Play It Forward: Indigo Girls' Amy Ray And Emily Saliers On Their 45-Year Kinship

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We're back with season two of Play It Forward, where we talk with artists about their music and the artists they're thankful for. The band Indigo Girls has shaped a generation of singer-songwriters. Emily Saliers and Amy Ray released their first album in 1989; their latest album, Look Long, came out in May while the country was under stay-at-home orders and they debuted some of their new music in livestreamed concerts on social media, where tens of thousands of people tuned in to bond over music they'd grown up on.

NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke to Emily Saliers and Amy Ray about their lifelong bond, how they think about their place in country music and about the poetic flair of Kae Tempest. Editor's note: Since recording this interview, Kae Tempest put out a statement saying they are going by the name Kae and using them/they pronouns. NPR has received permission to air this interview as recorded. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview below.


On what they're grateful for about each other

Emily Saliers: I'm thankful for Amy's integrity as a person, a human being. And I'm thankful for Amy's songwriting and for her musical sensibilities. Those are just a couple things — there's a million more I could list — but those come to mind.

Amy Ray: I'm grateful for Emily's strength and perseverance in this career, because I think we've needed that in order to survive as long [as we have], and [we've] know each other since we were 10, which is 45 years. So I'm thankful for that and her artistry. She tends to write a lot of songs that folks can sing along with, which is not the same skill set I have. And I'm lucky that she has that and that it enables us to resonate more, I think.

On writing songs about queer identity today versus earlier in their careers

Ray: We were very lucky because we came along at a time when all these icons — like k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, like gay icons — were coming out and other people before us had paved the way, all the feminists that came before us. We were kind of learning from all these different mentors in our community of Atlanta as well. And so we were given that ability to be strong and kind of comfortably come out, and both of us had a lot of self-hate and internalized homophobia along the way, of course, but our community of listeners kind of grew up with us. So as we were learning and becoming politicized in the queer world, they were as well, and they were teaching us.

Saliers: ["Country Radio" is] a song about feeling other than, 'cause I love country music — I love the songs and I love the voices, I love the stories — but I could not fit my life [into it]. I knew that these songs were written by men and women about men and women. It's like our stories don't get told when we're not included. And for me, it turned into an emotional feeling of wistfulness and loneliness and so the song describes that.


On Kae Tempest and "I Trap You"

Ray: [They're] a poet: like a true poet, like the greats, like the most literary class you can take. You don't even need to hear [their music], you can just read it and feel that way. One track that I think has a resonance that can just rip through you is "I Trap You." I typically don't pick songs about love, but I think it's because of the way [Tempest] talks about love. [They say,] "You make me a microscope / You make me a map / I called it 'love,' I should've called it 'trap.' " It's a beautiful love song but it's also a realization of all the things that [Tempest] wants a relationship to be.

Saliers: [Tempest] brings these big ideas down to something so human that each one of us experiences.

Ray: Thank you [Kae] Tempest and gosh: Carry on, please, carry on.

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WINIFRED FREDERICKS: Well, my name is Winifred Fredericks, also known as Sister Nandy. That's my name that I acquired during the civil rights struggle.


Winifred Fredericks was a daughter of New York City, a sister of the civil rights movement and a mother to the next generation of Black leaders. Fredericks died of COVID-19 in April, just 10 days before her 93rd birthday.


Mary Ellen Phifer met Fredericks in the '60s at a Congress Of Racial Equality meeting. They took part in Freedom Rides, sit-ins, protests, marching alongside the likes of Martin Luther King Jr.

MARY ELLEN PHIFER: Winnie (ph) was a very lovable, kind, dependable person. Whatever it was, you could count on her.

SHAPIRO: And for a time, many children counted on Fredericks for an education. Phifer remembers the two of them organizing and teaching at Freedom Schools in the '60s.

KELLY: These schools aimed to offer a better politically informed education to Black children than they might get at public schools, which were often segregated.

PHIFER: We didn't just have them sitting, laughing and talking, playing some kind of little games. It was supposed to be a meaningful, educational day.

SHAPIRO: In the '70s, Fredericks and her husband Maurice met a young Shagun Shabaka through a Black Power organization they were a part of.

SHAGUN SHABAKA: They were what I call a power couple. They had a rich, rich, consistent and long history of involvement in Black people's struggle.

KELLY: Dr. Shabaka says they lived their ideals. He remembers when fellow activists were jailed on what he calls trumped-up charges for murder.

SHAPIRO: The Fredericks and a few other families put their houses up as collateral for bail money. But when the activists were released, they fled the country, meaning the Fredericks were about to lose their home, until their community came together.

SHABAKA: Through all of that, anybody else might have been bitter, angry, turned away from the struggle. They became more involved in the struggle. And if you were to ever talk to her about it, she would light up and laugh about how people rallied around them, and they were able to keep their home.

KELLY: Now, at home to her three children, Fredericks was mom.

ADELE LEE: Mom and I were very close.

KELLY: That's Fredericks' oldest daughter Adele Lee.

LEE: She instilled a lot of values in me as a young girl and as a growing-up woman - things that made me value myself.

SHAPIRO: In Fredericks' final years, Lee and her mother would visit a local senior center, where Fredericks enjoyed telling jokes to the residents.

LEE: You know, I had to censor them a little bit because she liked to read spicy jokes sometimes.

KELLY: Lee remembers her mother's kind heart and playful nature. She says Fredericks had her convictions, too.

LEE: She was forceful in a quiet way, if you can understand what I mean. She never had any bad thing to say about anybody, but she had an opinion.

SHAPIRO: In an interview with students from Long Island University in 2013, Fredericks was asked what advice she had for young people.


FREDERICKS: To get involved in something - just get involved. I mean, don't just stand around. And once you start doing something, and you - sometimes, you can see improvement. And when you see improvement, you'll get more fired up, you know? There is a good feeling.

KELLY: Winifred Fredericks, Sister Nandy, civil rights pioneer and mother. She was 92 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEM SONG, "I CAN'T STOP LOVING YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.