With every show Derrick played with his band Sine Wave, he transformed tension into a story for justice.
Whether you met Derrick Sanderlin at an open mic four or five years ago or saw one of his bands performing onstage or met him as a barista at Roy’s Station Coffee and Teas or read about him in the news last summer, this post-COVID season finds him in coalescence with all parts of his identity—art, Black culture, and his calling.
Heading to his hometown of Phelan, off the I-15 exit, you can’t miss the house displaying a Confederate flag underneath the American one. When he was young, Derrick learned to assimilate to make friends.
“When I started seriously playing music, I was not super aware of my own Blackness.”
Throughout his teenage years, a tension fluttered in his chest. He had a yearning to resolve something unnamed. With his father a pastor, Derrick had grown up singing hymns and spirituals with his siblings. Here he forged his own creative space. Listening to hardcore metal and playing in punk bands ultimately brought him his first guitar, gifted to him by his group’s lead guitarist.
Derrick became obsessed. Any fingerstyle, any scale, “I wanted to learn everything there was to learn,” he said. He played it till it broke. After moving to Riverside, where he lived in communes for a few years, he began to write his own music. Widely inspired by “ridiculous writers and feelers” such as Iron & Wine and Bon Iver, he entered Riverside’s tightknit open mic scene. One day, Derrick sat with his friends discussing the sparsity of venues for musicians to play at for free. He voiced an idea to boost Riverside’s creative ecosystem: “What if we just, like, throw a show…and make a documentary?”
So he organized it. Leveraging a personal connection to a movie theater located inside an art gallery his girlfriend worked at, they packed out the theater. Their documentary illustrated the value of elevating relationships for any music scene.
“Oftentimes musicians can think of the scene as the industry, so it becomes a very competitive space,” Derrick explains. “The only reason I had friends for the documentary is because…we would invite each other to play at our shows.”
Cayla, his girlfriend, had moved up to San Jose for an internship. Every time he visited, he caught a glimpse of the work she did with her organization, such as fighting the building of charter schools in the Washington neighborhood and visiting the Jungle homeless encampment before it was shut down. Back in Riverside, Derrick struggled through his daily grind. He had “No real good job. Was barely paying rent. Not eating every day,” he remembers. He was taking college classes for the opportunity to dance. Then, through a sociology course, he read statistics that showed how educated Black males make 50 percent less (sometimes 80 percent less) than their white counterparts having the same amount of education.
“I looked at those statistics, like, ‘Whoa, that’s me. I’m in those statistics.’ It put words to something I already knew.” He realized Cayla was going to stay in San Jose to continue her work as a youth mentor— and that work resonated with him.
In 2014, Derrick moved to the Bay Area. His first job in the Bay placed him in downtown Oakland during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Pretty much every day I was working, there was a protest at the end of the night…I
started slowly dipping my toes into some action.” In San Jose, he began volunteering with People Acting in Community Together to boost police accountability and lessen the involvement between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the county. Derrick also started working part-time at Roy’s and married Cayla in November of 2015.
“Riverside was a place where I fell in love with the idea of organizing,” he says, “but San Jose is the place where I learned what it means.”
The next few years were a blur for him: He had begun attending open mics, and his performances impressed scene connectors like Mighty Mike McGee and with Grizzly Rob, who invited him to play more shows. In the summer of 2019, he landed an artist residency at Forager Tasting Room & Eatery, where he formed his band, Sine Wave. Just like in Riverside, he brought other musicians and poets onstage with him to tell the stories he wanted to tell.
Sine Wave allowed him to express the latest progression of his internal journey. Despite half his family heritage coming from Louisiana, his social mold had consisted of mostly white, Republican, desert towns.
“When I started seriously playing music, I was not super aware of my own Blackness,” he reflects, but the ever-present tension of racial identity—crossed with uncertainty in his personal life—reveals itself in his lyrics. An early recording of “Drapes,” buried nine years back on Derrick’s SoundCloud page, dresses the same raw lyrical poetry in a very different sonic atmosphere than on his 2018 Ghetto EP. Over fingerpicked guitars, Derrick’s voice fills the sonic space with mournful confession. As layers of vocals build towards the song’s climax, the blues overwhelm whatever lightness filtered through his delivery of the first lines. With the newer recording, punctuated with syncopated claps and shakers, “I think I was feeling the sadness in a different way,” Derrick reflects. “It just felt like the pain was the pentatonic scale—bending and snapping more than it was floating or sounding like a harp.” With every show Derrick played with Sine Wave, or with his other project, Rhythm & Folk, he transformed this old tension into a story for justice.
Then, in June 2020, he faced an even greater pain to transmute. During the height of last summer’s protests for Black lives, Derrick was shot by an officer while defending a group of young protesters from close-range rubber bullets. He was alone in the hospital when he was informed his injury could prevent him from having children. When he heard that, he only wanted to go home, rest, and “just stay off on the sidelines.”
But instead, Derrick was uplifted by the relationships he had forged—teaching implicit bias training, serving coffee at Roy’s, and elevating other musicians and poets. A mural was painted in his honor, along with the message “Don’t Hurt Our Friends: Demand Accountability.” A resolution to defund police presence in schools cited Derrick’s story and name and publicized the proposals in an open letter to San Jose Unified School District.
He felt overwhelmed, but it was a feeling of love. “It has, in some ways, made me more fierce. And honest. Because it’s easy to edit yourself when you’re a Black person in America and you don’t wanna be labeled as angry. But I was tired of being afraid of that, and it feels really good not to be afraid of that. That’s a part of, I think, the Black tradition—which is being able to channel my rage.”
Now, as a community organizer for Sacred Heart, Derrick helps others who feel unsafe to strategize their demands for permanent housing, alternative responses to police calls, and better funding for programs that center their livelihoods.
He has found himself deep within his calling, where the hunger of this world and the gladness of his heart coalesce.