Prior to her bustling music career, Tinashe was a child actor looking for her big break. It was clear that she was set for stardom after acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert noticed her in 2003's Masked & Anonymous, and while the movie wasn't much of a hit, Tinashe was a clear standout. Although her major entrance into the music business would arrive years later as a member of a girl group, Tinashe's entertainment aspirations have existed since she was a small child practicing her moves in ballet and jazz dance classes. However, her path in pursuing music hasn't been a straight line as the twists and turns of industry expectations have often derailed her personal ambitions. As a woman navigating her now-independent career, Tinashe Kachingwe has seen and experienced it all—and she's sat down with us to share her insights.

In our new series, Ladies First, we'll be chatting with female artists in Hip Hop and R&B as they share with us their personal stories of what they've experienced as women in music. The artists are at varying stages of their careers, as well as maintaining differing approaches to their crafts, and we hope to shed more light on the ever-increasing impact that women have in the culture. From the Old School artists that pioneered Hip Hop to New School entertainers who are blurring genre lines as they experiment with untapped sounds, it is impossible to ignore the overwhelming influence of women's voices.

tinashe new interview
Image provided by the artist. Photo credit: Marcus Cooper

We're launching Ladies First at the top of Women's History Month with the help of Tinashe who has been storming the alternative space in Hip Hop, R&B, and Pop. Over the years, the 29-year-old has often surfaced with complaints about being boxed in by record labels or even dismissed as she chased musical avenues that executives didn't deem as profitable. Her 2014 debut studio album Aquarius continues to be hailed by fans as one of the best records from her catalog, and with each new release, including her recently praised 333, Tinashe seems to be breaking down barriers that have been set in place by the industry.

"I guess nowadays, I’ve really been focusing on not limiting myself to any particular genre and basically just my own perception of what I think R&B should sound like, or [what] pop should sound like, or an artist, what kind of music they should make," she told us. "I think being free of those limitations has allowed me to make better music. I think my projects have become really well-rounded and I love being able to have that range. I love being able to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, like, that seems really natural and true to who I am as a person."

In our wide-ranging interview with the singer, Tinashe spoke candidly with us about her industry obstacles, the importance of keeping women on her team when handling business, the advice she received from Madonna, keeping her personal life from social media's prying eyes—all while praising her peers including Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, Normani, and Chlöe x Halle. 

The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.


HNHH: Thank you so much for catching up with us for Ladies First. Let's start off by touching on a topic you spoke about a year or two ago. I know you've been vocal about the struggles you had with your previous label when trying to establish yourself as a Pop artist, but they wanted to keep you within their vision of R&B. Can you talk more about that?

Tinashe: When I was at a label and I was in situations where maybe I was new and people were trying to get to know me, it seemed so hard to kind of put me in a box where I also rejected being put in a box. I didn’t want to be stuck with an R&B label, I felt like that was a limited space to be in or there was a ceiling to that space, and I didn’t want to just limit myself. And then, I think when I started experimenting in more of the Pop space, it was just interesting to see how, maybe, there wasn’t the infrastructure ready for me to make that leap within the company. I don’t think they really knew how to understand what I was serving. My music is somewhere in between, and it takes elements of Hip Hop and R&B and Pop and Dance and Alternative and whatever I’m inspired by—kind of combines them all together.

"I didn’t want to be stuck with an R&B label, I felt like that was a limited space to be in or there was a ceiling to that space, and I didn’t want to just limit myself. And then, I think when I started experimenting in more of the Pop space, it was just interesting to see how, maybe, there wasn’t the infrastructure ready for me to make that leap within the company."

So, to kind of make it feel really easy to consume in that sense, like, easy to understand from like a Pop-radio-guy-white-man type thing, I was maybe even a little too edgy for them or a little too, I don’t know, I didn’t fit into this perfect version of what I should be in either genre. So, I ended up just feeling like I was stuck in some kind of gray area, which wasn’t fun [laughs]. And I think instead of feeling like I was stuck in that, now I’ve just taken control of it and used it to empower myself, and I think people are at the point now where they can understand that my versatility isn’t like a lack of direction or confusion about who I am or what I want to make, but it’s more so just a celebration of all the different things that make me, me, or I’m inspired by.

