Winner of the 2020 Harvard Humanist of the Year, Sikivu Hutchinson started her writing career with short stories and plays. Born to a journalist and teacher, her passion for writing was nurtured from a young age, opening up doors for her robust career many years into the future. She is passionate about the representation of Black girls and uses her skills to shine a light on the underrepresented Black women rock stars that came before us.
Hutchinson’s Rock ’n’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe talks about the life of the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a Black queer woman electric guitarist, who paved the way for many to come.
Tell us your name, where you are from?
My name is Sikivu Hutchinson, and I was born and raised in Los Angeles.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Growing up, I really wanted to be a writer and a teacher. My dad was a journalist, and my mother was a poet who also taught English. So being exposed to those two industries opened up my eyes to paths that I could take.
What got you into writing at your beginning stages? And how many books have you written?
I started off writing short stories, books, and plays in elementary school. Because I grew up around my parents’ respective industries, I ended up publishing six books and have written eight thus far in my career.
You recently came out with a book called Rock ’n’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe. Tell our readers a bit about the book and what made you want to focus on paying homage to the legendary Godmother of Rock and Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
Well, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a seminal figure in rock, blues, and gospel history, and she has never fully received the recognition she deserved. She was an innovator with her guitar distortion techniques, she was a queer artist and champion of experimentation, and she’s been endlessly imitated/ripped off and underappreciated within white corporate rock.
My novel is a homage to the trajectory of her life as a working musician and cultural force. It weaves back and forth in time from the Great Migration era to the Carter administration, yoking together flawed, badass, unorthodox Black women who defy respectability and represent different aspects of cultural memory. As a protagonist, Rory Tharpe is loosely based on Sister Tharpe, but she deviates from her arc insofar as she eschews organized religion entirely, pursues life on the road with an all-male band in the disco-heavy late seventies, struggles to recover from addiction and childhood sexual abuse while fighting for her publishing rights in the shadow of Reaganism’s rise. She is also grappling with the ageism of American society and a music industry that deifies youth.
As an amateur guitarist, I was initially motivated to write the book out of my lifelong ride-or-die love for all types of rock music (from Son House to Rosetta to Memphis Minnie to Band of Gypsys to Sonic Youth to Neil Young to Jimi Hendrix to Arthur Lee to PJ Harvey to Parliament-Funkadelic to King Crimson to you, Malina Moye, and Brittany Howard). I was also interested in exploring the theft of Black creativity by corporate America and the minstrelsy of white women rockers like Janis Joplin, who continue to reap dividends from exploiting (i.e., as rock historian Reebee Garofolo once said, “Black roots, white fruits”) and building empires on the backs of Black women.
One of the novel’s central themes centers on the artistic travails of Black women rendered invisible by the genre’s association with alpha-male whiteness in the post-British invasion era. I wanted to explore the everyday challenges, failures, and quiet triumphs of being a Black female guitarist playing dive bars and middling concert halls. I was fascinated by the day-to-day grind of keeping a band together and the bills paid within the context of a post-civil rights America, where racist, homophobic evangelicalism is on the rise and rock is cratering as a commercially viable genre.
Why do you think this book and the history behind Sister Rosetta Tharpe are important now more than ever in the music industry?
I think it’s important for Black folks and people of color overall to know that rock music was founded by African American visionaries who came from a long line of African diasporic creators and artists. Battling racism, Jim Crow terrorism, and white appropriation, these folks literally “found a way out of no way.” Blues, rock, and country guitar innovation was deeply embedded into Southern Black culture from the early 20th century into the Vietnam era (and, of course, continues to resonate today in countless genres). It’s troubling that rock music is viewed as a white male-inspired genre in the 21st century and that younger Black audiences are not being introduced to blues music. Recently, the ultimate irony and insult of this paradox was a 2019 “Top Ten Blues Artists” list by MusicRadar that included no Black women and three Black men. I also think it’s critical to amplify Black women’s self-determination in multifaceted ways, particularly vis-à-vis racist/sexist stereotypes that Black women don’t play electric guitar and older Black women are creatively/socially expendable.
Describe the feeling you get when you complete the final draft of a book. What does that accomplishment feel like?
It’s an exhilarating and scary feeling. It’s analogous to the Sisyphean feat of rolling a boulder up a steep hill, pausing to bask for a brief second, then seeing it roll down again. A first draft is an embryonic glimpse into what the book can be pre-revision. Revision and editing are the ugly, bloody, gut-wrenching core of the novel-writing process. Being mentally prepared to take that journey requires a lot of inner strength and constant coaxing.
