BLACK VOICES

SZA Wants To Turn Your Attention To Environmental Racism

The “Good Days” artist discussed her new partnership with Tazo, her growth since “Ctrl” and her forthcoming studio album.

SZA’s heart can be found on her sleeve. Even as she sits sleeveless on her couch. Behind her is a huge bay window bringing in natural sunlight and a refreshing view of a grand tree in her front yard, blowing in the wind. 

Even in the tiresome world of Zoom hell, she’s managed to bring a joyful piece of nature into our perspective, a subtle reminder to the rest of us that we deserve to breathe easy. A very SZA thing to do. 

For nearly a decade now, the singer-songwriter has been making music that feels like the lyrics were taken directly from her journal and sequenced on a project. The vulnerability in her award-winning music resonates with her millions of fans and has earned critical acclaim in the industry. It’s been five years since she released debut album “Ctrl,” and as she’s gearing up to release her second studio album, her search for “Good Days” goes way beyond her most recent hit single.

SZA knows she can’t use her platform to change everything, but she damn sure won’t sit back idly and do nothing. 

Her love for nature and drive to combat environmental racism has fueled a new partnership with Tazo Tea and American Forests to launch the Tazo Tree Corps. Their mission is to hire a local workforce to plant and maintain trees to fight climate change and create jobs in marginalized communities in Richmond, Virginia; Minneapolis; the Bronx; San Francisco; and Detroit. Tree Corps points to a New York Times report that explains “neighborhoods that are poorer and have more residents of color can be 5 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in summer than wealthier, whiter parts of the same city.” It also notes that tree equity increases air and water quality while improving mental health.

SZA spoke to HuffPost about her new partnership to fight environmental racism, the role empathy has played in her belief system and her creative process going into her second studio album.

SZA has partnered with Tazo Tea and American Forests to fight for climate justice.
SZA has partnered with Tazo Tea and American Forests to fight for climate justice.

How has quarantine been treating you? I’ve been following your IG, and I know you retreated to… I don’t even know where you were, but somewhere magical. I feel like it was, maybe it was Hawaii, but don’t get me to lying.

SZA: Yeah. I went to Hawaii and then I just came home and stayed in my house. And I live in Malibu, so it’s not super different from Hawaii, but it’s super different from Hawaii. But I love being outside, in general. I just love nature and getting into hiking and all that type of shit. And having access to the great outdoors.

I feel like you have always been very one with nature in a way to connect and ground yourself, which feels very in tune with this new initiative that you have going on with Tazo. I know you’re from New Jersey, which has seen so much environmental racism.

SZA: From Camden to Newark to Irvington.

Exactly. I’m wondering when your environmental awakening happened? How have you seen climate injustice affect your specific community?

SZA: I think I’ve always been super aware of the inequity and experience. I always thought growing up in Maplewood, a place that’s named after its trees, that it was super weird and, like, not commonplace for other Black children to have access and exposure to the beach, to trees. Even though we live in a coastal city, whether it’s New York or New Jersey, Black children still have an uncomfortability with water and with outdoorsy activities. I feel like I just recognize the difference even between Maplewood and Irvington. I guess the taxpaying dollars only pay for a certain amount of trees? Literally a one-block difference, and all of a sudden it all disappears. It’s just straight concrete, and it smells different. 

You can’t get anybody to come clean up the snow or plow anything. You can’t get anyone to come get the garbage on time, so the air is just like sour. Not to mention all the factory smoke. You can’t drive to the city without smelling poo. I was just always super aware, and I didn’t understand why in white or paid-up areas, all of a sudden people were just worth the experience. And really the kids who needed the experience or the people who needed the experience were people who weren’t privy to that. It’s just always been super obvious to me. I was either living either in the suburbs or with my grandmother who lives in Newark. And the whole situation is just not it.

And it’s nationwide. I grew up in a very Black suburb in Dayton, and I remember seeing a reduction in trees and there were less beautification and environmental efforts. And white flight kind of was the catalyst to that. How did you get involved in this partnership with Tazo, and how involved will you be with it? 

