Love of self and self-acceptance should not be a trend, it should be a state of mind! And, today in our society with so much hate, selfishness, and unacceptance of difference skyrocketing out of control, appreciating and embracing one’s difference while forming a tribe of like-minded individuals to fuel a circle of positivity is one of the greatest weapons as it gives others the permission to do the same. So when I heard/viewed the work created by New York City based Pop Rock singer, actor, dancer, and humanitarian TOBI, I was amped to share it. After working with other artists to highlight their creations (sharing the stage with Green Day and Linkin Park [to name a few] and singing live backup vocals for Rachel Platten, Andy Grammer, Gogol Bordello, and Kelly Rowland), TOBI has left some unique footprints, but now she is ready to leave her FINGERPRINT with the release of her debut LP entitled TOBI. #WCM was honored to give this EXCLUSIVE LP interview pertaining to TOBI’s smokin new LP. In this interview, you will learn what separates TOBI from the rest of the Pop-Rock singers lining the charts today, how her unapologetic honesty and creativity shapes the music she creates, and how her personal motto is becoming more than just a personal message right here, right now, on #WCM.
What first got you into music?
Growing up I felt like an outcast. Adopted at birth, I always felt unsure of where I belonged or where exactly I fit in because I looked “different”. My hair was extremely curly, frizzy and my skin color was a darker shade than my adoptive parents-- Making me a victim on multiple occasions of Bullying from my peers and classmates.
For me, when I learned and discovered I had the ability to sing, I began to turn to music, as music always made everything 100 times better. It was my only true escape from the negative thoughts that surrounded me. I knew at a young age I was given the talent of music for a reason and it only made sense for me to use music to help others, like me. That one day I would find my own place and voice in this world and I could make a difference.
Well, clearly you are making a difference!I’ve read that you were born on an Army base in AZ, did that shape the music you create in a way, or was it mainly when you got to NYC?
The army base for me, only served as the hospital I was born at. To this day, I have still never spent any actual time in Arizona so that part of my life didn’t have any influence on my music. But the adoption has.
Were there any community center or theatre works that inspired you to make music?
In the town of Parsippany NJ where I grew up, there was this community theater playhouse called Allegro, and that place truly shaped me and taught me how to be a performer. One of my biggest life role models, and past theater director of Allegro, Russel Maitland always believed in me, and pushed me to work my hardest. He gave me the opportunity to be cast in roles I didn’t even think of auditioning for, and that playhouse was a home away from home. I will always have fond memories of those times and the people that were a part of my life from that period in my life.
Which brings me to your opus Bee True To You (BTTY) – you are the founder and creator of this original Pop Rock anti-bullying/social emotional musical that is directed to empowering children of grade school to high school to impart individuality, creativity, and inspiration. Can you expound on that?
Upon graduating college from Montclair State University in 2010, I began touring and working professionally in off-Broadway Children’s musicals that all had the same underlying message of acceptance, confidence and learning to believe in yourself. It wasn’t until my time touring with Green Day's Broadway Musical, American Idiot in 2012-2013, that my life as I knew it was about to change.
My mom had called me and we were talking on the tour bus and she asked me like she usually did on occasion, what I was going to do once the 14 month world-tour was over. This was a typical question most of my family would ask me over the years, as being an actress isn't always the most 'stable' career choice... I laughed to myself and replied- I have absolutely NO idea.
That's when my mom, a kindergarten teacher in the town of Parsippany, NJ where I grew up, mentioned the idea of assembly programs. I thought . . . How could I guarantee it would be fun and entertaining- I thought to myself. "How can I relate to children? What are kids, AND myself, both struggling with today?... Acceptance... lack of confidence... bullying... being true to themselves... BEE TRUE TO YOU!" And that's how it happened!
I’ll insert the link here.
That’s cool! BTTY is an excellent musical and theatrical curricular-type addition to kids because along with studying, learning accountability, and socialization, every aspect of BTTY helps shape them during those pinnacle years. By the way, I see a scorpion shaved on your scalp on your character illustration (above) – any meaning behind that?
Hahahaha. So a few things- 1st off, yes that is a scorpion, and the meaning behind that is that I am a Scorpio, and I think just saying that alone, really says a lot… Being a Scorpio means being driven, and stubborn, and mysterious, and loyal and loving to the UTMOST extreme, and I am proud of all those characteristics… In the shaved section of my hair in the illustration, I wanted the artist, [Claudia P. Marulanda | Instagram : @marulandart ] to capture everything that was an inspiration to this album. You can also see in that region of the illustration, aside from a few song titles, the names Jaci and Nico- my half brother and half sister.
