“I used to be a heavy dreamer, and I used to be open to the possibility of everything. I would make these long lists all the way up until I was like 17, of things that I needed to do to be awesome. Stuff like, be cooler, be on time, be prettier; just super general things that are now in hindsight extra crazy. It was weird, but I felt like if I followed my own random steps then I will be catapulted into American Dream superstardom.”
So recalls Solana Rowe, better known as SZA, sat in her Bronx apartment. She’s been cringing her way through watching a video interview that was recorded a few days ago. “It’s f*cking terrifying for me,” she half-laughs, “I hate video interviews.”
Despite having gone from the suburbs of Maplewood, New Jersey to the roster of one of hip-hop’s fastest rising and most exciting labels Top Dawg Entertainment (AKA TDE, home to Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock), SZA no longer believes in the daydreaming of her younger years and describes herself as a natural pessimist.
“I feel like daydreaming warps your brain. Or even celebrating, or getting excited about things. It makes you feel like your chickens have come home to roost before they’re actually ready. Every time I get excited about something it just implodes, and then it’s ruined and I hate it all over again.”
“I’m Muslim and I’m black. So the American Dream isn’t something that was ever possible for me,” she explains of her pessimism and low self-esteem. “Especially as a kid. You’re black, you don’t grow up being like, ‘Yeah, everything is possible.’ Your parents try to tell you that everything is possible, or they try to ensure you that no one will judge you. But sometimes it’s institutionalised or it’s not even your fault, you just can’t beat certain cases. You just have a pre-disposed off-view of the world.
“And on top of that, being Muslim, that just alienates you from the last part of the world you had. It’s weird. And I think at some point you just have to decide who you’re gonna be, and how you’re gonna get there, and then no one is going to stop you. And that’s what I did.”
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'Babylon', from 'Z'
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Rowe lived a heavily guarded childhood due in part to her father, who is an orthodox Sunni Muslim, but doesn’t seem to hold any kind of resentment. As a child she was sheltered from popular music, only listening to her father’s jazz records, and she wore a hijab well into her teens.
“My mom is super conscious and she’s on every committee and she’s a chairwoman in the town and all that stuff. And my dad, he’s always doing some sort of scholarly lecture somewhere, but we’re super chill. In a block radius we don’t even wear shoes. If we’re going further than a block we probably put on shoes.”
Post-9/11 she started having trouble due to her religion, with kids calling her ‘terrorist’ at school and often following her home to heckle her. “That shit was terrible,” she remembers. “That brought my whole family out of their character. My dad was calling little girls ‘bitches’. He didn’t know what to do. What do you do in that situation? When you just want to protect your kids and you want people to treat them well. It was super hard for me.”
At the age of 16 when, in the eyes of her faith, she became a woman and had the right to make her own decisions, she opted out of wearing her hijab. And while she stayed close to her parents, she rebelled against her sheltered upbringing.
For a period Rowe worked as a bartender in a strip club. She fell in love with the culture for the money and rebellion. Since the amount of cash being thrown was too much for the strippers to pick up, even as a bartender it was well paid. Her favourite character in the strip club scene is the owner, who she believes has found the American Dream.
“I think of him in a sense it’s like, ‘I have tonnes of women at my feet, and they want to work for me and do what I want.’ And as a man who is chauvinistic, he has achieved the American Dream. But his vision is so small he doesn’t even know that that has nothing to do with the American Dream.”
SZA would throw a spanner in the works of the smooth-sailing Dream that the owner had in place. Clearly a standout from the stereotypical strip club scene, her motives would leave the owner confused.
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Chris Martin is literally the nicest person I’ve ever met. Literally, the sweetest warmest person I’ve ever, ever met...
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“I think that when people don’t understand you it’s super easy for them to make a mistake and abuse you in some way. And I think strip club culture, and my boss at that time, all he knows is to abuse women. Then there are certain women that have been conditioned in life to accept that. And in a way I feel like I’ve even been conditioned to accept that because it’s what I understood as power, so I kind of just let that happen.”
Musically she also began to explore sounds beyond the carefully curated playlist that she was exposed to at home. Her first window into the wider world of popular music came about when she discovered a broken iPod in a portable toilet while she was at gymnastics camp. She was unable to charge it and the screen was broken, so she couldn’t make out a lot of the artists’ names.
