Tierra Whack's Labor Of Self-Love, From Car Wash To Critical Mass
On a sun-baked intersection of Ponce de Leon Avenue, a street named for the Spanish colonizer whose false claim to fame was discovering the fountain of youth, sits one of the most conspicuous cultural attractions in Atlanta. Mister Car Wash may be the busiest destination of its kind in a Southern capital where car washes are outnumbered only slightly by churches and chicken wing stops. It also happens to be the location of a pivotal pit stop in the rapid rise of one of hip-hop's brightest new stars.
Five summers before Philly native Tierra Whack reinvented the music video with Whack World — the ADHD-friendly audiovisual project of 15 60-second songs that made her 2018's darling of innovation — she could be found soaking up suds in that same corner lot. This was her first job, the detour in Whack's origin story on her way to shifting the culture with 15 minutes of Internet magic. In a sense, the car wash wound up being the springboard to her future.
Now she's so far gone that the biggest award show in the music industry can't even keep up. When the Recording Academy nominated Whack in the best music video category for the 2019 Grammys, most fans naturally assumed she'd earned the recognition for her groundbreaking debut, Whack World. She had not. (Even Wikipedia got it wrong: At press time, the first graph of Whack's wiki entry still read that Whack World received "a Best Music Video nomination for the 2019 Grammy Awards.") Instead, her Grammy nod is for "Mumbo Jumbo," the avant-grotesque loosie of a music video released in October 2017 that introduced Whack's deranged sense of humor and earned high praise from her earliest celebrity adopter, Solange Knowles.
Technically, Whack World isn't eligible for a Best Music Video nomination: It's an album, not a song; a short film more than a short form video. But the disconnect is also a classic case of the Grammys being the Grammys. Whack may have captured the zeitgeist, but conquering the Academy's chronic come-lately miscategorizing of popular music — and of works by black artists, in particular — is a whole other thing. What's worse is it comes one year after Neil Portnow, outgoing president and CEO of the Recording Academy, had the nerve to suggest that the dearth of women nominated in 2018 could be rectified if only female artists would "step up." Yet, even the wrong recognition from the right institution is confirmation of the distance Whack has come. "It doesn't matter what I'm getting nominated for," she tells me, expressing gratitude during a recent conversation. "It's all my work."
And so it is.
Though it's fashionable to ascribe all sorts of magical properties to black girls nowadays, Whack World is a product of playful invention. The idea of work — coupled with the historic devaluation of black women's labor in this country — permeates the backstory behind Whack's creative evolution. It's easy to be wowed by her nonstop oddity; the harder part is acknowledging the foresight of an artist who defies easy categorization. Her brief but stunning debut isn't the only thing being grossly overlooked. It shouldn't be lost on anyone that the same drive she applied to make a gambit out of grinding at a car wash propelled Whack to step up in an industry notoriously wack at recognizing next-level talent.
Old-school car washes like the one on Ponce are designed to feel like existential carnival rides for customers who want the thrill of a cathartic purge without ever having to get their hands wet. The 20-year-old landmark is on its second life since being swallowed up by the national Mister Car Wash chain around 2012, the same summer Whack worked there. The street has undergone its own dramatic makeover since the late '90s, from eccentric cultural crossroads to something resembling a gentrified gateway today. I used to get my car washed there all the time back when it was still called Cactus. A huge, green, cartoonish cactus sign stood out front, like some kind of desert oasis, beckoning a never-ending stream of automobiles that spilled onto the main street all day on the weekends. Sometimes it felt like the most desegregated corner lot in all of Atlanta. From soccer moms in minivans to rap stars pushing Maseratis, everybody pulled up.
Tierra Whack and her mother moved from Philly around 2011 in pursuit of a fresh start in Atlanta, where she finished her senior year at Westlake High School. Atlanta trap had already infiltrated the sound of music by then. The city that transmuted hip-hop would influence Whack's creative approach, too, but not in the obvious way. While most aspiring artists come to Atlanta to get discovered, she'd come to get lost. "I needed to get away from Philly, where I was born and raised," says Whack, who'd already garnered a rep in her hometown as a freestyle rapper-on-the-rise known as Dizzle Dizz. "I needed a break. I isolated myself. It was kinda like I took time off from home to go explore."