Recently, we spoke with Salt-N-Pepa and asked them what advice they had for younger female artists in the industry. Salt said she would tell them to know the industry and ins and outs of their business dealings. In a male-dominated space, it can be easy to be taken advantage of. Having gone through that and evolved in that, what obstacles did you face as a woman that would be the greatest struggle for you?

I think the biggest thing is, just the nature of, honestly, I think the music industry, in general, is very— they tend to consume it and then discard it. So there’s like a very consumption mindset when it comes to artists, when it comes to music. We don’t have to worry about them in 10 years, five years, this is really just like, “Let’s take this song, let’s use it all up, Let’s take this new artist, let’s use them all up,” and then it’s onto the next. And I think that’s kind of the era we are in where there’s just so many artists, there is so much content, and to be able to find some longevity in that is really, really difficult nowadays. So, I think to fight against that system, or I guess that societal norm, that things are disposable, to continue to release content, to continue to push when people are like counting you out.

And the other thing which is obvious, obviously you’re a woman, so you’ve experienced it, we all have, which is the competition factor, where they do pit us against one another, and it’s not necessarily our fault that we’re fighting for this one seat at the table or two seats at the table. I think the music industry does an amazing job at doing that with women, and so that’s definitely something that’s hard to do. And like you also mentioned, I came on the scene when I was 20 and I would be in these sessions by myself, 99 percent of the time with older men who had made all these records before. Male engineers, male writers, just the whole environment. 

"When you’re a young woman in those environments it’s easy for them to not respect you as a creative."

When you’re a young woman in those environments it’s easy for them to not respect you as a creative. Like, maybe they respect you as a person, maybe. Maybe. But as a creative, in terms of like, “Oh, her ideas are good ideas,” or maybe, “We should make the song how she wants to make it,” or maybe, “She has something to say.” I think that it took me a while, when I was in those spaces, to feel confident in my perspective as a creative because I felt a sense of pressure to make myself smaller, or make my opinions less important. Like, “You guys know the hits,” “You guys know… I’m just this young girl who just came here…” And I had an opinion the whole time, but it was a learning process to realize how I could express it, to not take no for an answer. To realize, “No, I’m the boss. This is my song. This is my music. I have to be the face of this, I have to perform this for the next 25 years or however long." So, I think it was really hard being a young woman with no representation and to be able to get that respect, it took some years. It took years of me being in those places., people seeing me in those places to understand, “She’s a real artist, she’s not just like a cute girl who got signed.”

I can’t imagine being young and, in general, just personally trying to find your own voice, even just in your everyday life.

Yes, you’re trying to find that already.

And then you’re in a room full of creatives and people who are established, and then factor in that they’re men, and you’re trying to have your own artistic space, especially as a creative. Another artist, a female rapper, spoke about trying to work with male producers in the studio, only to be pressured with sexual advances. Do you think that there is, for this generation and the next, that it would be important for women to work with more women in production and women as writers? There are a lot of female writers that are coming into their own as performers, and kind of getting out of that shadow, becoming artists themselves. Is there a need for this sort of womanhood in the studio as well as on the stage? Is it necessary?

Absolutely. I think we protect each other. I think we empower each other. I think having women around me has helped me to feel much more safe and much more empowered by my own self as an artist. Now I have a female lawyer, my whole team is women! My lawyer, my glam team, my management, my business manager. There’s just a lot of women in my direct creative circle and I think that that helps me feel just more safe, really. And yeah, I think as far as artist to artist, I think we champion one another and support each other...it makes a huge difference when new artists come on the scene they don’t feel like they have to compete with each other. I think that that’s really important.

"Now I have a female lawyer, my whole team is women! My lawyer, my glam team, my management, my business manager. There’s just a lot of women in my direct creative circle and I think that that helps me feel just more safe, really."

Speaking of that with “artist to artist,” who within your peers, in this generation, do you see as someone you admire? Not even just one, it could be several people.

