Before there was Gaga or Taylor, before pussy hats or Beyoncé’s “girls in formation,” there was an epic all-female music festival created by women fed up with sexism in the music industry: Lilith Fair. This summer, in honor of the festival’s twentieth anniversary, we’re exploring the history and legacy of the festival, and why the fight for equality in the industry continues today. Read the oral history of Lilith—as told by the women who lived it—and more here.
SZA’s debut album, CTRL — which was released June 9 — was a long time coming. But now that it’s finally here, she’s not quite sure she’ll be a musician forever. “I have a short attention span, and I don’t like to do things when they aren’t fun or I can’t grow anymore,” the 26-year-old singer tells us.
Releasing CTRL was a process, so it’s easy see why SZA (née Solána Imani Rowe) might want a break. After all, the singer-songwriter took her time to find the right sound and perfect the album. But with pushback from the label, the record remained in limbo for a while. “When I was ready they weren’t, when they weren’t ready I was,” she explains. “It was just us chasing each other.” In the end, though, SZA feels like the timing was kismet, and the result is a genre-bending blend of R&B, soul, and psychedelia that lived up to fans’ growing anticipation.
Before CTRL’s release, we hung out with SZA in New York City to talk about what it’s like to be the only female artist at TDE (her label, Top Dawg Entertainment), her vision for a present-day Lilith Fair, and how she empowers her fans.
Last year, you tweeted that you might quit music and this album could be your last. Do you still feel that way?
Sometimes. Every other day. I don’t know. I have a short attention span, and I don’t like to do things when they aren’t fun or I can’t grow anymore. This is a space where I feel like I’m growing and having a good time. I’m learning a lot, but sometimes it gets to be a lot and I feel like I can’t grow in this space. Like, I have to do something different to grow.
What would you do if you weren’t a musician?
Maybe I’d do something with science. [I studied] science and mass communications. It was easy because I spoke several languages. My dad worked in television, so mass comm just makes sense because that’s what he did.
There was a delay releasing CTRL. Why?
At first it was me trying to figure out a sound, [but then] the label moved it back. It just went back and forth between that: me making different sounds and the label pushing it back. When I was ready, they weren’t; when they weren’t ready, I was. It was funny — it was just us chasing each other. But I think this timing was meant to be.
You collaborate with Kendrick Lamar on “Doves in the Wind.” How did that come about?
I try to avoid collaborating with the [TDE crowd] because I feel like it’s the obvious cheat code; we’re signed to the same label. We’ve already done songs together, but we can’t help it. He’s amazing; it just made sense for him to be involved. He’s always helping me level up to be better and to want more.
Some feminists spoke out about Kendrick’s “Humble” and the laced misogyny in tracks…
How is that misogyny if he’s supporting positive body image? I think that’s so weird, and it’s reaching. If you want to support women, you should support all shapes of women. There are more women who are body shamed and who are — I mean, I used to be 200 pounds, and I have stretch marks all over my body. I find more comfort and solace with Kendrick reinforcing that I’m beautiful. I don’t really feel anything misogynistic from that.
With regards to TDE, are you and [co-president] Punch cool after you tweeted about quitting?
It’s like any relationship. Right now we aren’t, but I’m sure next week we will be. It’s just like an on and off, push and pull. We’ve known each other a long time, and we work really close with each other. There’s a lot of stress with the album. He knows me better than a lot of people.
It’s been said that you experienced a lot of loss. How did you incorporate that into your record?
I think loss just makes it easier to focus because it helps you go inward. I’ve buried a lot of people. My mother got really sick, my grandmother passed away, and my mother-in-law died — I watched her die in front of me. It’s been a weird-ass time. My dad had a heart attack. People are not going to be here forever, and you really have to cherish and respect life. It helped me cancel out things that were noise because I didn’t know what to make of it. I couldn’t understand what was happening or how to process my feelings. I don’t think I processed grief well. I’m usually laughing through everything in the most inappropriate circumstances, especially when I’m sad. So, it’s weird, it came out in my album.
What about the song “Drew Barrymore?” How did you come up with that track?
I love her. I love that she’s just beaming, always shining in every role ever. I connected to Josie Grossie [in Never Been Kissed], and I felt like that — I am Josie Grossie. I spent my whole life in high school being that way. [I love] even the goofiness of who she is. In every role that she plays she maintains that weird, goofy energy. Even in Charlie’s Angels, she was still the goofy tomboy always kicking ass and being weird. I love her.
What do you want fans to get out of this record?
I want fans to just feel. Whatever they feel, I just want them to feel that.
What’s the most rewarding experience that you’ve had with a fan?
I love every time someone tells me what the moment was that [helped them] through. Like a parent passing away, school, it could be all kinds of things, but they’re long, drawn-out stories about their lives and where my music played a part in that. It’s very bizarre to think about, being a part of someone’s heart. It’s a privilege.
Have you experienced misogyny in the music industry? If so, how have you stood up for yourself?
I mean it’s all kinds of misogynistic — the undertones and male entitlement to you and your thoughts and your body and the way you look —but it also doesn’t matter. I don’t try to analyze those things because I feel like if I focus on who I want to be and what I want to represent for women and what I want to represent for myself, I don’t have time to worry about how men view me.
How can the music industry treat women better? Do you have a specific experience where you were playing somewhere and you were the only woman on the bill? Or there weren’t enough women represented?
For sure. I’m the only girl in my crew, so it’s like — and not even just artists, even on the management side, on the business side there are absolutely no women in TDE. So, it’s just very interesting. But I don’t have a problem with that, either. I think sometimes if there’s not a lot of women in one circle, then you need to do your job in that circle to set it off for all women who are not represented in said circle. I’m just trying to take that liberty.
If Lilith Fair were to be revived today, who would you want to see on that bill?
Definitely Princess Nokia, Kehlani, Solange, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Adele, and Bibi Bourelly. I wish Amy Winehouse was here. There are just so many fire female artists right now, it’s very easy to fill that lineup.
How do you think you being the first and only woman on TDE has been a different experience than being on a roster of mixed genders?
It’s interesting — it’s like you are very easy to see and find. But it’s also like people expect you to be emotional. Instead of listening to something that you genuinely feel like is a bad idea or something that you’re passionate about, people may write it off as you being emotional because you’re a woman. You’re passionate as well, but if you’re a man and passionate you’re either a dickhead or it’s like, “Wow, you have so much power. You’re so bossy; I want to be like you.”
What do you think needs to change for women in the music industry?
I think we should let women be multifaceted. We should let women be bosses without being arrogant or being bitches. They should be able to ask for what they want, they should be able to be reinforced and supported without being the “damsel.” You should just be able to have no limits. It shouldn’t matter. I feel like it’s inevitable that we’re going to break through. It’s just sheer willpower.
What advice would you have for young girls starting out in the music industry?
Be yourself. Trust that everybody has something special about them. Everybody is gifted with a unique ability to communicate with the world in their own unique way. Figure what that is, then magnify it.