The car wash became an unlikely finishing school. "They kept asking me, 'Are you sure you want this job?'" Whack recalls. "I saw so many people quit the first day, 'cause it was too hard. It's crazy. It's so humid. It gets so hot out there. And that car wash is pumping, so you gotta keep 'em pushin'." She worked as a finisher on the production line. She wiped the cars down after they exited the tunnel of spinning swirl-o-matics. She vacuumed the interiors and shined the rims. She wore a yellow shirt with dookie green pants. On a typical day during the six months she was employed there after graduation, she'd spend 14 hours at the car wash. The sun was oppressively hot in the summer, reaching 110 degrees on the concrete, and Whack was often the only woman working the line. She made minimum wage. But she earned a lot of tips.
"I was killing them," she told me during the first conversation we had, crediting her work ethic to her mother. "Yeah, I was with the guys. I was cleaning the cars. Yo, I made so much money from that job. Like, if rap don't work out, I'm going back there."
Mister Car Wash's general manager, Kim Ogletree, would welcome her return with open arms. The woman who hired Whack still remembers her as a "real good girl" and a "hard worker." Though Ogletree still hadn't even seen Whack World when we talked several months ago, she wasn't surprised to hear how her old employee had blown up. "She was just a memorable person, man," Ogletree tells me. "I'm not saying that just 'cause you're calling and saying she's famous. She just always stood out. Never had a negative attitude about anything. Never complained about the heat. Put it like this, if you can work here you can work anywhere. [With] young people, it's hard to find someone that has a good drive. She always had one, so I knew she was gonna make it. I told her, 'I'm gonna be looking for you on the BET [Hip Hop Awards] cypher."
The job became a practical down payment on her future. She saved up for a Mac laptop and started recording herself. "That was my first investment in myself," she says. "So I had it. I was figuring it out." What she couldn't predict at the time was the subtle effect the job would have on her creative approach. Just imagine Whack, working the line at the busiest car wash in Atlanta, with seven minutes or less to impress a tip-paying customer — wash, rinse, repeat — and you might begin to understand how the job reinforced Whack World's short attention-span theater.
Today, Tierra Whack's job consists of answering more questions. She admits it's the task that she's grown the most tired of since Whack World's release. But after eight months of critical success, it's understandable. "They'll ask the same questions," she says of music journalists. "I'll answer but it's like they'll want more out of you. It's crazy."
What she refuses to entertain is inquiry about her follow-up to Whack World. "I really don't even think about it," she says, remaining tight-lipped about a projected timeline while expressing appreciation for the love and the new fans she gets everyday. "I'm not gonna drive myself crazy. I'm having fun creating what I'm creating."
Since the first time I spoke with her, two months before Whack World dropped, her life has changed in significant ways: her Grammy nomination, her Interscope record deal publicly revealed, the stream of good press culminating in her Fader magazine cover. In other ways — ways she likes — it's very much the same. She still lives at home with her family in Philly, since returning from her two-year stint in Atlanta. "I'm still so down to earth and regular. I still be in the projects, I still be in the hood — just regular," the 23-year-old told me last week. She still picks up weekend shifts as a door person at an upscale condominium.
Day jobs like the car wash have helped Whack realize her dreams, but the work she's plainly engaging in on Whack World is emotional labor. The kind required to repair one's inner world after an adolescence filled with pain. Before the word "weird" became a badge of honor used by critics to describe the dark humor that colors her kaleidoscopic lens, it was a dis she got a lot as a child. "That was a part of me getting teased," she says, recalling how her dark-chocolate complexion made her the butt of jokes growing up in her hometown of Philly. "Me being dark-skinned, that was like a big thing. Growing up, I hated myself. It was, like, weird. Kids are cruel."
