“I feel like I’m in an interrogation!” Tierra Whack says as we descend into the basement diner of a Jamaican jerk restaurant in east London. I haven’t actually asked anything yet, but it’s dark and we’re seated face-to-face across the kind of booth Tarantino characters might use to get their story straight. The Philadelphia rapper is in town ahead of her feverishly-anticipated debut UK headline show, which sold out in 60 seconds, prompting a capacity-doubling venue switch to Village Underground in Shoreditch, where she plays tonight. A server arrives and lights a candle on our table, so it’s now a pleasantly lit interrogation, at least.
Following the breakout success of Whack World, a fantastically ambitious 15-track, 15-minute visual album that introduced Whack’s unique talent to the world in 2018 (it was Dazed’s Album of the Year), Whack picked up a Grammy nomination for her “Mumbo Jumbo” video; declared early 2019 #WhackHistoryMonth, releasing a single each week for five weeks; played her biggest festival stages to date at Coachella in April; and earned a place on the Dazed 100. You might think a sold-out UK show would come as no surprise, but Whack seems genuinely psyched. “When I came here two years ago, nobody knew me, I was just sightseeing,” she says. “I loved it so much, and I told myself, ‘Yo, when I come back here, I want to have a show.’ And I sold out a show!”
Tierra Whack, which is her real name, was born in Philadelphia in 1995, and last year we visited her hometown to make a documentary. “North Philly to be exact. Projects; which is like, not really good. It’s considered the hood. Not a neighborhood, the hood,” she says. Her mother was a nursing assistant (now a qualified nurse), and Whack remembers her struggle to improve their situation, moving the family to safer and more affluent areas whenever she could afford to, and encouraging Whack and her siblings’ interests. “I was my mom’s oldest child, so she was like, watching closely and taking notes, like, ‘Okay, this is what she gravitates towards’, and she gave me all the tools to keep me focused,” Whack says. “I liked to write; she got me notebooks. I wanted to draw; she got me sketch books and crayons and coloured pencils.”
There can’t be many rappers who namecheck children’s books and TV shows among their most important influences, but Whack reels them off as if they were hip hop canon: the grinning lunacy of No, David! by David Shannon; the playful, bright and diverse life of Sesame Street; and the psychedelically strange worlds of Dr. Seuss. “I wish I was a kid,” Whack says. “I never wanted to grow up. It really is a trap.” The surrealist humour and childlike energy of these early influences shine through Whack’s music videos, from the nail art puppetry of “Bugs Life”, to a banquet of diamonds and pearls, eaten with chopsticks, in “Hungry Hippos”.
A school poetry assignment sparked Whack’s interest in writing for herself. Being given the choice to write about whatever she wanted (“just to express, freely”) was a revelation. She resolved to write every day, filling notebooks so quickly her mum began to buy in bulk, to save herself multiple trips to the store. From her obsession with Dr. Seuss books, Whack already knew she loved the feeling of reading rhyming verse aloud; then, she had an epiphany. “I'm in the backseat of my mom’s car. She was playing rap music: DMX; Jay Z; Biggie, she loves Biggie so much; 50 Cent – and I’m like, ‘Oh, they’re rhyming. Rhyming is rap. Poetry is rap. Rap is poetry’.” Whack asked her uncle to burn her a CD of beats, and she began to write bars.
“I wish I was a kid. I never wanted to grow up. It really is a trap” – Tierra Whack
The story from here is the stuff of Philadelphia freestyle legend. Tierra Whack is in the car with her mum when they drive past a group of men rapping in a cypher and filming it. Whack recognises the logo, WERUNTHESTREETS, as a blog and channel that she’s seen local Philly rappers like Meek Mill, Reed Dollaz, Joey Jihad, and Quilly Millz performing on. “My mom saw, and she was like, ‘This is all she does – she writes all day, her poems and raps and stuff. This is a chance to get out and show somebody’,” Whack says. “I was like, ‘Mom, I only do it to my friends, and you, some family members’, but she’s like, ‘No, no, get out and say a little rap’. So I did it. And they were like, ‘Oh, that was pretty cool’.”
This is an understatement. Posted online the very same night, with the headline ‘15YR OLD DIZZLE DIZZ TACKLE WERUNTHESTREETS... AND BLESS THE CAMERA’ (Dizzle Dizz was an early moniker), Whack’s freestyle went viral, picking up tens of thousands of hits, and a lot of hype. “Philly has the BEST SPITTERS!!! dis jawn needa be on worldstar yo,” one commenter wrote. “You got to be stupid not to put her own she tight!!! And need to have an album asap or mixtape!!!” another added, with a third concluding, “SHE FLAMES BOTTOM LINE”. From here, Whack became a regular on the cypher scene, writing raps every day, freestyling a hundred miles a minute on the radio alongside Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, and on DJ Cosmic Kev’s influential Come Up Show on Power 99. Then, riding high on a wave of local fame, Whack made the surprising decision to leave town.