“That iPod, until it ran out, was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says with sincerity that suggests she isn’t exaggerating. “It was so random how I stumbled across all of that different music on one iPod with no ability to be able to know who it was or really get into it. Until it died, that’s all I had.”
She later began to discover some more controversial hip-hop records through her older sister, who put her onto the unlikely combination of Cash Money, crunk and Wu-Tang Clan.
“It was weird, it sounded so provocative and exciting,” she recalls of first hearing it. “At first it was like, ‘What is this nonsense, this trash?’ But then it drew me in, it was crazy.” At the time her sister would set music as the answer machine on her phone. “I would hear all this crazy crunk music playing on her answer machine whenever I called, and I bought this Lil Jon CD, just to find that song I heard playing on there. I was so obsessed with my sister – I wanted to be just like her in every way possible – so learning the lyrics to the music that she listened to was like the Holy Grail.”
When she first met Kendrick Lamar, it was as an impostor, posing as an interviewer for TheSource. “My homeboy in college wrote for it, he left the building and somehow couldn’t get back in so he needed me to do the interview,” she explains.
“I talked over Kendrick the whole time, it was horrible. It was embarrassing for sure. I didn’t know how to interview anyone, I was just like, ‘Ahh, how excited are you about your crazy life?’ But I was a fan by the same token, so it was pretty funny.” While Kendrick claims to remember the interview, SZA doesn’t believe him. “Every time I remind him he’s like, ‘Yup’, which means I know he knows nothing.”
Her official introduction to TDE was through streetwear brand 10.Deep, where she was then working. “My boyfriend at the time was creative director there, so I was doing a bunch of stuff, just designing and a whole bunch of random stuff, bringing people clothes and linking up different artists. I just brought TDE clothes the day after their show. I never intended to become one of those artists.”
A friend of hers who accompanied her played the label’s president, Punch, some music SZA had recorded with her brother. Later that year when SZA attended South By Southwest and had nowhere to stay, she hung out with TDE after their show at The Illmore and they let her stay at their house, furthering her relationship with the label.
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'Ice Moon', from 'S'
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When it was announced last August that she had officially signed to TDE, they also took on another new act, Chattanooga rapper Isaiah Rashad. The pair has formed a tight bond, currently working on a collaborative album together.
“I think he’s just not as guarded,” she explains of her relationship with him. “He talks to me about everything, he comforts me and he shows his insecurities. When people are guarded, then I stop talking. But he’s always been an open book to me, which makes me just want to be family with somebody.”
She also attributes the fact that the pair went through the same experience when signing to the label. “We both had no expectations, we were both just regular people snatched from our regular lives and put into this situation. So we were both just definitely in the same moment.”
After signing with TDE and dropping a couple of online singles, ‘Teen Spirit’ and ‘Julia’, she released ‘Z’, the second in a series of EPs that will spell out her name. It furthers her unique brand of R&B music, which takes as much, if not more, influence from electronic and alternative music as it does traditional R&B. Her most recent fans include some of her idols, including Chris Martin, Gwyneth Paltrow and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano. She even got the opportunity to support Coldplay at New York’s Beacon Theatre.
“That was f*cking crazy,” she says, clearly still excited, contrary to what she told us earlier. “I think Chris Martin is literally the nicest person I’ve ever met. Literally, the sweetest warmest person I’ve ever, ever met. Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow was like randomly talking about me – just like regular human beings – and she told Chris about me and how she thought I was awesome.”
Although didn’t meet Paltrow, Martin did call her prior to the show. “‘SZA, I think you’re wonderful, can you come to the studio?’” she recalls, putting on a Dick Van Dyke-style cockney accent. “When people say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, I know where that can come from, but it couldn’t have been about Chris.”
She also supported another of her favourite bands, Little Dragon, recently, following a tweet from Yukimi Nagano. “I couldn’t believe it, it was so nuts. I showed the tweet to my manager and everyone before I even responded, because I didn’t know if it was real or what!”
“I definitely haven’t achieved the American Dream yet,” she affirms, despite her impressive array of accolades. While she clearly hasn’t come close to the peak of her career at this stage, what she has achieved so far certainly isn’t a bad start for the small-town, black, Muslim girl who stopped allowing herself to dream.
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Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Will Robson Scott (online)
Find SZA online here. ‘Z’ is out now on Top Dawg.
This feature appears in issue 96 of Clash magazine. Buy a copy here.