Singer, songwriter: Brooklyn, NY
What happens when you really start to search for something? For peace of mind, for inspiration, for a comfort inside. How hard are you willing to search? How many walls do you climb? Do you burn some bridges? Make some sacrifices?
Tamar-kali emerged from adolescence facing many of those questions. At stake was a voice, a music, even an identity. And in her search, I don’t think there was ever an option other than going as hard as she could.
“I came up in the little hardcore punk scene around here, running around these streets in the East Village, going to hardcore shows and punk rock matinees, and that’s the environment I learned to express myself in. Earnestly. And I say earnestly because growing up in parochial school singing chorums and whatever, hardcore was the outlet I had. Not that I don’t love those things and not that they’re not a part of me, but in terms of when I was finding my voice as a teenager and coming into my own as an artist, that happened to be hardcore and punk rock.”
The power of music really cannot be overlooked. To hear something that another human being has composed; to draw inspiration from it; to find something relatable in it and to start composing your own; that’s a thing that can guide a person down any number of avenues. And after a year at college it provided Tamar with a strength and support that almost nothing else could.
“That’s what hardcore and punk rock did for me. It made me be able to identify myself, and when I say as a type I mean like a spiritual type—a fighter and a survivor. It got me through a rough and awkward period. I came home, no bra, just boxers, and my parents were like, ‘what is wrong with her? She does not wear women’s clothes. She’s not wearing a bra. She doesn’t want to wear panty hose.’ It wasn’t like I did a 180 or anything, it was just that I was finally able to be. Just be. You know?"
"But my mother being a Southern woman, there were certain things that I was meant to do that I stopped doing, and it caused a serious schism. I was estranged from my parents for a little while. And it wasn’t even drugs or sex. It was just me expressing the person that I was becoming. So hardcore music got me through those changes, which were pretty intense because your parents are your first love. That’s your first relationship. So when you step out of that world it can be really scary, especially if you’re taking on a lifestyle that they aren’t familiar with.”
What exactly do you think of when you hear the term punk rock or hardcore? Aggression. Angst. Rebellion. Darkness. Raw energy. Freedom of expression. I’m not sure it’s as easily described as other forms of music. But the notion that it’s a very male-oriented music is a common one. And for a woman to express musical and lyrical aggression as powerfully—and be recognized for it—can unfortunately be very difficult.
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“It was funny because I had been on the scene, and I would jump up on people’s stages and play, but when I first started as a front-person I was singing in this funk-hardcore band called Funkface, and because I was a girl people weren’t taking me seriously. I had a lot of boy envy, as well. And I think a lot of girls envy boys because what they’re envying is freedom. So there was a period where I dressed like a boy and you know, I wasn’t gender dysphoric, I just wanted the peace, and I felt like I had the freedom to be whoever I was gonna be and have my hair shaved on the sides and not worry about it in that kind of format, you know?"
"I also didn’t want to be sexualized because I was there for the music. I didn’t want to date anybody, I wanted to mosh and do what I had to do, so I definitely had a spell there where I was extremely aggressive and angry—which the music called for in a way—but then it was also from a perspective of being invisible in terms of my gender.”
That aggression and want for freedom kept Tamar burning and burning with creative power. She was emerging—still not quite finding her own vehicle for expressing what was inside, but churning on. Now fronting a post-hardcore band called Song of Seven, and gaining a following. But as the only woman in the band, writing and singing all the lyrics, she was still facing obstacles.
“My story wasn’t necessarily aligned with their vision or experience in the world and that was hard for some of them, and at the time I was extremely macho, probably more macho and aggressive than the guys in the band. I remember me and the bass player had this issue and I charged him, I just banged right into him, chest to chest, like ‘WHAT?!?’ I was crazy like that [laughs]. And I think it’s kind of like how you gotta go hard, or you gotta go even harder. I was the girl, and I was going even harder.”
