Stepping on stage with gold-studded, black, six-inch heels, music icon Sarah Dash spoke to students in Mayo Concert Hall about how growing up in the Trenton educational and music scene shaped her artist aspirations and singing career.
The Freshman Seminar Program, “Trenton Makes Music,” led by English and journalism associate professor Kim Pearson, sponsored this event on Wednesday, Sept. 24.
“We’re trying to spotlight the artists that come from Trenton,” Dash’s younger sister Diane Dash-Thomson said. “I think it’s great that she still lives in Trenton.”
During her childhood, the Trenton Church of Christ offered Dash a gateway into the medium of music. By the time she was 14, Dash had already lined up her first professional gig in a Trenton nightclub.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Dash on being the daughter of a pastor. “I grew up in the church.”
Dash was a member of the girl-group quartet Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles in the 1960s and 1970s. It eventually turned into the widespread, famous and successful girl-group trio LaBelle.
LaBelle produced many well-known hits during its run such as “Lady Marmalade,” which made its debut on the popular television show “American Bandstand.” The trio was known for its collaborative style of funk, blues and rock and initiated the “costume” phenomenon for girl groups, focusing on individual style rather than monotony.
“They were the trendsetters,” said Dash’s celebrity eyelash stylist and close friend, Austin Gary. “They were the Lady Gagas.”
In addition to her performances with “Labelle,” Dash collaborated with well-known acts, including The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper and Keith Richards. After her time with LaBelle, Dash primarily moved toward the disco-dance genre while still exercising her big vocals and gospel lyrics.
Though Dash has traveled the world and performed with some of the most iconic artists in music history, she has found her way back in her childhood Trenton home.
“There was a spirit that I had no control over,” Dash said. “My mother’s spirit was what brought me back there.”
Dash noted that the Trenton of today does not parallel her childhood memories of Trenton. Her neighborhood, for example, is slowly re-gentrifying.
“I’ve been a part of that restructuring,” she said.
“You don’t hear about the good things that will gain self-confidence (in Trenton),” said resident of Trenton and faculty member of the School of Arts and Communications Mary Williams. “You always hear about shootings.”
When Williams learned about Dash’s return to Trenton, she believed that the news should be publicized since entertainment is a critical part in the lives of youth.
“To know that people flourish life, from a small town like (Trenton), should be broadcast,” Williams said. As a result, Williams believes the youth of Trenton can admire Dash and say, “She persevered. I can do that.”
“I do believe in the city, the capital of New Jersey,” Dash said. “We have a lot to offer, and we have a lot of restructuring to do.”
Dash is currently working on an exciting new Trenton project: the Sarah Dash Music Academy.
“The purpose is to bring into the community a sense of responsibility,” Dash said. The Academy would shape and encourage artistically talented students and groom them into “solid citizens,” according to Dash.
“One has to have a formula to remain focused,” said Dash regarding musically-oriented students. “Smart and not hungry.”
Dash also explained that being well-educated in all fields is important to success.
“I’ve continued to read and educate myself even in the fields of computer science,” Dash said.
The Academy will also provide an opportunity for seniors to achieve their musical aspirations.
“It’s a shame to die with something inside of you,” Dash said. “Music can be a lifeline.”
Two of the College’s professors who especially could appreciate Dash’s presence were Pearson and Reverend Todd McCrary, who teaches the FSP, “Evolution of African American Gospel Music.” Pearson discussed the lack of and segregation of efficient historical documentation in Trenton, while McCrary and Dash spoke about Trenton’s history of spirituality.
“What you’ve seen today is not rehearsed,” Gary said. “You really get to see who she really is. She teaches you a lot.”
But ultimately, Dash believes that music hasn’t just changed her life, but that of society altogether — and dramatically so.
“As you grow in your life, you need to understand what it takes to be a performer, if that is your quest,” Dash said. “To understand art is to understand life.”