Tinashe is calling the shots

Tinashe stars on In The Know’s digital cover for December 2021.

“The world is always going to try to minimize you ’cause it makes people easier to understand,” muses In the Know’s December cover star Tinashe. The 28-year-old musical prodigy is known for rejecting the concept of music genres, identity labels and being part of the music industry machine. 

Born to a Zimbabwean father and a Danish mother, the mononymous artist’s name means “God is with us” in Shona, and she gives her father’s roots credit for inspiring her music career.

“I learned how to harmonize singing with my family as a form of connecting, and that really came from Shona culture,” she tells Elaine Welteroth in their cover interview for In The Know’s inaugural Evolution issue. 

Tinashe on In The Know’s December digital cover. She’s wearing a Deity New York Oversized Bell Sleeve Raincoat and an Anoeses Catsuit Sanara.
Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

Since debuting her star power at age 16 when she opened for Justin Bieber as part of the girl group The StunnersTinashe has been honing her skills as a singer, songwriter, producer, engineer and eclectic dancer. And, as is true of any bonafide pop star, to witness her perform her avant-garde, genre-fluid songs live on stage is to watch peak Tinashe come alive. After her first studio album Aquarius, she was touted as the next Janet Jackson meets Aaliyah — but her record label had other plans. Despite critical acclaim and touring with stars like Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, she was still making sacrifices at her label’s request. 

“With time, you get better at being able to stand up for yourself,” she says. “You get better at being able to live in your truth and be unapologetic about it.”

Now, two years after dropping RCA and her entire team in 2019, she’s released her fifth studio album 333 — her second studio album as an independent artist, following 2019’s Songs for You. And, for the first time, she’s calling all the shots. In her In The Know cover interview, she opens up about the challenges of being a young woman navigating the music industry, her favorite memory with Britney Spears and life after “ego death.” 

Elaine Welteroth: I have to admit, I felt this second-hand sense of liberation after hearing you talk about leaving your label, and your manager, and your publicist, and the whole Hollywood machine that you’re told that you need to be successful. And then to watch you continue to kill it on your own terms as an indie artist… like… girl!

Tinashe: Thank you. My gut instinct, my core of me was screaming so much, like, “This is not the right thing to do, you have to make a change.” I had to listen to it. I have to make sure that I tune into that, and that’s when I make the best art, that’s when I feel the best as a person, I feel the most fulfilled. I just knew that I had to make a big change in terms of how I viewed myself as a creative, being able to take back that control and know that, OK, I am responsible for all of my art and, in that, I can be empowered. That was just a really crucial decision for me to cut those ties, build a new team and start fresh with my own vision in the forefront.

Elaine: Speaking of liberation, I want to talk a little bit about Britney Spears and the #FreeBritney movement because you have a direct connection with her. You’ve made music together and a video, and you’ve said you idolize her as an artist who laid the blueprint for what it means to be a modern pop star at the highest level. What is your perspective on the journey she’s been on and the impact of this verdict? What do you think her liberation means for other women in music?

Tinashe: It’s just so amazing to see her empowered and to be able to speak her truth, whatever her truth may be. And that is so important to women and especially to artists. She probably came up in an era where there was so much control over every song she put out, the image, so much curation — hyper-curation to the point where it bled into her personal life, and everything was so overly [controlled] and didn’t give her the space to be a human being. It’s amazing to see her just being so true to herself and being liberated in that way.

Elaine: Do you have a favorite memory with her?

Tinashe: She was always so warm to me and just felt really, really genuine. It was probably one of the most intimate connections that I felt with an artist I’ve collaborated with. She was so warm. She just hugged me and kissed me.

One particular moment when we were on set that I thought was so awesome was when we were doing our little freestyle, she kinda whispered in my ear, like, “I’m gonna take off your shoe.” And I just remember, I was like, [laughing], “Oh my God.” So I just stuck my foot out, and she picked up my shoe — like, tossed it. Just to see that kind of star power come out of her — I could go on about it all day. She’s amazing. 

Elaine: You’re like, “You could take the other shoe.” [Laughs]

Tinashe: Yeah. I was like, “Take whatever you want.”

“I’m much more confident now. I can tell anyone if I don’t like something. I’m not as scared. That’s evolution for sure.”

Elaine: What changes do you hope to see as a result of Britney breaking her silence?

Tinashe: First of all, we need more accountability from media and from fans about how we talk about artists, how we treat artists, especially now that we have social media and we’re able to speak to artists directly. Think about them as real people with real feelings and think about how what we say about them and their art impacts them as human beings. Having compassion is something that’s really, really key. A lot of times, when someone is in the public eye, people are not as compassionate with them as they would be with maybe their friends and family. There’s some type of disconnect. That’s probably the first big step. And then, just, you know, in general, just support for women in the industry as well because it’s a really tough, tough place to be for many reasons.

