"When they told me that they would be working with actual communities affected by environmental racism and were adding jobs and not just trees, it really had little to do with tea at all," the singer tells Billboard. "The TAZO section was just a cherry on top for me, on a genuine connection on all levels. It's like -- I drink this, obviously, but I connect to all these points energetically. It was just an honor to be asked to be involved."
Along with fighting for a better environment, SZA continues to strive for inner peace, which has allowed her to flourish creatively. During the pandemic, the singer has enjoyed spending time outdoors to flush out any rust or negative energy. The results have proven favorable: Her first single, "Hit Different," featuring Ty Dolla $ign peaked at No. 36 last year on the Hot 100, while "Good Days" soared to a No. 9 high earlier this month.
Billboard caught up with SZA to discuss her role with TAZO Tree Corps, maintaining her creative balance, positive affirmations, the making of "Good Days," and which artists she's been checking out during the pandemic.
Why do you think the fight for climate change in Black and Brown communities is such an under discussed topic?
I've lived in Carson, CA with TDE for like four years -- maybe five -- but when you drive through Torrance, that's all South Bay. So you're heading to Long Beach and all you see is factory, factory, factory. All the trees on those streets are dead. But these are all Black and Brown areas. And I'm not from L.A. -- so for me to move to this place, I felt like, "This is weird. All these trees are dead."
A lot of the people that I've met have family members that worked at factories, and they became ill. It was very strange that it seemed fine to just cluster people together and put them in these crazy situations.
Even in New Jersey, where it's like one of the nine worst food deserts in America, where there's no grocery stores or adequate anything, [there's no] tree experience. There's no exposure. I think that people sleep on how that affects your mental health, and the subtleties [impacted] in the essence of being a human being. It's kind of sad as hell.
My mood just went from ten to six hearing that, since I live in Jersey.
And I lived in Maplewood. You know Jersey, halfway to the city, it's just a bizarre smell. And you don't know what it is. People just think it's garbage, but it's not. It's those factories. It's all that nonsense. And you have people who live over there. I grew up in Maplewood. You head into Irvington, Newark, East Orange, and the quality is different. What you're looking at is different. It's an all-encompassing issue.
I feel like clean air and having trees shouldn't even be a conversation. It's kind of dumb that's it even a privilege, or something great that you can add to a community. How is it that we all don't have the equal experience?
I know you're a huge advocate of mental health, especially for the Black community. How have you been able to protect your mental health during the pandemic as SZA, Solana and each persona that you are?
I don't separate myself, definitely. I just been outside. I'm definitely a good-natured, therapy kind of person. I hit the forest, or I hit the park, or I do a lot of walks, a lot of exercises. Sitting still and meditating is a component for me, but it's not my key component. I need to be outside amongst trees, and among anything nature-based. I'll drive really far to get there and I don't mind. I don't mind dragging whatever I have to drag.
I actually went with my parents on the Delaware River. We kayaked six miles. I did nine miles by myself. We never camped out as family before -- and you know as Black people, that's really important. Hella tree activity. [Laughs.]
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Have you seen a spike in your creative activity, with you being outside as often as you have during the pandemic?
Absolutely. I just feel crunchy when I don't get outside, or even when I'm in heavy [traffic] areas -- like a fancy part of New York City -- and there's not enough trees in your area. I really had to go out of my way to find that moment, because it was bringing me down. It was super-weird, and making my music feel weird, because I was like, unsure of myself. You're really just bouncing yourself off an indoor wall all the time. It's just not normal.
You already can't bounce off of people because of COVID, so that has everything feeling crazy. Your music is super-eternal -- and the first time people hear it, it's when it's public, and that's super weird for me. That's never happened to me before. I don't know. It's super weird, but being outside helps. It breaks that monotony and that cycle.
Do you have any positive affirmations you tell yourself on the daily to stay afloat mentally?
My granny used to tell me, "Just do your best, and when you do your best, that's all you can do." It's super simple, right? That's not enough, but usually, it kicks in when I've done something, and I'm asking myself, "Have I done this in a way that's adequate -- or did I actually do my best, and really try to put my foot in this s--t and take this as far as it can go?"
