Tanika Is The No-Bullshit New Voice Of U.K. R&B
Her new video “Officer” is a poignant protest against police brutality, but she’s got no patience for fuckboys of any kind
“My definition of a 'fuckboy' is a guy that has no level of respect for women in any shape or form,” explains south London R&B rebel Tanika via Skype. Our chat—peppered with throaty cackles—is constantly interrupted by unwanted phone calls disconnecting the line, likely from more fuckboys. “They like to deceive and they have a scheme—it's all a game to them,” she adds.
It's a definition she unpicks further, and with jaw-dropping honesty, on her foul-mouthed, coiled spring of frustration that is the magnificent track “FUCKBOY,” released at the end of September. Personal cleansing encased in a clenched fist, it's aimed at her former label, Virgin (who she claims refused to release her music), idiot boyfriends, and what she views as a current crop of female singers too afraid to speak up. It's also underpinned by a fearlessness that comes with striking out on your own. “I've faced my biggest fear which was being dropped, because that was never part of the plan,” she says. “What I'm doing musically is going back to the beginning so that everyone knows what I'm about.”
Born and raised in Brixton, south London, as a child Tanika was obsessed with open and honest female singers such as Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige, and first started recording songs at age of 10. Four years later she landed herself her first manager, who eventually put her in the studio with recent Calvin Harris collaborators, Disciples. With those songs picked up by an A&R, Tanika was then placed in development with management and publishing company Tim & Danny Music for four years, then Virgin for a further three. After first coming to public attention in her own right with 2013’s Thoughts Of Love mixtape, she started messing around with the pop formula on her own singles like 2013's bold, MNEK-produced promiscuity anthem “Bad 4 U” and a follow-up, “Fucking With My Heart.” Her singles were strong, but things quickly soured with Virgin Records and, as Tanika tells it, the label struggled to work out what to do with a strong-willed, opinionated and unconventional pop star. This year's “Out Ere”—a collaboration with grime golden boy Stormzy—represented a clearing of the decks before her proper return.
That period of enforced silence has galvanized Tanika, and the frustrations at seeing police brutality and gang violence both at home and in America going largely un-documented by the music community led her to write the flip-side to the bristling anger of "FUCKBOY" in the keening “Officer” (the video to which is premiered on The FADER below). “When I was going through my legal dramas and I was seeing all the police brutality I was waiting for someone to sing about it or say something, but nothing was going on,” the 26-year-old explains. “If I'd been able to put something out then I would have, because first and foremost I'm a writer.” As you’re about to find out, she’s got a lot to say.
You've got a young son, is he in your thoughts when you write socially conscious songs like “Officer”?
Absolutely. I can write all of these songs about being angry but it's so important that I can have a piece of art that in five or ten years time my son can listen to and it's actually going to resonate with him as a black man growing up. When I saw the footage of Michael Brown's mum, I just started crying. I was just thinking if that was my son...So I went into a session with this producer called Blinkie, and he does house stuff normally, and I just wanted to speak about what was going on. I went [sings] “it's getting too deep Mr. Officer, it's getting too deep” and we knew that was it. Coming from Brixton and knowing a mother who's lost her son, I'm not sure that many other people could have written about that. I can't be apologetic with anything I do.
Do you see yourself as political?
It's personal. [Michael Brown's death] resonated with me. I felt punched in the heart and I just started crying. I've seen it happen. I knew Mark Duggan [who was shot and killed by Police in Tottenham, north London] through raving in clubs. As much as the song was inspired by Ferguson, London's been experiencing some shit too. It's real.
Footage of your neighbourhood, Brixton, features prominently in “Officer” and “FUCKBOY.” Why did you choose to keep it local?
Brixton's very raw. It's always been my home but when I'm just doing me, with no apologies, Brixton is where I return to. I needed to let everyone know that this is where I come from. [After I left Virgin Records] I felt like not only had I lost myself, but I lost my confidence as a musician and a writer. I'd play my friends a song and they'd be like 'oh my God, this is crazy' and I was confused because the label's reaction was different. They didn't get it. The reality is these guys [at the label] are going on 50, they're going to die soon, you know what I mean? But I couldn't see it then and I wasn't thinking straight. I've been in development for over seven years so I was trusting the process too much.
“I’m not the typical airy pop bitch—I’ve got a bit of grit and edge.”—Tanika
In a quote accompanying “FUCKBOY” you said it was initially a little tamer. What made you decide to go all out?
I felt like I had nothing else to lose. I was at the end of my tether with all of these fuckboys and fuckmen. I knew I was ready to come and serve these bitches, I just wasn't sure when. I didn't even know if it was even going to be heard because I was in legal dramas at the time. I was over people controlling me. It was liberating. Being in a record deal went from my dream into a nightmare.
They wouldn't let me put anything out. Then I was seeing this guy at the same time and he was saying he was going to try and help but turned out to be a complete dickhead. So I called this producer and said 'we need to write a song, I'm just tired of these fuckboys' and he was like 'that's it!'.
"FUCKBOY" features one of the year's best lyrics: "sat on his face now he's not answering." Why did you choose to be so...direct?
[Laughs] I wanted to point him out and make sure that when he heard the second verse he knew it was about him. He knew where he was sitting! When my mum heard it she called me and was like [puts on a stern voice] 'Tanika.' I was like, 'mum, this is the truth'. You can't ignore my phone calls when I've been sitting on your face and everything was alright. It's insanity.
What’s great about “FUCKBOY” is that it doesn't discriminate: old labels are fuckboys in the first verse, men are fuckboys in the second and other female singers are fuckboys in the middle eight.
Yes! It covers everyone. I felt like a trapped bird who couldn't sing and there were female singers that had the opportunity to come and serve us some tea, something hot going on, and nothing was happening. The only thing we have is Rita [Ora] and I was watching her and thinking 'let me go, please.'
Do you think female artists are encouraged to smooth over their edges? To not ruffle any feathers?
A million percent. I'm not the typical airy pop bitch—I've got a bit of grit and edge. [My old label] didn't know what to do. I'm not sure it's been done since Mary J. Blige, in regards to someone coming from the street and having that tough upbringing and saying it how it is. Like with “FUCKBOY,” only I would have said that.
There's an EP. It's done honey. I'm going to release it independently early next year and then we've still got some tea coming after that [laughs]. Then a proper single will follow. The EP is a little taster to let you know I'm coming.