In the Mendez-White household, where 32-year-old musician Sarah White lives with her partner of 9 years, Rico, and their daughters Izabella (8) and Micaela (2), flexibility is the key to sustaining balance and happiness. It’s also the key to staying afloat in the music industry. White talks to mater mea about maintaining her passion for creating music while putting her family first.
After two big moves—one from Brooklyn, New York back to her native Minneapolis, Minnesota, and then from one house to another—musician Sarah White’s home life finally seems to be settling down… Her work life, though, is another story.
“Every day is really different,” White says of her three-fold hustle (she’s a singer, DJ, and a freelance photographer). “Some days I don’t work at all, and other days I work multiple jobs. It’s a really crazy schedule. You just kind of [have to] flow with it.”
It’s this adaptable nature that brought White, 32, and her family, partner Rico Mendez and their daughters Izabella Simone (8) and Micaela Sol (2), back to Minneapolis in the summer of 2012, after five years of living and making music in New York.
But Sarah White hasn’t always been so flexible, she says now. “I’m the type of person where I like to have things planned out [and] know what’s going on,” White confides. “And I’ve had to just not be that type of person over the past nine years.”
Before Iza was born in 2004, White’s plans were centered firmly around her passion for creating music. White grew up singing in church and took up classical flute and piano when she entered grade school. But by high school, she was drawn into Minneapolis’ emerging hip-hop scene and began to tweak her own sound to fit into the genre.
“I showed my first poem/rap thing to a friend of mine named Zach, and he was pretty big in the underground scene here,” Sarah White recalls. “[He said], ‘Alright, we’re going to form a band, you’re going to be a rapper, it’s all going to work out.’ He taught me how to rap, taught me how write bars, [and] it took over my life.”
Music became White’s outlet to channel her thoughts and emotions on topics ranging from her family life (which wasn’t “necessarily good” at the time, she confides) to spiritual and sociopolitcal issues. At age 20, Sarah White became the face of her first band, the conscientious rap group Traditional Methods. As one of the few black women rapping in Minneapolis’ hip-hop scene in the early 2000s, White quickly attracted local attention for her work. Not long after she began performing and touring with Traditional Methods, “everything changed” in 2004 when she met Rico Mendez, a fellow musician and producer.
“Me and Rico just fell in love really quickly,” Sarah White says. In fact, White found out she was pregnant three weeks into their relationship.
“Everything stopped, everything,” she recalls. “Time just froze. But I felt happy as much as I was freaked out. I realized that I wanted some little me running around. I didn’t know what it meant, I didn’t know it was going to be the way it is now, but I knew I wanted to take a chance on it and try.”
The couple welcomed Izabella in 2004, and Sarah White stayed just as active in Minneapolis’ music scene. White left Transitional Methods in 2005 and joined Black Blondie, the trip-hop group that would change her life’s course.
“We got to play at the Black Lily Festival and opened up for Jill Scott and Amy Winehouse and The Roots,” White says. “That’s when I realized how big the world was, and how much else was going on out there.
“I fell in love with Brooklyn while we were there, [and I] came home and talked to Rico about moving there,” she continues. “We [decided to] move out there [in 2007] in search of more for our family, and more musically and artistically.”
Though touring the East Coast with Black Blondie drew Sarah White towards the creative oasis of New York City, her decision to move was also influenced by the growing difficulty of being a woman of color in the then somewhat homogenous Minneapolis music sphere.
White’s move to New York proved musically and spiritually fruitful, beginning with an improved outlook on the ways that she could perform the music that she loved without feeling like an outsider.
“[NYC] was really nurturing,” she says now. “I needed to feel good in my skin, and to see that there weren’t as many rules as I had created in my mind for women of color. We could be anything. You can do anything you want with your hair, you can dress however you want. I needed to see all the different levels of that to feel like it was real.”
That self-empowerment also carried into the way Sarah White handled the business aspects of being a musician. She soon realized the “hands-off” approach she’d taken in Minneapolis wouldn’t fly in New York.
“I had some gigs where I showed up and I didn’t get paid because I didn’t confirm,” she says now. “I realized I needed to handle my business if I wanted to be taken seriously. New York taught me that if you want to be out here, and you want to get booked, you have to know what’s involved in all angles of it.”
New York saw White’s family grow as well: After a month-long trip to Barcelona with Rico, Sarah White became pregnant with her second daughter, Micaela, who was born in 2010. But soon after Mica’s birth, White became aware that her family’s days in New York were numbered.
“We were working a lot and not able to have dinners together—going, going, going every day and dragging them around the city,” Sarah White says. “We [thought], ‘Okay, maybe we need a break from this. We’re so busy, we can’t think about what we want for our kids, [or] for our lives long term.’
