All Blog Posts / QUEER VOICES: TORONTO SINGER-SONGWRITER TAFARI ANTHONY TALKS THE MUSIC INDUSTRY, GATE-KEEPING AND TAYLOR SWIFT
QUEER VOICES: TORONTO SINGER-SONGWRITER TAFARI ANTHONY TALKS THE MUSIC INDUSTRY, GATE-KEEPING AND TAYLOR SWIFT
Published On: July 11, 2019
Written By: Bianca Sutton
Settle in, pour yourself a glass of wine and put on the soulful sounds of Tafari Anthony. There really isn’t any better way to unwind after a long drawn out day at the office, and trust us it won’t be long until you’ve forgotten about that bitch Karen in HR. If you haven’t heard of Tafari, let us have the pleasure of introducing you.
Tafari, who resides in Toronto, released his first EP titled ‘Die for You,’ back in 2016 and since then has gone on to receive recognition for a number of his songs. His EP ‘Die For You’ was nominated for a Toronto Independent Music Award, his track ‘Know Better’ not only received plenty of airtime on CBC Radio but was also declared one of their Most Influential songs of 2016 and the track “Maybe When We Get Older’ got him a top 25 spot in CBC’s music contest, Searchlight. Critics have drawn a likeness to that of award-winning artists and icons such as Adele and Sam Smith. His soulful voice exposes a vulnerability yet at the same time a strong, raw defiance of someone who refuses to give up the fight. His music falls into the genre of pop and soul, with catchy lyrics and upbeat melodies that will have you itching to move along with the beat.
“I draw a lot of the inspiration for my music from conversations with friends. I’ve been with my partner for 12 years now so my life is seem pretty regular most times. I look up to artists like John Legend, Brandy, Beyonce and Adele and I love Prince. He was able to do what he does with any genre, in any era and still make it Prince, yet relevant. This is something I strive to do – I want to find my version of doing pop and I take a lot of inspiration from Prince for doing that.”
Although Tafari draws a great deal of inspiration from the lives of his friends, like most artists he also pulls from personal experience, with lyrics that feel as though they aren’t just written on paper, but that have been lived and experienced.
“I started writing music when I was very young and it was the only way I could really get out how I was feeling without having to talk about it. That still happens today. I am usually very soft-spoken and reserved and don’t always talk about certain issues, but I do find that it usually ends up coming out in my music.”
With artist all over the world fighting for their place in an ever-growing industry, the route down a music career is never an easily paved one. It’s only a very very small percent who get to live their Star is Born fantasy of being discovered singing in a bar to walking out on stage to thousands of adoring fans. The truth is in fact a lot bleaker, with thousands of artists with amazing talent going unnoticed every year. Now with the introduction of apps like Spotify and younger generations only listening to singles rather than albums it is very easy to get lost amongst the noise – it would seem the pool is only getting more full. This can especially be tiring on artists who don’t have the funds to help elevate their career.
“There are a lot of gatekeepers – it’s even worse now because most outlets want to feel more exclusive. If your song doesn’t get on a top Spotify playlist now it’s looked at as a failure or “not making it”. But to get on that playlist you have to have money for playlist promoters or know the right person, etc. At times it can be hard to keep going, but you have to because you just don’t know when things will be picked up and who will gravitate towards it. It just happens when it is supposed to happen. The hardest part is the process after writing and recording the song. It’s daunting because it’s out of your hands at that point. I think the music is great and of course I want it to be shared properly – but again it’s getting through those barriers. How can you break through that? It can be very tough. A song might be three minutes but you are spending months working on it before and after the release.”
As Canada’s largest populated city, it goes without saying that Toronto boasts a thriving nightlife, with something to see or do always just around the corner. Along with Montreal, Toronto is a good spot for music lovers, with not only performers such as Queen, Ariana Grande and Elton John gracing the city this year, but thousands of local performers. Whilst there will always be a stage for the more well-known artists touring, it would seem similar to many cities, bars are closing down, meaning less opportunities for homegrown talent.
“There is always something happening in Toronto. If you want to go see live music there is always a band playing somewhere, although now a lot of the smaller venues are closing down. There is definitely a music scene here, but it doesn’t feel as though it is supported enough. People will go see a big artist at the Scotiabank Arena but they are less likely to plan to see indie artists like myself at a small club or bar. There is so much talent here that just doesn’t get the recognition I feel they should.”
