Back on the Block: Kemi Bennings on the return of Soul Sista’s Juke Joint

Soul Sista’s Juke Joint founder Kemi Beninngs (Photo by Likisha Kiche Griffin)

Kemi Bennings is known for doing a lot of things. An Augusta, Ga., native, she’s served as a performance artist and as a promoter of a diverse body of musical/cultural events in the city of Atlanta for decades. But thousands of local denizens probably associate Bennings (and her Evolve Artists Live organization) with her most iconic happening: Soul Sista’s Juke Joint.

Launched in 2002, Soul Sista’s Juke Joint blended together various disciplines into an interactive, theater-tinged, cabaret-style live event, which was held at venues around the city and helped to launch the careers of dozens of local and national creatives.

As dope as the Juke Joint was, however, it seemingly up and disappeared in 2010 … and in the process left a gaping hole in the ATL’s underground music and culture scene. Lucky for us, Bennings decided to bring it back — this time dubbed “The Take Me Higher Edition” — and it’s hitting the stage again May 29. So, what’s behind the rebirth? Slo*Mo recently chatted with her and got the lowdown.

Slo*Mo: For folks — especially folks who are new to Atlanta — who have never heard of Soul Sistas Juke Joint, can you describe what the event is and how you started it years ago?

Kemi Bennings: Sista’s Juke Joint™ is a unique showcase of female artists. It’s an evening where original works of legendary artists and independent artists from varying artistic genres are interwoven into a thematic, live-music, theatrical production. The concept of Soul Sista’s Juke Joint came to me long before its name. This was around the late ’90s, early 2000s, during a very special pocket or era of time in Atlanta. Everything was bubbling, and what we saw was various aspects of art and music kinda merging together, stirring somewhat of a fusion. Poets were performing with bands, live music events were integrating visual arts, musicians were experimenting with DJs and people were migrating from everywhere to whatever this energy was, responding to this “calling,” if you will.

At the time I was hosting the weekly Thursday night open mic at Patti Hut Café, and I began noticing female artists, from varying artistic genres, becoming more visible. I mean, in whatever art form — be it singing or poetry — they were dope! I was inspired. One such inspiration or spark was during one of the open-mic nights where I introduced a young lady who approached the stage humbly stating, “she had just written this piece and just wanted to feel it out.” She sat at the keyboard and what came out was not only a beautifully unique voice, but also a message in her music. That song was “Salt” by singer/songwriter Lizz Wright, and of course that tune, as well as the artist, [went on to gain] international acclaim and success. … I didn’t know quite what was brewing inside me, but I knew from that moment I wanted to create a platform of some kind, some kind of event that would allow female artists to shine and to expose others to their music, art, poetry, etc. I wanted to be a gateway.

Each time I was moved by a particular artist, I jotted their names down in a notebook. On one Sunday afternoon in April of 2002, I sprung up from a nap with the name, Soul Sista’s Juke Joint, which embellished both objectives … it was all in the name, under the guise of the proverbial “juke joint,” which was a place where all people could gather and be entertained. That same afternoon, I shared the concept and name with my first partner and co-founder, Jodine Dorcé, and before we knew it we had three dates at the Apache Café.

What made you bring it back?

Wow, interestingly enough, I always share with people that Soul Sista’s Juke Joint is kind of a never-ending itch and is always in the wings. It’s kinda like our mission to “elevate human consciousness through art, culture and the diverse power of women” is always a silent whisper to continue the bigger vision of inspiring a generation of artistic change; believing in the arts as a vehicle for evolution and social change, creating fun memorable experiences that move, touch and inspire people. And, when you couple that with the power of women, I feel we really begin to stir people into being the change they want to see in the world.

But on another side of reality, over the last few years, I wanted to spread my wings a bit, and there were also a couple of projects that were lingering and requiring completion. So in 2012, I produced three productions: SoulPoetic, starring Alex Lattimore, Valencia Robinson, Okeeba Jubalo narrated by Jamal Ahmad; Mercury: The Darryl Reeves Project; and 3Women: Voices of Power, starring Julie Dexter, Chanda Leigh, A Lady Named Pearl and Axam Dance, with musical direction by Khari Simmons. Later that year, I saw a need to address a need in the arts community concerning health and wellness. HEART! — a free health screening and wellness day for artists — provided artists an opportunity get a health screening, participate in pop-up classes, yoga, and cooking demonstrations; it was more of a preventative approach to staying healthy.

Last year was an opportunity to expand my scope to curating. Ministers Of Sound, a tribute to DJs and my late father who transitioned in 2008, was an opportunity to honor Atlanta DJs through a unique parallel of DJs to ministers, while highlighting the work of entertainment photographer, Annette Brown. 2013 was also the 10-year anniversary of “A Great Day In Atlanta,” a historic photograph of artists, movers, shakers and trailblazers taken by John Crooms, so I wanted to complete its vision by giving John a well-deserved solo exhibition. So, at the beginning of this year, I guess it was a natural progression for Soul Sista’s Juke Joint to rear its head, as everything left out in the universe had been completed. I got many confirmations, contacted my partners, both here and now abroad, but particularly those who are in Atlanta: Kimberly “K Divine” Stewart and Christy “Big Sweet” Robinson, contacted the theater … and here we are.

What’s different about this new iteration of the event, as opposed to its original incarnation?

The upcoming “Take Me Higher” edition seeks to inspire a higher sense of spirit, truth, love and purpose, to reignite passion in pursuit our dreams. [The event] will feature jazz vocalist Kathleen Bertrand, international recording artist Jhelisa, soul singer/producer Gwen Bunn, singer/songwriter/femcee Marian Mareba, Latin-flavored soul vocalist Malena Perez, dancer/choreographer Ursula Kendall, and multidimensional visual artist Grace Kisa. This edition will also feature a unique collaboration with photographer Sheila Turner with her Juke Joint photography series.  

Soul Sista’s Juke Joint goes down May 29, 2014. Details: $25. 8 p.m. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road.