Tierra Whack is Reimagining Music (Genres)
Tierra Whack is edgy, abstract, honest, and raw; traits that the 26-year-old rapper accredits to growing up in North Philadelphia.
Tierra Whack is edgy, abstract, honest, and raw; traits that the 26-year-old rapper accredits to growing up in North Philadelphia. When you think of Philadelphia, affectionately reduced to Philly, the Rocky Balboa steps come to mind — this everlasting trope of making it to the top and staying there. Philly has championed some of the greatest musical performers; Will Smith, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, The Roots, and so much more, and lastly inducted to this honorable list: Tierra Whack.
In her adolescence, the imagination and curiosity of the worlds painted before her by cartoons, colors, drawing and sketching, and Dr. Suess rhymes introduced Whack into a world of endless creative possibilities. Like most kids, she would sit glued to her TV (even after ample warning from her mom that she would need glasses by 21, which ended up ironically true), and find a home in the colors, shapes, pattern, designs and sounds that erupted from the screen. “I grew up watching a lot of cartoons and I guess I just always liked the colors, the craziness, the freedom to do anything, like cartoons can do anything they like — and I kind of always just lived in my head. So I don’t know, to this day I still want to be a cartoon,” she admittedly says laughing at her own imagination. But it’s this whackiness and fearless ability to live in a world unbound by constructs that has elevated Whack’s music above her colleagues. In her work, fans have found a sense of adventure and experimentation that transcends the 1D into a universe only she holds the keys to, and it’s a rewarding adventure to be on.
But her love for music would be at the crux of her identity. There must have been something about the way Lauryn Hill captivated an audience with her vocals and raw storytelling or the consistency and composure of Missy Elliott, unapologetically expressing herself, that resonated with the young artist. “It just moved me, like it just made me feel powerful,” she says.
Whack’s musical maturity first found form through hours scribbling poetry into her marble notebooks, and the soon-to-be filled lines became a form of self-expression. “You gotta turn this [poetry] into rap, so find some instrumentals and put your poems onto a beat,” she says paraphrasing a family member who pushed her figuratively into the music studio. Her first time behind the mic was filled with nerves, but the then 13-year-old proudly brought home her burned CD, distributing it to her mom and family. “I was writing about random stuff, like whatever came to mind. If it rhymed, I’m putting it in.” The 1.2 millimeter polycarbonate filled with teenage randomness was her trophy, and on it was her voice, playing from her player. “I was just like wow, it’s really me. I can put this in the little player and then I hear my voice. Like that was so cool, it was just mind-blowing” she gushes of her early win.
Her mom became her biggest cheerleader, excited to see Whack’s early words in notebooks make their way to sound. It was also the young rapper’s serious commitment to the craft, that made championing her natural. Just around the time she was turning 16, and after a long day in school, all she wanted to do was lay down and cool off. But her mom had other plans; they were going to visit her grandmother. Reluctantly and annoyed, as any teenager dragged on an errand they didn’t sign up for would be, Whack got in the car, recalling having her seat all the way back, with the car radio on, but not paying it any attention, and scrolling aimlessly on her phone. The car slowed down, although they were still about two blocks away from grandma’s, and on the corner was a bunch of guys in a huddle with an official camera in tow. Later, they would find out it was a segment filming of We Run the Streets, a legendary rap compilation series.
After vaguely deciphering what could be going on, the duo deduced that it was a rap battle, and Whack’s mom encouraged her to participate in the cypher. Never having been put on the spot before, she quickly made a mental note of her best bars, and Dizzle Dizz, her then rap moniker inspired by Snoop Dogg, jumped out the car, ready to impress. And impress she did. The video was posted that evening and instantly went viral, garnering tweets from Philly rapper Meek Mill, and radio personalities, DJ Diamond Kuts and Cosmic Kev. “At the time, it was a breath of fresh air to see a woman, especially that young, stand up in front of a group of people that I could obviously tell she didn’t know and be able to perform. That was significant,” reflects Johnny Montina, Whack’s manager of his early introduction to Tierra.
At the time, Whack’s stage was freestyling in school lunchrooms to friends and whoever was curious, but in a happy chance interaction, her bars were entering a new arena, with an entirely new (and larger) audience. Something about the gravity of this just seemed bigger. “I was in denial; I didn’t believe it. All I did was just get up and like go to my grandma’s house, and then like got a viral video. You just never know. You can never plan it.”
