She’s a black-clad troubadour, a woman both sensitive and outspoken, a writer and musician spreading the gospel of love and community to everyone who will join in her circle of song. She swears allegiance to the folk-singer ideals of the past while infusing the genre with a modern message. A powerful voice, an explosive performance, a celebration of life — that’s Sista Otis.
There’s been a lot of buzz lately about Detroit’s urban folk community, and Otis is proud to be smack in the middle of it. The “urban folk” label was coined by fellow poet-performer Blair — and from the first time she heard him use it, Otis felt the term perfectly described the scene as well as her own artistic style.
“It’s ‘folk’ because it’s music with a message ... it’s socially conscious. Folk music is about speaking the truth,” says Otis. “And the ‘urban’ brings in the city element: hip hop, street music, blues, jazz. That’s the urban feel.”
Otis has got soul — after all, she took her name from the great Otis Redding. But her vocals also incorporate a jazz scat, the rapper’s riff, a raspy blues wail and a funky beat, Caribbean riddims and Eastern mysticism, all wrapped up in an alternative, DIY sensibility. This convergence of sounds and styles parallel the message behind Otis’ music: “The main point is to celebrate diversity and at the same time, recognize that we’re all the same.”
Otis grew up in Westland, but she hit the road as soon as she was able. She traveled across the country, singing on the streets and meeting a wide variety of characters who eventually helped populate her songs. She eventually wandered back to Michigan — the musician in her felt Motown’s powerful pull — and settled in the vibrant artistic community of Hamtramck. It was a place where she finally felt at home.
It was on the streets of Hamtramck that she ran into Bobby Carriere one fateful morning as he set up his drum kit for an outdoor practice session. She’d often seen Bobby play around town, including regular gigs with local blues greats such as the Butler Twins and Uncle Jessie White. Otis asked if he’d like to jam with her some time, and before long he was her regular percussionist. They’ve since toured together, playing shows from coast to coast.
“Bobby’s been such a great inspiration to me. His music history is so thick,” she says of Carriere. “He’s tops in my book.”
And the feeling is mutual. Carriere is excited about performing with a group of younger musicians, but is especially inspired by the talents of Otis herself, whom he affectionately refers to as “our little Shakespeare.”
The sweet smoke of Tibetan incense floats through Otis’ funky Hamtramck flat — decorated with plants, candles and colorful paintings by local artists — as she and Carriere talk about their relationship and the collaborative nature of music. More often than not, Sista Otis is backed by the Wholly Rollers, which includes Carriere, Sonya Mastick (additional drums and percussion) and Dave St. John (bass). Otis’ girlfriend, Tina Constas, gets big props for holding down the fort at the production offices — setting up gigs, making flyers, updating the Web site (www.sistaotis.com). Otis and Carriere single out several of the city’s other urban folkies and the honesty and strength of that scene — Blair and Afeni Ngozi Hill, Marcus Christie, Audra Kubat, Alison Lewis.
She’s a unique personality and clearly star of her own show, but that spirit of community obviously fuels Otis’ fire. And it’s not just her fellow musicians with whom Otis feels a positive, profound connection. The audience is invited to join in the celebration — singing, dancing, clapping, drumming along to the beat.
It’s all so spontaneous, so alive, it’s hard to imagine bottling it up and selling it to the masses. Otis has released five recordings on her own (including two compilation albums with tracks from other local artists). She enjoys being part of the independent underground, but admits there’s been some outside label interest of late — she’s “trying to keep cool about it.”
Sista Otis is cool, all right. She’s also one of the most down-to-earth people on the planet. Must be the fact that she’s absorbed the influence of so many disparate forces over the years — from traditional to mystical, from hippies to hipsters, from the Beat poets to Pentacostal preachers, from Bob Marley to Big Mama Thornton. For her, music and art are essential elements for traveling the road to enlightenment. “When the music is happening, you fall into a pattern, like a wave, and then the wave just starts carrying you,” she says. “You can tap into a certain kind of place. It’s a real spiritual thing.”
Check out the rest of our features on this year's talented Blowout artists:
• Go back to the future with The Bloody Holly’s
• The eclectic Brothers Groove are driven by white-hot funk
• Clone Defects front man Tim Vulgar lives the punk life
• esQuire’s frenetic but fabulous rise to fame
• Robert Jones is Detroit's quintessential bluesman
• The Kielbasa Kings' tale of accordions, beer and never-fail pickup lines
• Inside King Gordy's heart of darkness
• Miz Korona shines through the hype and distractions
• The Von Bondies are on the edge … but of what?