- Jaime Monzon
As soon as the multifaceted artist launched into her set, a shift was felt within the audience – a change in energy on a molecular level that forced the crowd to fixate on Sanderson as she exhaled fire raps into the cool night air.
But commanding attention isn’t new to Sanderson, who’s been performing across the city for nearly two decades.
While there are many artists in San Antonio producing great work – if you hit up Free Week then you can attest to that – few musicians, MCs, bands, poets or rappers come close to the level of dopeness that Sanderson has reached. Through her 20-minute set, beginning with her new single “Waiting for Me” (released just last month) and ending with “Sounds So Sweet” (from her album Sounds So Sweet Vol. 1), Sanderson alternated between her soulful melodies to hard-hitting hip-hop, with moments of spoken-word poetry sprinkled throughout the performance. It was a demonstration of skill and focus only reached through years of experience in her craft, which Sanderson has plenty of.
During the rapper’s set, I thought about a conversation I recently had with Charles “Easy Lee” Peters of Third Root, a hip-hop group made up of Peters, Dr. Marco Cervantes (Mexican StepGrandfather) and DJ Chicken George, which Sanderson has collaborated with over the last several years and on several records. Ahead of the release of their new album Libertad, Peters and I discussed the difference between trap and mumble rappers compared to real MCs. Peters called the real artists “heroes,” saying “there’s heroes out here, there’s heroes on these mics.”
Watching Sanderson in her element Saturday night, Peter’s word “hero” came to mind. And not “hero” for the sake of just skill, (though her skills are unmatched by many an MC), but for her work in her community: Sanderson teaches poetry workshops, mentors, builds up and encourages artists to pursue their art, and gives them platforms to showcase their talent.
“First of all, she’s obviously gifted with words and artistic self-expression,” Peters told the Current from Atlanta where he’s currently teaching ninth grade high school English in Zone 1 on the Westside of the city. “We all know a thousand gifted people, but Vocab worked herself to death to lay a foundation for herself as a working artist. She accepted the gigs that paid little to nothing, traveled all across Texas, went without rest and sleep to be seen and heard, but also to support individuals and movements she believed in. She got her artistic worth up over time and now enters rooms with a resume that demands respect and compensation.”
- Chris Conde
“I remember typing my mother a love poem and showing it to her like ‘Hey mommy, I love you, here’s a poem I wrote you,’” Sanderson told the Current. She can’t pinpoint a specific time in her life where she didn’t love music and poetry, but remembers distinctly as a little girl turning on the radio and being determined to teach herself how to sing like the artists she heard growing up.
“Aaliyah, Missy [Elliott], anything from that camp was amazing to me [growing up],” Sanderson said. “Taking it back, there was always the gospel influences, there was Anita Baker, The Winans, Kirk Franklin, even Salt-N-Pepa as far as hip-hop, Queen Latifah, Heavy D, Guru, Talib Kweli, people like that – jazz-based hip-hop.”
That determination and love for music translated into joining choir and singing at New Creation Christian Fellowship in Windcrest and then becoming a part of LSC Ministries, a gospel hip-hop group Sanderson helped start in 1999. Though the group eventually folded in 2004, she says it helped lay the groundwork for her as a performer.
“We performed in the smallest podunk towns all over the state of Texas,” said Sanderson. “We would drive to Weimar, Texas or Del Rio, and little towns – wherever there were these little churches. We would go there and do rap, and ‘cause back then it was controversial to do hip-hop in church, so I learned how to be a good performer in those five years of doing that group.”
In 2001, between performances with LSC Ministries, Sanderson began popping up at open mics and discovered slam poetry.
“Anytime the door opened at Free Verse (started and hosted by Peters), I would be there and I didn’t miss … so I was always finding different ways to challenge myself within the realm of music and poetry and hip-hop so I could become a better performer,” Sanderson said.
In 2005, Sanderson competed with the PuroSlam team (started in '99 and is still very active today) in Albuquerque at the National Poetry Slam. Though the team didn’t rank high that year, Sanderson would continue to slam for through 2008 and her work would not go unnoticed.
“It’s a lot of factors. Charisma on a basic level: She has it on stage, has it in person, and makes a genuine effort to connect with people in both instances,” Jason “Shaggy” Gossard, who’s been hosting PuroSlam since 2000 and has seen a lot of talent pass through the stage, told the Current. “Talent: She can write, she writes what she knows and performs it with conviction and heart. She has never tried to be someone she is not. Hard work: She has earned the name and respect she has in this city, in this state, and nationally. Vocab is one of the purest poets in San Antonio. She believes in poetry, is passionate about poetry, and shows interest in others' poetry.”
“That’s a big thing to me, making sure that people have a place where they can get on stage and do their thing. My goal was I want to get a standing ovation everytime I would get up and do a poem, and so there needs to be places where artists can develop and get better every month.”
Through hosting and being a prominent member of the poetry community in San Antonio and the region, Sanderson has gone on to positively impact poets' lives. In 2010, she took poet Ariana Brown under her wing.
“Vocab was the first person to drive me to my first-ever poetry slam, which was in 2010 in Austin,” Brown told the Current over phone from Pittsburgh where she’s currently finishing her MSA in poetry at Pittsburgh University.
