Tinashe / Cover Story   0%

The dogs didn’t bark the night the notes were left at the front door of the Kachingwe residence.

The family of five lives in a cozy single-level home near the end of a not particularly well-lit cul-de-sac in La Crescenta, almost 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. “It was crazy,” says Tinashe, whose full name is Tinashe Jorgenson Kachingwe. “In the morning there were these notes on the door. ‘Call me. Oh my god, I love you.’”

The Kachingwes—Michael and Aimie and their children, Tinashe and her younger brothers, Thulani, 18, and Kudzai, 16—have lived there since 2003. Tinashe may be a rising pop star—she garnered Best New Artist nominations at the 2015 BET Awards and Soul Train Awards, and went platinum in 2014 with her single “2 On”—but the family maintains a modest middle-class existence outside the clamor of the city. This sort of encroachment is unusual.

“It’s creepy,” says Kudzai. “We have dogs,” offers Michael, seeking to calm any lingering anxiety. “But the dogs didn’t bark,” Tinashe chimes in from her seat at the end of the living room couch, next to her brothers. “They must’ve been really quiet,” Aimie concludes. It’s ten past nine on a Tuesday night, two days before Thanksgiving. The light in the room is soft yellow and the dogs—an energetic German Shepherd mix and a Shiba Inu—initially riled up over the arrival of a guest, are now silent.

At 22, Tinashe has already released four mixtapes of dreamy R&B, some of it self-produced and nearly all of it recorded in her bedroom; one critically acclaimed album, 2014’s Aquarius; and another, Joyride, on the way. But the lithe young woman with the perfect pout and keen eyes still lives at home, something interviewers like to joke about. What about boys? Where do you smoke?—that sort of thing. Visiting with her family, however, it seems there’s little to poke fun at. The sordid showbiz stereotypes, with taskmaster parents and their transplanted dreams inflicted on children treated more like workhorses than people—this is the opposite. Michael and Aimie are mellow and warm, the type of people who hug you after your first meeting, but not in a weird or fake way. Their children are expressive, sure of their right to speak up, like you’d expect from the progeny of college professors (Michael teaches acting at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; Aimie, physical therapy at California State University, Northridge). Of the three, Thulani is the most eager to contribute. Kudzai is mostly quiet, except when he’s suddenly insightful. Tinashe checks her phone often but is never unaware of the conversation, interjecting when a memory needs correcting or a question explicitly calls for her voice. She’s jet-lagged from a trip to Dubai and is moving slow. The house is pleasantly cluttered with the accumulation of three lives moving rapidly into adulthood: baby photos, visual art, records of achievement, recordings of Christmas dance performances and piano recitals.

In an improbable stroke of luck, Tinashe has not one but two happy families guiding her and grounding her. Her managers, Mike and Ali Nazzaro, are married and have a 2-year-old daughter whom Tinashe is godmother to. “The fact that they’re a close-knit family works so well with me and what’s important to me,” Tinashe says. “That we have similar values makes it easy. We have similar goals.”

The chief goal is massive pop success on the scale of the artists she’s toured with: Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry. (Nazzaro imagines a grand headlining tour of her own in the near future, with “a full band, 10 dancers, and pyro.”) Joyride, featuring production from, among others, Swedish chart-topping alchemist Max Martin—who, in addition to producing multiplatinum singles for Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, and Taylor Swift, most recently helped The Weeknd move from moody, anonymous R&B to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100—is a bid for just that. But paradoxically, the stability and support that have helped her ascend so far are leading her into a lifestyle that will make it difficult to maintain the same level of comfortable closeness she has with her immediate family. Uninterrupted dinners out, privacy in their neighborhood—those days are dwindling. These are the costs of fame. She’s becoming a star, and stars often shine distant and alone.

The notes left at the front door are just one omen. “We go out now, and a group of people will gather around her,” Aimie says. “Now I get [the appeal of] gated communities. People leave you alone.” Michael counters: “That seems like more loneliness.”

“Everyone lives in Hidden Hills,” Tinashe says, referring to the gated community near Calabasas, Calif., the heart of Kardashian country. “It’s so cliché.” This isn’t a conversation about moving the entire family, though. Kudzai is still in high school; Thulani is in his first year at San Diego State. It would be Tinashe, living on her own. After 22 years of total support, she’d suddenly be coming home from a performance overseas to an empty house.

“Everyone wants to think that everything you do is a direct reflection of who you are. It’s not always that deep.”

