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Sister Sledge interview: Life after Joni

RIP: Singer Joni Sledge died in March this year

ON MARCH 10 this year, the Sledge sisters’ lives as they knew it came to an end. Their beloved Joni –
one third of the iconic Sister Sledge – died at the age of just 60.

This was not only a loss for the Sledge family, but for the world of music and entertainment as yet another iconic artist and individual passed away.

Formed in 1971, Sister Sledge consisted of sisters Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy Sledge. Symbolising strong family values, the siblings achieved international success at the height of the disco era. Kathy embarked on a solo career, which left Debbie, Kim and Joni to form Sister Sledge, who reached fame with hits including We Are Family, Lost In Music and He’s The Greatest Dancer.

Joni herself was also an excellent composer and lyricist, who wrote, produced and performed lead vocals for many of Sister Sledge’s tracks, including Easier To Love, and I’m a Good Girl.

An official statement relating to the death of Joni Sledge was released, which read:

WE ARE FAMILY: The sisters pose together

“The medical examiner and Joni’s personal physician determined on 10th March 2017, that her death was due to natural causes which arose from complications from a pre-existing condition. Please continue to respect the family’s request for peaceful privacy during this very difficult time. Thank you & God bless you!”

After the tragic loss, how could such an iconic group still capture the essence of who Sister Sledge had been for more than 30 years? How did they cope when they stood in front of their fans and had to hold it together?

When speaking with The Voice, both Kim and Debbie (Kathy left to forge a solo career in 1989) sisters admitted this was the first time they felt ready to be interviewed. Kim said:

“We feel that the best interview and type of communication is to be real because it’s needed today. We’ve now lost our sister and there’s just no time not to be real. We need to adjust and live life to the fullest.”

Debbie spoke calmly about her experience. Taking her time to meander through her thoughts she explained:

“For me, it was a place of pain where you’re missing someone very precious and important.”

THE WAY WE WERE: Sister Sledge (Joni is on the far right) hit the red carpet

Debbie described how close she and Joni had been and spoke of the richness Joni had brought into her life and how that had kept her going, describing Joni as an articulate, intelligent, talented character who had enriched everyone’s life – and as much as she felt the loss, she also knew she had gained much.

Kim expressed how much she missed Joni, adding nostalgically how Joni had always been one to live life in the present moment.

“We believed that if you were in a city, country or a town, you could always sleep when you got home,” she said.

“So we would find all kinds of things to do, places to go, to shop, little tea rooms or spas. I have moments now where I’ll see something that reminds me of her and things she’d like to do and I miss her even more.”

Kim continued:

“I have not come to total grips with the fact that she’s gone, because if I think about it too long, it’s surreal. Yet, life goes on, and as Debbie said, there is such a rich legacy and portion of who Joni is and was. It is in everything we do because we were so interwoven. Her legacy continues in us, through us and around us.”

There was a pause as we digested the significance of Joni’s influence and impact on her sisters’ lives.

In terms of what it felt like to perform without Joni, Debbie and Kim made adjustments as they got used to being a duo and not a trio.

Debbie said that Joni enjoyed being on stage and how she came alive, and that her main joy was her son Thaddeus – who has now performed with the band – which made Debbie feel as if a part of Joni was still with them.

”We don’t want Joni’s music to be forgotten,” she said.

“We want her legacy to continue. One of the ways we do this is through our music and performance. It’s rich and heavy when we perform and I am amazed because of our faith. There is a verse that says, ‘There is a peace that passes all understanding’. I never really understood this until Joni’s passing as there was the initial shocking pain, but we had to do a concert three days after her death and it was almost like two great big arms were around us.”

I then asked the sisters, if they had to choose a song that captured Joni’s spirit, what would that be? For Debbie it was the track Easier To Love, because it told Joni’s story, a song both sisters had dedicated to her. Kim’s song was Amazing Grace because the verse “when we’ve been there 10,000 years, shining like the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun”, gave her hope as she looked forward to seeing Joni again, where they would sing and worship together.

Both sisters described Joni as being God-like, someone who lived with passion and who was unstoppable because no matter what she went through, she would pick herself up: a woman who had fight in her and who was a love and encouragement warrior, because she understood the power of love.

Kim revealed:

“Even when Joni was little, she hated watching TV if someone was being hurt as she would sit weeping. When we would ask what she was crying about she would reply, ‘Did you see what happened?’”

The sisters would surely shed more tears as their healing continued, yet they had experienced a love which Joni had left simply because of who she had been. This made their signature track We are Family so much more poignant as her legacy would continue through her sisters' love and their music.

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