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Kathy Sledge: ‘Seeing everyone come together for Black Lives Matter meant so much to me’

As the youngest member of Sister Sledge, Kathy Sledge sang We Are Family. Though they’ve had troubles, the Sledges have faced them together.

Growing up in one of the only Black families in their west Philadelphia neighbourhood, the sisters Sledge were on the sharp end of racism in ’60s and ’70s America. Kathy Sledge, the youngest in a family that would go on to be disco queens, remembers going to school under police protection. “Our parents were worried about our safety,” she says.

But it was also a childhood filled with music. At just 12 years old, Kathy started performing at paid gigs along with her siblings and went on to tour around the US east coast. As disco fever swept the world in the late ’70s, Sister Sledge partnered with Nile Rodgers to catch the mood and enjoyed an international breakthrough. Four decades on, We Are Family remains a dancefloor-filler around the world.

Speaking to The Big Issue ahead of a European tour, Kathy says that she has never forgotten the struggle her family faced. A passionate supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, she says “Martin Luther King and others who died for Black people’s rights would be so proud of how far the world has come”.

Throughout lockdown Kathy has been spreading a message of positivity and family solidarity through Instagram Live. Working with her daughter Kristen on the Family Room series was “sheer joy” says Kathy, but nothing will ever replace the thrill of playing to a live audience.

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The Big Issue: Why did you follow a solo career, after years in Sister Sledge?

Kathy Sledge: Information about me leaving the group has been very misleading over the years and I’m fixing that now. I was asked to do a solo project but I was given an ultimatum by my sisters. I was told I could not do a solo project unless I left the group. I was sued by my sisters after leaving in 1989. It’s very important to grow with your music and no one should stop you from growing with your music. I would like to clear up the myth that I left for a solo career because that is not what happened, I was asked to leave. I was even stopped from performing under the name Sister Sledge and sued by my sisters, but I feel things have come full circle now, we are still sisters. 

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Did you get on well with your sisters growing up?

With five women you are always going to bash heads, it’s only natural. I enjoyed singing with my sisters when I was younger, I always felt that we were a group. 

Your dad was a tap dancer and your mum was an actor. Did they influence you and your sisters to get into performing?

My father was one of the first Black Americans to perform on Broadway, he really broke down some stereotypes. It was actually my grandmother who put the group together when we were young, she wanted us to sing at church. I was very close to my grandmother growing up and she had a passion for music. I have always had a passion for music, it’s in my blood.

Continuing the family theme, your daughter Kristen is now involved in your career…

She is like my business partner, we started the show Family Room on Instagram Live. Kristen helped me with this and it was actually her idea to start the show. It all started during the pandemic, I wanted to give people comfort during such a difficult time. It was really organic, I would go on camera and just start singing to the viewers. Working with my daughter was just sheer joy. She even styles me for the show and she’s so good, she styles me on tour now too. 

Your older sister Joni sadly passed away in 2017, how did that impact your life?

When I lost my sister I was not even thinking about my career, we had to support each other and all came together as sisters. It’s always challenging when business and family are mixed but we all came together to comfort each other.

Did you experience racism growing up?

We had racial challenges growing up in the area we lived as we were one of the first and only Black families to live on the estate. When I was eight we were actually under police protection at school because we did experience racism and our parents were worried about our safety. Naturally our parents wanted us to be safe at school.

How do you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement?

Seeing everyone come together for the Black Lives Matter movement meant so much to me as many people have died fighting for this. It has been an honour to take part in the movement, the whole thing has been organic.

You’re a legend in your own right, but who do you look up to?

I look up to Stevie Wonder, he’s like the Beethoven or Mozart of our time. I have met him several times and he was everything you would expect, he was really nice and kind. I also look up to Freddie Mercury, he is amazing. My grandmother was my idol growing up, she taught me a lot and she always had a kind heart.

What has been the best moment of your career so far?

Prince invited me to perform at one of his shows in my home town of Philadelphia as a surprise to the audience. I sang We Are Family. I remember how hyped up the audience was and they were singing along, it was such an honour and felt so rewarding to know that the audience knew every word.

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Is there anything you would change about your career if you could turn the clock back?

If I could start again I would have taken on more solo projects from the beginning. I would have written a lot more of my own music too as I have a passion for writing, it is only now that I am able to write more and I actually have a new release today with Operation Funk called Could It Be You. 

You are going to be performing in the UK this year. Are you looking forward to it? 

Yes, I am hyped, I did a run last summer and it was just amazing. I know the crowds always sing the songs and get involved and I love that. 

Sister Sledge featuring Kathy Sledge play Saturday May 14 at London’s Indigo 02. Tickets via www.myticket.co.uk/artists/kathy-sledge

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