This May, after the Tiger King chaos subsided and just as the reality of the pandemic began to set in, Avatar: The Last Airbender dropped on Netflix and many of us regressed to our youth, soothed by the Avatar when we needed him most. Fun facts, theories, fan art, and debates went viral on Twitter, including one praising R&B artist Tinashe for playing a one-off character, On Ji, in season three when she was 14 years old. On Ji is a bubbly Fire Nation girl who befriends Aang, the Avatar, when he disguises himself as a Fire Nation school student; she’s amused by his pet “monkey,” a flying lemur named Momo, and funny dance moves. “The fact that tinashe voiced her in avatar and had aang hot and bothered she is the blueprint,” @nashestallion tweeted on July 8, gaining thousands of likes before it was deleted. Fans have been tweeting similar sentiments — complete shock at Tinashe’s childhood acting career, which spans voice-acting and traditional acting — for years, always amazed at her reach. (She also did the motion-capture for the girl in The Polar Express and had a role on Rocket Power.)
Meanwhile, Tinashe is in Los Angeles, just trying to live her best quarantine life. On July 16, she released “Rascal (Superstar),” a smooth and confident bonus she teased on Instagram months ago, along with a fabulous isolation-themed music video where she embodies a woman in quarantine with no one but her drone to keep her company. Vulture spoke to Tinashe about her past going viral, our absurd present, and her plans for the future.
Were you a fan of The Last Airbender before your cameo? Or did you become a fan afterward?
I was a fair-weather fan. Like, I liked the show; I wasn’t, like, a stan at the time. I watched all cartoons at the time. I was just barely a teenager. To me, it was kind of like another job but at the same time, now looking back on it, it’s really cool to be a part of such a really dope, dope show.
What was your experience like working on it?
It’s funny because I remember growing up thinking voice-acting work was super easy, like, slight work. There were other methods of acting where you’d have to obviously go to auditions and you have to be in the room and you have to do this and that. For voice acting, yeah, you’d have an audition, but I would go to my agency and read maybe a couple pages of script. I was like, I could read. [Laughs.] I would just cold read it and they would record me and just send it in and submit it. I loved being in cartoons and stuff, too, because you just walk into the room; you can be yourself and knock it out in literally a matter of hours. I have to get back into voice acting.
When you were choosing voiceover roles, did you get to go down a list and choose what you thought seemed cool?
I would audition for maybe ten different projects a week. I’d be going out on commercial auditions or TV-show auditions and then I just read the scripts. Back then, it was kind of just like, This is cool and whatever opportunity presented itself, I was gung-ho about it. It was cool because I got to be a part of a lot of shows that I was a fan of. Another one that I was a fan of was Rocket Power, being on that was really cool.
What’s it like for your past roles to come up in these tweets, to see someone tag you and have all these people just go crazy for it?
I mean, it’s really nice. It’s a good feeling. It’s funny when people act shocked. It also feels annoying to think that you have to continuously bring these things up. Like, once every six months, a tweet goes viral about me being in Avatar. And it’s like “You guys didn’t know by now?” [Laughs.] Even with my music, I feel like sometimes I have to be like, “Remember when I collabed with this person? Remember when I put out this video?”
Did voice acting lend itself to your musical career at all?
In a small way, but it was also getting comfortable in recording studios in general. That kind of gave me that step into that realm from an earlier age. I started recording music in the studio when I was probably around 16. I started doing voice acting earlier, probably like, 8 or 9.
It was part of your core experience by then.
Yeah, you get more comfortable. It’s not like your first time in the booth, seeing how it works with the waveforms and how an engineer is recording you.
It feels like that ties into your independence as an artist now.
It’s really important to me to have that well-rounded knowledge, especially how music is recorded and created. There is some influence there of just being in the room with engineering and seeing that process behind the scenes from a really early age.
What does success look like to you at this point in your career?
