Tonight, Michigan Music Alliance and Grand Rapids singer Sarena Rae stage “Music That Raised Us” at Listening Room, honoring iconic black female artists. Today, she shares a compelling soundtrack to celebrate.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: At 7:30 tonight (Tuesday, March 29), Michigan Music Alliance presents “Music That Raised Us: Celebrating Black Female Artists Throughout the Ages” at Listening Room in downtown Grand Rapids, with performances by Sarena Rae, Debra Perry, Karisa Wilson, Serita’s Black Rose, Lisa Knight and Avalon Cutts-Jones. Coinciding with Women’s History Month, the event aims to “empower the women in our community that are involved in local arts and to celebrate the tremendous impact black women made in music history.”
Grand Rapids singer Sarena Rae said fans can expect to hear songs by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Erykah Badu, Mariah Carey, Ella Fitzgerald, Donna Summer, Ma Rainey and more. Tickets are $20 and available at listeningroom.com. Local Spins asked Sarena Rae for a Top 10 playlist of influential music by female voices, national and local. These are her picks.
A TRIBUTE TO BLACK FEMALE ARTISTS: Sarena Rae’s Top 10 Playlist
1. “Day Dreaming,” Aretha Franklin (1972) – Aretha Franklin is one of Michigan’s very own legendary and powerful black female artists who has paved the way for women of color in music. “Daydreaming” is just one of her many beloved songs that has left a stamp in music history with its undeniable dancing melody and spotlight on Aretha’s prolific soaring vocals. Aretha was known for her collaborations with other artists of her time, with two world-renowned musicians on “Day Dreaming” — Donny Hathaway played electric piano and Hubert Law played the flute on this iconic record. Aretha was not only an instrumentalist, songwriter and singer, but was an activist that walked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. She was a woman determined to make an impact for justice and equity, and stood up for women’s rights within the music industry.
2. “I’ll Bless The Lord,” Debra Perry & Majestic Praise (2020) – Debra Perry is music director for the “Music That Raised Us” show and will pay tribute to black female legends such as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and more. She is a multi-instrumentalist who mastered 10 instruments including drums, bass, organ, piano, clarinet and saxophone. A music educator for 26 years with Grand Rapids Public Schools, she obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from Western Michigan University, and a master’s in educational leadership from Grand Valley State University. Debra has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the distinguished Ethel Coe Giants Award and the Malinda P. Sapp Award. Most recently, Debra received the Harlem Renaissance Culture Architect Award for her service to her community through her business Joint Heir Music Studios. Her musical outreach includes work with Grand Rapids Circle Theatre, Civic Theatre and serving as the musical director at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Saginaw. Debra has been part of the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA) since 1995 and also serves on the National Music Selection Committee. Her musical compositions remain favorites among the National Mass Choir, Women of Worship and the Men of Promise. Debra is a noted songwriter and arranger and has composed works for national artists and has orchestrated full-scale works for the Grand Rapids Symphony and Westshore Symphony. Debra founded her own chorale, Majestic Praise, and has three albums to her credit. She received a Grammy Award nomination for her engineering work on Marvin Sapp’s acclaimed release, “Close.” Debra released “I’ll Bless The Lord” in 2020 amid the pandemic. As she put it: “I was shut in the studio one night when COVID first happened and recorded all of the instruments myself. I had my group record their vocal parts on their phones, email them in and then I mixed the song and put it out as a single for everyone to enjoy and be encouraged.”
3. “I’m Every Woman,” Chaka Khan (1978) – Chaka Khan is an adored performer and vocalist who embodies feminism and strength. Her empowering song, “I’m Every Woman,” has been embedded into the hearts of women worldwide as it signifies the worth, invaluable love and support a woman brings to life in a relationship. You may recognize a familiar voice in the background of the song as young Whitney Houston sang the backing vocals on this record, later in her career paying tribute to Chaka by recording her own rendition of “I’m Every Woman,” which became an epic success.
4. “Lovin’ You,” Avalon Cutts-Jones (2022) – A featured artist in the “Music That Raised Us” show, Avalon Cutts-Jones is a Grand Rapids native who comes from two musical families. She has had the opportunity to travel the world as a background vocalist for both local and world-renowned artists such as Marvin Sapp, Maurice Griffin, Bill Moss, Robert Hawkins and Debra Perry & Majestic Praise. Avalon is known for her vocal versatility performing different genres such as R&B, gospel, neo-soul, musical theater and classical. She has appeared on “The Word Network” as well as “The Bobby Jones Gospel” show with Detroit native Jon Plair, and served as a guest soloist at GrandJazzfest with The Isaac Norris Project. In 2018, her voice could be heard in the role of Rosa Parks in Douglas Tappins’ “I Dream” with both Toledo Opera and Opera Carolina. She returned in this role in the 2021 production as well. Avalon has toured Spain and Portugal on the “Oh Happy Day Tour” with the Alabama Gospel Choir as a featured soloist in 2017 and 2019. Receiving her bachelor’s degree as a vocal performance major at Grand Valley State University, Avalon provided special music for the 2019 commencement ceremony at Van Andel Arena as well as the inauguration of GVSU’s first female president, Philomena V. Mantella. A regular featured ‘young artist’ with Opera Grand Rapids, her debut single, “Clap it Up,” and the latest release, “Lovin’ You,” are available on all digital outlets. She calls her latest single “good riding music that allows you to get lost in the butterfly moments of a new love.”