Elaine: To your point about accountability in media, when I was preparing for this conversation with you, the first interview that came up was the now-viral interview with Ebro from 2013. I didn’t know that it had resurfaced and gone viral at the time. I just happened to see it, and I was so disturbed — so triggered. And I watched how you navigated that with a smile on your face. You kept your composure, and you made everything feel like it was OK. I wondered what you were really feeling in that moment.

Tinashe: Yeah, it’s really interesting because I feel like when I first got in the game, now, reflecting back to it, almost every interview that I would do I would brace myself because I was just like, “Here it comes.” It wasn’t abnormal to me at the time to expect to go into a situation and get asked an uncomfortable question that felt like it crossed the line. I think that’s changed a lot truly since just a few years ago. And I’m really happy to see that. Obviously, we have a long way to go, but I do think there is more accountability with social media than there was even then.

I was always focused on just trying to be as professional as possible and trying to just kinda keep my head down and focus on the music. But no one really batted an eye [laughs], which was crazy to me. No one from my label — no one at the station — like, it wasn’t something that was problematic then. And now, looking back, it seems very obvious.

Elaine: You’re absolutely right that it was normalized. I actually went on to watch all your other interviews, and I noticed this dynamic was the through-line in so many of them.

Tinashe: Yeah.

“With time, you get better at being able to stand up for yourself. You get better at being able to live in your truth and be unapologetic about it.” 

Elaine: In interviews with male reporters, the way they responded to you was so glaringly inappropriate. There was a moment where you did such a good job, like, weaving around their problematic questions and keeping it focused on the work and what you were there to do. You gave this really eloquent answer, and then they looked at each other, and they said, “I didn’t hear anything she said. Did you?”

Tinashe: [Laughs]

Elaine: And it was just this moment that every woman in the world watching knows. We know exactly what that feels like. But these men had the audacity to actually say it out loud. For that to be normalized, and for it to take 6 years for somebody to call that out, just feels kind of crazy. I’m glad to hear you say that at least it’s gotten better.

Tinashe: I think it has. I think it’s crucial that we are aware of how we make other people feel. And it’s mostly exciting to think about how differently people talked to me then than they do now. And I think that’s because I’ve worked so hard to gain true respect as a creative and as an artist. People look at me differently than they did then. I’m here to work. I’m here to create work. This isn’t just a game for me.

Elaine: If you were in a situation like that and asked those same questions, how do you think you would react differently now?

Tinashe: I’m just much more empowered now, as a human being, as a woman. I think I have way more of a sense of purpose here in music, and I’m not as shy as I was back then. I think that takes practice, though. With time, you get better at being able to stand up for yourself — you get better at being able to live in your truth and be unapologetic about it. I’m much more confident now. I can tell anyone if I don’t like something. I’m not as scared. So that’s… that’s an evolution for sure.

Elaine: I read that you’re big on manifesting. What does that look like for you?

Tinashe: I’ve manifested things through action. It’s through having a belief that this is gonna happen. And by having that belief, I take the steps towards it happening — like wanting to meet this person and reaching out. I think that there are so many things in life that are a lot closer than they seem if you just are able to take the steps to start. And I think that’s really how you manifest a lot of things in your life. You just kind of step into them. And you just make them happen.

Elaine: I love how you framed that! OK, this is a deep one…

Tinashe: Ooh… yeah, these are all deep.

Elaine: What does ego death mean to you? 

Tinashe: Ego death is having a complete shattering of your perception of who you thought you were. And, usually, it’s super painful. But it’s also super necessary ‘cause you come out the other side way more free, way more liberated, way more empowered. But I do think that a lot of times we have this perception of ourselves, or what we wanna be or who we wanna be. Sometimes that just gets totally flipped and reversed. That’s an ego death. [Laughs]

“I’ve manifested things through action. It’s through having a belief that this is gonna happen, and by having that belief I take the steps towards it happening.”

Elaine: OK… wow. You just out here walking around with that answer ready to go? So, do you feel like you’ve experienced an ego death?

Tinashe: I do, yeah. In 2018, when I was kind of at my last leg with my label, having problems there, I went through a really big breakup. I just felt everything that I thought in terms of my career and where I was going for the next six months to a year? Not happening anymore. And now, what am I gonna do? Who am I gonna be? What am I gonna sing about? What am I gonna do next? And I think I’ve just become way better as a human being.

Elaine: That’s a mic drop answer.

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Go behind the scenes of In The Know’s cover shoot and interview with Tinashe below:

If you enjoyed this story, check out In The Know’s November cover story featuring Jordyn Woods!

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