Over the loud airport announcements in the background of the phone call, I could still hear the excitement in Tanajah’s voice.
After chronicling her struggles with getting her passport renewed on social media, she was half an hour away from flying out of RDU to Aarhus, Denmark. She was supposed to spend two months there, recording an album with the group Athletic Progression and performing at the SPOT Festival before returning home to Raleigh.
That was on March 8. Three days later, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Tanajah found herself unable to get a flight home, with the festival that had brought her to Denmark canceled. But the most surprising thing about this turn of events is that she’s thankful for it.
Born and raised in Maryland, Tanajah Lea goes by the moniker Tanajah Raps. She went to North Carolina Central University and graduated with a degree in percussion performance, which influences how she approaches recording and performing, often with a live band.
“Being a music major, you have to take your theory classes, your harmonization classes, or your sight-singing classes,” she says. “I used to be mad that I went to school for music. Once I started rapping, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s exactly what I was supposed to do.’ I wouldn’t be able to listen to my guitar player and say, ‘No, you’re sharp.’ I definitely thank God for it.”
Whether it was her father playing Tupac and encouraging her to rap or her mother allowing her to listen to hip-hop radio after she finished her homework, Tanajah credits her parents for nurturing her love of music. Still, the beauty politics of hip-hop in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s made her doubt that she could fit in as a rapper.
“When you’re young, you look into what the media is pushing, like a certain size, how people dress—and sex sells,” she says. “I wanted to come into an industry where I could be comfortable with who I was and just have fun, not fit into a status quo in hip-hop, but when I was younger I just didn’t have that.”
But now, when conversations and hashtags about body positivity are more a part of the discourse on hip-hop, beauty, and image, Tanajah feels more confident about what she calls her “chill and comfortable” demeanor. Her around-the-way girl personality and her ability to rap-rap makes people excited to root for her and celebrate her wins.
With only three years under her belt in the local hip-hop scene, her level of grind is impressive. Tanajah has built a reputation for having the kind of live performances that are almost impossible to follow. She credits her band, The THC Band, as co-curators of the good vibes she aims to reach with each performance.
She has touched the stage of almost every local venue in the Triangle, with prior performances at the Carolina Waves x K97.5 Hopscotch Day Party and at Shakori Hills. In 2018, she dropped May This Vibe Last Forever, an EP that allowed her to show not only the meticulous composition of her raps but also her increased expertise in mixing and recording.
“It’s technically not my first EP, but I consider it as my first,” she says. “I released one before that, First of a New Breed, but I had no idea what I was truly doing at the time, recording-wise.”
Her most recent single, “Smile,” has a unique cadence that sets her apart and neo-soul like vocals by Tanajah herself. The joyful beat matches the motivational lyrics as Tanajah encourages listeners to smile, even through the struggles. The song is a testament to the many setbacks and struggles she has experienced in life and music.
“I know setbacks only prepare you for the next steps, and tears come a lot, but rapping and performing is what I love,” she says. “So I have to work my ass off to get there, and it seems to be paying off.”
Athletic Progression, a genre-bending Danish trio that mixes jazz with hip-hop, funk, and soul, followed Tanajah on Instagram, where she posts videos of her shows.
“Once the bassist from Athletic Progression saw me perform in November, he said he made it his mission to get me to come to Denmark, and he meant it,” she says. The SPOT Festival, which hosts around 200 international artists each year, funded her trip.
“I got there on March 9 and everything was OK,” she recalls. “The next day I had a dope show. Then, two days later, Denmark experienced a huge spike in cases. Schools were closing, the place that we were recording out of closed. Initially, it just became pandemonium, but what I think Denmark did a great job of was closing the entire country right away.”
Tanajah has been lodging at a culture center called Institut for (X), sharing a loft with several other artists.
“My living situation has been my saving grace,” she says. “I think if I was in solitude, I probably would’ve lost my mind for a longer period of time and a lot earlier on. Thankfully, I am able to talk to people and just learn from them. And luckily, they have a studio here, so I’m still able to record.”
Financially, the situation is difficult, with not just the festival but also shows in countries like Germany and Sweden canceled. But Tanajah has been turning her unexpected free time in Denmark to her advantage—which is good because she still doesn’t know when she’ll be able to leave. (Her original flight home, on May 9, was canceled.)
“I can say this is the most productive I’ve ever been,” she says. “I think it’s because I came to Denmark with the mindset of, ‘I’m here to work.’ I had a talk with my mom, and she reminded me that I’m not in control. She said, ‘When you were telling me your goals for 2020, did you have in your mind that you were going to go to Denmark to make music?’
“After that, I connected and recorded with HansSOLO, a well-known producer who is a part of Joey Bada$$ Pro Era collective,” she continues. “I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in this world. I’m so thankful that God felt this was something that I needed. I think it saved my life in a way because I live by myself in North Carolina, so I probably would’ve lost my mind if I was just sitting in an apartment by myself for two months. All I have in my heart is gratitude.”
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