5. “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” Etta James (1962) – Etta James had a voice that roared and when she sang, the crowd knew to get quiet. “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” was produced by Phil and Leonard Chess at Chess Studios in Chicago and debuted on Etta’s self-titled album in 1962 and later became a hit, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot R&B Chart. She melded her love for soul, gospel and jazz to create her own unique sound and later in her career was nominated for creatively combining rock and funk in her music. Etta demanded respect and would not settle for anything less than excellent.
6. “Rainbow,” Serita’s Black Rose (2012) – Serita is starring in the “Music That Raised Us” show and will pay homage to artists such as Ma Rainey, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Donna Summers and Tramaine Hawkins. The Grand Rapids singer is a self-professed “Funkateer,” bringing a raucous mix of funk, rock, blues, neo-soul and Americana. Serita sings much of the timeless “feel-good music” from the ’60s and ’70s that everyone loves. Her fiery blues- and soul-infused vocals will definitely get you moving. She wrote “Rainbow” in honor of her mother who passed and feels that it is also for anyone who is missing a loved one. She says: “Every time you see a rainbow, just know that it’s them stopping by and shining their love down on you; there’s a rainbow in each and everyone of us.”
7. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” Nina Simone (1963) – No words can truly describe or share the influence Nina Simone had on progress and change. She was a woman like no other, and spoke loud and proud for the rights of her people. She professed her belief in black pride and unity; she often used her musical gifts to share the story of black people and spoke about the heartache of inequity. Nina was a classically trained pianist and could sight read and play anything by ear. She knew how to transfigure well-known songs to create a fusion of blues, jazz and classical music. She won 15 Grammy Awards and received the Grammy Hall Of Fame award in 2000 for her rendition of the song “I Love You, Porgy.” Nina performed this song, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” in March 1965 in honor of the march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama. Her music makes the listener think and feel on a deep level; her words and sounds are electrifying, powerful enough to make a lasting mark in the mind and soul.
8. “Stronger,” Karisa Wilson (2012) – Karisa Wilson is another performer for “Music That Raised Us” and will pay tribute to artists such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack and others. She is an award-winning singer-songwriter from West Michigan whose debut album “Little Girl” won WYCE’s “Album Of The Year.” Karisa writes and performs a blend of folk, jazz and blues and is also a classically trained violinist. As for this song, she says it was “inspired by the old adage, ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ It’s been a meditation for many enduring life’s sometimes troublesome circumstances.”
9. “Be Alive,” Beyonce (2021) – Beyonce is widely known for her time performing in Destiny’s Child, a group that together made harmonies that carried us through the early 2000s with confidence and poise. She has won 28 Grammy Awards and has been nominated for 79, making her one of the top Grammy winners of all time. Beyonce’s career has been one of celebration and tribute to the black community. Her latest release “Be Alive” is featured in the motion picture for “King Richard,” a movie that tells the incredible story of Venus and Serena Williams.
10. “Caught in Between,” Sarena Rae (2020) – I’m the artistic director and writer for “Music That Raised Us” and I look forward to paying tribute to many black female legends, including Diana Ross, Ella Fitzgerald, Alicia Keys and more. I want my music to offer comfort and connect with those around me, while providing therapy for those coping with identity and confidence issues. When I was 16, my debut single, “You’re Beautiful,” was recorded and released alongside a music video that has since been viewed over 200,000 times on YouTube. I’ve since been involved as a singer and emcee at various events and took part in the Michigan Music Alliance’s cover projects, “The Chain” (Fleetwood Mac) and “Respect” (Aretha Franklin). In 2020, I released “Heaven,” a collection of singles that tell my story from faith to family to finding joy in song. I also provide career counseling and help educate college boards on issues focused on equity. My song “Caught In Between” addresses the adversities commonly felt by those of a mixed race. This song shares a relatable story and can also be used as an anthem to promote justice and love.
MUSIC THAT RAISED US: Sarena Rae’s Top 10 Playlist of Black Female Artists on Spotify
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