Raziel Puma

Chicago native Tasha Viets-VanLear, also known by her stage name TASHA, grew up surrounded by and involved with the arts. As a child, her mother, a teaching artist, would have Viets-VanLear accompany her to all kinds of classes; she also grew up doing theater, singing, jazz, hip hop, and ballet, among other creative pursuits. Considering that her early introduction to the arts was inspired by the creativity that she shared with her family, it’s fitting that the release of Viets-Vanlear’s first EP, Divine Love, along with the debut of her musical career was influenced by another type of family.

As a sophomore at Northside Prep High School, Viets-VanLear pivoted from her early beginnings in theater to poetry, where her experience with the school’s slam poetry team caused an important shift in her life.

“That was really the time that opened my eyes to poetry in a way that I hadn’t seen it before,” she says, “and the first time I really started thinking about identity, and youth, community, and all of those big ideas.” Her team would compete in the finals of Louder Than A Bomb, the largest annual youth poetry festival in the world, for all three years she was on the team.

“[Slam poetry] was where I really found a solid group of people who were artistic, and really fantastic performers and made me feel really welcome and loved,” she says. Even as she enjoyed music and singing, poetry remained her primary passion through high school.

While a student at St. Olaf College in Northfield, a small town in Minnesota with a population of 20,581 (83% white), Viets-VanLear shifted her artistic gears to dance. She characterizes her time with dance as marking a new way of thinking about performance.

While at St. Olaf, she developed her own major called Black Expression and Artistic Performance, a culmination of her love for different kinds of performance. Explaining her final senior project, Viets-VanLear recalls that “it specifically focused on how different black dancers, poets, and other performers have used their art as a form of radical revolution, and how art in general can be used as a tool and a voice for black folks in a time of great violence and oppression.”

Viets-VanLear was inspired to undertake this project when she returned home for Thanksgiving break during her senior year in college. Her younger brother, a musician who goes by Ethos (featured on the Divine Love track “(We Got) Power”), had joined the youth-centered activist organization Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) while she was away at college.

She recalls being impressed by the actions organized and led by BYP100, but  unable to participate while in Minnesota. However, she soon participated in a BYP100-led action on Black Friday of 2014 that involved a march from Water Tower Place to the large intersection of Milwaukee and Damen Avenues in Wicker Park. The action inspired TASHA’s thesis project on radical black art and marked the beginning of her activist work.

Even after Viets-VanLear finished her thesis, the themes of activism and radicalism continued to shaped the trajectory of her art. After graduating college last summer, she moved back to Chicago and officially joined BYP100, participating in the #SayHerName campaign, which calls attention to police violence against black women. As a citizen organizer, Viets-VanLear has participated in monthly occupations of the Police Review Board hearing meetings as well as a larger action that shut down the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference.

This January, she started a full-time position as the Executive Assistant for Charlene Carruthers, the National Director of BYP100. Now that she is privy to the back-end, administrative aspects of the organization, she has a much larger hand in planning meetings.

She speaks about the importance of building BYP100’s membership and community, in addition to and beyond simply leading actions: “Our meetings have more intentionally become spaces for political education, giving space to folks to learn about our current moment and the political climate we’re in now,  where we’re coming from, and what organizations like the Combahee River Collective have accomplished before us.”

The sense of community in BYP100 doesn’t just flow through her music—it was also one of the primary reasons she created Divine Love. “I was making a whole bunch of new friends [at BYP100] and a lot of my friends are singers and rappers,” Viets-VanLear says. “All of our kickbacks would inevitably end up in a cipher and so I started singing a lot more in front of other people. Then I realized that I wasn’t bad, and that it was something that other people maybe enjoyed.”

It took her three months to write “Divine Love,” “Snacks,” and “(We Got) Power,” three standout tracks from the EP, and only realized after completion just how intertwined the songs were. “There was a general energy to all these songs that I feel accurately encompass the growth and journey I’ve had since coming back to Chicago with myself and with my political community, because it’s all about love,” she says of the realization.

“It’s about how I have experienced loving myself and the people around me in ways that are more grounded,” she says. “I feel like I was missing that up until this point, that I didn’t have a real solid community or a real solid sense of myself to ground my love in. Since coming back to Chicago, I’ve been able to find that.”

Viets-VanLear says BYP100 provided a place for her to channel the love and light that lived inside her. Her brother and fellow BYP100 activist Ethos added verses to her first song, “(We Got) Power.” He connected her to the studio where she recorded her EP by introducing her to his sound engineer Luke, of Luke Skywalker Music. In talking about BYP100’s role in her music, her love clearly shines through.

“BYP100 does an amazing job of making people feel like they are part of a family,” she says. “That’s not so surprising, because there are so few places where young black people actually have a place to go where they are surrounded by other young black people who can speak to the same hurt, the same violence, the same daily work that we have to do in a white supremacist state.”

It’s obvious that TASHA’s blossoming career is just beginning, and one can see the continued influence of BYP100 and her activism.

“Even outside of [BYP100], the Chicago communities of other organizers, of artists and creative people, is so vibrant, and it’s so infinite,” she says. “In a way, I think that being in a small little white school in Minnesota really made me realize as soon as I got back: ‘Oh yeah, this is what I’ve been missing.’ ”

You can listen to TASHA’s Divine Love EP at soundcloud.com/tashavvmusic

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