Tinashe was born in Lexington, Ky. on Feb. 6, 1993, but the family didn’t stay long; it wasn’t a perfect fit. “When we moved to the South, it was different and we could feel it,” Michael says, referring to the racial climate. They were a young interracial couple who had fallen in love as undergrads at the University of Iowa. “We were set up on a blind date by my roommate,” Aimie explains. “She had him in a class, and she came home and said, ‘I want you to meet this guy.’ And you can imagine, there aren’t too many Africans in Iowa.” (Michael was born in Zimbabwe and eventually immigrated to the States with his father, brother, and sister. Aimie is a native Iowan of Norwegian, Danish, and Irish descent.)

The running theme across multiple generations of Kachingwes seems to be family as the ultimate insurance against the caprices of the world. When Michael immigrated, he says, “It was just the four of us in the whole country.” He remains close to his siblings, now scattered across different states. As college students, Michael and Aimie kept any tension related to miscegenation on the outside. “We were in a collegiate community and probably didn’t have to think about it as much as we could have,” he says. “We were sheltered from a lot of other areas that would’ve been more dangerous.” The family moved to California in 2001. “It’s just us five,” is the Kachingwe refrain. “Every holiday it’s just us five,” Thulani says. “Every birthday it’s just us five.”

The children have a Christmas pageant they put on every year, just for their parents. Tinashe calls the shots: “I’m the director and I tell them what the choreography is and how it’s going to go down.” Thulani gets animated about her claims to continued authorship: “Yeah, but we always use the same one song!” Ask what the song is, and all three break into laughter. It’s a ridiculous, lyric-less, “almost EDM” remix of “Deck the Halls.”

“We have hours and hours of performances, as you can imagine,” Aimie says, digging around in a cabinet next to the TV, looking for the recording of the first Kachingwe Christmas Spectacular. “And not just those. Life was always a performance with these guys. Always.” Tinashe’s ability manifested itself early. Aimie tells a story about coming home from work when Tinashe was 6 to find that her daughter had become a songwriter: “She said, ‘Mom, I wrote this song.’ On the piano she had written out the score in her own way.”

“It wasn’t even real,” Tinashe says, dismissing that early work with an eye roll. “It wasn’t a real score,” Aimie admits, “but in her head it was real. It was this very heartfelt song about being alone in the night. She went to her piano teacher and said, ‘Can you help me write the score?’ She helped her write a real one, and then Tinashe performed it at a piano concert. The other kids were up there doing ‘Chopsticks,’ and she did this song.” The song, “Deep in the Night,” appears as an interlude on Aquarius.

More than a musical prodigy, Tinashe is a kind of emotional prodigy—someone with a precocious grasp of adult feelings. Five years after she wrote about loneliness in the dark, she performed Alicia Keys’ No. 1 hit “Fallin’” on America’s Most Talented Kid. There was already a gravitas to her delivery that suggested this 11-year-old was different, that either she understood more than her age could possibly allow, or that she had a kind of extra-sensitive imagination and gift for empathy. She sees it as a penchant for storytelling.

“I matured faster,” she says, an understatement for a child star with a work ethic that would embarrass even the most gung-ho Wall Street traders or young lawyers keeping vampire hours. “I’ve always been able to tap into the storytelling aspect of writing. As an artist you’re allowed to create stories that aren’t so literal to your life. I’m able to take stories that my friends have gone through, things I’ve witnessed, secondhand accounts, and narrate that.” This helps explain a song like “Worth It,” a standout from her last mixtape, Amethyst, released in February 2015, in which she describes a relationship flagging after three years: “We don’t even share morning showers on the weekend,” she laments. It’s a pointed detail, especially coming from someone who says her last truly meaningful romantic relationship was back when she was 17.

“Everyone wants to think that everything you do is a direct reflection of who you are,” she says. “It’s not always that deep. I’ve definitely had a particular life that many haven’t. I think that it’s important to share your story but also to be able to find the relatability [in the stories of others]. Because it’s important to me to be able to relate to my fans.”

“They’d talk to me in secret and then at school they’d ignore me. Literally ignore me to my face.”

Tinashe has known the spotlight since she was 6, when she began appearing on TV shows and in movies (including one, Cora Unashamed, that called for her character to die of whooping cough, a moment that “brought everyone on set to tears,” according to Aimie). She sang with a girl group, the Stunners, that toured with Bieber in 2010, and went solo with a trilogy of mixtapes that taught her how to produce and engineer from the comfort of her bedroom. According to Ali Nazzaro, she recorded the first of them, In Case We Die, in just 16 days in 2012, when she was just shy of 19. Her focus is laser-like, and her family members have long organized themselves to accommodate her talents. “We would rotate based on our schedules, and who was free at the time,” Michael says. “The majority of the time I was there with her through auditions.” Adds Aimie: “He worked at Starbucks, on the morning shift, so he’d be home by the time [the boys] got home from school, and then take her to auditions. We figured it out, like most parents do, I guess.”

