the different iterations of this song from Nina Simone’s interpretation in 1964 to the original version in the Threepenny Opera. I was interested in hearing what drew you to this song in particular and how it inspired you to create an entire performance from it.

Yolanda: I have always been a big fan of Nina Simone. I went through a couple years in my twenties listening to every Nina Simone song I could get my hands on. Now, I have a lot of her records and I’ve listened to enough of her music to hear the different eras. One era of her music that I’m really fond of is the civil rights era, especially around the 1960s when she was recording at the height of racism and segregation. She was completely raw and uncut and didn’t really care what her audiences thought.

I had a chance to see her perform not long before she passed away. She was performing in New Jersey and she was just as riled up and angry as ever. She might have been in her 70s at the time. She just railed and ranted about injustice in America. I just admired her naked rage and how she turned that into art. No one could accuse her art, her political art, of being mediocre. It was the height of her radical thought and expression and also at the height of her craft as a musician. She was such a theatrical singer and could do so many different things with her voice. So for me, listening to that song is tapping into all of that rage, the black rage, that was way ahead of her time.

Her performance generated a lot of controversy and she got isolated by a lot by black folks and white folks for creating that work. But there is something about that song that has become a  blueprint or template for every song I am trying to write. It is beautiful but says something that urgently needs to be said. I’m always trying to crack through the respectability of the expected, the “niceness” of art, that I don’t think Nina was concerned about either when she performed in these concert halls with very wealthy people who came to see her. There’s one article I read about her performance of Pirate Jenny that said you could hear people gasp in the silences between lines like, “That’ll learn ya!” She just got inside people with her voice.

As for the Threepenny Opera,  I appreciate that there’s this other blueprint and that Jenny is interesting to me. The cutpurse, pickpocket Jenny. That Jenny - Jenny Diver - was a badass, too. She was this world traveler sent to prison twice and finds her way to back to England using her wiles and cleverness. She was at the bottom of society and yet somehow manages to travel the world. The idea of branding her as a pirate, for me is like we need more pirates today. We need renegades that are going to stand outside society and who have some righteous anger.

We need renegades that are going to stand outside society and who have some righteous anger.
— Yolanda Wisher


Eric: You mentioned one lyric in particular “That’ll learn ya!”. I was wondering what part of Nina Simone’s rendition stands out to you, or what parts have you drawn on to influence your songs. Are you looking at individual lines or the overall big ideas?

Yolanda: It’s more the persona, the attitude. A lot of these songs are songs I’ve been performing for quite a while have a certain attitude about them. There’s a certain persona in them - this blues woman, a traveler, a trickster. I started to see a need for a Pirate Jenny as a persona in my own work that would allow me to say what I wanted to say or couldn’t say. Even as a mother, wife, and Poet Laureate, there are still things I feel I cannot say. But as a Pirate Jenny, I can traverse those boundaries.

I pick up where Nina Simone’s version leaves off. Where she sings about the ship, the Black Freighter, that “goes out to sea and on it is me”. I don’t know if she specifically wrote the line breaks the way that I found them, but it was like pure musical poetry. The way that line dissipates. It’s almost as if she becomes invisible at the end of the song. But in my world she becomes almost larger than life. She starts to come into focus, or she becomes a mystery. What happens after she murders all the townspeople and she runs off with the pirates? I see her as a queen of the pirates. My songs are these little glimpses of places where she might have gone and the adventures she might have had. I kind of position myself as Pirate Jenny, the singer, with this band of pirates who are my musicians wrecking things as we go.

Eric: Has music also helped in allowing you to say more things than you otherwise would? Or allowed you to say things in a different way?

Yolanda: I would say music has allowed me to say things in a different way. I have been writing poetry for a really long time. To put something in a song is to condense it even more than the already condensed poem. It’s also about something you emote. It’s a vibration that plugs you into these traditions of blues and jazz or hip hop that have their own cultural well of energy and influence. There’s also the process of collaborating with other musicians, which for me always gives the idea a new shape that I hadn’t ever counted on.

Eric: I would love to hear more about the different musicians in your band, The Afroeaters, that you have been collaborating with for this project.

Yolanda: Anybody that has ever been in The Afroeaters, and there have been quite a lot of people, it’s been like a family. Some of them I have known for a really long time. They have helped me hear these songs in different ways. The challenge is that we have been improvising our songs most of the time. This performance with Intercultural Journeys has been an opportunity to bring all the songs together and kind of freeze the songs for a moment in time.

Eric: At IJ we are always trying to think of ways to build context for our audiences leading up to performances. What are some things your audience should know that will help them to interpret the performance? Is there anything that might surprise them?

Yolanda: I think some folks know me as the Poet Laureate and some folks who know me as the singer with The Afroeaters. I think for folks who have seen my work it might be unexpected to see me doing poems and singing at the same time. There is poetry and narration in between songs and there are some poems that function like songs. I want to play with those roles between spoken word and song: preaching, the soap box, scat, and chant. There’s all these different ways to manipulate text just to the edge of song. I’m excited to explore that and it should be exciting for people to witness as they’re treated to this story of my life as a black woman, growing from being this little girl who just made up rhymes in my head walking to school to somebody who is a leader and gets to travel around the world, singing songs that I wrote. That for me is the journey I get people to see. I’m a Pirate Jenny in my own way and I’m trying to tell this tale.

Another surprising thing in terms of the dimensions is that there’s a visual and movement component of the show. I have a lot of friends in these different disciplines. I like to have conversations with them on ways that we can support one another through our mediums. These conversations have made me stretch my practice as a performer. So people may be surprised to see visual art by my friend Karina Puente and dance by Shanel Edwards and a special appearance by my mom.

Eric: What will your mom be doing?

Yolanda: She will be contributing her voice and her story. My mom has been writing her memoirs for a really long time. I would say she is one of the first writers in the family. She doesn’t have a book, but she has kept journals and is always writing stuff down. She has been one of my main supporters and champions. She started a memoir and printed it out for me a couple of weeks ago. She gave me three pages, I read them, and took a couple of sentences from each that I thought resonated with me and this story. I was trying to figure out how I was going to start the show, asking myself where does my story begin, or where does Pirate Jenny begin? A lot of that revolves around the mythology that my mother and I created in our lives and through our experiences. Her own experience growing up without a mother and my own experience growing up without my father. Somehow we’ve interwoven all those loose ends about this idea of origin. What is my origin? Where does Pirate Jenny come from? Hers is a little sketchy and so is mine. That’s work that I’m always thinking about. It’s the topic of everything that I’ll ever write. Who are my people and where do we go from here with that knowledge?

Eric: Thank you so much, Yolanda. I can’t wait for November 5!