Mama Blue on stage is all attitude and ingenuity, unapologetically raw with emotion. Her sound, funky, jazzy with a dash of blues and gospel, is reminiscent of the ’70s era. She can make her audience dance with joy, or she can tap into the emotional pain she’s seen and leave not one dry eye in her wake.
At just under 5 feet tall, Mama Blue succeeds in commanding the attention from those in her presence. In between songs, she chats with the crowd, letting everyone know who she is, sharing her thoughts and love.
That’s Mama Blue on stage. But Mama Blue in real life, where she goes by Sarah Sanders, is the epitome of grace and warmth, with a quiet confidence bursting at the seams.
Sanders admits she’s different from her onstage persona.
“She found me,” the 40- year-old singer said of her alter ego. “Mama Blue is an entity that chose me to be vessel. She’s older than time, she’s sweeter than sugar, and she truth and she’s love.”
It all started when her mom put her in classical piano classes at 7 years old, here in Jacksonville. “It was hell,” Sanders exclaimed. She hated feeling forced to sit and push those little black and white keys.
At such a young age, Sanders had no idea that it would put her on a path to meet the other version of herself she calls Mama Blue. Now as an adult she sees the importance in her classical training and is grateful for the experience, but she would trade it to play the bass guitar any day.
Before Mama Blue, Sanders performed under her birth name in musicals with Players by the Sea and the Alhambra dinner theater. She has performed at various local events, such as Porch Fest 2016 and Sea Walk Music Festival. She has also performed at 1904 Music Hall, Underbelly and the Volstead. She performs this weekend at the Springing the Blues festival in Jacksonville Beach.
And before that, Sanders had a job as a social worker. During that time, she saw families rip each other apart. She saw love fade away between parents. Those experiences — and darker times she’d gone through herself – gave her the fodder for her songwriting.
“Life entered my music and Mama Blue said ‘OK, now you’ve been through some stuff, now you can write about some stuff.’
“I feel like it’s the closest I’ve been to heaven when I share that time with her,” said Sanders as her eyes filled with tears. “It took time and it took living. But it’s what got me to her.”
Sanders draws her philosophy of life from the African word “ubuntu,” which basically translates to “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
“I see a purity in people and I feel that purity,” she said thoughtfully. “My music, I just love how it brings people together. It transcends age, gender, race. It’s for everyone.”
Sanders, who grew up in Springfield, spent much of her childhood with her grandmother. They would sing along while doing chores and they went to church together. She said it’s where she got her love for singing.
As a child, the Jacksonville native attended Douglas Anderson School of Arts for musical theater. There she learned breathing techniques, proper posture and how to take care of her voice.
She later went to Jacksonville University and studied musical theater.
Sanders works as a music instructor at JAMS in downtown Jacksonville. She loves interacting with the children and aims to let each one of them know that they are important and skilled.
“I’m excited every time I see them,” Sanders said. “They are just like sponges.”
She wants her young students to learn that anyone can sing, but what matters is how they relate to what they’re singing. She believes what makes music so powerful is its meaning for the person performing.
“I’m so grateful for them; they teach me a lot,” Sanders said. “It’s hard sometimes to believe that they came from me. They are proof that no matter how much I stumble and I feel like I’m not doing the right thing, I’m doing the best thing through them.”
Sanders is no stranger to the struggle of being a local musician. She loves the small community of artists in Jacksonville who support one another. Sanders believes it is not the work of one, but many, that makes the local music scene flow. For her, it’s not about being a big, famous artist, but rather being a community and helping it grow from within.
“It can be lonely at the top of that mountain,” said Sanders. “Ubuntu is the key.”
- Celise Blackman, Florida Times-Union
Celise Blackman is a student at the University of North Florida.