SZA: I was naturally drawn to Tazo cause I’ve been drinking Tazo my whole life. It just seemed like something that made sense. But then when I actually saw the project, I felt honored to be asked to be a part of it. Because it was so fundamental from the job creation to the actual canopy development, I feel super passionate about just having — even if it’s community gardens, not just planting trees — urban aesthetic development. When I worked with Nike and we did the World Basketball Festival, we also built really nice little park areas and basketball courts for the kids in Harlem.

And it really just was meant to bring value to the community. And so that they value their own community more because it looked like something that should be treated with value. So from them deciding to hire locals that are directly and disproportionately affected by the effects of environmental racism. I just know what it feels like to add value to a community or to look at a community that doesn’t value itself, based on the way that they see themselves being treated. 

I want to meet the people that are hired, and then Tree Corps, I want to go to them, because I lived in at least three of them. I lived in the Bronx already. I made half of “Ctrl” in Minnesota. So I just feel very connected to it all. Camden’s one of the worst nine food deserts in America. So it just seemed like an obvious W. 

I love that you want to meet the folks who are hired. I know you identify yourself as an empath. How has being an empath fueled your activism?

SZA: I’ve always felt very responsible. Not making responsible decisions, cause that’s not who I am. I just always felt like I could change the way things were if I felt deeply enough about it. My great-grandma used to be in this facility, and I would just basically go early and go read and tend to all the other elders in her building because I just felt there’s not enough aides and nurses to make everyone feel heard and seen. I was like 5. You can’t be connected to other human beings and not be connected to their darkness and their sadness and what they lack and what they’re being cheated out of. And then you start to feel responsible because it’s like, “Huh?!” 

I’m used to being around trees and camping, but I wanted to make the city girl life happen. A lot of people make the city choice because of their own family and income. They don’t have the options to go live off in the ’burbs somewhere. And I just always felt like this is a mess. And this is unfair for other people and other kids. Or to even have to take a field trip and go experience an ounce of arboreal display or any of that. The unfairness was always screaming at me no matter where I lived.

I love how much you wear your heart on your sleeve. I think that it is a very underrated thing, and I feel like more people, especially in this pandemic, have started to slow down and understand the importance of vulnerability and sensitivity. But for a lot of sensitive Black girls, we often aren’t allowed to wear that title. You’ve been creating art and making it feel like being sensitive is empowering, which it is. How do you protect your peace and be unapologetically sensitive while putting this art out?

SZA: Thank you for saying that. I don’t know if protecting my peace is something I’m super good at, but I definitely know that it almost ties into the last question. Feeling bad for people is one thing, but being able to scream on other peoples’ behalf because you feel definitely internally, like, I would curse out a mayor for the city of Flint or curse out a mayor for Camden or cuss out a governor. ’Cause I don’t care. I care more about the emotion and the direct effect of the community. And that’s just what naturally, passionately, keeps me more on the empath tip. So when it comes to protecting my peace, I feel most fulfilled and better when things start to move and things start to get better. Any type of menial movement. 

There’s one line that connects for child support and food stamps and EBT that I’d never called that line before, but I called for someone else. I was on hold for 86 minutes, and I realized, how is anybody supposed to get anything done? Or how is anybody supposed to get help or feel not discouraged to make their life better? And I think where we are, we kind of look at everything as, “OK, you’re on welfare and you’re on EBT. Like it’s already government assistance. You can do the rest for yourself.” Hello! Who has time to be on hold for 86 minutes? I know you have several jobs if you’re already doing this. And I already know that you’re doing the best you can to make ends meet, and who has all their whole day to give to you? So really making menial change, even if it’s not massive, it would be easier for me to feel useful and better. So it doesn’t feel like it’s really all for nothing. 

You meditate a lot. And I know you use sound bowls.