As we have noticed with speaking to artists and performers in cities across Canada including Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg, there are some venues in spite of the closures that step up and work hard to give local talent the platform they need. It would seem that Toronto is no different, Tafari assured us.
“One of the venues I love here [Toronto] is The Burdock. They do a really great job of supporting our own community and making the shows feel very special. The Drake Underground is a cool venue as well. They have a lot of smaller international artists there but they also have homegrown talents. It’s a really well-known place and has its own fan base and reputation as a place to discover music which helps.”
Similarly to our interview with Comedian Chanty Marostica, Tafari has also taken matters into his own hands, ensuring there is a space and platform for performance artists to showcase their talent in their own town.
“My friend [Khay] and I run an event at The Hideout called ‘Untold.’ We have three artists every month who do a half hour set each and it’s been picking up pretty well. We’re trying to be a part of that community and give people a space to perform and get people out to see them. Being on that side of it, where I am putting on an event and not performing is cool when I see people coming out to support. When you do your own stuff it can be that you don’t notice the support as much. It’s nice to be out there to see people who are in the same position as you and to connect and collaborate with them.”
Over the last couple of years we have seen a surge in queer artists taking their rightful place in the charts with music that no longer fetishizes being queer (think Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl, a song that screams fauxmosexuality) but music that instead explores love and relationships amongst the queer community (think Bloom by Troye Sivan). Queer artists are dominating the airwaves right now, with the likes of Hayley Kiyoko, Years and Years and Janelle Monáe (to name a few) who are penning the soundtracks to everyones summer and making noise across mainstream outlets. Can the same be said outside of the mainstream however?
“There is a lot of great LGBTQ artists in Toronto that just don’t get the opportunity. For me, I have been trying to work a lot more with LGBTQ people. Not just in music but with photographers, videographers – anywhere I can. I am trying to bring them in so we can support one another and our community in a positive way.”
With shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Queer Eye and Pose raking in the audience figures, getting nominated for multiple awards and cementing themselves firmly in the mainstream media, it is clear there is thirst for queer content. With a rise in drag queens featuring across numerous pop videos of late and even the “prideification” of many mainstream brands, often traditionally very hetro-focused in their marketing tactics, this does beg the question – are they just after the queer dollar? It would seem that we are living in a new age when it comes to being a queer artist, whether it be an actor, singer or drag performer. Whatever the discipline – queer artists are in demand and brands want to be involved with them. However, we need to be careful that being queer isn’t just treated as the latest trendy marketing strategy.
“As queer people we are always having to hide so much that you do get a bit skeptical when good things are happening. It’s like – no this is too good, it shouldn’t be happening, something must be wrong. Even if it is trendy right now – you have to find a way to make it last past the trend. Now is the time for the community to be like, ‘okay, you’re making this trendy but we’re gonna take it back.’ Things are going in the right direction and it’s up to those LGBTQ people who are being sought after by these large companies to decide how they use their voice to educate people.”
Most recently, we’ve seen the internet break into a debate on this very subject in relation to the new Taylor Swift song, “You Need to Calm Down.” In one corner you have people rejoicing that Swift, who up until this point has stayed politically mute, has finally penned a hit that voices her opinions – and a catchy one at that. In the other corner, however, people are not happy. The argument on the opposing side is that rightly so – pride is not about Taylor Swift and that using gay culture as a means to sell records is just a means of appropriation. Another artist who has also come under fire on social media is Iggy Azalea, who in 2015 had to pull out of Pittsburgh pride following the revelation of past homophobic tweets. Azalea this year released two music videos featuring Drag Race alumni – an apology or an obvious marketing strategy to jump on a “trend?”
“Taylor Swift is a great example of what we’re talking about, but also not her fault completely. Yes it is trendy and part of the reason she is able to do it is because it is trendy and she has the power to partake. I do believe she would’ve written a song like this regardless of trendiness as it’s been proven she’s a big ally for the community. But I’m sure it doesn’t hurt for it to have happened now as opposed to even a few years ago. And do believe she has her own gatekeepers that probably stopped her from being political in her music previously because it would be off brand. Ultimately when the trend dies down we will see who is still ride or die for our community.”
