To be a Tinashe fan is to constantly brace yourself for disappointment. Canceled tours, delayed albums, and lackluster singles have all contributed to a rough year for the singer. And now she’s come under fire for an interview with The Guardian in which she spoke about colorism in the black community.
In comments that she has since called “out of context” on Twitter, Tinashe said: “There’s colorism involved in the black community, which is very apparent. It’s about trying to find a balance where I’m a mixed woman, and sometimes I feel like I don’t fully fit into the black community; they don’t fully accept me, even though I see myself as a black woman. That disconnect is confusing sometimes. I am what I am.”
The interview caused an immediate backlash on social media, with many pointing out that lighter skin on a black artist makes it easier to be sold to white audiences (damn, just watch Dreamgirls). This prompted Tinashe to call out The Guardian’s Michael Cragg as misconstruing her words. According to her, the article was framed as a discussion “about success in music, where as [sic] the conversation we had was about my experiences growing up in general.”
Regardless of the intent, it’s not the first time that Tinashe has brought up colorism in the context of her career. In a 2016 cover story with Complex, speaking about her childhood, Tinashe said: “Nobody wanted to fuck with me. As far as the guys go, nobody wanted to like me or date me. They’d talk to me in secret and then at school they’d ignore me. Literally ignore me to my face. And psychologically that messes with you. It makes you feel that you must be genuinely unattractive if this person doesn’t want anyone to know that you even talk. That’s bad.”
Tinashe once again seemed to suggest that even those comments were out of context in a tweet—“…things are completely taken out of context. As they have been here.”—which begs the question, if people keep misquoting you when you’re talking about something as sensitive as race, why hasn’t Tinashe elaborated on her intentions? Despite Tinashe’s tweets, The Guardian piece has not been updated with a correction and she did not directly address The Guardian or the writer in her tweets. It’s unfortunate that Tinashe has a troubled history when it comes to being mixed race (her mother is Danish and her father Zimbabwean), but it’s odd that she continues to bring up the narrative of the black community not accepting her while never addressing racism from the white community. It’s perhaps why fans have inferred that Tinashe blames a lack of support from black consumers as the reason for her stalled career and not her white fans.
If we’re being honest, light skin in the black community isn’t uncommon. First, there are different shades of black skin due to your ancestors’ birthplace. Second, due to hundreds of years of slavery and sexual exploitation from Europeans, most black Americans possess at least partial European ancestry. This is why children with two black parents will often vary wildly in skin tone. With a Zimbabwean name like Tinashe and no knowledge of her having a white mother, she was marketed as a black artist. A light-skinned black woman, yes, but with a debut single like DJ Mustard's “2 On,” always as a black artist. It should come as no surprise, then, that “2 On” is her highest-charting single, landing at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100.
It was after this, however, that Tinashe began to engage in freestyling that betrayed her marketing. Her debut album, Aquarius, was sexy and sleek R&B with hints of Aaliyah and Janet Jackson. But it was chasing after white consumers by adding an ill-advised Iggy Azalea to the “All Hands on Deck” track that started Tinashe’s downfall. She returned to R&B with the critically lauded single “Player,” which earned 1.3 million Spotify spins in its first week and landed in the top 10 on the R&B charts—but it eluded the Hot 100. Having Chris Brown featured on the track probably didn’t help. After this, Tinashe abandoned her successful formula for a string of pop-flavored songs. “Superlove” tried to ape Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” crossover success, but the song once again didn’t chart despite critical acclaim. Her follow-up single “Company” faltered as well, partly due to a lack of promotion.
It was at this point that Tinashe’s Joyride tour was canceled and claims of her still-unreleased second album’s title track being swiped by Rihanna’s camp surfaced. Tinashe confirmed the rumors, though she was quick to point out: “I don’t know if it was personally Rihanna.” Regardless, she also blamed her label RCA for over-promoting Zayn Malik instead of their other artists. An attempt to earn both her and Britney Spears a hit with a remix of “Slumber Party” also failed, probably due to the fact that Tinashe merely sang pre-existing lyrics. Remix it wasn’t. Tinashe’s latest single, “Flame,” which also hasn’t charted, was released in March and sounded like a Carly Rae Jepsen B-side. A far cry from the second coming of Ciara that Tinashe was touted as when she first hit the scene in 2014.
Speaking of Ciara, it’s not hard to see the similarities between both artists. Ciara started out as the “Queen of Crunk&B,” with artists like Missy Elliott, Ludacris, and Jazze Pha as her co-signs. Since then, she’s tried pop-flavored music that hasn’t done well (save for “Love Sex Magic” with Justin Timberlake). It was actually 2013’s “Body Party” that rescued Ciara from a series of chart failures—a tune that sampled Ghost Town DJ’s “My Boo” and returned Ciara to her R&B roots. She and Tinashe have both tried straying from the artists they were marketed as very early on in their careers to gain crossover white appeal, without establishing a loyal fan base first.
Which isn’t to lay all the blame on Tinashe. Her label is just as culpable for disregarding the potential for a black fan base in order to make her a crossover pop superstar. Where Tinashe’s complaints are very real are when she asserted, “If you’re a black woman, you’re either Beyoncé or Rihanna. It’s very, very strange.” The music industry doesn’t seem to know how to market you unless you’re Beyoncé or Rihanna, and even then Beyoncé has had to prove herself multiple times before she could become the global sensation she is now, and Rihanna had two albums under her belt before she broke out with “Umbrella.” Unfortunately for Tinashe, she seems to be stuck between the whims of an indifferent label and a string of interviews with white journalists who don’t further interrogate her discussions about race in the music industry (both The Guardian and Complex stories were written by white men).
It’s not easy to manufacture a pop star. You have to first allow the artist to make the kind of music they want to make and build a fan base before choosing to abandon that fan base in order to sell tour merchandise to blond teenagers. But if there’s one thing you can say about Tinashe it’s that she’s tenacious. As she told The Guardian, “However long it takes, I know I will get to my end goal. I’m never going to stop. I will make music forever.”
Hopefully, it won’t take forever.