Tank and the Bangas stole our hearts over the last couple of weeks. After winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, the poetry-twirling, NOLA-based soul sensations have made headlines nationwide, spreading the gospel of their refreshing, energetic performances. Mixing R&B, Soul, Hip-Hop, and Spoken Word, Tank and the Bangas are as original as they come. Out of 6,000 entrants, they were the chosen one (unanimously, we might add)—and with great reason.
It’s no wonder Trey Anastasio called them “a psychedelic joy rap explosion. Like a female Sly Stone teleporting into 2017 and landing in New Orleans.” He continued, “I love this video. It makes me want to be there. I saw so many amazing musicians while judging this year’s Tiny Desk Contest . . . Thousands of entries from all 50 states. One winner . . . ”
Watch Tank and the Bangas’ Tiny Desk performance below:
When I called Tarriona Ball, better known as “Tank,” on Friday afternoon, she was sitting at the hair salon getting ready for Saturday night’s performance at the French Quarter Fest in New Orleans, LA. “We’ve never played the night slot,” she told me. “I’m really excited for this.” We got right into it.
“I grew up in New Orleans,” she says like a true Southerner. “In the Eighth Ward on the craziest street called Music Street. I grew up with my three older sisters, my one little brother, and my mom. My father had died, and my step-father had come to live with us. There were triplets down the street, two sisters across the street, and every now and then, every one of us would be in a huge fight—but we always stayed good friends at the end of the day.” The picture she painted began to take shape.
“At my grandparents 50th wedding anniversary, my mother gave me a poem to recite–‘A Great Somebody’ by Adrienne Sealy Hardesty. That poem changed my life. At the anniversary, I screwed up the entire poem; I didn’t know the words, I was looking at the paper constantly even though I had rehearsed the poem so much the day before. But my grandmother saw something in me, I guess it’s that I kept going. Or even that I spoke with such authority, even when I was confused. Then, right there, I made her [start to] take me to every church my grandfather spoke in, and I recited that poem before him–before he preached–every time.” She pauses, “That is where I gained more of a love for poetry.”
That little girl grew up into a vibrant woman, and she never left that love of poetry and the communal support she found in it behind. “Poetry gave me the confidence to continue writing, and go to Slam at different schools and things. I was on the Slam team of New Orleans. That changed my life. I wrote with them all the time, they were different, they were special. They were supportive, they were kind, sensitive. I didn’t even grow up around them or go to school with them; we’d meet at a coffee shop, and we’d just do our thing: write and get ready for Slam season. I spent half the day with them. When you’re 21, you had to kind of leave them and go be with the adults—and that’s what I did. That was the most amazing group of people called Slam New Orleans.”
The group would meet in front of an abandoned building and use the setting as a place to express themselves artistically through word and song. It was at that corner that people began to take notice–and began to take video. The group realized they had something special when they saw themselves circulating the Internet. They began to compete–and succeed– in regional and national competitions, cementing their dreams in the Slam arena. “That’s when I knew my time with them was completed, and that’s when I decided I wanted to do music and poetry full time,” she declares emphatically.
Going to Slam competitions meant being rated from 1-10 on a piece of cardboard after every performance in a public setting. This gave Tarriona a type of confidence that you can’t find elsewhere. “It’s the Olympics of spoken word,” she laughs. As I speak to her, this confidence in herself, in her abilities, seems so natural for the young star. But that hasn’t always been the case.
“I never believed in myself, I wasn’t the best singer at all. My sisters could all sing. My dad used to sing; he was a disc jockey and he used to be in all the competitions. I always felt like I wrote much better than I could sing, so that’s what I focused on. There was one woman that came to me, was like, ‘You know, you’ve got to use both of your gifts. You have to travel all over the world using your music so that everyone can actually hear your poetry because they’ll be more receptive to the music—and that’s how you get your poetry in there.'” It was a moment of clarity for Tarriona, and she decided to give more attention to both talents rather than focus on one. “It’s just who I am. I can’t do a show without a poem, I can’t do a show without a song.”
Inception of the Bangas
As she grew older, Tarriona started going to a place called Liberation Lounge. She muses, “The word ‘liberation’ was exactly what it was. Everyone felt so free there—children, teenagers, everybody. You’d walk in, and it was like a shotgun New Orleans house filled with instruments, couches everywhere, someone in the back making jerk-chicken sandwiches. If you missed church on Sunday, that was your church.”
