Give Get Sistet

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Give Get Sistet (l-r): Sarah M. Greer, Alicia Steele, Mankwe Ndosi, Jayanthi Rajasa, Libby Turner, and Kenna Cottman. (Not pictured: Aimee K. Bryant). Photo Uche Iroegbu

Give Get Sistet formed in 2010 as an improvisational a cappella ensemble. We first came together to perform for a fundraising event at the Walker Art Center. We didn’t know we were forming a group at the time, but after that we continued performing together.

Music-making, at least here in the Twin Cities, is more episodic than most people think. It’s unusual for me to be part of a group of the same people, year after year, yet I have sung with the Sistet for 13 years. We have stayed together for more reasons than simply to sing and perform. We have evolved into a fellowship, a Sistah-hood.

The “Give Get” part of our name is about the give and take with other singers, and about the exchange of energy with the audience. We invented the word “Sistet” based on the idea that we perform with different numbers and configurations of our members — we are always morphing. Functionally, we have been improvisational from the beginning.

Black music has historically been improvisational. Improvisation is a big part of how Black people survive — with flexibility and openness. The people who have been part of the group have skills in adaptation that are not only musical. Most of the time we begin when somebody feels moved to start singing. When someone starts to improvise, we follow them, adding our own ideas.

With improvisation, we can address things that are on our minds in the moment. I learn a lot about what members are thinking when we sing together. As Black artists who live mostly in Minneapolis, the experience Black people are having with law enforcement is coming up a lot.

In 2021, we contributed to the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Committee’s series of live-streamed commemoration events. I was asked to create a concert experience, and I knew I wanted to sing with the Sistet. One member, Jayanthi Rajasa, has a powerful song cycle that came to her after Trayvon Martin was killed. It covers some painful things.

Due to the pandemic, we agreed to film a trio for the Sistet in advance at Modus Locus gallery in South Minneapolis amidst Miko Simmons’ amazing exhibit “Just Us: Liberatory Consciousness,” which featured paintings with light projections that explored police violence, neighborhoods, and families. Two days before we were supposed to record, officer Kim Potter killed Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center. We all felt like we couldn’t do the recording. We prioritized our well-being and capacity as Black artists, and agreed to record two weeks later instead.

The Duluth project kicked off other important discussions. We talked about the tension between authentically experiencing the emotions that arise when singing — while being watched and filmed. Jayanthi and I had a conversation about singing at the Duluth memorial, or where Jamar Clark was killed, or where Philando Castile was killed. This exchange was the beginning of our project titled “Serenading the Wounded Spaces,” for which we received a Community Healing project grant from Minneapolis’ Creative Response Fund.

There are some challenges in doing a project like that, because funders often want evidence that the thing you say will happen actually does. So much of what the Sistet does are things you can’t predict or put on a piece of paper.

We started having more questions about how to do these “serenades” in a way that honors the trauma that we hold as artists, and the trauma that the spaces and communities around them carry.

We wanted to avoid creating circumstances in which people who don’t live in the community are coming as spectators. George Floyd Square has become a place where people who don’t live in Minneapolis come — and that is complicated.

Our first stop was at the Pillsbury House + Theatre, not far from the block where George Floyd was killed, before the run of a powerful play and ritual about the physical and spiritual deaths of Black people as a result of racialized violence: Aleshea Harris’ What to Send Up When It Goes Down. Every performance of that show required a lot of emotional work from Black artists. We sang at the space before the final run of performance to prepare and shift the energy.

Then we sang in North Minneapolis at North Commons and North High School. We “finished” the project with serenades at the 10th Annual Poetry and Pie in Powderhorn Park, and Juneteenth celebrations at Sumner Library and The Bridge for Youth.

Knowing how we are doing and how things are going in our lives is part of our music-making. Knowing each other, trusting each other, and working through disagreements, conflicts, or questions together is also about improvisation. It is how we figure things out.

We often ground each other in the space before singing. Someone brings tinctures, aromatherapy, a seashell, a piece of glass. To me, it’s a representation of what we’re doing through singing — bringing part of your life or part of yourself to the circle to share.

See the Give Get Sistet with Walker West Music Academy’s Rondo Series on March 16.

Aimee K. Bryant; Kenna Cottman @mxcottman; Sarah M. Greer @songtaneous; Mankwe Ndosi @bymankwendosiusa; Jayanthi Rajasa @dotfrofeather; Alicia Steele @AliciaIsBrown; Libby Turner @libbytheoracle