Carving out her sound didn’t take long. After a short stint desperately hoping to be relatable, she leaned into what her local critics were craving – lyrically sounding like and rapping about things people around her way related to. Quickly she realized her authenticity was her powerplay — and she found ease once again in talking about randomness, pulling influences from r&b and hip-hop for storytelling, and “dabbling in whatever’s cool” for new inspiration.
Early on, Whack knew she couldn’t be boxed in to one genre, however that was the expectation from those around her. But her tenacity to be unapologetically herself ultimately won. “I just love the way she hears music,” says Hank Byerly, her audio engineer. “If something hits her, she’ll take it, interpret it, and just create something that again is super authentic to her, but has influences from so many areas.”
The birth of Whack World came organically; creating a universe of multiple styles and genres, packaged in a way listeners would love but not be overwhelmed by. The project was an innovative 15-track, minute-long, compilation that catapulted Whack’s career into genius notoriety. The visual album debuted alongside the album, giving listeners a crazed peek into the creative process that is Whack’s mind and was the perfect introduction to the rapper’s gifts. “Tierra’s versatility makes her so different. She can do anything,” comments Nick Canonica, her digital photographer and designer. “She never goes outside of being herself, and that’s authentic.”
The exciting story of Whack’s success takes us back to her mom’s house, where the rapper’s sleep is interrupted by an overly excited banging on the door. She’d just been nominated for a Grammy for best music video — sharing the recognition that year with veterans JAY Z and Beyoncé (performing as the Carters), Childish Gambino, Janelle Monáe, and Joyner Lucas, and her overheated cellphone full of congratulatory messages confirmed it was true. “It felt like a dream, I still forget all the time,” she humbly says, “They [people] have to now say Grammy nominated artist, Tierra Whack,” motioning a title marquee in the air with her hands, “That’s so cool!”
After the release and cultural impact of Whack World, Tierra jumped into touring, gaining new experiences along the way. “Performing is one of my most favorite things to do. It’s like no other feeling in the world – just breathtaking. When I’m on stage, I have the power. I’m in control.”
“My favorite place to travel was definitely Tokyo. They get fly every day, just to take the trash out,” she jokes. Fashion is another component synonymous with Whack’s creativity, expressed recently in her latest Vans collaboration. On stage, she opts for the flashy and pop effects, and off stage, she gravitates to cool patterns, shapes, and colors. Constantly experimenting, she jokes that she doesn’t have a favorite outfit. She’ll wear something once, and then retires it.
The creative vision from behind the mic and the music video goes hand in hand, she says, but performing live is another beast. Her enigmatic fire explodes on stage, bouncing from stage left to right, hyping the crowd, even those furthest behind – over time maturing her performative presence from freestyle rapper in the lunchroom to a touring artist. However, no matter the size of the crowd, Whack’s goal is the same: “I’m gonna wild people, doesn’t matter if it’s five people or a hundred people or a thousand people, I’m gonna make it work.”
Her latest releases, three three-song EPs titled, Pop?, Rap?, and R&B?, respectively, features the Whack we’ve grown to love, only now she has years of growth and experiences under her belt. In this unconventional approach, the rapper proves her versatility to straddle the lines of multiple genres and perhaps the question marks after each title suggests Whack’s continued efforts to not produce music according to industry standard and rewrites her own interpretations. She’s been a sponge and continues to pull influences from everything around her and push the envelope. It’s this organic creativity and authenticity that keeps fans in suspense of what to expect next from her, ready to accept whatever version of Whack they get. “I don’t think that her music style has changed. She’s just giving the world bits and pieces of her,” says J Melodic, her producer.
But humbly, even with a critically acclaimed debut album and Grammy nomination, the proud Philadelphian doesn’t see herself as one of the main faces of Philly. She’s just doing Tierra Whack, as honest as she can, and hoping to pave the way for future generations. “I just learned from seeing so many people go to the top and then they’re right back at the bottom. I hope I never go back down. I just gotta stay as humble as possible, never forget where I came from, who I am, who was with me from the start, and just always thank God.”