Her parents pitched in to make Tinashe’s career work, and now everyone in the family partakes in the results. “One thing people don’t realize is that Tinashe has allowed us to stay here, financially,” Aimie says. “It’s not just about her having home-cooked meals and all that. She’s not a selfish person and she realized that if she’s here [at home], she helps us to be able to stay. Because it was challenging to be here and juggle.”

Tinashe says she’s been mindful of this mutual support for a long time. “It’s been something I’ve been involved in doing since I was young,” she says. “But it’s a no-brainer. Because I get that support back in invaluable ways.”

Would her brothers miss her during the juggling?

“No, she’s always been around. She still lives here, obviously,” Thulani says. “We see her all the time. We missed her when I was younger and she was on a tour. She was on the Justin Bieber tour for months and I wouldn’t see her.”

Were those months tough?

“I knew she was doing something she wanted to pursue,” Thulani says. “And knew she was having fun with it, so it wasn’t hard. It wasn’t like she was off doing school, or something that she didn’t enjoy—then I would’ve been sad about it. But I knew she was doing something that she had a dream about, so it was fine for me. I’m off at school now but it’s still fine because I know she lives here with us.” Kudzai nods in agreement.

And not every road trip separates the family. Oftentimes, her brothers tag along. “If she’s having a music video, I can go to her music video,” Thulani says. “If Kudzai’s having a basketball game, I can go to his basketball game.” He speaks about his little brother’s extracurriculars in exactly the same terms as his big sister’s music video shoot, right down to the sentence construction: is having. Family solidarity: “It’s just us five.”

“I have no Plan B. I’ve set this up so that my entire life is based on this, and if this fails, I have nothing else. No career options. No life options.”

Tinashe thrives on constant motion. “She’d have too much to think about if she had a day off,” Ali Nazzaro suggests at the New York listening session for Joyride. This kind of statement feels patronizing, as if Tinashe is a kind of music-making robot—after all, what’s wrong with time off to think? But it’s something she herself worries about. Tinashe knows there are misconceptions about her, and they get under her skin. She knows some think that she has nothing to offer, that she’s just a cute girl whose music has no sophistication or artistry. A one-hit wonder. Asked about Ali Nazzaro’s time-off comment, however, Tinashe echoes her manager’s assessment. “I’m not a big fan of downtime,” she says. “I have too much time to think.”

About what?

She scoffs, like it should be obvious. “That I’m not doing enough. That I’m not good enough. That I’m wasting my time.”

She’s a shark and if she stops moving, doubt and self-scrutiny get in. Michael says that this self-doubt is the quality in their daughter that he and his wife are most surprised by. They can explain where the work ethic came from (Mom), the love of music and performance (Dad), the fondness for checklists (Mom), but this habit of getting stuck in her own head, that they can’t account for. It was a problem for her in middle school and freshman year of high school, and she recalls those bad feelings in front of her family.

“Nobody wanted to fuck with me. As far as the guys go, nobody wanted to like me or date me. They’d talk to me in secret and then at school they’d ignore me. Literally ignore me to my face. And psychologically that messes with you. It makes you feel that you must be genuinely unattractive if this person doesn’t want anyone to know that you even talk. That’s bad.”

Kudzai weighs in. “It’s a lot harder for African-American girls, especially in these kinds of communities,” he says. (La Crescenta is less than 1% African-American.) “If you’re the only African-American girl in your school. For me and Thulani, it’s a lot easier. When you’re the guy, you’re seen as different. She was singled out. But being the only African-Americans helped us socially.”

You got to be the cool token black friend.

“Exactly,” he says. “But it wasn’t the same for her.”

“My sister felt the same thing,” Michael adds. “She couldn’t get out of high school fast enough.” Tinashe left school after ninth grade.

In the bedroom where she has recorded the vocals for songs you’ve heard on the radio, Tinashe has taped inspirational quotes all around her twin bed’s white-painted wooden frame. A well-worn stuffed animal peeks out from under the blanket on the bed. Some of the quotes are part of a set, like a greeting-card pack, with sayings like, “Everything I need comes to me at the perfect time.” Above the headboard, above her pillow, she has posted a handwritten note to herself in black marker on highlighter-bright paper: “I know I’m a good person.”