I mean, there’s so many women now that are just like doing it that I’m just so happy to see. Chlöe x Halle, Normani, Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, like the list literally goes on and on. There’s a billion people that I’m so happy to see their success and young Black women, it’s amazing. Definitely a lot more than when I first got in the game. So, I’m just really happy for all the girls, they’re doing amazing.

Normani, Chloe, Anitta, Tinashe
Stefanie Keenan / Contributor / Getty Images

And if there was anyone, whether it’s in that same peer group or someone that is just legendary or iconic, if you had the opportunity to interview any woman that is an artist, who would it be, and what would you want to ask? What would be the focal point of that conversation?

Honestly, I would probably want to interview Janet Jackson just because she’s like my hero and I feel like she has a very, very, very interesting story and very interesting perspective on the music industry. She’s seen it change so many times throughout her career and I think the biggest thing that I would ask her is just like, at the moments where it maybe it seemed like everybody was counting her out, or at the moments where she felt like she had to fight an uphill battle...what was it, what did you tell yourself [to keep going]?

"I would probably want to interview Janet Jackson just because she’s like my hero and I feel like she has a very, very, very interesting story and very interesting perspective on the music industry."

Janet Jackson has had all these different eras of life; Control Janet, Rhythm Nation Janet, and then you get to the red hair, Velvet Rope Janet [laughs]. I also wanted to touch on the need that women sometimes have, they feel as if they need to be co-signed by a man, right? Many successful women in the industry received their launch with the help of a male artist publicly supporting them without those men having to be involved in developing their careers. Do you think this will continue in the future?

I hope so. I still think the way that it’s set up, that that still gives you a huge advantage because, for some reason, especially among other artists, I feel like male artists are very uncomfortable showing support for female artists, publicly...unless, they’re signed to them. They do that with their male friends, they support and collaborate and work with each other all the time, and there’s this sense of a kind of boys club. Especially in Hip Hop. I think that it’s really interesting that it almost seems like women can’t really penetrate that club unless they are signed to these people. And I remember when I first got on the scene, bigger artists asking me to sign to them, and me just being like, "No, I really want to create my own legacy, my own path," and just thinking back, it probably would’ve helped. In terms of getting that co-sign, it always helps. 

I hope that that’s where we can go in the future. I still think that that’s something that still makes a really big difference and I think that’s something to be said about the industry when it comes to male artists supporting women in general. I just think there should be a lot more of it, personally.

What encouragement or advice have you received either from a woman in your life or a woman in the industry who has said something that stuck with you, that you’ve held close in each stage of your career?

The biggest advice that I got that has just hit me, like really stuck in there, I’ve never forgotten: I met Madonna, and I just asked her, “What’s one piece of advice you’d be willing to give me?” You’re Madonna, you’re Queen.

It’s Madonna, you have to ask.

Madonna! And she was like, “Don’t compare yourself to anyone, and don’t take sh*t from anyone.” And, it’s really easy to say "don’t take sh*t from anyone" but that’s really important. It really is. Because that can be a very slippery slope when you start making compromises to your artistry or what you want to do, and before you know it, all of a sudden, the final product will feel like it didn’t come from your soul. So, I think it’s really important to kind of like, gatekeep your creativity and don’t let people tell you sh*t. Don’t let them. And then the, don’t compare yourself to each other, don’t compare yourself to other women, don’t compare yourself to anyone—that’s just amazing advice for anyone out there, I think, with social media where we’re constantly seeing how everyone else is doing, all the amazing things our peers are achieving. It’s just so, so, so important to know that your place is really valid and you don’t have to compete with other people. You don’t have to feed into that energy at all. That’s something I have to remind myself all the time. It’s like a work in progress. It's a constant practice.

Tinashe

Speaking of social media, there are only certain artists and I count you as one of them, that are able to have this really fine line of, "My personal life is my business, and what I show you is what I allow for you to see." I think there are artists, especially women, who feel as if they have to put everything out there in order to one-up the next guy because everyone wants to be relatable, "We’re all family, this is my living room, this is what I ate for dinner." How are you able to maintain that line of, "This is none of your business," and still have people feel so connected and close?