SZA: I’m trying to do a little. A joint here and there never hurt anybody. I feel like a reset comes from being in nature and outside, reminding yourself that it’s the same planet as that questionable energy or the area that you just came from that you feel like half of the world is dark. How can we all be on the same planet living the same story, but none of us have the same opportunities? Random things that don’t make any sense. Just connecting the dots makes me feel better.

How do you do that with social media? There are a lot of dark, discouraging things happening, and on top of that, you are a hypervisible celebrity who, I’m sure, gets a lot of hate thrown at you. What are your tactics for filtering out or using social media as a way to emote while raising awareness for these things without getting bogged down by the BS?

SZA: I literally had to ask the other day. I’m, like, “Am I a narcissist?” Because I post and I dip. I scroll my direct mentions, which strangely nobody really be trying to come at my neck in my direct mention. If I see, like, a screenshot of someone coming at me crazy, then it’s never my direct mention. It’s something else. I don’t search my name, ever. I’ve searched like once in seven years. And it was really traumatizing, and I’m never doing that again. But it’s really just important for you to just remember that none of these people know you and all you can do is insert the positive information and bounce. And who is meant to absorb it will absorb it. I just can’t be an internet scourer.

Yeah, you have to be very intentional about what you take in. I also have to say congrats. There are a lot of milestones happening for you this year. I know that it’s five years since “Ctrl.” What’s been your biggest lesson since then? You told Cosmo that you were just talking your shit, and it just resonated with all of us and became a cultural reset in a lot of ways.

SZA: That’s a drastic term. Thank you very much. I just want to make things that make me feel good because that’s the only thing that connects, like, not necessarily positive, but it’s just me. Even with “Good Days,” that’s not really a hopeful, happy song for me. Personally, one of those, like, how am I supposed to still believe in good days with all this shit going on? With everybody dying and getting sick. It’s just, I just want to keep speaking from a place of honesty.

I had no idea that “Good Days” would end up being a single or anything like that. It wasn’t a plan. It was a song that I liked, and I put a snippet out and then it ended up being another thing. I think on this project, I just want to try to keep it super funky and get all the embarrassing things about myself that I feel that I’m scared to say. I just need to hurry up and get to that section. I’m usually pushed to that section.

What’s your creative process for this next album look like, and how’s it different from “Ctrl”?

SZA: I haven’t been around anybody really for this project. I haven’t been able to bounce songs off, especially these last two years. Super scary. “Ctrl” was me figuring out how to make melodies or how to just create my own world, and that was fun. And now I’m trying to, like, expand and refine that existence. I’m trying to really write things down on paper before I flesh them out. But I’ll also give myself permission to figure out things, and I sound amazing. The most honest delivery. Sometimes I listen to things and I’m, like, I gotta listen to this again ’cause I love it.

Examining your womanhood is a big part of your music. How do you define womanhood now? Not as just as a concept, but for you. What does that look like?

SZA: I think it really has to do with independence. I think I have a lot of masculine energy. I always have. My sun is in Pluto. So I have a shit ton of masculine energy. I always wanted to get married and be this designer’s wife or like a housewife. I have none of those desires anymore. And now I only want to find myself, know myself, honor myself and complete myself so that I can be of value or of aid to anyone in the world. Not just my partner. But I do know that while being in love, you do the most for both, but I want to really mold myself into the most fire human. And I feel that being a woman, especially now, has less to do with responsibility to others. As opposed to our mothers and sisters and our aunts, where they feel like we’re caretakers and we don’t even have time to find out who we are.

My mom is a Black woman. Talked about how she went to a white school. She’s super dark-skinned, and she didn’t have the opportunity to be bitchy if she wanted to. Or to be rude or whatever. Because she’s already dark-skinned. And she was in corporate America and she didn’t want to be problematic in that room. I want the option to be a bitch. I want the option to be unhappy. I want the option to be chaotic, to make mad mistakes, to not apologize to anyone, to cheat on hella n****s, just do whatever I want as a woman. And I take care of nobody but myself. And that is what I think womanhood is about.