The overall theme of the video is very campy; bright colours, drag queens and it’s fair to say some pretty fabulous outfits. However, one could argue this is a huge stereotype of gay culture and does not represent the millions of LGBTQ+ people who don’t necessarily fall into a femme or masc category. This seems to be a common theme in the music industry and something Tafari has found problematic when it comes to his career, growth and even celebrating pride.
“I personally don’t feel like there is a space for me, I find if you’re more on the femme side or the the masc side there is are clearly defined spaces for you. But if you are in the middle the community is not really there, or harder to see. People want to know, ‘Are you more femme? Are you more masc? We don’t understand you.’ I just am. A lot of times I don’t feel comfortable in pride, or even “the scene” for these reasons. I don’t want to have to feel like I have to be more or less than I am once again to be accepted.”
Tafari has also seen his identity come into question in relation to his music with those in the industry desperate to either pigeon-hole him or utilize his sexuality or race to tick a box. Alternatively, others, although with good intentions look at using both as a selling point to garner exposure.
“With being not on either spectrum of ‘gayness’ or with my blackness, when it comes to campaigns and promotion people don’t know where to put me. People will see my name and my photo and presume I am an R&B singer. Recently I entered a radio contest with a song that was so clearly pop and once I sent my name and photo I was put into the R&B/Hip-Hop category. But to everyone else in the room it was pretty clear where the song should fit.”
Many artists feel the pressure to use their art as a platform to be political or causes of change (case and point: Taylor Swift) or feel obliged to act as a representative to their race, gender or sexuality, which in turn can put huge pressure on an individual who may not feel ready to take on what is a huge ask. As a queer person of colour, this is a battle Tafari has felt he has had to fight for on numerous occasions, especially as he feels he doesn’t fulfil the stereotype.
“I feel like black, queer music has a specific sound – and I’m not doing it, that isn’t me. There is a box and I can be successful and do what I need to do but in those terms. I do feel I have to represent in some way and it can be frustrating because I am not doing tracks like Todrick Hall, and not because I don’t love what he does. But that’s him and I’m me. I often have to talk about it and normalize the fact that there are other ways of being black and queer. With being black and queer in the music industry I do feel people want me to be more aggressive and political [with my opinions] but again, it’s just not me.”
Tafari has been with his partner, who also used to do his own music, for 12 years. As someone who in his nature can be shy, he credits his partners support and encouragement as a factor into why he continues to write and produce music.
“At times when I am completely over it and am ready to quit the whole thing he is like, ‘your music is great so you have to do it.’ At time’s I’ll come home and he’s had friends over, I’ll see my songs were last played on TV because he was showing them my stuff. Whereas I just quietly enjoy my music on my own and always overthinking sharing it. It would be really hard to do this kind of thing with someone who wasn’t supportive because it is so up and down and it’s a lot to have to deal with as a partner. Some days I am just frustrated – but we have a great balance and know when to give each other space. He is just extremely supportive.”
Although the music industry has proven to many to be a difficult one to crack, at the core of it music is a passion that can’t be ignored, a creative itch that needs to be itched. Tafari Anthony has no plans to let any gatekeepers stand in his way or to stop writing music any day soon. His latest single, “My Favourite Records” was released today (July 11th).
“I’ve collaborated on this one with an artist and dear friend from London, Ontario, UNBLOOM. It’s much more upbeat. It’s pretty different from my previous releases, but it’s how I was feeling and what I was vibing so we just went with it. We’ve been sitting on it for a while and now I am at the point where I just want to get things out regardless of any barriers. I’m just like, I’ll do whatever the fuck I want to do and am just putting it out there. Eventually, if people like the song, it will pick up. It might not pick up in the first month, it might take a whole year – but whatever. Putting out music is what I need to do – to keep creating and not feel so stressed with all the other shit of what may or may not happen with it”
To find out more about Tafari Anthony and listen to some of his sweet, sweet music head over to his website or check him out on Spotify. You won’t regret it! If that isn’t enough for you, go check out Tafari on Instagram to get the latest updates on new music.