“That’s where I met the core of the Black Star Bangas,” she says. “A guitarist and a bass player. They would play music to anybody’s own songs.” Pretty soon, this collective of artists hit the road together. It took Tank a moment to find the name in her memory—they called themselves “The Liberated Soul Collective”—but when she did, she gasped in appreciation of the fond memories. “We could move mountains together. We were loved in more than New Orleans. But after being together for a couple of years, traveling around, and literally supporting each other’s music, everybody else had to go their own ways.” She continues, “Before I knew it, it was Tarriona [Tank] by herself, with just the Black Star Bangas. Eventually, we became Tank and the Bangas—and that’s who we are today.”
NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest
It took a lot of convincing to get Tank and the Bangas to submit a video to the NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, and we can thank her manager Tavia Osbey for the push. Tarriona met Tavia years ago, at her weekly “Pass It On” Saturdays performance at the Red Star Gallery. Every week, Tavia would ask Tank to write a poem that she could write on her leg for a tattoo, until she finally delivered. “She was persistent as hell!” Now, Tavia manages Tank and the Bangas, and the two are best friends. The same persistency was translated when Tavia convinced the group to record a video for Tiny Desk. “She pushed for that NPR thing the same way she pushed for that damn tattoo,” Tank laughs.
The size of the contest made Tank nervous–the field was too big for her band to win. “It’s like a bunch of Coca Cola cans, and you happen to pick up the one with the dollar inside of it.” She asks, “How you gonna find me? How will anyone know how special this is when there are so many other special people in the world.” As if by fate, Tank and the Bangas changed their song at the last possible moment before hitting record. They hadn’t planned to record anything at all until a few hours prior, a stunning reminder that the universe works in mysterious ways.
The Tank and the Bangas performance of their original “Rollercoaster” was, without a doubt, the emotional climax of their Tiny Desk set. In the piece, Tarriona explains the metaphorical significance of a rollercoaster that she used to pass by in her neighborhood every day. “You don’t know much about people, but you know that everybody was a child before they were an adult. We all have that in common,” she says with sincerity.
The amusement park is still there today, but has been closed for over twelve years in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina. Beyond the inspiration for the physical aspect of the song, it is the feeling of a rollercoaster that influenced the lyrics to be so heavily relatable. Tank explains, “I am the girl who likes to snap her fingers from the 8th Ward of New Orleans. I am the girl that loves food and is very vulnerable when it comes down to expressing how she feels about a guy she likes, and also giving him an attitude to match. But I am also an incredibly sensitive artist and I notice the things around me that impact me. Especially in my childhood. That theme park was one of them.”
The park and her experiences there ingrained themselves into her being, she notes, “Riding a rollercoaster for the first time just happened to be something that really stuck with me, especially because it took me so long to actually ride it. The biggest roller coaster in the theme park. I was so afraid, but I’m so happy I did it. Just like so many other things in my life. I’ll be so afraid, but once I accomplish it, I’ll feel so good. And I’ll want to do it again.”
Tarriona gushes about the surge in fan mail–getting drawings of her face, messages from people saying they’re inspired by who Tank and the Bangas are. “People tell me the most special things about who we are, they cry to me, send me things. People are extremely kind, and giving, and gracious, and complementary of this work that we do. I’m still surprised by it, I’m always in awe.” She continues, “The other day was so exciting. We video chatted with somebody with a class in China! We talked, and laughed, and at the end of the call, I swear I started crying.” The class held up letters that read T-A-N-K, A-N-D, T-H-E, B-A-N-G-A-S. “What type of life is this?!”
The love she receives from fans, she gives back tenfold. Once again, a recurring theme emerges: poetry is the way in which she connects, finds supports, and continues to evolve, “I have a lot of poems, a lot of poems not even memorized that I want to save. Because my fans deserve to hear my new poems, but I don’t really want to share the new ones until I literally put out my new album. That’s when I want everyone to get a completely different side of me that they haven’t seen.”
“Man, there is nobody in the world with thoughts like you. There is nobody that has your thoughts. You might as well be yourself because everybody else is taken. They really are! There is nobody that can write with the hand you write, or that has the same fingerprints. You are unique in every which way, and with that alone—you have won! You have won. You are a winner, you have won! God, there’s nothing like you. There’s nothing like you.” We both pause, basking in the light of her proclamation.
She continues, “Sometimes you gotta tell yourself that, I know I do! The girls around me? Man. They’re whispering things in my ear constantly, I feel it all the time and I’m scared as shit. Why am I scared? I’m afraid of the success, how big it could be. The responsibility of owning your craft in a way that you’ve never owned it before. But I should look at that in an exciting way–an adventure is literally unfolding itself in front of myself. That I won’t be the same person that I was last year. Thank you for even talking to me about this stuff, because it makes me feel differently—as I should.”
Tarriona gets a rush of excitement for what’s to come. “I’m on the side of the salon in the hood heart of New Orleans with full rollers in my head. And I am happy.”