Whack World is more than a radical format buster. Whack breaks the rules of convention with 60-second confessions that follow a nonlinear narrative built less on chronology than lyrical wit and abstract logic. "Ninety percent of the time, I'm being silly. But it's like that 10 percent that's still serious. 'Cause life is not sweet. It's good and it's bad. So no matter how much good is going on, the bad is always going to creep up," she says.
As a short film, Whack World finds her dancing along the edges of a resurgent wave of black surrealism that includes Get Out, Sorry to Bother You and Donald Glover's Atlanta. "Afro-Surrealism depicts the realities of contemporary black life through its intersections with the absurd and the unlikely," critic Maya Phillips wrotelast year in Slate. "It's as fluid and true as a dream, though still open to interpretation — art that, in its fluidity, can transcend genre. Is it horror? Is it comedy? Is it a thriller? It's every element of every genre that can be collaged into a picture of contemporary black life."
That dream logic rests at the very heart of Whack World. Directed by Thibaut Duverneix — in close collaboration with Mathieu Leger and Whack, who helped conceptualize the original idea — the album plays out like a free-association brainteaser constructed around Whack's lyrical deconstruction of reality. Each song vignette offers a deeper level of revelation into her black girl's blues. One minute she's a bug-eyed dog groomer with bugged-out melodies ("Flea Market"). The next, she's a homebody in house shoes singing swan songs to an ex-lover less dependable than a jackleg handyman ("Cable Guy"). Her ode to the dead homies, "Pet Cemetery," is set in a cemetery, but with hand puppets serving as her choir while she sings about missing her dawgs. "Hookers" finds her in redux mode, serving up '90s R&B-diva; independence while dissing her sugar daddy's weak attempt to buy her love. In "Sore Loser," it's her turn to exact the heartache on a former fling — "treat you dead like a corpse" — while she raps lying prone in a casket.
All these seemingly disparate characters add up to a portrait of Whack's psychological coming of age. As such, the album roots her in a literary genre typically reserved for men and a music genre historically dominated by them. She conveys it all in a visual language that twists the melancholy into the macabre. Or the maniacal. "I never really thought about this, but just growing up I went through [that] whole thing of getting teased and stuff. The poetry and everything, that really was just, like, my escape. It was always dark but still funny. It's like I was trying to hide my pain. Eventually, I found a way to laugh at my pain," she says.
Whack didn't create her absurdist revenge fantasies to escape reality as much as she did to make sense of it. "With this project, I was trying to just hit almost every emotion. And there's a lot of emotions," she tells me. "I just incorporate everything in my world and give it to you. Everybody's not going to understand, but I'm OK with it. If you take the time out and dig deep, then maybe you'll figure it out. But I'm just trying to be happy for me."
One unintended serendipity of Tierra Whack's weird Grammy nod for "Mumbo Jumbo" is that it's the one song where you can suss out the unmistakable influence Atlanta had on her sound. After originally recording vocal reference tracks, where the lyrics aren't as important as the melody, she decided to leave it that way. The result sounds like an experimental interpretation of mumble rap.
In the video, directed by Marco Prestini, a trip to the dentist ends up being the explanation for her inarticulate flow. Her spin on Atlanta trap is more whimsical and emotionally resonant than the subgenre's expressionistic tendencies. It may be mere coincidence that her artistic development intensified while living there, but it's quite possible that the city gifted her with something native ATLiens ranging from OutKast to Young Thug have long enjoyed: a sense of creative freedom. With enough distance from rap's East Coast bedrock, Whack found room, perhaps, to color outside the lines. Before Atlanta, she was a rapper. After Atlanta, she became a songwriter. Yes, it's ironic: In a city frequently criticized for its ubiquitous sound and flow, she fine-tuned her own unique voice.
