OUR SCENE | Rico Simon Mendez and Sarah White, multicultural musicians who’ve gone from Minnesota to New York…and back


Rico Simon Mendez: I’m originally from St. Paul, and I’ve lived in Minneapolis. I started playing guitar probably when I was around seven or eight…I used to wake up in the morning on weekends and my dad would be playing percussion to Santana, Miami Sound Machine, and War, so the music was in my home, and the whole Latin rock thing really inspired me.

I started playing publicly when I was around 17. I played percussion for a ska group that was formed at the arts high school, and we did shows in cities around the Midwest. And then out of high school, I got in other groups. It wasn’t until I got into Los Nativos that I started touring in the late 90s. Los Nativos is on the Rhymesayers label and they were known for their Indigenous and Latin hip-hop. They were very political with what they were representing.

I first got into indigenous music around the same time I got involved with Los Nativos. I always knew about it; I was familiar with my culture and indigenous music just from going to Mexico when I was a kid, and hearing the Natives play their music using clay flutes and different percussion instruments and whatnot. But when I got involved with Los Nativos, a big part of them was Aztec dancing and even just blowing the conch, the shell…all that really triggered my spirit. I’ve always been drawn to the sounds and rhythmic melodies of indigenous music and instruments more than western music. So I started traveling to Mexico by myself, going solo I think when I was around my early 20s, and I was collecting a lot of indigenous instruments. 

Sarah White: I was born and raised in Minneapolis, and I started doing music pretty young in church. My mom and dad both sang around the house and I just remember hearing music often. My mom said I would sing “Hallelujah” in the stroller when I was a babe and people would stop and look at me, because I was really into it. And then growing up in grade school, I studied flute and started performing pretty young with band. At times my focus shifted away from singing because I had a pretty deep raspy voice, not really traditional, so I had a hard time figuring out where I fit in—somewhere between the boys and the sopranos. I lip-synched through school all the time in all the choirs; I don’t know how I got away with it.

It wasn’t until junior high that I actually found my voice a little bit, and I ended up being on Broadway with Donnie Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That’s when I realized I really loved performing in front of an audience. It was silly, but taught me tons.

I studied piano for five or six years, and then in high school is where I kind of found hip-hop. The scene here was just blossoming with acts like Atmosphere (when there were three of them), HeadSpin parties, cyphers, and dancers, and I would go to all the underground shows. I started realizing that this was my escape from just being a teenager, as well as an escape from my strict family life. Around that time I kind of ran away from home and dove into the hip-hop scene. I started rapping. Zach, from Kanser and More Than Lights, taught me how to turn my poetry into raps, grip the mic and count bars, and I just jumped in. I couldn’t get enough of it.

We joined Traditional Methods in 2002, with Twinkie Jiggles—a.k.a. Sean McPherson—on bass, Josh Peterson on guitar, and Kevin Hunt on drums. With Zach, Shiz, and me on the mic, we came together and made politically conscious hip-hop. We got to tour a little bit in the Midwest. Played police brutality rallies, anti-war rallies. I loved it. That’s kind of where I fell in love with playing more. I started singing a little bit with them very minimally. They forced me to. I was really shy and really nervous on stage. After that is where I figured out I wanted to sing more. Me and Rico hooked up and by our CD release party with Traditional Methods, I was five months pregnant with our first daughter.

Rico: That’s when we hooked up?

Sarah: No, that’s when I found out I was pregnant. Or, that’s where I told everybody I was a pregnant. And then the band fell apart because I was going to have a kid. So we worked really hard on becoming a band and then I broke it all up and got pregnant from this guy [points at Rico, laughs]. 

A couple years later, I ended up starting Black Blondie with Samahra, which eventually landed us a gig on the east coast, which was the first time I played in New York. I fell in love with the east coast. Once I got home, we decided to pack up the family and moved out there. That was 2007. We just moved back to Minneapolis this year in August.

