Sunstar is a music festival that highlights the work of independent women and nonbinary musicians who “offer inspiration and encouragement.” Produced by East Liberty’s Kelly Strayhorn, Sunstar seeks to put these artists on center stage and let listeners get to know them on an intimate level.
In addition to Rhyme, the festival will feature performances by local musicians INEZ, Clara Kent, and Brittney Chantele, as well as Instagram live sessions led by the hosts of local podcast Girls Running Shit, a trio composed of Pittsburgh natives Markeea “Keea” Hart, Janita Kilgore, and Mia Marshall.
The events are “Pay What Makes You Happy,” which means you can have a dynamic music experience for as little or as much as you desire.
This year, Sunstar has chosen to highlight the voices of Black women and nonbinary people. “Kelly Strayhorn has always been a space that presents and creates a platform for Black artists as well as other artists, really bridging communities,” says Joseph Hall, Kelly Strayhorn’s Executive Director. Highlighting these voices is not new to KST, and is part of their continued commitment to Pittsburgh’s arts community.
The decision to bring these artists together came naturally for Sondra Woodruff, producer of engagement and social Impact for the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. “I saw INEZ in the City Paper and started listening to her music,” she says. INEZ brought aboard Kent. Chantele was asked on soon after, bringing along Rhyme.
Rhyme began her work in artistry at a young age, when she started training classically in ballet at just three years old. It is evident from her music videos and her performances that she loves the work she does. Rhyme described herself as “very energetic.”
“I like to express myself in a way where anyone can relate to what I'm saying or what I'm speaking,” she says. “I like to feel connected to the world, connected to each audience member. I'm very fun at times though I can get very deep with what I mean in my songs.”
When she talks about driving by the KST marquee to see her name before last year’s festival was canceled, Rhyme says the pandemic hitting was a shock and a disappointment. Now that Sunstar has recovered and figured out a way to have a show virtually, she’s thrilled.
“I'm glad there's a twist to it this time, especially with it being unplugged and just stripped down and to really focus in on our craftsmanship, each of us as individual artists. We get to showcase our artistry and our personality as a group of strong Black entertainers,” says Rhyme.
Rhyme primarily worked as a concert dancer and in theater before making the transition to doing her own music and dancing in 2017. Since then, she’s been building an audience and fan base, but hopes that Sunstar will be a chance to get her name out there more.
“I feel like there's still people who haven't heard of Chandra Rhyme,” she says, adding that she hopes Pittsburgh can see her passion and drive for music.
When KST started to have conversations about taking this year’s show virtual, they asked the same performers from last year’s festival back. All four musicians were happy to be back on board with the show, and making it happen has been a thrill for everyone involved.
“What is really great about this is that here's this package for these artists from now until forever. It's almost like they have their own music videos, or 20-minute sets that they can use for whatever purpose," says Hall. "We can continue showing these to our audience on March 20 and beyond. I think that's one of the exciting parts about this."
Chantele is no stranger to the spotlight. They have been making music seriously since 2016, and have released an album or EP almost every year since. With that kind of work ethic, one needs to take time for self-care as well. Chantele says that though the pandemic has definitely been hard, it also opened the opportunity for them to rest a little. After they dropped their project “The Golden Opportunity,” which covers their traumatic experience in the military, they needed time to focus on themselves and regroup.
“I was set to open up for Remy Ma and Young MA and, as much as I would have liked to have those opportunities, I also feel like it's kind of a blessing that the pandemic canceled those shows. I really needed some time and some space after that album release to get back to me and re-center,” they say.
“The Golden Opportunity” was a heavy project that came off the heels of “A Fire on Venus,” an entire album about queer heartbreak and love. For “A Fire on Venus,” Chantele collaborated with the New Hazlett Theater to put on a choreographed production of the album.
“I just feel like there's not many artists that are making the majority of their catalog queer love music, you know? ” says Chantele. “For me to get a platform like the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and Sunstar, it's huge because I get to sing these songs with pronouns that a lot of people aren't expecting me to use. I'm starting to sing and I'd say ‘her,’ I say ‘she,’ and I'm sure there's a lot of listeners who are like, ‘Oh, Oh, Oh, OK. She’s talking about a queer relationship.’”
Rhyme is also looking forward to getting to express herself on the Sunstar Festival stage, and opening up to the audience.
"I really hope the audience can capture the scenery and the ambiance of each song that I do," says Rhyme. "I hope they can really tap into me as an artist and really get to know me."
Sunstar Music Festival: Womxn & Music
Thu., March 18-Sat., March 20. “Pay what makes you happy.” kelly-strayhorn.org