The two met at Luminaria that year, after Brown read a poem at an open mic Sanderson was hosting on one of the stages. At that time, San Antonio did not have a youth poetry slam. “Almost all of the open mics and slams in the city were hosted at bars and I was a minor,” Brown said. “Anytime I wrote a poem, I would call Vocab and read her the poem and ask for feedback and she would give it to me. I haven’t met very many poets who are [as generous as Vocab] with their time.”
Brown and fellow youth poet Nathan Zertuche started a poetry club at John Jay High School, and were discovering that more than a few high schoolers were interested in poetry.
“We reached out to Anthony Flores and Vocab,” said Brown. “I can’t remember if we reached out to them or if they reached out to us, but we had been talking since, [at that time] Nathan and I were sort of creating this community of youth poets that were interested in performing. They did [suggest] at some point that we should maybe try and have a youth open mic or a youth poetry slam somewhere, so that kids could have somewhere outside of John Jay High School to read their poems.”
So in January of 2011 at the now-shuttered Bubblehead Tea in Southtown, Fresh Ink Youth Slam was born, and youth from all over SA came out of the woodwork to test their skills and develop their art.
Rapper Kristina Villegas, better known as Kree23, who has been making waves in the regional hip-hop community for the last couple years, was one of the teens that showed up to Fresh Ink.
“Vocab actually saw me grow into the poet I am today,” said Villegas. “Just seeing such a power figure from poetry, her being a poet, her being in it. Being an amazing host and being fucking hilarious, making everyone laugh, being one of the dopest MCs in San Antonio, she helped me mold my vision of poetry just by the way she spat her poems, her emotion and passion and cadence … her being so eclectic in how she does her work. Like, she can go from being jazzy to being hip-hop to being a slammer. I think that’s just how her style is – it’s so eclectic and it can mold into anywhere. She just has that style that can move right in.”
- Chris Conde
“It’s just been a really cool experience to go into high schools and community centers and work with young adults,” Sanderson said. One of her proudest moments was being chosen to work on a celebration of Maya Angelou for PBS, where she was able to teach a weeklong curriculum alongside fellow poet Joy Jiménez at Davis Middle School, part of which involved teaching the kids to do their own remixes of Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”
“They brought in a film crew to document us and we did a big slam at San Pedro Playhouse and they aired it on KLRN,” said Sanderson, who also coached the kids preparing their poems for the slam.
“I do coach, I do mentor, I do teach creative writing, I do a lot of things and it’s all centered around just empowering people to do their own art,” said Sanderson, “Because I know what it’s like to want to do something but not knowing where you can get your voice heard.”
As far as getting her own own art seen and heard, well, let’s just say that more than a few people have taken notice of her skills. On top of the hundreds (possibly thousands) of shows Sanderson has performed all around Texas, she has featured at DePauw University, Morehouse College, Cameron University, Rice University, Texas Lutheran University, and Trinity University.
The singer was also featured in “Fill Your Lungs with Fresh Air: Matisse and Writing” at the San Antonio Museum of Art, traveled to Abu Dhabi to perform at Al Dhafra Airbase, has writings archived at Palo Alto College and has also been published in The Texas Observer, to highlight just a fraction of her accomplishments.
The 36-year-old has released a few collections of music and poetry over the years, including 2011’s Sessions in Flight and 2012’s Sounds So Sweet Vol. 1. But with a new single out this past December, Sanderson said “Waiting for Me” is the first track from a new album she hopes to release before summer. There’s even whispers of a possible tour with a well-known regional hip-hop group.
Sanderson says local producer Cedric Bellamy approached her with a few tracks and when she heard the song that contained a sample from Sade, she knew she had to do something with it. “I have this very emotional attachment to Sade’s music,” said Sanderson. “The sample is from 'King of Sorrow' and because of my heartfelt connection to Sade – one, because of my Dad raising me on her music; and two, because of my very first boyfriend – it was a very important aspect to our relationship, and her Lovers Rock album, it just got me in my feels. So when I heard the sample on there, 'King of Sorrow' man, that’s the story of my life. In the video she’s trying to be a mother, trying to have a music career, and she’s just giving you a glimpse of how busy a woman’s life can be, but not like famous Sade, as we know her, but a struggling version of herself.”
Sanderson took that concept and built on it, writing a song about feeling like she has no personal life due to her packed schedule as an artist and working full-time as a control room operator during the overnight shift at the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center for the past 15 years.
- Jaime Monzon
Though it seems like working overnight in a detention center might be stifling to some, Sanderson says that she’s actually found time to create there.
“All my albums, and books, poems, whatever I’ve written, have been done right there in that room – I’ve written a lot of stuff,” she said with a laugh.
Through her work with Gemini Ink, Sanderson has been able to teach poetry to kids who are detained at the actual facility where she's employed. “It’s a beautiful thing to be able to go and teach youth that are in the system a way to express themselves – they wouldn’t be locked up if they could [grasp] the power of [creative expression].”
Sanderson’s story is one of endurance, strength and passion and represents the real artists, the “heroes” who continue to push regardless of fleeting hype, regardless of the accolades, and regardless of how many people recognize the amount of work she’s poured into the creative community in San Antonio. Vocab is the queen, and her majesty is shimmering with dopeness and generosity.