Rico and I have been doing music together for the past eight years. We put out an EP and an album, and now we’re really just trying to push it and our music into a different level. We want to push ourselves to experiment more and just keep breaking genres, even breaking our own limitations, and seeing what we can do.

Rico: We went out to New York to pursue music, and we accomplished a lot out there, but it wasn’t at a level that we wanted to be, having two kids and no support, and how expensive to live out there is very difficult. So we ended up finding ourselves trying to survive to be out there but not really have the time to do what we wanted to do, though I feel we were able to still plant our seed their while raising a family. So we came back—we needed the support, and also seeing my oldest daughter get older and growing up there, I wanted to slow down a bit. It’s mad fast there and a non-stop hustle. I wanted my daughters to get to know their family here in Minnesota, and have that relationship with her grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.

Sarah: Our kids didn’t have a connection with like the sky. It sounds so simple, but I remember growing up, I remember writing poetry about growing up and processing life of being able to look at open skies and have a yard and have grass, have the simple things that we take advantage of. For five years, our oldest didn’t know what it was like to go outside and hang out in a yard. She had Brooklyn as her jungle, which is inspiring in its own way, but it’s different. We’d have to take the train to a big public park, and it just wasn’t what I wanted for them at this time. Would I move back there? Yeah. But for right now, I think its quality that they have a relationship with their family and with nature, and just a slower pace.

Rico: Before we moved to New York, I was DJing full time here as well as being a musician, so I’m just trying to get back into the scene here. The scene’s very small to me right now, just coming back from New York.

Sarah: We just got back this year in August. I feel like we got older, and the scene got younger. Maybe it’s just because we’ve been gone for five years. I’m super inspired by how many bands there are, how many artists there are. Minneapolis is so rich with arts. I feel like I had to leave to come back to see that. But everybody’s like 22. I know there’s a lot of people our age making music, but when I’m looking through like City Pages‘ Picked to Click, I feel like all these people are so young, and I feel like we just got older, but not in a bad way at all. I’m really inspired by all the people coming up right now.

The scene is always changing. It’s always the same, but it’s always changing…if that makes sense. The people in it are always changing, but there is also a bunch of people who have been doing it consistently for a long time, for a decade, I feel like have really grown a lot. I’ve watched Stef—P.O.S.—and he has grown so much. I remember he was younger than me, and I’d always see him in the scene, then I blinked and now he’s touring the world. Now I’m looking up to him for inspiration. I think about Rhymesayers and other local labels, and what they’ve done with really establishing themselves. They really support each other. The scene is really solid and rich.

Rico: I’m still trying to figure out the scene here. Even though I played with Los Nativos, I was never really into the whole hip-hop movement here. I mean, it’s awesome, but it just wasn’t calling me, and I was never really into the rock thing here, and I felt like Minneapolis, especially back then, only offered two options. It used to be very folky and rocky here. I mean there’s everything here: world music and jazz and all that. As far as media like City Pages or anybody else, though, they lean toward certain things, so when indie hip-hop was blowing up that was what it was nonstop, or it was like the Jayhawks, or stuff like that. So before we moved, when I was doing my DJ thing, I was always looking for more. I was into the world music, I was into electronica, and I was into Latin or rock or some hip-hop, but I never felt like the mesh of things together. And so that’s how I feel like I had my niche here as a DJ. I was ordering a lot of music from Europe and when I would play that people would be like “What was that?” It just wasn’t here yet. The music I was even playing was old at the time. But it wasn’t until New York that it fulfilled my void of a whole mesh of everything. There’s a huge scene of tropical bass, South Latin music, and African music mixed with electronic or very heavy bass music. You just see and hear everything there.

What I love about New York is that there’s so much going on, that like there’s not even names for some genres of music. It doesn’t have to be categorized. And if it’s not, maybe they’ll make a name up for it. And there’s automatically a scene for it.