Did you ever doubt that?

“I guess I did when I was younger,” she says. “When I was in middle school and everybody didn’t like me. I’d wonder, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ Because it’s hard not to feel like it’s a reflection of what I’m doing wrong. You have to try to remember that that’s not always the case. That it’s not always a reflection on you.”

But who figures that out when they’re in eighth or ninth grade?

“It’s a hard lesson to learn. But I think an important lesson to learn because it carries over into a lot of things in life and career. How sometimes I’ll doubt myself, and wonder why some people can seemingly get more success. It’s the same thing. It’s not always just about me, or something I’m doing. See, the room is pretty small! You’ve seen the whole thing.”

The whole thing: Her bedroom is tiny, hence the twin bed, and the walls painted white and a shade of blue that’s close to teal. A plush Totoro toy, from the Hayao Miyazaki cartoon, looks down from a shelf by the door. A row of different-colored bras hangs on a rack next to her desk. Photos of family and friends, Mike and Ali, are taped on mirrored tiles on the wall behind her desk. Her iMac is on; ProTools is up. The lyrics for at least three different songs are open in different colored windows of text. There’s a microphone hanging from the ceiling to the left of the desk with a small, maybe foot-and-a-half-long curtain hung behind the mic to insulate her voice. This is her makeshift studio. The platinum plaque for “2 On” sits next to a row of dance trophies high up on the wall opposite the foot of her bed. Another token of her burgeoning career—a slip of paper tacked to a corkboard, bearing a single word: Joyride. Below that is a mock-up of the tracklist, the song titles written in black marker on bright paper, like the note to herself. She’s planning the album like you might outline a school project.

Tinashe paces while she talks; her orange cat, Sundance, brushes against her legs. The album’s not quite done, she says. “I would’ve said 95 percent, but now I’m going back to 80 percent,” she says. “Rethinking some things in the 11th hour.” Pacing the room, Tinashe seems to be rethinking things right now. She’s feeling the pressure.

“It’s all self-inflicted,” she says. The people out there, in the next room, it’s not coming from them. “I feel like it’s the thing that keeps me driven, tunnel-vision focused. There are no distractions. Because I put so much pressure on myself.”

There are downsides to this approach. The first time I met Tinashe was in May 2015, and she was appearing on a panel for a COMPLEX event at YouTube’s New York studio space in Chelsea. Just before she arrived, we heard from her team that she wasn’t feeling well. Accurate. Not long after meeting a spectral version of Tinashe, terribly pale and wide-eyed, I watched her vomit into a trash can. She has no memory of our encounter.

“I was next to dead,” she says. “Twice a year, I just get violently sick for like two days. You get to the point where you’ve been going so much, nonstop, and it hits you all at once. That’s where I was when you saw me. But you want to keep going; you’re supposed to keep going. It’s not like I have a day off to recover. You try to push through but sometimes you reach a point where there’s no pushing through.”

And yet she does. She made her appearance that day and seems to treat those biannual sick days as part of the job. There’s always another item on the checklist. Right now that next item is Joyride. She’s in her own head about the album, but if she’s going to figure it out, it’ll happen here, in her room. “It’s a place for my solitude,” she says. “I’m very comfortable here. I can be pure inspiration here, and not be affected by any other factor, whether that’s a producer or anyone else’s opinion. It also makes me feel like I’m the same person I was before I had any level of success, which was when I was the most inspired creatively.”

Her hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail. She’s wearing glasses, no makeup. Comfortable. Her room is connected to the kitchen, and so if her parents are up making breakfast on the weekend, she must smell it.

“I have no Plan B,” she says. “I’ve set this up so that my entire life is based on this, and if this fails I have nothing else. No career options. No life options. I’ve sacrificed so much for this; failure is so beyond an option. There can only be setbacks. It’ll eventually work because it can’t not work.” She laughs. “And it’s never a fully hopeless situation, because I’ll always have some support.”

She flicks on the small party-light projector next to her bed. Hundreds of green pinpoints of light move across the room. “It’s called ‘swirling nebulas,’” she says. “I got it at Guitar Center, in the DJ section.”

Thulani and Kudzai come in to say goodnight before leaving to visit friends. In the living room, her parents turn on a radio show, recorded earlier in the week. Their daughter is the guest. Michael and Aimie sip glasses of red wine and listen. Tinashe lingers in the hallway for a moment and then disappears, closing her bedroom door to the sound of her own voice.

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