I don’t know. It’s interesting because I still have these goals, right? That I really, at least wanted to achieve and, still do: to have a No. 1 album or to be the biggest artist in the world, which is an unquantifiable goal, or to win a Grammy or these things that were always really important to me growing up. But it’s interesting how it’s kind of changed because of the landscape that we’re in. I don’t really necessarily know how I fit into that dialogue anymore as an independent artist because, at this point, I’m not really willing to jeopardize my independence and creative freedom for these relationships. I’m starting to see that these relationships with these major label things are kind of the only way to break through in the way that somebody with those types of goals needs to break through, which is fucked up, but it’s true. So, that’s kind of confusing for me at this current point. I feel successful because I’m in a good place mentally and spiritually and emotionally and I’m able to be creative and work on music and make money and be “in the game.” So, to me that feels successful.
It must be so challenging because even when it feels like you’re doing the right thing for you, the industry isn’t always as receptive to you doing you.
The biggest bottom line is [quitting] is not really an option for me. What else would I do? Like, sit and waste away? This is what I do. So, it’s really just kind of learning how to navigate within the landscape. What am I going to do next? How do I see my career evolving in the next couple years?
How’s it been trying to manifest your goals during quarantine?
I think for me probably the biggest thing that I’ve been focused on is myself and my emotional healing and wellbeing during quarantine, more than goals. My goals have just shifted to more like personal growth than career landmarks. Well, the career landmarks are just less like I want to be in this country or like I want to tour here, I want to make this video, just because these things are impossible. So, I’ve focused a lot more on how I feel and dealing with my own hangups or issues and just trying to be a better creative and a better person.
Also during this time, you’ve been so active in the anti-police brutality and Black Lives Matter movement online and in real life. How has that affected your personal journey?
That’s been a journey as well. Obviously, at first, I was really energized by all of the movement, at all of the eyes and attention surrounding this movement because it’s something that’s super, super, super important and affects us all, everyday. It felt like a really critical time to have that kind of discussion. If I didn’t say something or do something, it was a huge missed opportunity as somebody with a platform. It was also nice to, especially during the quarantine, have a point of focus on something that I felt was important and impactful and beyond [myself]. Even though it’s complicated and frustrating and traumatic as fuck, it’s also really important that we have these discussions so that we see these things, that we talk about these things.
Has the experience shaped your art at all?
I think so, but in maybe not such an obvious way. Maybe I haven’t written songs directly about the movement but I think my songs have reflected what I want to see from people post-movement, which is happiness and togetherness and light-heartedness. I’ve been writing a lot of happy songs and feel-good songs and fast songs that make you want to dance, I think it’s kind of a reflection of all of this pain and trauma.
Speaking of, can we talk about the glamorous, stir-crazy socialite you channeled for the “Rascal (Superstar) music video? What was it like creating and working on a set right now? And was the drone pink already?
We had to keep the crew and everything really minimal for health and safety reasons. We just wanted to kind of go through a day in the life. And to break that fourth wall element. The drone is actually CGI, so the drone isn’t actually really there. [Laughs.] You’re not the first person who said that, so good to know that it was realistic.
That’s incredible. Are you considering doing a deluxe edition of Songs for You?
I’ve considered it. I’ve done three or four remixes of the songs. So, I don’t know. I appreciate the project as it is. Maybe I would. Never say never. But I’m also working on new content as well. We’ll see.
The other day you mentioned wanting to collab with Ariana Grande. How are you approaching collabs? Do you feel like quarantine has taken the pressure off collaborating?
Being in quarantine has helped me reach out to way more people than I typically would on a collaborative vibe and just be way more open to being the reacher-outer. I’m typically not that kind of girl — I don’t know how to describe it. I wouldn’t necessarily say my strong suit is reaching out to other artists and being like, “Yo, let’s collab.” I typically keep my circle really small, so it’s hard for me to be that person. Like, I’m really open and I’m nice. I’ll talk to anybody, but it’s been something that I’ve continuously had to work on throughout my life. So, I’ve gotten better during quarantine. I think having more free time and knowing that everyone’s in a similar situation [makes it easier]. Schedules are tough when people are traveling, and they’ll be like, “I’ll be home next month” and you’re like, “I’ll be gone next month.” It’s really hard. So, to know that everyone’s around, I’ve definitely connected with more people that I want to collaborate with on a personal level, which has been really nice.