D.C.-based musician-filmmaker Be Steadwell discusses her journey as a Black queer creative and how she has stayed the course.
Like a great many artists, Be Steadwell has faced down that nagging ghost of self-doubt. For Steadwell, however, the voice that likes to decree “you are not good enough” is actually much more a societal product premised on an inherent history of racism and systemic inequality.
“Imposter syndrome, I think, is really sexism, white supremacy, homophobia in your body manifesting,” she said. “There are systems that tell us we’re not supposed to be in places. We’re not supposed to play instruments.
“All of that feels intentional; it’s not some [innocuous] thing that just happens to us.”
As a Black queer musician and filmmaker, Steadwell knows this issue well, which is why she has worked so hard to dull its sting by pressing on—and telling that naysaying gremlin that she is not only deserving but thriving.
As a teenager, Steadwell joined the jazz band at D.C.’s Field School. The band leader was flabbergasted at her audition when she sang a standard called “Solitude,” made famous when performed by, among others, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.
“The band leader was like, ‘How do you know these songs? You’re 12 years old!’” Steadwell relates of wowing that instructor at a precocious age.
Such experiences have helped Steadwell overcome some of her innate shyness. While pursuing a degree in Black studies at Oberlin College, she joined an a cappella group before returning to D.C., where she and a friend eventually founded a rap duo.
“We were just kind of goofballs,” she said. “We made hip-hop music that was self-aware—queer nerd hip-hop. And it was really fun. We were both working jobs we didn’t love” in the meantime, she said.
Steadwell admits freely she initially got into D.C.’s music scene “to meet girls”—a not precisely uncommon reasoning. Eventually, she began performing on her own and also decided to return to school to refine her home-grown skills editing music videos. She received an MFA in film from Howard, which she describes as tremendously important to her personally—even if potential employers might not have been interested. (The debt of pursuing her master’s also presents an extra burden, she said.)
“I [thought] maybe if I got a masters in film, I’ll be able to teach and be able to get a job in a field that makes sense,” she said. “I graduated and was still making money with my music, [but] I could not get a job in film.
“I don’t regret it, of course. I’m glad that I learned what I learned, but I was basically in a position where I had to do music full-time.”
Steadwell has indeed pressed forward with both her music. Her ability to blend and mix influences is evident on the song “Who Have I Become?”, which features hip-hop, beatboxing, sampling and Steadwell’s mellifluous alto voice floating heaven-ward above it all. She even performed this composition onstage for a rapt audience at the Kennedy Center.
“Through a lot of self-work and struggles and hard times, I’m now at the point where I really do believe I’m supposed to be here,” she said. “I love music [and] I have stories to tell that matter.”
In addition to her music, Steadwell continues to pursue her filmmaking passion. “Vow of Silence” played at the 2015 International Lesbian and Feminist Film Festival as well as the 2015 BlackStar Film Festival. Steadwell is also pushing forward on “A Letter to My Ex,” a musical that began as a breakup letter she sent to a former lover. The musical enjoyed brief runs in D.C. and Oakland in 2019—featuring an all BIPOC and queer cast—before the pandemic put the venture temporarily on ice. However, Steadwell is now working with Baltimore Center Stage on bringing the play back to the stage—as well as releasing an accompanying album. (Her most recent was 2021’s “Succulent.”)
Steadwell said that, perhaps in the vein of “The Color Purple,” “A Letter to My Ex” utilizes the notion of the narrator expressing her feelings via missives sent into the unknown.
“It’s mostly really silly and lighthearted,” she said. “But some of it [deals] with grief and the way we as queer Black folks can really find safety in romantic relationships and find our first actual safe space—and then what happens when that’s taken away.”
Steadwell’s other works include composing music for “The Gone,” a production mounted by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in 2019. She is currently among the talented cast of “Parable of the Sower the Opera” by Toshi Reagon and Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, based on the book by Octavia Butler. A fall tour is in the offing as well.
With Pride Month now upon us, Steadwell would like to remind people that, as scary as certain recent headlines have been, she and so many others in the LGBTQ community—especially those of color—have lived under a cloud of caution for much of their lives.
“I think being Black and queer in this country, it’s never been good,” she said. “We have been unsafe.
“I grew up in D.C., so I have never trusted politicians, I have never trusted the system, and I have always felt that we keep us safe. That is always going to be true, because if you’re in a minority, a politician has no incentive to keep you safe.”
At the same time, it’s important not to lose hope, Steadwell says. Despite her stated aversion to politicians, she votes and shows up at occasional protests for social justice. It’s also key to put her energies toward positive action and “sharing Black queer joy,” as she put it.
**“**Because it does exist, in spite of all of the hardships,” she said. “It is keeping us alive; it is keeping us from falling apart. So that is my one tiny job. I’m doing what I can, but ultimately, I’m looking at the community, I’m looking at my people to create safety.”
And one of the crucial ways Steadwell continues to do precisely that is with her ongoing recording and moviemaking.
“It’s actually really beautiful to do music full time,” she said, “even though it’s hard.”
*For information on Be Steadwell’s upcoming shows, films, and other works, visit https://www.besteadwell.com/. *
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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My interview with Amy Santis aka aSanTIS began in the most unexpected way. The Maryland-based flow-bending artist and lyrical storyteller came prepared to engage in conversation around questions I had posed – and she also brought one or two of her own thoughtful prompts based on her curiosities around my view of learning.
This practice of taking in her surroundings deeply through observation and inquiry has come naturally to aSanTIS ever since she was a young child. In terms of her early starts in music, she notes that she began as a discerning listener. “Just listening to music from my mom, on the radio, just being a consumer in the world of sound. But I think mainly, my mom has always loved dancing and listening to music, so that was sort of like second nature. We play music at gatherings, we play music in the car, and these songs are sort of like diaries that take us into a specific place.”
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