Here I feel like if it doesn’t fit into a certain category, and it’s like an unknown thing, I feel like it takes a while for people to be like…they might like it, but it’s hard for them to understand, well, what is it? But eventually it will get there, it has to. It all comes this way anyway.

I also feel the Minneapolis scene is very innovative at the same time. When you go over there to the east coast, over even the west coast, people know Minneapolis for its scene. We do have our own special scene here.

Sarah: But I feel like we really got to get out there and see what the scene is like. We’ve only been here a couple months. We haven’t even been playing yet, so we’re judging things based on what we’re feeling, but could get out there and make some crazy music, and everybody could love it and not care what it is. It’s hard for us to know yet. I feel like I’m really getting to know Minneapolis, and the scene. Every day I’m hearing about a new band. Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps, I just found out about. And then that other band, those high school kids…Bomba de Luz. All these new groups that are really different. And really cool. I’m anxious to jump in and see what’s going on.

This new project we’re working on right now, for this Late Nite Series at Pillsbury House, it’s a live experiment and collaboration. He’s really into indigenous sounds, Latin and African rhythms, and we also really got into electronic music, and we are trying to fuse it all together with live visuals and other artists. We are excited to just see where it goes, and how to turn it into our new project. We are calling it the Cultura Love Experiment.

Our vision is for it to be somewhat of a live experiment that blends indigenous, electronic and live sounds with vocals, live visuals, percussion, and some movement. We are excited to have Kahlil Brewington playing drums, Dan Handeen on percussion, and Alissa Paris Gilbert doing some dance. I’m going to sing, rap, and play some synth, while Rico will be holding down the beats, percussion, guitar and whatever else he gets his hands on. 

We want to just to pull that all together, and to pull sounds from all over the world, but also to put that Minneapolis feel into it as well. It’s going to be funky. It’s going to be emotional. I think initially we wanted it to sound brighter, more indigenous than it’s sounding, but I think we’re actually filtering a lot of what we experienced in New York and it’s coming out a lot darker than we planned…some of it’s even sad, but it feels deep and I’m excited to show that. I’m nervous, but excited to let this side out, and see where it goes.

We recorded a song that we’ve been rehearsing, and I listened to it the other day in my headphones and it gave me goosebumps. I was just like, “All right, this is going to be something different.” So I’m pretty excited about it.

Coming up, we will be throwing parties, shows, and events. I want to start curating shows, hand-picking bands and performing as well. Finding new venues, finding art galleries or lofts or spots that aren’t really being used and just make a different experience.  I love First Ave, Triple Rock and all of the great venues here, but after being in a place with so little space, Minneapolis has so much space, and I want to dig deeper and see what else we can get into. We both just want to do full time music, and I want to keep doing photography, and take advantage of all Minneapolis has to offer. I want to collaborate with different artists and get back into the scene.

Rico: Since we’ve been back, I’ve just been working more as a DJ, and Sarah and I have teamed up, and have been curating and promoting events together.

Once this Late Nite Series show is over and we’re done writing for that, we’re going to focus on another EP, we have a label in Europe that’s interested in us, and hopefully start to play live more and get into other projects as well. I’ve been getting into doing music for picture and film, so hopefully I can focus on that more here, as well as other projects that I want to do.

We did an event at the Graves Hotel. It was a launch of a series called CosmiQue VoiCes, that Geoffrey Trelstad asked us to curate. And it was really awesome actually. It was pretty inspiring to see all the people here. New people, new faces, just feel an energy from Minneapolis, because it was our first gig. And since then, we’ve just been gigging. Sarah played with Traditional Methods at the More Than Lights CD release party, and I was able to do the Sound Unseen events, so it was cool to be part of the events that are going on. And now we’ve been working on a new industry night, Monday nights at Eat Street Social.

The past few weeks it’s been pretty successful. I was actually very surprised. I thought Monday night would be like pulling teeth. But the word on the street is people want something, and they’re looking for something different. They said it’s refreshing, and so it’s great to hear those things.

As told to Sheila Regan