SZA? FKA twigs? If their names are not unconventional enough, their music certainly is. Several critics and fans alike have used phrases like “experimental R&B” and “avant-pop” in an attempt to describe their sound, but neither of those descriptions is as yet able to truly do their music justice. While their sound may not necessarily submit to easy, or straightforward categorization, there is undoubtedly a certain neo-futuristic element to their music that has propelled both of these small town girls to stardom. However, beyond merely rewriting the sound of music today, SZA and FKA twigs are—perhaps even unbeknownst to them—redefining the traditional cultural expectations of what Black girls in the music industry should sound and look like.
The prominence of mainstream Black women musicians like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj—while empowering—has simultaneously created a rather rigid cultural perception of what Black girls in music should look like. Yet, neither SZA nor FKA twigs fit into this hyper-sexualized visual and sonic expectation. In contrast, their sound and style is marked by subtle and understated sensuality. As renowned author and feminist political theorist Iris Marion Young alludes to in her book, Justice and the Politics of Difference, “a certain cultural space is reserved for revering feminine beauty and desirability, in part that very cameo ideal renders most women drab, ugly, loathsome, or fearful bodies.” Both SZA and FKA twigs undeniably exist outside the realm of that “cultural space” today, yet it is precisely their otherness that has contributed to their ever-increasing popularity. This otherness can also be attributed to their musical influences—wide and far-ranging as their appeal.
Having grown up in an orthodox Muslim household, SZA’s music choices were limited to her father’s selection of Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong. However, on accident, she would later come across the Red Hot Chili Peppers, LFO, Macy Gray and Björk, as well as hip-hop acts like The Wu-Tang Clan and Common. Similarly, FKA twigs boasts a wide array of influences, having been exposed to jazz, ska and African fusion by her parents at an early age. She often recalls times as a kid when her mother would sneak her into salsa nightclubs. Art is reinterpretation and traces of these influences are evident in both artists’ personas.
Yet, both artists’ sounds are also in part an echo of their respective record labels. FKA Twigs is signed to British label Young Turks, which houses a variety of indie acts like The xx, SBTRKT, and Sampha, all of whom also happen to be genre-bending artists in their own right. Nevertheless, there’s a mesmerizing electronic and synth-pop thread that runs through their music, which can also often be heard in FKA twigs’ music, despite her undeniable R&B influence. Thus, it starts to become more apparent why nicknames like “R&Björk” and the “trip-hop Sade” are quite befitting for this unconventional artist. SZA on the other hand is backed by American indie label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), whose relatively smaller roster includes major alternative rap acts like Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q, as well as Kendrick Lamar, who is often heralded as the new heir to hip-hop’s throne. But while SZA’s sound is backed by hip-hop beats and pop songcraft, her smoky, soulful voice remains the centerpiece of her music. This sonic fusion is perhaps best reflected in her song “Country,” which samples Australian electronic duo, Empire of The Sun. In short, SZA and FKA twigs are each well-positioned to fully explore their artistic freedom.
Some might argue that SZA and FKA twigs are simply expanding a sonic and visual niche previously carved out by the likes of Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu before her, but their emergence still undoubtedly signals a promising future for Black girls in music. If nothing at all, SZA and FKA twigs’ should serve as a reassurance for Black girls seeking a career in music to find comfort in their individualism and the boundlessness of their art despite conventional expectations.
By Usen Esiet