North Philly Rapper Tierra Whack Is the Future of Hip-Hop
The Grammy-nominated artist — who calls herself the queen of Philly — is on a fast trajectory.
If you don’t know North Philly’s Tierra Whack, pay attention: Her 2018 album Whack World is 15 songs crammed with so much lyricism and vigor that critics labeled it “genius.” And the video she made in 2017 for “Mumbo Jumbo” won her a Grammy nom this year, stacking her up against Beyoncé and Childish Gambino. Here, the 23-year-old discusses her career and why she calls herself the queen of Philly.
It’s been almost a year since you dropped Whack World. How have things changed?
I’ve been traveling so much. Meeting so many new people. There are so many more opportunities. Me and Zach, my DJ, we were just talking about how we are going write down everything that we’ve done. It’s so much, and sometimes you forget.
And what have you learned about yourself since?
I’m stronger than I thought. It’s definitely a lot of pressure, but the things I used to trip on eight months ago, I got past it. Everything seems impossible until you do it. I did it. I can do it.
How is your writing process different now from when you were writing poetry?
Well, I don’t really write anymore. I’m usually jotting down little ideas. I just go off a vibe and a melody — mumbling and figuring out what feels right. I record myself, so I listen back to my tracks, filling it in and piecing it all together until it makes sense.
It’s also like you unleashed a different person for each one-minute song.
Yeah, I get bored with myself, so I start to be new people. I create characters. You get tired of doing the same thing. It was about trying something new. And then whatever I do now, I can blame it on that character, that person I created.
In addition to your lyrics, you’re lauded for your visuals. Why be so dedicated to a visual experience?
I’m a visual learner. You might hear a song and not really understand it, but then with the visual, maybe you’re like, “Oh, I get it.” With the visuals for Whack World, I was just doing it for me. I wanted to bring my idea to life and bring truth to the viewer’s eye.
You carry the same energy in your style. Talk to me about this jacket.
It’s by Gaudmother, a Philly designer. She’s up-and-coming and fire. She did this out of yellow braiding hair, and these are bobbles. I find a lot of what I wear in my everyday life, when I’m back home. I’m all over. I see things and they speak to me, and I’m like, “Yo, I gotta have that.” And it comes back to me, like with what I wore to the Grammys. I was in a store, and I saw Nancy [Volpe Beringer’s] coat. I bought it. Then the people told the designer. She reached out to me. Then we worked on the Grammy dress. It all came together. I don’t force anything. The coat caught my eye. I had to have that.
You’re on a fast trajectory. What do you mean to Philly right now?
I’m the queen. I’m the queen of the city. I’m leading by example and spreading positivity. I am staying true to myself, and that’s what I want everybody else to do. Philly is really rough. But rough in a good way. That’s the reason I have tough skin. It’s why I’m so good at what I do. I knew I had to get good to be respected. I had to practice every day.
In your song “4 Wings” you talk about the death of a close friend. How has that experience impacted you and your music?
Yeah my really good friend Hulitho was shot about two years ago. He was starting to get into music, too. I remember having one last talk with him in front of a Chinese food store in Philly. We were sitting, late-night, ordering wings. He was like, “Yo, man. I’m really about to go hard. I don’t want to be in the streets anymore.” Now he’s not here, and I feel like I have to represent him.
What does Philly have to do to move forward?
Everyone just has to help me out now. I’m serious. I’m leading the way, but I need everyone to step up now, too. That includes being more positive. Don’t knock each other down. Even if you don’t like something. If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say it. There are a bunch of people I don’t fuck with [laughs], but I’m not going to say it. [laughs] I’m being real. I don’t want to stop anybody’s money. I want people to eat, get fed, and have clothes on their back. I don’t have any hate in my body. It’s all love. Sometimes we beat ourselves down and then we’re like, “Why doesn’t anybody want us?” Because we do it to ourselves.
Someone recently asked me if you’re “still Philly-based.” What’s your reaction to that?
What the hell? I didn’t realize that question was out there. It’s just work. Everyone wants me to move to L.A., and I’m like, hell no. I’ve been saying that since the first time I visited L.A. I said, “No, I’m not moving here.” I just have to work here a lot. I’m not one of those people who are going to move. I don’t like L.A.! It’s a nice place, but Philly is my home. It’s my heart. When I go back home, I feel grounded. When you travel all around the world and you finally get to go back home, you appreciate it so much more.
Word on the street and in every publication is that Tierra is the future of hip-hop. Thoughts?
I am the future. I’m going to be alive in the future. Even if I’m physically dead, I’m going to be alive. I’m going to live through everybody.
Published as “Tierra Whack” in “The New Look of Philly Power” in the April 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.