What is your book writing process? Talk us through ideas to draft.
I typically have a snatch of an idea about a historical/cultural phenomenon or figure. I’ll mentally map out character voices and rhythms, then start tinkering with dialogue on the page—generally in longhand. I’m a big advocate of longhand for capturing the physicality and flow of character dialogue. Most of my first drafts have unfolded through simple longhand on pads, post-its, and journals. For the first draft of a book, I’ll combine writing with research (books, articles, internet, interviews, music) and reading other novels, short stories, and non-fiction. It’s important to keep the imaginative eye engaged with other works as well as the plod of everyday conversation, observing folks in different walks of life, ingesting idioms, slang, off-the-cuff speech, neologisms—I draw from anything and everything to make inner monologues and dialogues “pop.”
All artists have spaces that they feel most creative in. What does that look like for you? Describe your writing space.
My writing spaces are fairly conventional—I write at a desk on my laptop during the day and transition to an armchair during the evening. I always like to take a pad with me in public spaces so I can write if I have to wait for something.
How do you develop the titles of your books?
I like evocative titles that are enigmatic, edgy, and allude to tension, controversy, or contradiction within the book’s thematic structure. The title of my first novel, White Nights, Black Paradise, referred to the self-destructive rituals of the Jonestown, Guyana, colony (a settlement created by the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple church, which perished in 1978 in what was considered to be the largest mass murder in U.S. history before 9/11) and the yearning for a Black utopia, which was embodied in the predominantly African American membership of the Peoples Temple church. Rock ’n’ Roll Heretic has a double meaning. It refers both to the protagonist’s religious skepticism and rejection of faith as well as her disruption of traditional rock norms.
What do you do when you have writer’s block? Do you ever have writer’s block?
I don’t get writer’s block, per se. Rather, I have the typical moments of indecision and frustration when a character, passage, or image fails to blossom into a coherent narrative. When that happens, I generally push through. Sometimes I’ll listen to music or try to come up with an alternative way of accessing a description by using the five senses (especially taste, sound, and smell) to break down the idea I’m trying to convey.
What is one piece of advice you would give to any young kids or adults that are following after you and want to pursue a career in writing?
It sounds like a cliché, but fiction writing (and publishing) really is a marathon, not a sprint. Developing discipline and persistence takes time, and being able to have enough confidence in and conviction about the value of your work amidst the noise of haters, naysayers, and “doubting Thomases” (not to mention one’s own self-doubt) can be a tall order. Given the intersections of racism, sexism, and other isms, I think it’s important for Black women and girls to find mentors and role models who can help them navigate the challenges of being marginalized, underrepresented, and underestimated in the arts.
The erasure of Black women’s cultural production is also magnified by the triple burdens we shoulder with respect to disproportionate responsibility for childcare and caregiving within the context of inequitable workplaces. For example, the New York Times estimated that nearly 89% of novels published by major houses in 2018 were by white authors. That is staggeringly egregious. This has a lot to do with the white supremacist engine of acquisitions, editing, and marketing that dominates the publishing industry. This is why many women of color have turned to independent publishing. Publishing independently not only allows authors to maintain control over their work but to keep more revenue while marketing and promoting their books in the way they see fit.
Writing can be isolating, painstaking work. Editing, revision, and having the capacity to accept constructive criticism are essential. I find reading across genres (newspaper articles, essays, novels, short stories, blogs, reports, plays, comic books, you name it) is also a big engine for creative imagination and accessing character rhythms, backstories, interiority, and volatility. I’m eternally fascinated with how writers establish the interior lives of their characters in all their ugliness, contradictions, tragic flaws, strength, frailty, cruelty, and compassion.
So, my principal advice for young writers is to trust your voice. Be the most dogged, unwavering, take no prisoners champion for your work. One of my favorite quotes on the revolutionary potential of writing for Black women artists is from Alice Walker, who said: “In my own work, I write not only what I want to read—understanding fully and indelibly that if I don’t do it no one else is so vitally interested, or capable of doing it to my satisfaction—I write all the things I should have been able to read.” Rock ’n’ Roll Heretic is the book I always wanted to read and see (which is why I’m adapting it into a play to debut at this summer’s Hollywood Fringe Festival).