(She’s Got) Power: Tasha’s Soulful Ethos of Black Love and Liberation

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Tasha. Photo by Zachary Belcher.

Tasha Viets-Van Lear, who records music simply as Tasha, believes unapologetic black love is crucial for black liberation. An activist with BYP100 as well as a musician, Tasha weaves the political with the personal, promoting inner power. Her music focuses on love as a force against societal institutions that would prefer black people hate themselves and their skin. The poetic, thoughtful “Divine Love,” the title track from her 2016 EP, sets forth her ethos with warmth and passion: “I want a song that’s gonna tell me I can love myself/ But not for the purpose of being better at loving someone else/ Got all this light around me/But I can’t see it through this haze of my own insecurity/ This fear in me that I can’t glow from the inside out/But naturally, see, I got moonlight spilling from my mouth.”

Tasha’s a regular on the Chicago scene, playing often, sometimes with a full band—a powerhouse group of talented musicians whose members also play alongside Jamila Woods, Noname, Ric Wilson, Kaina, and more. While she hasn’t released anything since last year’s Divine Love EP, there’s a lot more in the works—music videos, a new website, and new music. Right now, she’s concentrating on building a robust foundation before releasing anything new.

We sat down with Tasha over tea at her Chicago home and talked about her processes, self-actualization, anger and joy, community and activism, journaling, and her music.

When I first heard your music, something that really drew me to it is how emotionally generous you are, which really comes out in the songs. Do you have any general influences that inform this?

This sounds silly to say, but I journal a lot, and I think that influences the way I creatively write. I think I am intentionally trying to be emotionally generous, because that’s the only way I know how to tell stories—by being very vulnerable and honest with the way that I’m feeling. So I think all of that source material is from all the journaling that I do. It allows me to almost do the back-end part of emotional processing that I can then filter into something that is pretty, or maybe understandable for other people. I also think that I write musically and lyrically based off of whatever I’m consuming at a given time, like the music that I’m listening to, or whatever I’m reading.

It shows—each song on the EP has very palpable feelings. I like that it’s poetic, but not too incredibly cryptic. You’re pretty prolific in Chicago. I see you working on things outside of music often, resisting and being involved in local activism. Do you feel that one informs the other?

Being involved in BYP100, which was my entry point into organizing and activism in Chicago after coming back from school, helped me realize the importance of uplifting black struggle. Music was the vehicle through which I tried to do something about that. In my song “(We Got) Power,” the end part where I say ‘I believe that we will win’—that came from a chant that we do in BYP100. There are rounds of the chant, and that is straight from that. The love, the community and the messaging that I try to channel is very much rooted in the movements of resistance out here in Chicago. I also feel like the way I am able to remain in the movement is my music; I guess that’s where the back and forth comes in. I don’t simply have the time to go to every strategy session, every meeting, and every march, but I really devote a lot of time to my music, so oftentimes music is my form of activism. Is that cheesy?

No! I definitely agree. I feel like music, especially for black and brown folks like us, is inherently a form of activism, because it means risking yourself, being vulnerable—there are sacrifices you make to create. A willful sacrifice, intention, and purpose. When did you link up with BYP?

Summer of 2015.

And now you work for them?

Yes, I do!

I was afraid to ask any political questions, because I feel like sometimes people make assumptions about your politics before they even talk to you. Black and brown folks are politicized from birth, and it can feel like no matter what we do, it has to have a statement, or your work or art becomes the message of an entire people or something. But I do admire the way you use love to guide your being in the world. With that said, do you write any angry music?

Ha! To be honest, I don’t think I do. I want to say ‘Yes,’ so I seem well rounded and deeper, maybe, but I really don’t think I do. I mean, I get angry. But of all the things that I feel, and all the things I choose to [put out], anger is not usually at the forefront. It is very contained, and it only exists in very specific and very small circumstances.

Do you just consciously choose to not let that part out, musically?

I think that could be it, that I choose not to, or that there’s always something else that feels more important to me. Even if there’s a larger societal thing I am angry about, I won’t creatively process it that way, I’ll process it [differently]. My [creative] process is like, ‘What is it that I am trying to learn,’ or ‘Where is it that I can grow, or we can grow.’ I also feel like my anger is oftentimes tied to sadness so, if anything, I’ll go to sad before angry.

You feel like it’s always been that way? Sadness before anger?

Yeah, I do.

Yeah, I feel that. Anger goes to sadness, which goes to guilt. It’s crazy to see how much energy you put into anger and realize what you could’ve used it for instead.

I feel the same way. Even in my relationships with people—I don’t have any beef with people, because I really try to not hold on to that shit. I mean, maybe people have beef with me, but I don’t have beef with anybody.

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Tasha. Photo by Zachary Belcher.