The city prematurely branded "Too Busy To Hate" during the civil rights era bled through in other ways. The car wash may have felt like the most desegregated corner lot in Atlanta from the customer's vantage point. But it wasn't exactly that for the employees, most of whom were black and brown. The image of folks of color engaging in manual labor has always suggested one thing in this country: It's a job no one else wants. This nexus of work, inspiration and the possibility of rising above your station is where Car Wash, a movie that hit the silver screen two decades before Whack was born, becomes a metaphorical reference point. If you've never seen the hilarious '70s flick from the tail end of the blaxploitation era, it might be hard to imagine such a setting serving as creative inspiration. Apart from the obvious workplace resonance, Car Wash, like Whack World, is a comedy with a tragic undercurrent. Set in a struggling-class L.A. with Hollywood's haze a distant backdrop, it's a movie about everyday people hustling their way through the workday, playing crazy to preserve their sanity, harboring high aspirations out of pure desperation. And yeah, there's a whole lotta laughing to keep from crying.
Whack's car wash experience may be an abbreviated scene in her life, but over the course of Whack World she hits the same discordant notes, those exaggerated highs and lows, that make Car Wash's zany plot a classic day-in-the-life character study in black surrealism: She's Franklin Ajaye's afro-clad superhero The Fly, fighting to win back the love he lost. She's Antonio Fargas' cross-dressing wildcard Lindy, commanding respect in a world that refuses to recognize her identity. She's Bill Duke's world-weary black Muslim, so hard-up for the revolution that he's ready to risk it all. She's Richard Pryor's televangelist pimp Daddy Rich, playing on all our emotions, and the streetwalker Marleen, trying to get over the trick who stole her heart. She's the two Sam-and-Dave wannabes, Floyd and Lloyd, turning the day gig into a nonstop audition while praying for that big break.
Whack reminds me of each of those characters at their core, brimming with ambition bigger than their surroundings. There's another irony for anyone who might only know Car Wash as a movie long relegated to discount DVD bins and dismissed as a laughable blip in the vault of blaxploitation cult classics: It was celebrated by critics and actually won multiple prizes at the Cannes Film Festival in 1977. It even won a Grammy — for best album of original score written for a motion picture or television special.
Since the Recording Academy began recognizing music videos in 1982 at the onset of the MTV era, the associated categories have undergone countless evolutions, splits and fusions — best short form music video, best long form music video, best performance music video, best concept music video, best music film, best music video — in an attempt to keep pace with creative shifts. Yet it's strange, in the age of Beyonce's Lemonade, that the Academy has no current category designated for album-length videos. Whack probably wouldn't be nominated at all if it weren't for Whack World, but because that project doesn't meet the Academy's stodgy criteria it randomly selected something else. It may not be the coronation she deserves, but it proves the Academy knew it couldn't afford to ignore her.
There are periods in our life that leave an indelible impression. A first job can be that kind of experience, and Whack's still resonates beyond her résumé. The way she talks about it, even now, with a hint of nostalgia, you can tell it was a watershed period in her journey to self-discovery. The world she occupied for those six months responded to her hard work in a way that affirmed her self-worth and left a lasting connection. "Tell her we miss her," her old manager Kim Ogletree tells me before hanging up. "She got a job anytime, now."
The love isn't lost on Whack: "The people from the car wash still hit me up, like, 'Yo, you doing it big, man! You gotta come back to the car wash and see us.' So I'm thinking about going there. Maybe I'll do some type of documentary there or just a show," she tells me, reflecting. "And they really did not want me to leave at all. They were like, 'You're one of our best workers.' And like I said, I was the only girl. So it was crazy that I was able to hold my own."
It doesn't seem crazy at all, watching her work now, that she held her own. Transforming those early clashes with colorism into something beautiful, and borderline afro-surreal in scope, demanded a special kind of mojo. Cultivating one's self worth requires effort. The way Whack has worked through her early childhood pain – just as she worked the hell out of her first job to jump-start her music career – reveals so much about her character and the many characters she introduces us to via Whack World.
"I started music to be myself — to release and express — so I have to make sure that I'm staying true to me and making myself happy," Whack says. "At the end of the day, music is becoming my work. I've always been a great worker at any job I've had. All I can do is work and show and take action, so that's what I'm doing."
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.