No, Colorism Isn’t To Blame For Tinashe’s Stalled Career — Her Image Is

Getty Image

Pleasing fans is a tough job, maybe even one of the toughest in the world. For entertainers, it’s easy to feel unappreciated at work, especially when your de facto boss is your fanbase, who, yes, can be supportive, but can also be hypercritical, fickle, determinedly cynical, and worst of all, jaded. I know from experience that it can be so frustrating to look at a stalled career as a performer and determine that if only people were a little more fair and forgiving, you’d be further along. Or, at the very least, you’d have an album out.

So, I can see where Tinashe is coming from with some of her comments from an interview with The Guardian that found its way into social media’s crosshairs yesterday. However, the truth of the matter is that in the case of Tinashe, it’s not her fans who have dropped the ball. As a fan, I can say with confidence that her management team just hasn’t done that great of a job marketing and promoting her as an artist.

Now, while she says her comments were taken out of context — she definitely wasn’t blaming colorism for her career status — Tinashe certainly makes some good points about the music industry, its practices, and the way we consume media now. The way the pop music world currently works, there’s only so much attention span to go around, and the bigger brand artists with higher name recognition tend to suck the air out the room, both in terms of bandwidth listeners are willing to dedicate to streaming new releases, and how much major label marketing departments are going to budget to increasing social awareness of a project’s existence. Even online publications that cover music are beholden to committing more print space to artists that generate more interest — you know, like Beyonce and Rihanna — and keep the lights on, so to speak.

Where her complaint breaks down — and here’s where the employee has to take a little accountability for not doing her job — is that Rihanna and Beyonce are legacies of a pre-social world, when the only artists who could get airplay or significant market share had major label machinery behind them. Tinashe is solidly a product of the internet mixtape era, just like contemporaries Jhene Aiko, SZA, and FKA Twigs, who have helped her to jam pack the whisper-singing, ethereal, Tumblr-introvert-favorite, hippie, black girl lane practically to bursting. All of them had self-released mixtapes as well, and most released them right around the same time. They are also all decidedly further along career-wise than Tinashe is at the moment.

When Jhene Aiko was one of the first of this new wave of outer spacey, stoner R&B singers to release a mixtape, her management team took so long to get a solid physical product for her together, that they risked letting some of her momentum be usurped by successors and competitors. At the same time, streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music became instrumental in building a name for both her, and other emerging artists, and that largely supplanted the need for physical media at retail. However, while Aiko, SZA, Jhene’s sister Mila J, and newcomers like Yuna and H.E.R. have been able to leverage that digital space, Tinashe has fallen behind, in large part due to various management miscues that have allowed allowed social media to turn her into an evergreen punchline for “Oh no, baby, what is you doin’?” memes.

For instance, her unfortunate physical resemblance to Twigs has generated countless digs about not being able to tell the two apart. Meanwhile, Twigs’ music has remained comfortably weird enough to resonate with the “artsy” imagery she tends to associate with herself. If she wants to dress up like a fantasy mermaid/fairy hybrid from Dimension X and stuff a bouquet of faux flowers in her mouth for a photoshoot, it’s a shrug and a shake of the head from folks who’ve just come to expect unexplainable oddity from her. Tinashe, shifting — apparently, against her will — from her earlier introspective tunes to turn-up anthems that feature popular rappers, and has been recently photographed licking a tiny toy toilet and groping Travis Scott in an awkwardly-posed shot by pornstache Terry Richardson. These moves elicit more of a squint of skepticism from listeners who were previously inclined to negativity compare her to other “great dancer but merely average singers” like Ciara, Aaliyah, and Janet Jackson. It’s 2017, and how you portray yourself will impact how listeners perceive you, regardless of how the music sounds.

While SZA has evolved from comparing herself to bacon (can someone please explain this line off of “Aftermath” from her S EP? It’s been almost four years and I still can’t figure it out) to getting revenge on a cheating lover by stepping out herself, and Jhene has been raw, and emotionally confessional about depression over the death of her brother, Tinashe hasn’t quite figured out where she is artistically. That is what has damaged her presentation, which in turn, hurts her reception among the demographic she’s aiming for, which, then, erodes her label’s confidence in their ability to recoup their investment when they ever actually do put out the long-awaited Joyride. Nailing down what kind of music she wants to make, who she’s making it for, and how she wants to present herself can only help her in this situation, because flip-flopping between trying to capture various demographics hasn’t been working, and isn’t going to.

The drastic solution? Fire everybody. Fire the management who talked her into all these ill-advised photoshoots, get rid of the booking manager who has failed to get her into TV and festival stages where she can actually make an impact and carve out some semblance of an audience, and start over from scratch. Go back to the drawing board. Figure out if she’s a pop artist, or a deep, introspective soul artist and present accordingly. Create a sound and image that people can connect to first, then go about expanding that and flexing creative muscles when you have confidence that your base will rock with the changes.

Granted, there are certain aspects of the equation that are completely out of her control. America, for whatever reason — okay, we know why, it’s called racism — has really hard time accepting art and artists who don’t fit in the bubbles that the mainstream is already comfortable with. Black girls don’t usually get to be “pop” — they are alway relegated to “soul” or “R&B.” R&B stars don’t get to step out and be too “artsy” or “sexy,” or too anything more than the degrees away from Mary J. Blige singing about ain’t-sh*t men and the heartbreak they bring, or being a strong, independent black woman who don’t need no man (and one day we can talk about how extremely talented women firmly in this vein such as Marsha Ambrosius and Jasmine Sullivan get even less promotion from labels and attention from fans than even Tinashe does.) Women in general will continue to be pigeonholed, even as male artists — including rappers — get to inhabit wide ranges of musical styles, while being nearly indistinguishable from one another. Just look at how many new artists have molded themselves in the Drake lane — and still get press.

Lighter-skinned black girls will be frowned upon by darker-skinned black girls, even as America at large dismisses both; but is, by and large, far more accepting of fairer shades than darker, curvier bodies with thicker lips and tighter, crunchier curls. Tinashe was right to point out that hypocrisy, and that of the fallacy that there can only be one or two black female stars at a time, as well as the false dichotomy that unless you are a superstar, you’re a flop. However, inasmuch as these concepts relate to her career, she would do well to stick to controlling what she can — namely her image — and putting in the work to earn her promotion to the top.