She’d leave. And soon Tamar would really start writing. The energy, the aggression, the depth all there on her 2005 EP, Geechee Goddess Hardcore Warrior Soul. She’d continue finding her own voice. Reconnecting with her wide array of influences. Her love of classical music. Composing for strings. Powerful projects would emerge. Psychochamber: hardcore songs but with strings, and no percussion. Pseudoacoustic: piano and strings mixed with aggressive percussion and amplified guitar. Then her first full-length CD, Black Bottom, released in 2010. She was the girl, and she was going even harder.
And as a result she’s standing pretty tall right now. Watch her perform live. Picture her on stage: wearing black high-heel shoes, black tights, a black leather belt over a black dress, a band of black flowers in her hair—playing a red and black Gibson SG guitar and singing a heavy, dark hardcore soul with a voice like no other. It’s one of the most incredible combinations of sights and sounds I’ve seen on a stage, anywhere. Anywhere. Hers is a voice that could make the chirping birds freeze and take notice; it could stop the wind from blowing; it could make the sky fall.
It’s that scene, that image, which initially attracted me to her music. A voice that’s deep and soulful and that should be celebrated, but because it doesn’t fit into the standard R&B soul type, there's a conflict for some.
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“It’s so interesting. You call us artists yet you seek to limit us. I don’t get it. What is your definition of an artist? It’s someone who creates. Experimentation is supposed to be part of the path, right?"
"I feel like it’s sad that we live in a world where we’re worried about that. I mean the whole concept of trying something different, it sounds taboo. That sounds crazy today. But I know at the core of me that that doesn’t sit well. I think we have to just go for it.”
Tamar’s fight was so right—one of the greatest outcomes being the message of the music. And think again if you have a singular impression of what a hardcore, aggressive song is going to be about.
“Intellectually I do care how people think of aggressive music. I guess because I have a broad range, I know people who kind of give me the ‘you can put that hardcore stuff down, you’re able to do other things’, you know? They’ve given me that. And I realized that it was because they think of hard music as something that’s immature, that’s for kids. You do that, and then you grow up. And people also think of it as always being dark, or depressed, hateful.”
But listen to some of her lyrics.
Aimed low ‘cause all my heroes were unsung, I’m on the bottom now.
I ain’t done, I ain’t done, I ain’t done son, gonna claw me out.
I’ve seen the worst but you ain’t seen the best of me yet gonna show you now.
Shine hot like the sun, all the pain I’m gonna burn it out.
I’m gonna ride right out this misery there’s got to be a way I’ll find.
And I know it’s gonna take all of me, every part of me to make it right.
This road is lonely, twists and turns, I swear sometimes it feels just like a maze.
But I can’t quit, gonna be standing tall, you’ll see me at the end of days.
There’s positive energy. Stand up for something energy. Make you stand up for the love of music energy. It’s incredible. And the power in music is something Tamar knows, firsthand.
“It makes you not feel alone. ‘Cause I think the isolation thing is what every person goes through in that time. Music was my best friend. I mean, I was one of those kids, like, I was straight edge. I was not sexually active, I did not do drugs, I did not smoke cigarettes, I did not drink. I loved music. Music was my best friend, whatever I was going through. That was my way of being social and experiencing the world—through music. And then the advent of music video really helped because I could see what people looked like and kind of imagine myself in that world. And that might sound a little lonely and terrible on a certain level, but…I don’t know. I was able to identify with things and formed an identity for myself that I felt very secure in, and my parents gave me that back, too."
"But yeah. I always think about that, like when kids get into all these shenanigans—and I was around kids who were doing stuff—but I didn’t. I was good. I would just go home and listen to some Prince, you know what I mean? Music was really that for me.”
It’s always going to be that for her. And through a music that only she can create, she’ll keep giving that peace to what I hope is an ever-growing number of listeners.
To me, that voice and that energy couldn’t be used in a more perfect way.
All stories are copyright of Gregory Koutrouby and A Thousand Stories unless otherwise noted.