I fluctuate between "I'm filled with love and kindness," "I'm peaceful and at ease" and "I'm well and I'm happy," but I also do, "May I be filled with love and kindness," "May I be well," "May I be peaceful and at ease," and "May I be happy." I just keep it simple. I guess speaking stuff out loud has strength that I've been trying to learn, 'cause I feel like I'm kind of negative on myself. So I've been trying to say more positive and random things aloud at random moments.
I actually started saying "Carl, I'm proud of you" as my affirmation and it's really made a difference.
That's beautiful. I feel like the "I'm proud of [myself]" is one of the hardest things [to say], because I never feel proud of myself, or that I deserve anything that's happening. So it's super weird to enjoy any of it. But I definitely believe in the the power of "I'm proud of myself," "I like you," or "Hey, you're cute." That s--t is like super weird and hard for me. But I feel you.
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CTRL has spent 191 weeks on the Billboard 200, and still remains inside the top 40. Have you sat back and thought back the impact this album has made on your life?
I just had no idea that anybody would like it this much, or that it would be anything like this. Because to me -- I wish I had more time to perfect it, or get it the right way. I never listen to my music. It's like, I'm listening to it back on the four-year anniversary for the first time -- 'cause I'm gonna listen to it, since I'm not on tour. It's very interesting. I just wonder how other people hear it, and I don't know.
I'm just grateful that God put me in a position to touch or be of service to other people even if I don't understand it. The ways I think I can be of service are not adequate, so this is a cool way that's really unbeknownst to me. I have no idea of the effects or how or why people connect to it the way they do. I'm just grateful to be around.
Even after the success you've gotten with your new singles "Hit Different" and "Good Days," are you still critical of yourself musically as much as before?
No, definitely the same. It's the same, if not more. It's so interesting. With "Good Days," I had learned that it wasn't meant to be a single. It was a song that I threw at the end of "Hit Different," because I liked it. The fact that it became a single, or even that random TikTok thing, -- [it] was not a song that I was working on, it was a song that I posted mad long ago. It was a snippet of a bunch of stuff that I was working on with Rodney Jerkins and we ended up making a bunch of songs.
I don't know. It's like my trajectory is out of my hands. All I can do is stay creative, try to be honest, do work and not be lazy. So I'm trying to be my best. That's all I can do -- my literal best. If I hear a song, now I wanna make it the best song that it can be. I might be overanalyzing that, but we'll see when it comes out.
With the "Good Days" visual on the way, you think you can rank you top three favorite videos of yours?
I can't do it in order, but the "Supermodel" video had the little Black girls and the fairy energy. It was exactly what my mind was thinking conceptually. I love the "Love Galore" video, except when Travis [Scott] dies at the end. He was really mad at me for that. It wasn't my decision. It was supposed to be [based on] the movie Misery. I don't know. I would probably say "Hit Different / Good Days." Those three I really like.
Which female artists would you say you've been checking out as a fan on the hip-hop and R&B side during the pandemic?
I listen to a lot of stuff that's not just hip-hop and R&B. But in that specific spectrum, I love Tiana Major9. She's so crazy. Lots of vocalists. I love Fousheé. I love Jean Dawson. Dawson is a dude. Go look at his music video, it has like a s--t ton of views. It's on YouTube. He's Black, but it's also like some punk s--t. It's tight -- it's super tight.
You know, [I've also been listening to] a lot of rap. A lot of Don Toliver. I'm obsessed. I've been listening to all the girls. Of course, Summer [Walker], Kehlani, and Ari [Lennox]. Those are my favorites, but I love all these new ones coming out. I think it's a beautiful time for music. Kota [The Friend] is [dope] too.
Lastly, before I let you go, were you able to finally buy your first TV?
Yeah, I got two! I got two Samsungs. I stand by them. They're larger than what I wanted. I never purchased a TV. I never had one while like living on my own ever. I was like, "It's time," and I need to finally get one. I didn't even know what size. I wanted the small ones because I feel like the big ones are obnoxious, but to me, 65 inches is big. 70 inches is big. I love my computer in bed. That's kind of the vibe that I'm used to, but whatever. [Laughs.]