Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson is an estimable force in the music and literary scenes of San Antonio. The poet, singer, rapper, and teacher won the Artist Foundation People’s Choice Award in May, has recently covered at least one local publication (and been featured in others), and seems to be a near-ubiquitous presence here as a performer, artist, and mentor in the realms of music and poetry.

Last November, Sanderson released her third solo album, She Tastes Like Music, a rapped, spoken, and sung affair influenced by jazz, soul, and R&B as it is by hip-hop and slam poetry. This month she released a companion poetry collection called She Lives in Music, via FlowerSong Books.

Long before such recognition, or such prolificacy, Sanderson already had seen her calling on the stage and the page. 

Sanderson, 38, said singing — in church, at home, and in school choirs — was her first and most natural artistic outlet. 

If singing came instinctively, writing came almost as organically. Drawn to imaginative and expressive writing at an early age, Sanderson remembers submitting to literary magazines in elementary and middle school and feeding off of the thrill of being published and having peers and teachers see and react to her work.

She said dealing with the death of a close friend in seventh grade lent a newfound gravity and therapeutic aspect to her poetic pursuits.

In high school, Sanderson began rapping with a Christian gospel-rap group called LSC Ministries. The group toured regionally and nationally before disbanding in 2004.

Meanwhile, around 2002, Sanderson began to take her poetry more specifically to the stage, participating in open mics and eventually, in 2005, becoming an active participant in Puro Slam, San Antonio’s only nationally recognized slam poetry squad. Sanderson said she learned eagerly from veteran slammers Anthony “The Poet” Flores and Amalia Ortiz, who became her role models in the realm of performance poetry.

In 2011, she released her first official album, Sessions in Flight, which she followed up quickly with 2012’s Sounds So Sweet, Vol. 1.

After that, Sanderson began working with the short-lived but potent bilingual hip-hop group Blend Phonetics, which released its only album, Transitions, in 2014 and disbanded shortly thereafter. 

It would be three years before Sanderson would release anything else. In the interim, Sanderson reported experiencing self-doubt, wondering “when are people going to start valuing my art?” She began to polish her public image and put more effort into presenting professionally. She said she began to feel increasingly confident, and she couldn’t help but notice that she started being received better too. 

She joined forces, in 2015, with several other local musicians to form the neo-soul outfit The Foreign Arm, which released its first EP in November.

She also upped her efforts, during this transitional period, in teaching and mentoring other writers and musicians, both formally, through avenues like the Barrio Writers Workshops and various Gemini Ink programs, and informally. 

“I always want to help other people in the arts,” Sanderson said, “because the world will eat you alive if you don’t know how to handle yourself and how to carry yourself.”

In 2017, she released the single “Waiting for Me,” which kicked off a busy few years that included hosting more workshops, gigging frequently, both solo and with The Foreign Arm, and even, in June, performing at the inauguration ceremony for Mayor Ron Nirenburg and the new members of San Antonio’s City Council. 

For Sanderson, activism and service to the community go hand-in-hand with life in the arts.

“I’ve always tried to center my life on caring about community, from doing activism to mentoring – I don’t see the point in being an artist if you’re not trying to make a difference,” she said.

That deep sense of caring for others, Sanderson said, comes from the same place as her songs and poetry: her heart and her desire to be a positive force in the world.

George Delarosa Garza, a frequent collaborator and member of both Blend Phonetics and The Foreign Arm, referred to Sanderson as a “luminous human being.”

He said working with her has been “one of the most productive exercises” he has experienced as an artist.

“I always consider her a poet first, able to communicate ideas with depth in an eloquent way, passionately, and then melodically in whatever way the music calls for,” he said. “Artistic ability aside, to me her greatest gift is her empathy and genuine desire to see everyone else succeed.”

Local poet, critic, and educator Jim LaVilla-Havelin – who nominated Sanderson for the role of San Antonio poet laureate in the 2020-22 cycle – celebrates Sanderson as someone you can “count on to have the community’s growth, health, and voice at the top of her agenda.”

“Sanderson’s words are filled with wisdom, compassion, and joy, even as they traverse darker passageways,” he said, “and she delivers them with a powerful, soulful, gripping voice that reaches the listener’s core.”

Tamara Adira Say, artistic director of the musical/artistic company Arte y Pasión, which Sanderson has worked with frequently over the years, echoed LaVilla-Havelin’s and Delarosa Garza’s sentiments.

“For years, Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson has elevated the consciousness of San Antonio and beyond to a greater appreciation of the reading, writing, and performance of poetry, resulting in the building and knitting together of community and healing the world from here in our city,” she said. 

With this latest album, Sanderson said she used the Artist Foundation Award to help her make her dream album “within the parameters that I have, you know, not being famous.” 

The original intent was simply to record some of the poems from the book. But, after recruiting a few musicians to add some light accompaniment, the poems kept evolving until eventually they were fully developed songs.

The album and book inform one another and bolster one another’s depth. The poems in the book often take Sanderson’s musical heroes, from Roberta Flack and Prince to Sun Ra and Ella Fitzgerald, as their meditative subjects, and the album allows her to present inspired musical visions that act as sonic extensions of the people and passions she celebrates in the text.

In Sanderson’s estimation, success has, to a large degree, already arrived for her. The only thing, she said, that would make her situation sweeter is if she could leave behind her full-time job and spend her life wholly focused on creating. 

For now, she’s ready to tour behind this book and album and plans to celebrate herself and her success as such.

“A big part of womanhood is self-celebration and there’s so many ways we can celebrate ourselves and take care of ourselves,” she said.

“Whatever expression that you’re into,” she said, flipping into mentor mode, “whether it’s dance or music or even if it’s learning in a more academic sense … take the time to celebrate that and dig deep into it.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.