Between a global pandemic and ongoing protests over the killing of Black men and women by police, there’s the distinct feeling that we’re living in our own history textbook chapter. For many, that has come a new sense of clarity, and the drive to fight for what they believe in. For singer-songwriter Tinashe, who independently released her excellent album Songs for You last year, this moment has been a time to take action. The Los Angeles born and bred 27-year-old has been participating in Black Lives Matter protests in L.A. following the killing of George Floyd and using her Twitter and Instagram platforms — which together have close to 4 million followers — to shed light on systemic racism in America.
The Cut talked to Tinashe about protesting in L.A., using her platform for politics, and how the music industry should embrace this moment.
You’ve been really outspoken about the Black Lives Matter movement. What has your time been like protesting in L.A. these past few weeks?
Last weekend, I went to nine different protests. So it’s been very interesting to see how they’ve grown and evolved over the last week and a half, just to see how this energy has shifted within the protests and social media. For me, the energy has always been very peaceful and positive, but at first it was very heartbreaking, and that was more the focus. And then as time went on, the energy changed — it became lighter, and more hopeful. There are people handing out flowers and candles, food and water and snacks, and hand sanitizer. It has this real feeling of friendship and togetherness and community.
You had a virtual concert and raised money for the Bail Project. How do you see music and activism fitting together?
A lot of great social messages are communicated through art. I think we’ll continue to see the ripple effects of the creative inspiration from this whole wave. That starts with things like that virtual concert. And people really love to see artists who care about things other than just themselves.
What do you think the responsibility is for an artist during a time like this?
It’s a great time for everyone to hold themselves accountable and to a slightly higher standard. A lot of people are getting called out, and I think it’s really important to be teachable. I know that it’s harder for people to change their opinion and stand for something publicly. But it’s time to just to really be reflective.
You’re 27. What do you remember about the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown? You saw the coverage play out on social media, and at a young age. How do you think that helped shape your political views?
I remember vividly watching the Trayvon Martin case and being upset with how everything panned out. And then watching different people’s cases, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, seeing how all these panned out. I think it’s been playing for us over the course of our life, and it makes sense that it would eventually lead to this moment. I feel like we have to do even more than we were doing, because it’s not like nobody cared before — we’ve always cared. It’s just very exciting and hopeful to have the attention, focus, energy behind the movement right now, because this is something that has been important for a really long time.
There is some real change happening right now: Minneapolis is dismantling its police department, for one, and there have been some big resignations in media. Do you see real change starting to trickle into the music industry as well?
Yeah, I think that’s probably one of the things I’m most excited about. Being able to share information now is so quick and easy — I think that that’s really beautiful and helping spread the message. It feels really good to know that these overarching conversations about racism are happening, because they are things that have affected our whole lives, so they aren’t conversations that have really easy fixes. I’m excited to see more conversations happening in the music industry specifically. I still have a lot of thoughts about different things that I’ve gone through in my career — feeling like I had to fit into certain genres and how genres really affect music and artists.
Speaking of genres: This week people in the music industry are requesting to remove the “urban” label as a genre. Do you think that’s a step in the right direction in terms of changing the ways that Black people and people of color get stuck in these musical genres?
I think that’s absolutely a huge first step. I know at the record label I used to be at that the urban department was a completely separate functioning department from the rest of the music departments. And for being an artist that fits somewhere in between, it was really hard for me to find the true support from my label for a lot of things. These are big, big problems that are really deep. It is systemic. They take you to different radio stations. They have completely different promotional departments. It’s very segregated and that’s something that we definitely need to talk about and work on more.
Rap and R&B are consistently at the top of the music charts — it’s what people are consistently listening to and talking about. It’s incredible popular everywhere. So there’s the argument now that having it segregated by the urban label feels especially strange.
It’s been interesting to see that shift too, because I mean, that didn’t used to be how it was. Like the way the radio stations are separated, the way the playlists are separated, and the way things are promoted — there’s just a big difference. When I first came on the scene, everyone was like, she’s the new R&B girl. That really didn’t sit well with me at the time. They’re wondering, why was I so opposed to that? Because I love R&B, and I have a heavy R&B influence. But I think it’s having the conversations about what those labels mean, why we have them, why we limit our artists to these things. There are many examples of how racially divided genres are.
Do you feel like the older you’ve gotten, the more willing you are to be open and loud about your political views?
I was really, really into it when I was younger in my teens and when I was first able to vote. I’m not gonna lie, I fell off for a few years in terms of activism and things outside of myself — work was the focus. It has been nice to refocus and be like, Oh yeah, there’s like a lot of stuff that I need to care about other than myself and my career. It’s good to focus on those things, but it’s also really made me care about other people, too
How do we keep this momentum going to support the Black community?
There’s so much more that you can do even outside of the immediate, like signing petition letters or calling your elected officials. I’m hopeful that in the long term, things will change. And that’s all of our responsibility. As an artist, for example, I have responsibilities to work with more Black creatives. And I think that goes for other people who have a platform — how are we making sure that we are featuring Black people correctly and keeping the light on Black voices and Black faces?