Okay, cool. All of which shows EMPOWERMENT! This brings me to your LP TOBI. What is the backstory behind your debut LP?
This album is the actual first piece of anything that I started to create. The songs included in this album is a telling of my own personal story. One that I truly think is empowering, inspiring and can really hit home to a lot of people. It's about a journey of self-discovery, and that journey depending on who it's about, or where it takes place can be different for everyone, but we all go through that journey. For me, growing up as a bi-racial adoptee in a white family, in a primarily white cultured town, was a bit challenging for me. I didn't have a lot of friends that looked like me and It was a closed adoption, so I didn't know my actual background, but that didn't stop people from telling me what they THOUGHT I was. Most of the time, I questioned where and how I fit in the world. My adoptive parents were the most loving, and supportive parents you could ask for, but deep down, and as an artist, I struggled with looking in the mirror, not knowing who was standing in front of me. It took me 30 years to put into words and letters how I felt. The one song on the album, UNKNOWN- is a letter to my Birth Mom. The lyrics are pretty simple, and I even write about that in one line of the actual song.... But the feeling and emotion behind it, for me is very deep, very driven, and very complex. Each song, as I’ve mentioned before, on this album has to do with a different chapter in my life.
WOW! So, what made you KNOW that it was time to record your own music and release it?
I always believed I had a story to tell, but was too afraid to tell it. My current partner of 7 years, Boris Pelekh, THE biggest influence in my life, taught me to believe in myself and helped uncover the true musician within me. In the beginning, I would write a song, and then immediately show him, as I wanted his professional music opinion, as he is honestly the MOST talented musician I have ever met or worked with… I think it was a few years back when I showed him a song one time, and he commented “Wow, this is actually way more complicated to play than your other songs”. Hahah-- I walked away from that feeling like a true artist. Writing complex harmonies, and chord progressions. Now I trust myself fully that I don’t feel like I need to show someone first what I wrote, looking for approval or acceptance to see if it’s “actually good or not”. Now I trust myself in my writing and believe in my craft. Which leads me now to my current writing and production team MRC Riddims.
How was it recording and getting everything complete during COVID-19?
So “Puzzle Piece” was finished prior to COVID-19- we were more or less just sitting on the music for a few months trying to come up with the best possible release plan. Thank God- THEY were the ones who literally came to me and said, “Hey-- July 24th is the date, send me any promo pics you have!” hahah Because this is my baby-- and I don’t know when I would’ve actually set it free.
How would you describe the music that you typically create?
It’s funny, to me, because when I perform on stage, I really let go and leave everything on the stage- and when I do that, my sound, I think, is pop/rock, with some grit and a whole lot of soul. But the way I write, is definitely mainstream pop--- but with a twist? Or With more soul? I guess?
Okay, so who is your target audience?
My target audience I would say is the reach of that of Taylor Swift’s audience. Because I write both children’s songs, AND young adult Pop songs, I don’t really have a specific age range. But I have realized that I always want to come across as creating music, for positive change. So for example, the album of mine, Puzzle Piece, that is coming out Friday July 24th, is really about empowerment and helping one discover their truths, in a way that is really honest and pure for me. Each song on that album is about feeling and acknowledging a different part of my life growing up, but yet, writing the lyrics and the storyline so it can resonate with others as well.
I can already see two things that define your artistic fingerprint just by listening to your music and by seeing your artist image, and that is your unapologetic honesty and thinking-outside-of-the-box creativity, but what do you see as your optimal thing that separates TOBI from the rest of the Pop-Rock singers lining the charts today?
Thank you Kiki! I think what separates me is my drive to fully understand where I come from. And in return, I think that can translate to the majority of a young adult crowd, all the way down to childhood, because those are the most pivotal years of an individual's life and that’s really the focus of my music. And also, in being super transparent with my story, showing people, Hey!- I'm figuring things out too- let’s all do it together. It’s okay to be scared--- I get scared too.. You’re not alone… I think, and I hope it comes across as genuine as I mean it to be.
As a biracial artist, when did you realize that you were seen as “Black” in the industry?
For me, I think I started to notice this “ethnic label” when I started looking for management for theater prior to my college years. When you are seeking representation, and you are fortunate enough to schedule a meeting with a manager or agent, they often tell you what they can do for you, and the roles they would be looking to submit you for. Managers would always see me as ‘ethnically ambiguous’, which means you could be seen and cast in the industry as a black wom[a]n, or someone that may be of Italian descent, Native American, European… anyone who had darker complexion skin. This all sounds great, because yes, I could pass for any of those ethnicities, however, when it came down to being submitted for roles, most of the roles I would be up for or chosen to audition for a project, would be for a black role. That is when I learned how I was “seen” and “labeled” in the industry.
