Tianna Esperanza's uphill climb to conquering 'Terror' Raised in lily-white Cape Cod, Mass. while one of the few persons of color around, Esperanza found their voice the old-fashioned way: by searching for it.

Tianna Esperanza's uphill climb to conquering 'Terror'

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When our colleagues at NPR Music had this to say about a new album, we paid attention.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: I don't think you're going to find more contrasts in a single record maybe all year.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2, BYLINE: We're going to be coming back to this at the end of 2023 and saying, was there a more arresting debut?

FADEL: So we had to know more about Tianna Esperanza.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUY YOU A NEW ATTITUDE")

TIANNA ESPERANZA: I love them ghetto (ph). Oh, I do. But sometimes that means I got a little more work to do. (Singing) Let's get your hair did. Let's get you pretty. Let me buy you a new attitude.

FADEL: That one's called "Buy You A New Attitude." The song and video borrow some style from the 1940s.

First of all, I need to know how old you are.

ESPERANZA: Well, some people say I'm 60 or 65 or 100. But I'm 22.

FADEL: Tianna Esperanza has packed a lot of living into those 22 years. In their childhood, they endured multiple traumas. Those wounds make it onto the album "Terror," and at times, they make for some heavy listening. But this song, it's just pure fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUY YOU A NEW ATTITUDE")

ESPERANZA: Now, now, now, hold up. Mama getting hungry.

I'm not used to writing very fun songs.

(LAUGHTER)

ESPERANZA: So, like, that's my personality. I'm being raunchy. I'm being fun. It's funny. I met somebody who said, I can't believe you're so nice. After they had heard "Terror," they thought that I was going to be a mean person.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: So I was just going to ask you about "Terror," speaking of a not-fun song.

ESPERANZA: Yeah.

FADEL: You know, when I was first listening to it, I was kind of more listening to just the music before the lyrics really set into my head. So it's this sort of almost sweet track, like a Renaissance-style music. And then you hear what you're saying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TERROR")

ESPERANZA: (Singing) Sometimes when I'm walking and a man looks at me, I think of all the ways I could make him bleed.

FADEL: I just want to ask you, you know, where this song came from. What terror in your life inspired this song that really - I mean, it stays with you.

ESPERANZA: When I was 8 years old, my brother passed away. And when I was 13 - many times in my life, I've experienced sexual assault and abuse. And I'm bringing these stories out slowly with my own - in my own comfort and then using it to transcend my pain...

FADEL: Yeah.

ESPERANZA: ...And connect with others.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TERROR")

ESPERANZA: (Singing) Terror, terror knows me by name. Terror, terror now lives in the day (ph).

FADEL: I want to talk about Cape Cod. You grew up there. Not necessarily known for its extreme diversity.

ESPERANZA: (Laughter).

FADEL: So I wonder what it was like growing up as a biracial kid and then how that place influenced your music.

ESPERANZA: As I grow older, I love Cape Cod more and more.

FADEL: Yeah.

ESPERANZA: It's one of the most beautiful places in the world, while also having this political backdrop of white flight from the '60s. The segregation on Cape Cod, it's so apparent there.

FADEL: How old were you when you started noticing that?

ESPERANZA: Yeah. I think when I discovered Lewis H. Michaux, say, right before high school or high school age.

FADEL: And that's the civil rights activist, the bookseller that inspired your song "Lewis."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEWIS")

ESPERANZA: Now, Lewis owned a little bookstore in Harlem. And one day while he was sitting in his bookstore, some Black boys came in with their fists up screaming, Black power, Black power.

I found "The Black Power Mixtape." It's a Swedish documentary of the civil rights movement in the '60s. And they got really rare and incredible footage of Angela Davis and all these wonderful activists, including a man named Lewis H. Michaux. And he was speaking a poem that he had written, a short poem.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975")

LEWIS H MICHAUX: (Reading) Black is beautiful, but Black isn't power. Knowledge is power, for you can be Black as a crow, you can be white as snow, and if you don't know and ain't got no dough, you can't go. And that's for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEWIS")

ESPERANZA: (Singing) 'Cause you can be as black as a crow, you can be as white as snow, but if you don't know and you ain't got no dough...

FADEL: You were quoted in another interview saying you were yearning for some sort of Black mentorship and influence when you discovered him. What were you searching for?

ESPERANZA: Well, I didn't grow up with my father very much. And my father is African American and Indigenous. And my family is white, from Spain and from England. They were very good about trying to fill in some of those gaps, but there's only so much they could do and understand. And I was yearning for Black friends and understanding how to do my Black hair and not having products on Cape Cod and things like that.

FADEL: Yeah.

ESPERANZA: I still in many ways yearn for Black mentorship.

FADEL: And does that influence any of the collaborations you did? I was just thinking of Valerie June. I wondered how you two met and how you ended up collaborating.

ESPERANZA: We met through kind of a family friend. Valerie June became my mentor for a summer.

FADEL: Wow.

ESPERANZA: And we talked about our love for folk music especially...

FADEL: Right.

ESPERANZA: ...And how that is very misunderstood on many sides, and that that's OK, and that's still very much Black. So...

FADEL: So do you get pushback sometimes for delving into folk music?

ESPERANZA: I feel like that's still not very expected...

FADEL: From a Black woman?

ESPERANZA: From a Black woman. And I feel like there's still a mindset of what we are good for (laughter) is, you know, silky runs and R&B and, you know, curvaceous dresses. And that's what sells, and that's an absolute. And I think that there's so much more to our stories and to us, our tastes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONE CHILD")

ESPERANZA: (Singing) Faith, God and strength, wise, and their fathers still believe in (ph). And lone sister, you'll find your role soon.

FADEL: Tianna Esperanza, their debut album is called "Terror." Thank you so much, Tianna.

ESPERANZA: Thank you, Leila, for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIANNA ESPERANZA SONG, "LONE CHILD")

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