“I got bored,” Whack says. “Just freestyling. The same thing, for like, a few years: writing a rap every day – for what? There wasn't any growth.” Not only did she want to branch out creatively, she knew there was no money in just turning up to freestyle for anyone who asked. So she moved – with her mum, brother and sister – to Atlanta, finished high school, got a job at a car wash, saved up for a laptop, and began experimenting with her voice and trying to write full songs. She kept a low profile. “At that time I was popping in Philly so young. So in Atlanta, I didn’t really want any attention, I just wanted time to myself, to like figure myself out,” she says. Two years later, with a laptop full of new music, she felt ready to return.
I begin to ask about her reemergence onto the Philly scene, when Whack jumps in to ask if I’m using the pen I’ve been idly rolling between my fingers above an empty page. “Can I use it?” she asks, and I hand it over. She briefly accepts some paper, before deciding against it. “It's fine – that’s your notebook, and a napkin is cooler anyways,” she says, starting to doodle on the dark green tissue. I worry that she’s tired of my questions, but actually she begins to relax and open up (perhaps finally able to extract herself from a sense of ‘interrogation’ by retreating a little into the familiar torrent of her own imagination). Tierra Whack seemed to arrive fully-formed when Whack World catapulted her to a global stage, but she admits to feeling frustrated when people assume that her success came in an instant, erasing the struggle that came before.
“If I can make it through homelessness, I can make it through anything” – Tierra Whack
What does she wish people knew about her life, pre-fame? “That I was homeless for three months when I came back (to Philly),” she says. “I lived out of storage, and from friends’ and family’s houses, because nobody really let me stay with them. It was rough.” She could have gone back to her mum in Atlanta, but she was desperately trying to make her music known, and Philadelphia was where she needed to be. How did she get through it, and come out the other side? “Music. Really just music,” she says. Coming from another artist, the answer could easily seem trite, but Whack is deadly serious. “I was doing really bad, but I just stuck with music and kept my job (washing dishes) the whole time,” she says.
From empathising with the existential dread of a potato in “Unemployed”, to deciphering the emotions behind the gleaming rictus grins in “Mumbo Jumbo”, it’s clear that Tierra Whack’s art works on levels beyond the zany, cartoonish surface. Though she describes the process of songwriting and generating music video concepts as if it were simply a case of plucking ideas from her brain like low hanging fruit, it is uncanny how Whack’s work seems able to tap into universal emotions, inviting a multiplicity of interpretations. I don’t mean to suggest that Whack is some kind of idiot-savant; but considering her inspiration mostly comes from the hyper-specific and apparently quotidian, she does have a mercurial talent for channeling the changing winds of contemporary culture through her free-associated streams of consciousness.
I had wondered whether “Mumbo Jumbo” was a reference to Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel of the same name – a satire on race, religion, and black power that was reissued in 2017, and was an influence on Grace Wales Bonner’s Serpentine exhibition – but Whack says she’s never heard of the book. She wrote the song after a trip to the dentist that left her tongue lazy with anesthetic. “‘Mumbo Jumbo’ is a bunch of like, blalalala,” she says, which explains the mumbled nonsense-lyrics and the terrifying dental surgery in the video, but not the dusty dystopia she finds outside the clinic, where her own forced smile is mirrored by destitute wretches, grinning inanely amid the desperation of the scene.
You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to recognise that humans often retreat into imaginary worlds in order to process difficult feelings and protect themselves from the trauma of reality. And Whack says as much herself, linking the vibrant life of her mind, and her obsessive creativity, with feelings of social isolation as a child; cloaking the discomfort of seeming somehow ‘different’ to other kids (compounded by the upheaval of moving house a lot) under a blanket of fantasy. “I spent a lot of time in my head, but not like caring about what everybody else thought, just literally in my own world,” she says.
Whack has an energy that radiates like an aura. Not one of effervescent good luck, or head-in-sand enthusiasm, but a determination and humble belief in her ability to work hard and be great. “If I can make it through homelessness, I can make it through anything,” she says. As the accolades and industry cosigns pile up – from Missy Elliott, Solange, Vince Staples, Janelle Monaé, and more – Tierra Whack is determined not to lose herself in the shark-infested waters of fame. She remembers her Grammy nomination mostly when journalists bring it up, and has a healthy scepticism of shiny institutional trinkets. “If I get an award, that's cool. If I get nominated, that’s really cool. But I’m focused on creating art, having fun and enjoying life,” she says, handing me the doodled napkin as a parting gift. “I’m on my journey.”