I totally get it! So, if you could change anything about the industry, what would it be?
Well, [nowadays], they have something called BIPOC Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)-- A terminology to help raise awareness against systemic racism. It’s a great thing when productions, and film, and music festivals put an emphasis on being inclusive of all races, genders, and orientations, and that’s how it should always be. People are people, and especially during times such as these, where we are all pretty much still in a lock down state of living, this is the time to learn about different cultures, and ethnicities, and what is special about them because maybe you will find a true connection outside the usual normalities of what you open yourself up to. This is the time to discover new artists, or artists that have been weighed down by social [biases], and unable to share their gifts and talent with the world. The only way to truly come together as a society, as a human race, is to truly accept each other and inform each other, and music/entertainment, I think, is THE number 1 way to do that.
How do you think music, in general, can help start a better dialog and extend society’s conversation about Blacks in America? And on what level do you think this needs to be done in order for this to take place?
I would first like to say, that yes, I am a person of color, however, not growing up and embracing either side of my ethnicity, black, or Puerto Rican- due to the complete unknown to myself- it’s left me a little in the dark during these protest times. To further explain that, yes I have been judged solely on the color of my skin now and then, but to say I truly understood the depth of the history of the African race and the suffering that has taken place due to systematic racism, is a little bit of an unfair one for me to truly talk about. As I don’t have the knowledge of my ancestors struggles… And with that being said, BEING a person of color and not having a true identity to really stand up and support a side, is truly challenging in its own right. So for me, personally, I have taken this time to really educate myself even more by watching documentaries, and even trying to uncover my black side and relatives.
Furthermore, to answer this question, I was asked a similar one the other day, when someone asked me, what do I think we need as a whole, to rectify, or create positive change. And my answer to that, was… and may seem a little silly, but I think it all comes down to Social Intelligence. [S]ocial and [E] motional Learning.
How do you feel your music will help heal some wounds that are set to leave scars on society?
Each song on my album, touches on a specific part of life, a specific challenge, that one endures on the path of self-discovery and authenticity. And I think that ties in with current events and the latest happenings of society, because as you grow up, the challenges of the world begin to be of more importance to you and weighs heavier on your mind because it now affects you directly; and now you understand things about the world, things maybe your parents would tell you when you were younger, or your grandparents, but you didn’t have the full capacity to truly and emotionally understand what they were talking about or where they were coming from.
So for instance, my one song, ‘Learn To love’, was first written during the Paris Attacks, and the song continued to evolve for me, lyrically and on the production side of things, throughout a lot of the mass shootings that continued to happen all over the world and within our country. The song itself is about, loving one another, all love, and no war, being tired of the trauma and pain that surrounds us, and coming together as one human race.
To shut down stereotypes laid upon African Americans in the music industry, people say that doors need to be opened, but we know that with every door that opens up, there are corridors that lead to other doors that need to be opened. What door within music do you want to open up, or open wider, for a better view of the African American artist so that those corridors can, too, be narrowed?
I want to open up conversations for everyone to be a part of. I want people to realize there should only be one way of living, and that is the way of the human race. I want people to hear the pain, and the struggles and the celebration of life within my music and just think, “wow I really like this music,” or “wow this artist is talking about something I can relate to” and not have to think or care about what the color of my skin is. It’s just art.
Your endeavor to make love of self and acceptance, to me, is a prerequisite to living THE best life and I LOVE IT! Through your music, you have developed a personal motto of "Be True To You,” and your latest body of work, as well as your beautiful image as an artist, showcases this 100%. Do you see “Be True To You” evolving from your personal motto, into the BTTY children’s program, and even more so into a powerful mantra to many?
Thank you for that Kiki! The answer to this, is 100% yes. So the mantra of “Being True To You” began PRIOR to my development of my Adult Pop music. In the sense where the show and program Bee True To You was originally birthed and conceptualized back in 2015.
For me, this mantra is something that will forever stick with me, and my goal and mission is to be there for children as they grow up into their adult years. From elementary, to middle school, to high school, college, and beyond, I am trying to build out a community and a network where despite your age, I can be that guiding light for you with my music, whenever you need it most.
We are familiar with the tracks “Gurls with Curls” and “Puzzle Pieces (Mirror),” are there other songs that you feel will resonate with the audience?