“Our goal was to move [back to Minneapolis] to get a grip, have more down time, and think about moving out of the country,” White continues. “But now that we’re here, almost a year has gone by, and we’re still trying to get settled. I realized it’s a lot bigger than we thought, and it’s going to take some time to figure out what’s best for all of us.”
But little moments help Sarah White feel as though she’s made the right choice in returning to her roots. Lately Iza is ecstatic over a report that she’s prepared for school—she’s been so excited to show her family what she’s done that she couldn’t sleep the night before her presentation. And Mica no longer has to curl up in a ball with her hands over her ears to avoid the constant Brooklyn noise.
“I don’t want to keep bouncing the kids around—I want them to have some security and some foundation,” Sarah White says. “We don’t really know what’s next at this point, but we know it’s beautiful outside now. We are planting seeds and making a garden, [and] being open to what’s going to happen.”
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A MOM?
Just being blessed with being around these two is what I enjoy most. I could be having such a hard day, and they just calm me down. They fill up my heart with love, they ground me. If I didn’t have them, I don’t even know who I would be any more, which is coming from a previously very self-involved person. (Laughs)
IZABELLA SIMONE AND MICAELA SOL ARE SUCH BEAUTIFUL NAMES. WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND YOUR DAUGHTERS’ NAMES?
It took us probably three weeks to name Iza, so we just called her Baby Girl for a while. [Then] we named her Sol Luna and it just felt like a hippie name, so we finally went with Izabella because it means “dedicated to God.” We wanted to put her up as a dedication because neither one us was planning on having kids. Simone is Rico’s middle name, so we just stuck with the family for her name.
Micaela was kind of the same thing. It had a biblical meaning, but I loved the sound of Mica and kind of put two and two together. They have kind of similar names, with a nice flow to it.
YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU WEREN’T PLANNING ON HAVING CHILDREN. WHY WAS THAT?
When I was younger, like in high school, I had in my head that cookie-cutter vision of two kids, a boy and a girl, a dog and a cat. Once I got into music [though], and I realized I wanted to travel and tour, it was kind of like the more I had invested [in myself] as an artist, I didn’t really see myself having children right away.
[But] it’s funny, because once I found out I was pregnant, I just realized it wasn’t all necessarily in my hands how my life would be. I was 22; I just kind of stopped everything. Whatever you want is less important: Is it touring, is it having a family, is it following your heart? I’ve always kind of been a heart follower, so I just decided that if I can’t still do what I want to do with kids, then maybe it’s not worth it. So I went for it.
HOW DID LIFE CHANGE WHEN YOU HAD YOUR SECOND CHILD?
Mica and Iza are six years apart, so we had finally come to a place where Iza was getting a little more independent. Me and Rico had gone to Barcelona for a month and did music out there, and just traveled and lived without Iza—we sent her home to the grandparents. We were able to work on a new album and pursue our lives in a different way.
I got pregnant right after that, [but] I had a miscarriage, so it was a big kind of roller coaster of “Well, we’re going to have another kid,” being excited, scared, [and] losing a kid.
[Around five weeks later], I was going to my follow-up appointment for my miscarriage. I had some complications with it, so they wanted to make sure my blood was testing right. That’s when they realized my hCG levels [a hormone produced when you’re pregnant] were back up! At first they were alarmed, and then they smiled and gave me the news—I was pregnant with Mica. My mouth was WIDE open, like “Say what?!”
It was great, but I had a really hard time connecting with Mica when I was pregnant because I didn’t know if it was guaranteed that she’d make it after losing one. And I’m normally not that type of a person. I have faith; I’m normally positive and believe in myself and my body. I just had a hard time initially. We did a home birth, and she was really fast—my midwife and doula didn’t even get there until 20 minutes before she was born. I basically had to push when they got there. So I learned a lot about myself and about her, and from that day on, it changed everything.
HOW HAS YOUR FAITH AFFECTED THE WAY YOU THINK ABOUT BEING A MOTHER?
I wouldn’t be able to make it as a mother without God in many forms. Especially with the birth of both of them—especially Mica, because it was my first homebirth—I had to have so much faith. We just had to believe in something bigger than me to just bless it and [to] not have so much fear. Fear is something that blocks us from stuff we want to do: It blocks us from who we want to be, it blocks us from love. The only thing that I’ve found that helps us to fight fear is God in some form.
I was raised in a Christian home, where if you had a high fever, you prayed. If there’s a tornado, you prayed. Everything was about praying and believing, and God will protect us—that’s something that I definitely practice every day.
I want [my kids] to feel like there’s something bigger than me that they can trust and rely on, because I’m certainly not the most reliable person—I’m human. I try to have them know that there’s something else out there.
There was a time when I was so frustrated I couldn’t get any music done. I was upstairs crying and being a baby about my own life, and Iza comes [in] with this message, literally a message from God. I don’t even have words to describe the message that she sent to me literally out of nowhere. I realized they already know so much about this universe; I can teach [them] all that I can, but I learn more from them than I can even teach them about spirituality.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR DAUGHTERS’ PERSONALITIES?
