What do you do when you and your sisters were vocally trained by your Julliard graduate grandma, your father is an acclaimed Broadway performer and your mom is an actress who has you singing in church every Sunday? You make a career out of it! And that’s just what Joni, Debbie and Kim Sledge have done.
Since they released their first single in 1971, the sisters (minus Kathy, who left the group in 1989) have made themselves pop icons through their vocal talents and by “sharing love” with their audiences. The sisters unknowingly created a gay anthem with their 1979 anthem, “We Are Family,” and as a result, have endeared themselves to the LGBT community. This year they will be headlining Atlanta Pride on Saturday night. The Georgia Voice caught up with Joni Sledge to talk to her about their fans, Pope Francis and their love of people.
What does it feel like to still be touring the world and performing for audiences nearly 45 years after you and your sisters first started?
Joni: It’s thrilling. And we don’t take it for granted even a little bit! We’re older and have less to prove. We don’t have any anxiety. We’re just out there enjoying ourselves. It’s also fun to see that our older fans are there, but now we have a new generation with them. They come up to us and say, “My mom loves you!” We embrace it because people nowadays have a need for love. There’s a void of it and we’re just sharing it. It’s genuine to us. It’s kind of a rewarding feeling that goes beyond music. We put the love out there and they soak it up.
You and your sisters just performed for Pope Francis when he visited your hometown of Philadelphia. How did you get that gig?
They didn’t just come right out and ask us. We heard he was coming to Philadelphia and we wanted to be a part of that. ‘Faith, Family and Love’—that’s our motto. So we asked if we could be a part of his visit. We submitted a video with excerpts from our 2014 world tour and some writing of things that we believe in. They called us back and officially invited us and we are just thrilled.
I also just want to say that we really love Pope Francis. We believe in God and we’re Christians but we’re not dogmatic. I don’t think he is, either. He is a man of the cloth and believes in equality for all people. I think he will make some really great strides in our world.
I am aware that in the African-American community, specifically as it relates to multi-generational faith-based communities, there is this taboo about being gay. Yet here you ladies are, faith-based and members of the African-American community, headlining a massive gay celebration. Have you received any backlash for your support of the LGBT community?
I don’t care. I feel like this: every human being on this earth deserves love. I don’t look at a person’s sexuality. I look into their eyes, into their heart. What is valuable to me is integrity, honesty, trust … things like that. That’s how we all feel. Our arms are open to that. If you are those things, you are welcome. We should look at character and that’s all we should judge. If people want to have a problem with us over something like that, it’s really their problem and not ours.
“We Are Family” has really been adopted as an anthem by so many groups. How does it make you feel for it to be used so widely in the LGBT community?
The song is genuine. That’s why it resonates with people. I asked a reporter once why the (LGBT) community embraced us so much. I mean, we really get loved on by them. The reporter responded that a lot of times, (LGBT) people are ostracized by their own family members. They see us loving each other and singing about family and they feel like we’re their sisters and that this is a family. And it is. We just say to them, “Thank you for sharing your love and accepting and embracing us, too.” We should all just love and embrace each other.
Atlanta is looking forward to seeing you at our PRIDE celebration. Do you have anything to say to your Atlanta fans?