I think it’s interesting because I feel like I’ve always had some sense of separation within myself between who I am as an artist and who I am as a person. They’re both me. They’re both equally me, but they feel like I’m clocking into work. I’m making this art. I’m doing my thing as an artist versus okay, now I’m like off the clock, I’m just hanging out with my family, and I’m just being who I really am and like I said, not that those are two different people, but I think having some sense of separation is really healthy. You're able to put even more into the artistry because all of the messy and personal stuff we go through can really bog down your art, and I just hate to see it when people who are really talented and then they get caught up in all sorts of drama online and this-that-the-third. It’s almost like, you know people love drama, they love drama, so if you give them an inch, they’re going to take it so far.

Anytime that I’ve been involved in any kind of drama, you realize this is just not fun. It’s not something that is important to me in order to maintain relevancy. I’d much rather focus on creating really good art and really dope content and letting that speak for itself and, you know, still being able to share my personal life to a certain extent because I think the best way to do that is through the art. And then, the best way to transmute anything that I’m going through emotionally or how I’m feeling if I’m going through a rough time is to write a really good song. Or like on Valentine’s Day, make a video where I’m killing somebody because I’m single [laughs]. It’s nice to be able to transmute your feelings and put them into something that you can be proud of that’s a piece of art that other people can consume and look at. So, that’s what I’m trying to do.

Mentioning art, I know we talked about longevity...what kind of imprint and impact do you believe that you have currently, do you see yourself having, or do you want to have in the years to come when people look back at your career?

I really hope that the way I am conducting myself, and the choices that I’ve been making in my career are inspiring to other artists who are coming on the scene and can inspire them to feel empowered in their business, to create their own companies, to be able to own their own music, to be able to release their own music. I think eventually, these systems will go away. I don’t think that they’re going away tomorrow or next week, but eventually, we’ll look back like, "Oh, that was really cool that Tinashe was able to help pave the way for people having way more control of their music and their art." I just hope that that’s something I can demonstrate for young women and other artists. You know, there are so many artists that are signed to labels who hate it and are miserable and feel like they aren’t empowered in their own artistry, and I would like to see them be able to separate themselves and take control because I think it’s for the good of mankind—the art will be better, and then everything will be better.

And then humanity will be better [laughs].

Yeah! And then the stars will align! [laughs] And everything will be amazing. I hope I can inspire people by [telling them] just to not stop. If you’re doing something, and you have a career, there’s going to be ups and there’s gonna be downs there’s gonna be years when you are popping there’s gonna be years when you are not. I believe when you think about your career and you think about the big picture, it’s really important to zoom out. Look at the big picture, and just think about it as a long game. Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Don’t get discouraged because you put out an album people didn’t like or something. So yeah, and then in terms of my whole legacy what do I want to represent? I don’t know, just creativity and freedom to like make anything you want: a little of this, a little of that. That’s my favorite thing.

This is my last question, I ask it to everybody. What is something about the heart of who you are as a person that people don’t often get to see because of the veil of celebrity? Like, even in this interview between you and me, I have a perception of who you are just based on the information I’ve gathered, but that isn’t necessarily you, and the same way with your fans, they see you a certain way. What is something about you, as a human being stripped of the fame, that is unseen?

Probably my sensitivity. I think it’s easy when we see people constantly just putting out material, that sometimes people forget there’s a human being underneath that still is going through their own perception of themselves. That’s a whole thing, as well. Sometimes, me going through my own demons and feeling like I’m not good enough or I made the wrong decision or how did I end up in this career path when I had this whole vision, it was supposed to be one thing, it was supposed to be A now it's B...I think that it’s really, if anything, people just don’t understand that I’m probably more sensitive than it seems. I go through a lot more than I put online or that I represent. Thank god I have my family unit because I think they really keep me grounded and anytime I feel like I'm losing myself mentally, they always help get me on track. But yeah, I think in general, I think it’s understanding that people are human. Just like be kind, understand that we’re all going through it, in a way.

"I think that it’s really, if anything, people just don’t understand that I’m probably more sensitive than it seems. I go through a lot more than I put online or that I represent."

That’s so perfect. Thank you so much for your time.

Thank you!

Make sure to stream Tinashe's recently released deluxe version of her album, 333.