SZA’s heart can be found on her sleeve. Even as she sits sleeveless on her couch. Behind her is a huge bay window bringing in natural sunlight and a refreshing view of a grand tree in her front yard, blowing in the wind.
Even in the tiresome world of Zoom hell, she’s managed to bring a joyful piece of nature into our perspective, a subtle reminder to the rest of us that we deserve to breathe easy. A very SZA thing to do.
For nearly a decade now, the singer-songwriter has been making music that feels like the lyrics were taken directly from her journal and sequenced on a project. The vulnerability in her award-winning music resonates with her millions of fans and has earned critical acclaim in the industry. It’s been five years since she released her debut album “Ctrl,” and as she’s gearing up to release her second studio album, her search for “Good Days” goes way beyond her most recent hit single.
SZA knows she can not use her platform to change everything, but she damn sure will not sit back idly and do nothing.
Her love for nature and drive to combat environmental racism has fueled a new partnership with Tazo Tea and American Forests to launch the Tazo Tree Corps. Their mission is to hire a local workforce to plant and maintain trees to fight climate change and create jobs in marginalized communities in Richmond, Virginia; Minneapolis; the Bronx; San Francisco; and Detroit. Tree Corps points to a New York Times report that explains “neighborhoods that are poorer and have more residents of color can be 5 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in summer than wealthier, whiter parts of the same city. ” It also notes that tree equity increases air and water quality while improving mental health.
SZA spoke to HuffPost about her new partnership to fight environmental racism, the role empathy has played in her belief system and her creative process going into her second studio album.
How has quarantine been treating you? I’ve been following your IG, and I know you retreated to… I do not even know where you were, but somewhere magical. I feel like it was, maybe it was Hawaii, but do not get me to lying.
SZA: Yeah. I went to Hawaii and then I just came home and stayed in my house. And I live in Malibu, so it’s not super different from Hawaii, but it’s super different from Hawaii. But I love being outside, in general. I just love nature and getting into hiking and all that type of shit. And having access to the great outdoors.
I feel like you have always been very one with nature in a way to connect and ground yourself, which feels very in tune with this new initiative that you have going on with Tazo. I know you’re from New Jersey, which has seen so much environmental racism.
SZA: From Camden to Newark to Irvington.
Exactly. I’m wondering when your environmental awakening happened? How have you seen climate injustice affect your specific community?
SZA: I think I’ve always been super aware of the inequity and experience. I always thought growing up in Maplewood, a place that’s named after its trees, that it was super weird and, like, not commonplace for other Black children to have access and exposure to the beach, to trees. Even though we live in a coastal city, whether it’s New York or New Jersey, Black children still have an inconvenience with water and with outdoorsy activities. I feel like I just recognize the difference even between Maplewood and Irvington. I guess the taxpaying dollars only pay for a certain amount of trees? Literally a one-block difference, and all of a sudden it all disappears. It’s just straight concrete, and it smells different.
You can not get anybody to come clean up the snow or plow anything. You can not get anyone to come get the garbage on time, so the air is just like sour. Not to mention all the factory smoke. You can not drive to the city without smelling poo. I was just always super aware, and I did not understand why in white or paid-up areas, all of a sudden people were just worth the experience. And really the kids who needed the experience or the people who needed the experience were people who weren’t privy to that. It’s just always been super obvious to me. I was either living either in the suburbs or with my grandmother who lives in Newark. And the whole situation is just not it.
And it’s nationwide. I grew up in a very Black suburb in Dayton, and I remember seeing a reduction in trees and there were less beautification and environmental efforts. And white flight kind of was the catalyst to that. How did you get involved in this partnership with Tazo, and how involved will you be with it?
SZA: I was naturally drawn to Tazo cause I’ve been drinking Tazo my whole life. It just seemed like something that made sense. But then when I actually saw the project, I felt honored to be asked to be a part of it. Because it was so fundamental from the job creation to the actual canopy development, I feel super passionate about just having – even if it’s community gardens, not just planting trees – urban aesthetic development. When I worked with Nike and we did the World Basketball Festival, we also built really nice little park areas and basketball courts for the kids in Harlem.
And it really just was meant to bring value to the community. And so that they value their own community more because it looked like something that should be treated with value. So from them deciding to hire locals that are directly and disproportionately affected by the effects of environmental racism. I just know what it feels like to add value to a community or to look at a community that does not value itself, based on the way that they see themselves being treated.
I want to meet the people that are hired, and then Tree Corps, I want to go to them, because I lived in at least three of them. I lived in the Bronx already. I made half of “Ctrl” in Minnesota. So I just feel very connected to it all. Camden’s one of the worst nine food deserts in America. So it just seemed like an obvious W.
I love that you want to meet the folks who are hired. I know you identify yourself as an empath. How has been an empath fueled your activism?
SZA: I’ve always felt very responsible. Not making responsible decisions, cause that’s not who I am. I just always felt like I could change the way things were if I felt deeply enough about it. My great-grandma used to be in this facility, and I would just basically go early and go read and tend to all the other elders in her building because I just felt there are not enough aides and nurses to make everyone feel heard and seen. I was like 5. You can not be connected to other human beings and not be connected to their darkness and their sadness and what they lack and what they’re being cheated out of. And then you start to feel responsible because it’s like, “Huh ?!”
I’m used to being around trees and camping, but I wanted to make the city girl life happen. A lot of people make the city choice because of their own family and income. They do not have the options to go live off in the ‘burbs somewhere. And I just always felt like this is a mess. And this is unfair for other people and other kids. Or to even have to take a field trip and go experience an ounce of arboreal display or any of that. The unfairness was always screaming at me no matter where I lived.