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Whatcha Gonna Do?

Houston's Neutral Sisters look white, sing black and move to a reggae rhythm

So far, the Neutral Sisters are something of an unknown quantity outside of Jamaica and Houston's southwest-side reggae scene, but now they're starting to gig inside the Loop at clubs such as Fitzgerald's, the Engine Room and Brian O'Neill's. Their debut CD, featuring the work of legendary Jamaican rhythm section Sly & Robbie and the equally esteemed guitarist Ernie Ranglin, is set to come out next month. Three years ago, they won the Billboard Song Contest pop category with that album's title track, "Live & Direct."

Two African-born, white-skinned Jamaican sisters leading a reggae band is something new, and it would be easy to write them off as a novelty act until you hear them. Bianca's raps, Kyra's elegant alto, the seamless harmonies and sharp lyrics elevate them out of that ghetto. The song is good enough to garner heavy rotation on XM Radio's reggae show The Joint, and for the DJ on that show, their appearance means nothing.

But whether they can attain widespread fame in America is questionable. Unlike its raucous ancestor ska, reggae seldom breaks through to the mainstream here, exceptions like Houston's own Johnny Nash ("I Can See Clearly Now"), Bob Marley and Jamaican rappers Shinehead, Shaggy and Sean Paul notwithstanding.

Reggae's Destiny's Child? The Noons family says it's in the hands of the Almighty.
Daniel Kramer
Reggae's Destiny's Child? The Noons family says it's in the hands of the Almighty.
Tony Noons says the Kenyans loved his girl's golden hair.
Courtesy of Tony Noons
Tony Noons says the Kenyans loved his girl's golden hair.

But who knows? Houston's undergoing something of a reggae renaissance. Perhaps new homegrown reggae bands Dubtex and Sound Patrol, both of whom the sisters have played with, are laying the foundations for something more. Meanwhile, on the southwest side, the Jamaican and hip-hop communities flock to shows at places like Royal Hall, Paradise Hall and the Jubilee Saloon to see Jamaican big-name acts, many of whom tour here.

When speaking with the Noons family, you hear a lot of talk about fate and the will of the Almighty. They truly believe that next month's release of Live & Direct is going to be a life-changing event, and it just might happen. They've lined up national distribution through local company Clout Distribution, there are big names backing the tracks, and the women's songs have a pop/hip-hop sheen and positive and empowering messages lying over the top of some extremely solid roots-reggae grooves. Their crossover appeal has already stood them in good stead -- when "Live & Direct" won the Billboard Song Contest, it was in the pop category, not reggae -- and their sound could appeal to anyone from 12 to 50 and up. (That same song finished in the top four in the world category in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest.)

The similarities with another Houston-based, female-led, father-managed family act are obvious, even if the Noons girls don't exactly embrace the comparison. "The difference is that Destiny's Child are Houstonians," says Kyra. "Yes, our father is our manager, and we're female, and we're both very much for the independence of women as well as making it for yourself. And the consciousness as well -- they have a deep spiritual focus that is similar to ours. For us, God is the one who has carried us through. But we are actually very, very different musically -- maybe we are reggae's version of Destiny's Child."

Already Beyoncé and company have confirmed a gig at Jamaica's Sumfest this year. The only other American act on the bill just might be the Neutral Sisters -- it's in negotiations.

Even if they resist the association, it's sure to come up again and again. A song like their "So You Say" reminds one of an island version of "Independent Women." It's time for you to make up your mind and seize control of your life, Kyra sings, while Bianca raps behind her Jamaican-style in a surprisingly deep voice. Or you will be just let go of / 'Cause you really love me / So you say / And you really need me / So you say...Think twice before you lose something you can't have back.

The sisters do sound a lot like Beyoncé in their postmodern feminism. "We're gonna speak straight about reality, but we're gonna put it in a perspective that there's always a way to get the best outcome out of whatever situation," says Kyra. "We want to be a strength to young women, and to young men, but you see a need for it more with women because there is so much exploitation of women on the whole. When you're a young woman you need something that is cool and hip and also can be a positive influence in your life and the decisions you make."

"We want people to be able to think about us in a number of different ways," adds Bianca. "It's not just one way."

"We're not judgmental -- we're just putting things out there," says Kyra. "There are different options."

"Yeah, there's no, like, 'You have to' or 'This is the way it is,' " Bianca agrees.

"It's just a matter of thinking about what is going to happen, what the repercussions are," Kyra adds. "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You can have a melody that's great, but why not have the words be something that will help you stay positive through bad times? And let it be mainstream at the same time? We don't want it labeled as a Christian act or something like that."

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