Iza is very careful, thoughtful—she’s like a mom. She’s really protective. She really loves to draw detailed things. She loves animals and wants to save [them]—she’s a vegetarian, a self-proclaimed one. She’s just a really careful, elegant girl-woman. She’s into fashion; everything needs to be fashionable and fabulous. If it looks like there’s heels on the shoes, she wants to wear them, even if they’re just platforms—she thinks they’re heels.
I thought Mica was a boy, she’s so wild! She’s like a little wild child, huge afro, won’t let me comb it or put it up. Loud, active, never stops. But she’s also a lover as well. She’ll grab your face and cover you with kisses really tight so you can’t get away, and tell you how much she loves you, over and over and over and over. Which sometimes you need, after she’s been running you around for nine hours straight! Those little “squeeze your face, I love you” moments really help you get through the roller coaster that she runs you around on. They’re really different, but it helps to balance this house.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO DO MUSIC WITH YOUR PARTNER? HOW DO YOU FEED OFF EACH OTHER’S CREATIVITY AND DIFFERENT STYLES?
It’s good and bad sometimes. It’s great that we’re able to make music together, [but] sometimes it’s hard because we can’t separate family—we’re parents together, we live together, we DJ together, we perform in a band together, we produce music together. Often times that leads to nothing getting done, because we’re fighting about home life instead of writing the music, or we’re not inspired because we have a whole house to clean.
It’s good when we do make music together—when we do get it done, it’s beautiful. It’s deeper than it would be with just another person on the planet, it’s making music with your soul mate. I kind of bring in a soulful, hip-hop experimental edge with lots of [our music], and Rico brings in a lot of world rhythms and sounds. In a lot of our music you can hear what we’re going through as a couple or what we’re going through in that time of our lives together.
DO YOU PUT UP ANY BOUNDARIES THAT HELP SEPARATE THE FAMILY SPHERE FROM YOUR MUSIC?
That’s something I’m working on right now—reaching out to other people to make music—because I’m realizing that we can’t always do everything together; it’s not even healthy. It might be more convenient, but I’m realizing [that] when I do have another side project, I’m a lot more inspired to work on the stuff that [we do] together. Rico DJs a lot, and he has a lot of gigs that are [just] for him, and that helps him stay inspired. I’m trying to make enough projects that are separate from him as well so we can bring back our inspiration and build it with each other.
WHAT GENERALLY INSPIRES YOUR CREATIVITY AND THE MUSIC THAT YOU MAKE?
I’m inspired a lot by other artists, especially women who are doing their thing [and] are mothers. There’s this singer Channy [Leaneagh] in this band called Poliça. She’s a mom from Minneapolis, but she’s huge right now [and] touring the world. This band just started a couple years ago—it was actually part of what inspired me to move back [to Minneapolis] because I realized it matters less where you live than what you’re doing. To watch what she and other women are doing on the scene, I’m just inspired to be more and not to be stuck in any genre, not to be stuck in any envelope or box. Anybody who’s doing something outside of the box inspires me a lot.
WHAT HAS CHANGED IN THE MINNEAPOLIS MUSIC SCENE SINCE YOU LEFT?
It’s way more diverse. And there’s so much music coming from different scenes than I’ve ever seen before. I don’t want to make it about race, but there’s a solid community of eclectic brown people making music here—a lot of them—and I don’t remember it being like that [before]. Maybe it’s something that’s changed in the scene all over now, or maybe it was always there but I was not in the right place at the right time. It also helps that there’s TV on the Radio and the Kendrick Lamars and Kid Cudis [who are] helping inspire these young kids to get out there. Also the Internet and being able to just put everything up.
But I’m just seeing a lot more people hungry to make music that is exactly the way they want it to be, which is super inspiring. I feel old in this scene, whereas in New York you could be in your thirties… I don’t know, I didn’t feel old in New York. I feel old here. But I’m still super hungry and inspired, and people have opened [their] arms to hear what I’m doing, and to support me and Rico, and that’s great.
HOW DO YOU HOPE YOUR DAUGHTERS WILL MANIFEST THEIR CREATIVITY IN THE FUTURE? WHAT DO YOU HOPE FOR THEM AS HUMAN BEINGS?
So much, obviously. They mean everything to me. I hope that they learn to be able to communicate their feelings without being afraid of what anyone thinks. That’s something I feel like a lot of women have to deal with [and] I don’t want them to even second guess it. Right now they’re both pretty confident with what they have to say and they believe in themselves, and I want them to stay that way. I want them to be able to tell me anything and do what they want to do without fear. I feel like many times it would be easier for me to fall into a different career to have more money and to be more dependable, but I keep pushing towards my art because it’s my journey, and I want them to do that too.