Sarah White brings art and activism together at her March Icehouse residency, Neon Souls

Sarah White

Sarah White Mica Sol

Icehouse was a lot more packed last Tuesday night than you might expect for a show early in the week, but size isn’t all that was different about the crowd.

Folks of all hues and complexations mixed and mingled. Old friends who haven’t seen each other in months exchanged greetings with heads nods and hugs. The warmth and sense of community was palpable as artists, activists, and musicians occupied a common space. Many had shared stages together; others had locked hands on I-94 and faced off against cops in riot gear, protesting the police killing of black and brown people. They’d created together and fought together, and now they gathered for the first night of Sarah White’s March residency.

The eclectic makeup of the crowd was no coincidence. White has moved freely between the worlds of art, radical activism, and music in the Twin Cities for more than a decade. For the Icehouse residency, she’s put together a series of shows with themes intended to move that community somewhere new and meaningful via music, performance, and visual art.

“I wanted to see if instead of just doing the normal thing of throwing a bunch of bands together, I could be more purposeful about pulling people together and getting people to rise up together as a group, as a collective, to move forward as spring comes,” White says. “We spent a lot of time alone and in isolation, and this winter especially has been so brutal and hard on a lot of us. I just wanted to get people not only back into the earth, but back into their bodies and seeing each other together.”

The theme of last Tuesday’s show was “Seeds of Creation.” It featured spoken word artist Guante, native rapper Tufawon, and Tensae Fayise, a relative newcomer who stirred the crowd with her rich voice and soulful playing of the krar, a stringed Ethiopian instrument.

Next up, on March 12, “Arousal and Awakening” is dedicated to erotic energy and features the high-energy polyrhythms of Bailey Cogan and 26 Bats, sensual poetry by Junauda Petrus, and the modern dance group Hiponymous. On March 19 is a more explicitly conscious show called “Commune Rebellion” with performances by rapper-organizer Tony the Scribe, indie-folk group Sister Species, and guest improv sets from musicians including Chastity Brown. Community organizations will also do five minute calls for action, explaining their cause and how people can help. (”it's an opportunity for people to actually get involved and not just lie drink in experience,” White says.) The residency closes out on March 26 with a night dedicated to dance and gratitude, with DJ sets by White, DJ Keezy, and Bleak Roses.

The trajectory of the residency mirrors a transformation White has undergone throughout the last year as she has embraced a practice of healing arts and massage therapy. An activist from a young age, White didn’t always prioritize spiritual awareness and self-care.

“I grew up thinking like we needed to be on the frontline with a bullhorn to get the work done,” she says. “And I started to watch people in my community take their lives, lose their mental health and just the community fall apart in general.”

White’s perspective changed when she saw a massage therapist after the release of her 2016 album, Laughing at Ghosts. “I started to see the ways that I wasn't even in my own body or wasn't taking care of myself and started to understand the way it was going to affect us all if we didn't start to change our roles in activism,” she says.

And as White immersed herself in deep study, her music also began to shift. “It’s changed the ways that I'm putting words and sounds and songs together, the way it moves through me, it's different,” she says. “I can feel it from different parts of my body. It's a different frequency. It's a different texture.”

While the supporting cast White has assembled for the residency is impressive and diverse, the best moments last Tuesday came when White, who has just released two new songs, “Wrong Lips” and “Traditional Methods - Star City,” took the mic herself. She raps with a flow that’s confident and polished and her singing voice is deep and textured, often underpinned with a sense of yearning that expresses both loss and hope.

The performance was soulful and intimate, and drew the crowd in. You could see how White’s focus on healing work happens both at the massage table and on the stage. “It’s embodied, it's interwoven into everything that I'm doing,” White says. “Everything I'm doing in my daily life is more transparent and vulnerable, and my music now, it's just coming from a guttural place.”

Sarah White Presents Neon Souls Residency
Where: Icehouse
When: 10 p.m. each Tuesday in March
Tickets: $10; more info here