“Spectacles,” the forthcoming album from the Durham artist, delves into a lifetime navigating a hybrid identity: QPOC, artist, and rural Southerner.
Nobody else can tell Shirlette Ammons’ story: of being queer and Black and a native of the rural South; of being a twin, of being ogled, mirrored by choice and against her will; of being treated as a spectacle and how she’s come to own it.
The Durham-based poet and musician has named her forthcoming album “Spectacles.” It’s fitting. Spectacle has always been a part of her career, whether rapping her unabashedly queer lyrics on stages across the US and Europe or, as a child, singing with her twin sister in the Tiny Tots choir at church in rural Duplin County, N.C.
The new album deploys her snarky, double-entendre lyrics like a precision weapon over infectious beats that remix influences as far-flung as hip hop and bluegrass.
“Her voice made the choicest noises,” she raps on the song “Language Barriers.” “Pretty as an orchid, I longed to understand what she said.”
She’s fine-tuning the album today. Ammons expects it will be released in the coming months. And it will, per the artist, dive into her hybrid identity. Ammons has been living that identity all her life. It just took 40-odd years and a pandemic to figure out how to tell the story.
Ammons was originally initiated into music more as a religious rite of passage than an art form.
“I grew up in a little plank church and was in the gospel choir as a kid,” she says. Being “good” at music was never a requirement.
“I have a twin sister, so we were just hella cute. People would always put us together to sing and it was visually attractive, a kind of spectacle: two people who look alike standing next to each other singing a song.”
On the one hand, growing up in the unincorporated Duplin County hamlet of Beautancus provided a lot of room for imagination. It also gave her a place to develop as an artist, undisturbed by the outside world. “I realized that being where I’m from is a pleasure and an honor. It allows me a unique perspective and unique access to language. There’s such an ecosystem of rich, undisturbed stuff [in tiny towns], that help you be uniquely you.”
The downside is she felt isolated from the local Black community. Ammons’ twin and one other classmate were the only Black students in the advanced placement classes at her high school, which graduated a class of just 56.
“I’d been so used to people mirror-imaging me and my sister, that I didn’t really think a lot about being mirrored in terms of Black people in general and how important that was,” Ammons says.
She discovered what was missing when she and her sister left for college at NC State University in Raleigh.
“I just saw all these Black people. Like different walks of Black people, not just country Black people, not just Black people who were tracked to be smart and then segregated from other Black people. I was enamored by that and I fell into it real, real hard: just a feeling of being reflected and seen.”
She started spending more time around the N.C. A&T University campus in Greensboro, the largest historically Black university in the country.
Ammons felt accepted, she says, and it sparked a creative revolution. She got involved in the spoken word and performance poetry scene in Raleigh. It was an era of backpack hip hop, a more Afrocentric, socially conscious brand of hip hop. In it, Ammons said she could finally see her reflection. She describes it as a “coming of age.”
But Ammons didn’t start making her own music until she was 26–when she started playing bass.
“Somebody gave me a cassette tape of Me’shell NdegéOcello’s Plantation Lullabies. I was like, woah, there’s a little bald head Black chick out here playing bass and killing it. And I had just picked up the bass.”
NdegéOcello’s album was more than just holding up a mirror to Ammons’ life and artistic aspirations. It also showed a way forward–how to hold all of her intersecting identities together — Black, queer, woman, Southern, musician — and live that life fully and openly.
Telling Her Own Stories
Twenty-two years have passed since Ammons first strummed a bass. Ammons is a standout in the Durham music scene. She’s released two albums–Twilight for Gladys Bentley (2013) and Language Barrier (2016)–which include collabs with idols like the Indigo Girls and NdegéOcello. She’s toured around the U.S., Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
Her first album was an homage to Gladys Bentley, a queer 1920s blues legend from Harlem. Ammons wanted to make a household name of Bentley, who was Black and queer and dressed in men’s clothes on stage, a radical image in that day. She also wanted to explore a new part of herself.
“I wasn’t trying to be Gladys mentally, but I still was trying to tap into the role of the identity, the ‘butch dyke’ identity, and the masculine elements of my own self that sometimes manifests as ego and certainly as a type of sexual prowess on stage.”
Being able to write openly and honestly as a queer person and playing with pronouns. It was a game changer for Ammons’ music. She started telling her own stories.
Channeling Gladys Bentley, who flirted with women from the stage, allowed her to embrace more assertive lyrics, to write into her queerness, and to be a more visible member of the LGBTQ community.
Ironically, Ammons began working on her new album Spectacle out of public view. She wrote the songs during the first three weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown. The songs had a theme.
“I saw this connecting thread of being gazed at–I was trying to decipher when it was comfortable and when I’m inviting it. Versus–when my agency was taken away and I wasn’t asking for [that gaze] or participating in it.”
The lockdown, which prevented her from performing, allowed her to take a step back too. “I realized I was on autopilot quite a bit about the choices I was making and how I moved in the world. All that stuff came to a screeching halt. And that I could ask–how much of this is my choice?”
The new album brings it all together–from her first interactions with music in a rural NC church to the artist she is today.
“Where we are with queerness and identity has changed over the course of my career,” she says. “The needle has certainly moved and I’m grateful to be a part of that.”
Ammon’s next live performance in NC is Oct. 1st at the Carrboro Music Festival. Click here for more information on tickets and upcoming gigs.