Cat Harris-White of alt. hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction discussed life as a queer female rapper who's had her share of shitty dates.
Cat Harris-White has just blown her college fund – and she couldn’t be happier. In her infinite thirst for solo success, the singing half of THEESatisfaction has made it her business not only to write and perform the 13 tracks that make up her debut LP, ‘No More Weak Dates,’ but to take each and every aspect of the album’s recording, release and promotion into her own deft hands, depleting her savings account in the name of her art. But what her passbook lacks in zeros, her CV has gained in skills. “I just want to learn and get better at production,” she says, taking a deep breath before rhyming off the strings she’s been busily working on adding to her ever-growing bow, “and PR and managing and marketing myself. This is kind of like my grad PhD program for myself; it’s going to cost me pretty much as much as that would!”
Having steadily released her own music in the background, Harris-White chose 2016 as the year to finally step out from the shadows of the duo that’s made her famous in underground hip-hop circles. After touring THEESatisfaction’s acclaimed second LP, ‘EarthEE,’ the timing felt right. And when the decision was made, it came together with lightning speed. “It’s been really interesting,” she says. “I work a lot faster by myself. With this album, I started in October and finished in January, and had it mastered by mid-February. Which I guess is kind of crazy but it just moved a lot faster.
“I think the difference is that, working with someone else, you’re like, ‘Hey, do you like that?’ and I kinda use them to balance what’s going on, but with this I had to be like, ‘This song is good enough. This beat is fine, let’s keep going.’ So I had to learn to trust myself, essentially, with the creative process. I learned a lot more about myself.”
Brought up in Hawaii before settling in Seattle at the age of ten, Harris-White has been working on her music’s blueprint for as long as she can remember. “I had goals, even at that age,” she declares, before channeling a ten-year-old SassyBlack: “‘I want to write, I want to act, I want to be on stage!’ My parents were very supportive and I’ve literally been doing it ever since I got off the plane.
“Before we get to a new place, we’re already planning,” she says, having moved around Hawaii and lived for a time in San Francisco. “Not everyone does that, and it took me a while to realise that. But we got here, to Seattle, on a Thursday and on Friday my mom took me to sign up for school and I started on Monday.”
It’s this enterprise and sheer, brute determination that was vital in forging the young artist in the early stages of her life. “It’s definitely what inspired me to be creative,” she says, gleaming with familial pride.
She also credits the freedom of the lifestyle in America’s 50th state and the home-schooling she received during that period as key in ushering her towards a life motivated by the romantic rather than the prosaic. “My parents were involved in the community in Hawaii so we were just in the scene taking African dance classes and learning different things like basket-weaving and stuff,” she recalls. “I just remember having the ability to be in my own world so when I came to Seattle it was definitely a culture shock in a lot of ways,” she exclaims, transported back to those uncomfortable initial steps. “And when you’re ten and eleven that’s when everything gets super harsh, so that was an intense experience for me in itself. But everywhere my family goes, we hit the ground running.”
That same sense of liberty has shaped her spectral sense of self. For Harris-White, notions of gender, sexuality, identity and culture are fluid. She resists being classified as exclusively female, and she identifies as neither straight nor gay, instead describing herself as queer. “I can’t control who I fall in love with,” she admits sheepishly, as though she’s tried her best but just can’t help it, “and I fall in love a lot. I’m not a binary person; I have many spirits and energies within me.” She says this without missing a beat, and I get the sense that this particular thesis has been gradually polished over time. “I’m not just masculine, I’m not just feminine. For me specifically, I don’t just date women, I don’t just date men. I date whoever I want and that’s why I feel queer works best for me. I’m a queer person in general; I’m a weird person. So it encompasses a lot of my dimensions. A lot of people are like, ‘You’re a lesbian, why are you with that guy?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m not a lesbian!’” She remembers how she would update online profiles as a teenager as she moved further and further away from societal norms. “I just remember that when I felt confident I changed my bio from ‘straight’ to ‘lesbian’ and then ‘queer.’ And then it was ‘unidentified,’” she giggles, “‘don’t care!’”
The roads of this rich biographical backdrop have led SassyBlack to her first full-length album, a record that draws on hip-hop, jazz, soul and electronica but which refuses to be pinned down. The fruit of her musical labour and the manifestation of that hard-earned would-be college cash is a concept album that takes the trials and tribulations of Generation Y courtship as the muse for its agile brushstrokes. While it may sound like a narrow framework – how much, you might be asking, can one possibly say about Tinder? – there is more to ‘No More Weak Dates’ than first meets the eye. With the dating game as its kernel, the narratives snake off in countless directions, each song becoming a separate scene in the overall play of Harris-White’s chequered love life. Consequently, it reveals more than just the musician’s growing exasperation at the quality of the ‘scene’. Rather, the collection becomes a platform from which she can declare her fluid sexuality, where she can confront the actualities of human sexual desire and skilfully explore the psychological complexities of human relationships with all their inherent political power plays.
Crucially, loneliness also lurks at every corner for the Millennial narrator; a reminder that all is not as well as it may seem for a generation characterised by its delaying of life’s traditional milestones. “I’m 29, I’m going to be 30 this year. When I was younger I thought I would be settled down by now and there have been a couple of relationships which I thought would be lifelong and it didn’t turn out that way.” She sighs and orders her thoughts. “So it’s kind of me being vulnerable and dealing with adulthood. I created all the beats and songs with those concepts in mind.”
Her take on what passes for love for a queer woman in the 2010s is also boldly idiosyncratic; the characters in her sketches of romance’s early fumblings won’t find their lips meeting at the end of the same strand of spaghetti. Instead Harris-White acts out disturbing stalker-ish phone calls from flirtations gone sour and imagines first dates at comic book conventions as she packs her songs dense with references, from Seattle suburbia to sci-fi. “You were chillin’ with a sexy Trekkie,” she teases on ‘Comicon,’ “I’ll be your second in command.” It’s these quirks that imbue the album with a personality that’s light-years ahead of the love-song landscape in 2016. “It might lose the listener,” she asserts, “but it also engages them. I like making references that they might not get but they might want to research afterwards and it can spark their interest.”
The wholehearted embrace of the quirks that make up Cat Harris-White is what sets her apart, but she’s quick to point out that self-assurance didn’t always come so easily. Science fiction, which has been a constant thread running through the music she makes with both THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces, embarrassed her at first. “I was kind of a closeted sci-fi fan,” she laughs. “My family likes DC Comics and Marvel and stuff like that and I was always like, ‘Oh, I dunno,’ and felt uncomfortable about it.” Since then she has honed an aesthetic indebted to the space-age musical pioneers of the ’70s and ’80s. “Michael Jackson is a huge afro-futurism sci-fi artist, which I don’t think is truly acknowledged,” she says. “He had <em>Moonwalker</em> and Captain Eo for Disney, the one where he’s the captain of a spaceship. Those things also inspired me in terms of being an entertainer who can have the sci-fi effect.”
Parliament, Sun Ra, and Erykah Badu are also name-dropped and she waxes lyrical on the “fearlessness” of the likes of Herbie Hancock, Prince, Stevie Wonder and Stanley Clarke, who refused to be straitjacketed not only by genre, but also by time and space. “Knowing your boundaries but not being pushed into a box, that’s what really inspires me.”