I mean- I hope all of them do. There is one song in particular that I love, “Haven’t Met Me Yet”, it was written about my sister, who at the time when I learned of her existence, was going through some tough times, and that song I wrote as a letter to her, to let her know, that even though we haven’t met yet, I will always be there for her. Encouraging her to live her best life. I think a lot of people can relate to that message. And even relate it to themselves, perhaps writing a letter to their older self, or to a part of them that is calling out for help.
Regarding your videos for your two singles released, “Gurls with Curls” and “Puzzle Pieces (Mirror),” you did not let the visual of the video clash with the overall message of the songs as some music videos tend to do (unfortunately). For example, what I gathered from viewing your video “Gurls with Curls,” is that it illustrates the subject of curly hair, I don’t care as its premise. Am I right? If so, can you expand a little on my assumption? If not, please recap.
That is exactly right! My curly hair was always the one thing I disliked about myself, mainly because I didn’t know where it came from, and no one else in my neighborhood or school had SUPER kinky curly hair like mine. It just really stood out and was so different...So instead of embracing my hair, I went to one hair salon after the other, professionally straightening my hair, and learning about straightening irons, until- come college, I really discovered how much I had ruined my hair-- and that there were other ways to learn to take care of it, but it was kind of too late at that point. I had to either chop off a lot of my hair to make it healthy again, orrrr start to wear some extensions. And the ironic thing is, the extensions that I got, looked exactly as how my hair WOULD have been if I didn’t ruin it all those years.
So, what's takeaway do you want from the video “Gurls with Curls”?
So the takeaway is to embrace what makes you different and unique about yourself. Because THAT is what makes you who you are. Educate yourself on learning about something before taking drastic measures to destroy something that you may or may not be regretful for later in life. We always want what we can’t have, and having Curly hair, I can honestly say now… I am so fortunate to have the locks that I have. They are beautiful, and I have grown to appreciate them and even prefer them to a night out when I may have to straighten my hair for something.
So to anyone out there, who may feel the same, truly look at yourself in the mirror, and smile and be grateful for what makes up who you are.
Now regarding your other video, what’s the storyline? And what emotion were you trying to evoke in the video “Puzzle Pieces (Mirror)”?
Puzzle Piece is really the part 1 storyline of Gurls With Girls. It’s the telling of a story about a girl, who desperately wants to fit in, and tries different hair styles, and hangs out with people who are not her TRUE friends, just to fit in. It’s the story of putting on the blue wig, where she feels the most comfortable, and pretending everything is okay. Towards the end of the music video, with the literal breaking of the “MIRROR” she realizes she doesn't want to continue to live like that anymore, and is on the path of change.
Last question, when did you last give yourself permission to let go?
This is a GREAT question, and honestly, a hard one to answer…..especially during these times where we are in a continued sort of state of “lockdown”. Hmm… I think the last time I really gave myself permission to “let go” would be when I had the opportunity to visit, perform and stay with a friend in St. Thomas 3 different times, and explore true serenity and calmness. Being in a place, so beautiful as that, literally changes your whole entire vibe. You can’t help but take in the beauty that surrounds you, and the beautiful and light-hearted people that welcome you into town.
Currently, however, just the other day, VERY unexpectedly, my brother basically arrived to my front doorstep here in Queens, as he was traveling from Puerto Rico, and as his plans were changed due to travel restrictions, was stranded in New York. We got in contact with one another, and now he is staying with me for a long period of time.
My goal, while he is here, IS to let truly myself go, and completely live in the moment as this clearly is some sort of sign bringing us together for some bigger purpose. I do not want to take this time for granted So I truly hope I can let go and forget about the negativity in the world right now, even for a day or so, and just be completely and utterly happy!
Thank you TOBI !!
Like Billy Porter said, “wherever I am as a result of my truth, is where I am supposed to be,” and that is exactly the confident and unregretful vibe TOBI is lacing with her music. TOBI tells stories in living color, highlighting the road of life as if it was made of gold. Make sure to get your copy of the newly released TOBI.
Note : Piece has been edited for length
CONNECT WITH TOBI :
INSTAGRAM : @thatgirltobi
Written by Lakisha ‘KiKi’ Skinner
Lakisha “KiKi” Skinner is a USA-based Indie Music journalist and freelance writer who has been crowned a “word-craft artist” by her global following of Independent music artists. She is a part of an Alt. Rock band and is the owner of Klef Notes entertainment business blog. Lakisha has been the editor for a Backstreet Boy and has been featured on Dr. Jimmy Star’s blog. If she is not crafting words, you can find her buying another pair of shoes to place in her over-cluttered closet. You can read her work at www.KlefNotes.com and find her on https://twitter.com/The0riginalKiKi.
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