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“It’ll be alright when I let go / Then I let go and I went back home,” Tinashe coos on “Let Go,” the opening track of her latest album 333. In so few words, the singer-songwriter describes her decade-long journey navigating a stifling music industry in order to find her way back to herself. For years, Tinashe was stuck in the in-between, forever “on the rise,” but never quite finding the kind of success she once expected. Now, as a newly independent artist, she’s rebuilt that confidence and is finally back to creating on her own terms.
“I try not to question why things have worked out the way they have or look at numbers and sales, things that used to kind of keep me a bit more in my head about my success,” Tinashe muses on a call with me between stops of her 333 tour. “To gain back this sureness is something that has been so precious and so valuable for me, and I’m just focused on protecting that.”
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Tinashe Jorgensen Kachingwe was primed to be a pop star. By the time she was 16, she had already worked as a motion-capture model for Tom Hanks’ The Polar Express and opened for Justin Bieber as a member of girl group The Stunners. At 18, Tinashe erupted from the wide-eyed DIY music scene with In Case We Die, a tape that she recorded and mixed at home. Bursting with undeniable talent and superstar charisma, she was soon recruited by RCA Records.
Here was an artist labels dream of signing: young, charming, and talented from every angle, able to do the necessary creative work behind the curtain and deliver popstar performances in front of it. By the time her debut single dropped in 2014, RCA’s bets had already paid off: “2 On,” a slinky club jam featuring rapper ScHoolboy Q, was an instant global smash hit. By the time her first studio album Aquarius released, Tinashe had press and industry insiders eating out of her hand, even touting her as the next Aaliyah or Janet. What followed were industry accomplishments that can cement the careers of up-and-coming artists: wall-to-wall media coverage, festival dates around the world, a surging global fanbase. And then, nothing.
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“At the time, it all just happened too fast,” Tinashe, now 28, reflects. After her debut, she quickly learned about the pitfalls of the modern music business in the belly of the beast. When it was time to put out what was meant to be her sophomore album, the experimental Joyride, Tinashe was put on hold. “They didn’t know where I fit in their landscape,” she explains, describing the grey area of being “too urban” for pop and too experimental for R&B. The project wasn’t supported by her label, RCA cancelled her tour and sold songs out from under her, she says (Refinery29 reached out to RCA for comment, but received no response). While Joyride lingered in purgatory for three years before it was quietly released in 2018, Tinashe decided to release Nightride in 2016 as a holdover album, which she claims went against RCA’s plans for her. “It was very clear to me that if I wanted to work in that system, I had to make a lot of compromises, and that didn’t sit well with my spirit at all.”
Those compromises began in the studio. Tinashe paints a picture for me that too many women musicians have experienced: in any given studio environment, all the engineers, producers, and writers were men — and she would be the only woman. “I definitely think that is part of the reason why I started to almost stop myself as a creative because it’s a very boys club in the music industry. They just take those producers so much more seriously than they ever took my art and my perspective. And so I just stopped being confident in that perspective.”
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It seems redundant to have this conversation without acknowledging that this is also about race. It’s important to recognise that behind the rise of streaming services and the power that many Black women artists now exert, there are countless stories of exploitation, racism, and disrespect. Tinashe’s experiences remind me of Teyana Taylor, the R&B singer-songwriter who abruptly announced her retirement from music last year because she felt “super underappreciated” as an artist after receiving “little to no real push from the ‘machine.'” Tinashe agrees there are parallels between their experiences, and race is a common factor. “It’s hard for Black women, and I have an understanding that it’s even harder for dark-skinned Black women. There’s a lot of nuance and a lot of layers to being a Black female artist. It feels like an uphill battle to find a real support system. I think that that’s just the insidious music business. That’s kind of what usually happens.”
Our discussion of race is short-lived. It’s clear to me that Tinashe feels a restraint regarding the subject — “it’s super taboo,” she concludes — as if she feels there’s simply too much scrutiny to discuss further, too many opportunities to be misquoted. In 2017, Tinashe caused an uproar in the Black community when she spoke out about colourism and her experiences as a Black woman of mixed race. “There are hundreds of [male] rappers that all look the same, that sound the same, but if you’re a Black woman, you’re either Beyoncé or Rihanna,” she told The Guardian while promoting Nightride. Black Twitter chalked up her comments to bitterness over her career, with many saying she had no place to speak on colourism as a light-skinned woman. Tinashe later tweeted that her statement was taken out of context, that her criticism was not directed at the industry — hard to believe, when her comments provided a perfect critique of an industry where space for Black women’s success feels limited at best.
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And while major labels and radio executives pulled back from giving a fearlessly adventurous Black artist the promotional resources she deserved, Tinashe forged on anyway, whether the pop market acknowledged her or not. “I was always taking the opinions of people around me into consideration, whether it was my label, my management, my fans, or the media,” she tells me. “I just don’t feel like I have to fit in and conform anymore, or have to make something that [others] would understand.”
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In 2019, Tinashe ended her contract with RCA. Today, there’s a palpable new energy around Tinashe. True to its name, 333, her fifth studio album which she released in August, is arguably her best and most honest work yet. “ are angel numbers,” she explains, “It means that you’re in alignment, that things are going well, and you’re protected. And the universe is conspiring to assist you with reaching your goals and dreams.” On the album, she experiments with her voice and genre that takes her limitlessness to new heights through a weightless concoction of dimly-lit R&B, neo-soul, EDM, smouldering jazz, and everything in between.
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Losing the budget and resources of a major label, many artists fade into B-list obscurity. Not Tinashe. The precision with which she expresses her creativity on the record is a consequence of her hard-earned privilege to be fully free. “I feel liberated, like I have an entirely fresh confidence, compared to a couple years ago when I could just tell that my self-confidence as a creative was diminishing,” Tinashe says. “Creatively, I’m unlimited.”
It’ll be alright when I let go.
Tinashe could have continued struggling along the pop star path the industry had plotted out for her. Instead, she found her way to somewhere much truer.
Then I let go and I went back home.
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