Sometimes it can be hard to realistically devote the time to your work and your music. I know that it caused you some friction trying to figure out what it means to ‘make it’? I wanted to know what ‘making it’ means to you?

I love that question! I don’t know if I said this already, because I’ve been thinking about that so much. A lot of people ask—they wanna know, they come at me like, ‘You tryna be famous,’ which I’m not, I mean—whatever that means.

Yeah, what does ‘famous’ mean?

Exactly! It’s easy to see that Chance became famous—he’s famous now. But I have friends who I totally think are famous, but they don’t think they are famous themselves. Right now, I’m not trying to make music my solo career, where I support myself only through music, because #1—that’s a really hard hustle, and I don’t really want to be on that. So that’s not necessarily a conscious goal. I feel like I will always want to be engaged in a bunch of other things, other creative practices, or other work of some kind. I really want to keep making music, though, because I care about it so much—so of course I want other people to also care about it. I love for other people to think that I am doing it well. So really, my only goal for myself is to continue to be as honest as I can, and practice a lot, and work with lots of people. I think I carry a very deep trust in myself that, if I continue to do that and practice, I will be better, and if I continue to write honestly, the art will be good, people [will] recognize good art, and it will get the recognition it deserves. I trust that will happen if I am diligent in my own practice.

A new development is that you play with a full band, am I right?

Yeah, not every show, but I have done a couple now with a full band!

How’s that?

It’s so fun! It’s so great! I feel all of my 13-year-old-Tasha dreams of being a star coming true. They are very fucking talented musicians, and I feel so incredibly lucky to be working with them at all. I wouldn’t consider them a permanent band because they all play in so many other groups, some of which are their main groups.

How does that work? I mean, they play with so many different people.

I am doing a show at the Chop Shop in April, and the Burns Twins are playing as well as Kaina. They go on right after me. Most of them are the people that play with me, so I won’t be playing with them, because it’s awkward to have them play after with their own band you know? It would be so silly. So I’ll just play solo.

They make a lot of time for a lot of people, like Brian Sanborn, he plays with everybody. He just got back from tour with Noname and he’s now going to SXSW, then going on tour with Smino, and then in between he honestly just plays with whoever wants him to play. It really speaks to how sweet and humble these people are, and how much they really care about music.

When did you start making music?

I guess it was when my friend Pete in Minnesota sent me these beats that [became] the three full songs on Divine Love. I saw him in September of 2015 when i was visiting a friend, and I remember he had this beat tape he had made and I would listen to it, but it wasn’t until years later when I saw him I remembered. And I was like ‘Pete, send me some beats so I can write some songs for them.’ That was honestly when I maybe officially started making music.

Wow, so very recent!

I mean, when I learned how to play guitar in high school I was writing songs, but… you know.

Was it too much pressure to consider yourself a musician?

Oh, I definitely didn’t consider myself a musician at all. I was so self conscious about it and insecure about my own musical talent.

Why was that?

I really just didn’t think I was any good. I probably wasn’t great, but I did a lot of theater and musicals, so I that was the only way I was really musically involved. What it was, I think, is that I was trying to achieve something that wasn’t my forte. One of the reasons I feel like I am able to do the things I do now is because I know what I can and can’t do. When I was younger, I had an idea of what it meant to be a good singer or musician, and I tried to do that, and that’s just shit I couldn’t do. Probably the biggest shift was just knowing and identifying what i can do well, and doing that.

Comparison and imposter syndrome definitely stops a lot of growth.

Yeah, and that doesn’t mean you can’t get better. You’re always going to get better and learn more.

Yeah, that definitely ties into ‘making it.’ I think if you can make a difference to one person, than you succeeded.

Yeah, I just had this conversation with a friend recently. He said ‘Just to have had your music touch anybody or have anyone care about what you’ve done, that is really special.’

Where you’re at now and what you’ve learned–what are some tips you could give a younger person who’s trying to express themselves in a similar manner?

These may sound very cliche, but listen to lots and lots of music—and lots of different kinds of music. Music is amazing and infinite. And when it comes to writing, just read a lot, that kind of consumption can help. Also, not just listening to music, but also seeing music live can change everything. And lastly—surround yourself with supportive people who are also talented, because I think that most of my inspiration to be better and to figure out where it is I wanna go comes from the people around me who I care about, I am truly inspired by them.

On the next EP, can we expect much of the same, or something different?

It has a tentative title, but I won’t say out loud. I feel like my style and my skill has shifted a lot. On the next EP,. I am trying to work more from scratch so there will be maybe two or three songs written on my guitar. As exciting as it is, Chicago is very saturated with so many talented young women—R&B [and] hip-hop vocalists—and I am interested in how I can set myself apart from that.

—Rich Gutierrez

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