Brooklyn singer/songwriter Tamar-kali plays primarily hard rock and hardcore punk rock—which makes her unusual in a white-dominated field. But she refuses to be categorized or restricted by racial boundaries. "I've never heard something I dug, and then after I saw who the messenger was said, ‘Oh, I don't like it anymore.’ You know what I mean? Either you feel it or you don't," Tamar-kali told Cheryl Corley of National Public Radio. One of New York City's most consistent club draws, Tamar-kali has been involved in a variety of projects that attest to her creativity and her faith in her own musical instincts.
Born around 1973, Tamar-kali is a native of Brooklyn. Her stage name refers to the Hindu goddess Kali, who is associated with both violence and sexuality. As a child, Tamar-kali spent summers in the Sea Islands region of South Carolina, home to the Gullah or Geechee culture, a form of African-American culture that preserves West African traditions to an unusually strong degree. Her debut extended-play album was called The Geechee Goddess: Hardcore Warrior Soul. Tamar-kali's attraction to the arts grew partly from loneliness. She immersed herself in music, and she later wished she had bought even more music than she did. "I was so isolated as an only child with both parents," she recalled to Mike Believe of the Exit the Apple Web site. "I wish I had taken advantage of all that time alone; it was a perfect time to collect."
By 1992, Tamar-kali had begun performing around New York. Among her first ongoing gigs was as a member of the durable band Funkface, a multicultural and multiracial group whose music fuses James Brown-style funk, hard rock guitars, and Jamaican reggae. Tamar-kali found herself especially drawn to the rock aspect of the group's sound. "This is about a music that spoke to me…very clearly around the time [I was] about 19, where I think a lot of young African-American people in America start questioning their identity, looking towards their history," she told Corley. "And hardcore definitely was a music that I could express my frustrations and the anger that you originally come to when you learn from your history and you're dealing with society's ills and things like that."
Seeking out chances in New York's hardcore scene (hardcore is a generally more intense variant of punk rock), Tamar-kali signed on with an all-male band called Song of Seven. She became the lead singer after the band's former vocalist joined the top-rank punk group the Bad Brains, whom Tamar-kali had grown up listening to. At times, the experience of being a black woman in the world of hard rock was isolating, and Tamar-kali gravitated toward other African Americans who liked the music. "It's like you meet someone and you're like, ‘Omigod, you're one, too,’" she told Teresa Wiltz of the Washington Post. "Oh my God, I'm not a freak. Thank God."
Along the way, she made ends meet by doing day jobs she didn't particularly enjoy. Once, she told Believe, she was hired to hand paint "some ugly…statues, you know the, tchotchke kind that your tacky Aunt Gracie got all over the house, clowns, geisha girls. I didn't last a full day and the fumes were crucial." Later she found work that was more to her liking: teaching belly dancing. "Folks have been getting a purely sexual interpretation" of that ancient art form, she pointed out to Believe, but for Tamar-kali belly dancing was more a celebration of the life force as manifested in women's bodies than just an erotic dance.
Tamar-kali's own personal style also had spiritual overtones. "My body is a work of art," she explained to Joy Duckett Cain of Essence. The artwork encompassed 16 separate body piercings, including those in navel, tongue, and breasts, and at least seven tattoos representing meaningful symbols in the artist's life. As she recalled to Cain, "My piercings and tattoos are never contrived."
Some people suggested, Tamar-kali told Cain, that she was emulating the culture of whites, in which body modification was more common than among African Americans. "No. I'm on that Masai stuff," she retorted. "I'm on that Cherokee stuff. I'm on that Mohawk stuff. I'm doing what some brothers and sisters set the path for me to do; I'm just following the path. I think of myself as a contemporary tribalist. It's still all about the tribe, no matter how we try to get away from it."
Tamar-kali's distinctive style served her well when she began to launch a solo career in the early 2000s. In the words of her Web site biography, "her strength as a woman in a male-dominated genre led to creative conflict and compelled her toward her own expression as a writer and vocalist." Known in the New York music industry for her soaring voice, which combined rock and gospel qualities, she sang backup for such acts as the alternative rock band Fishbone and the innovative Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast. By 2005 she had formed a production company of her own, Flaming Yoni Productions, and released The Geechee Goddess: Hardcore Warrior Soul.
A major push forward to Tamar-kali's career came when she was one of four artists featured in the nationally distributed documentary Afro-Punk: The Rock' n' Roll Nigger Experience (2003). That project, combined with her debut album and her uninhibited live shows, often placed her in the featured listings of New York's entertainment publications in 2005 and 2006. In the summer of 2005 she opened for jazz giant Cassandra Wilson at a SummerStage concert held in New York's Central Park. Her fame spread beyond New York with an appearance at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta in 2004 and later in other cities.
Tamar-kali returned in 2006 with a trio of new projects: 5ive Piece is a rock-oriented recording, while the singer described Pseudoacoustic as "inspired by such genius lamentors as [jazz singer] Nina Simone, [melancholy French pop vocalist] Edith Piaf, [Belgian singer-songwriter] Jacques Brel, and [and alternative rocker] Kate Bush." On Psychochamber Ensemble est. 1998 Tamar-kali headed an all-female string group composed of electric and acoustic bass, viola, violin, and cello; the band performed versions of songs from 5ive Piece as well as original string compositions. This varied group of projects seemed likely to further Tamar-kali's reputation as one of the New York music scene's most original figures. Tamar-kali is married to Greg Tate, a columnist for Vibe magazine and the co-founder of the Black Rock Coalition.
The Geechee Goddess: Hardcore Warrior Soul, Flaming Yoni, 2005.
5ive Piece, Flaming Yoni, 2006.
Pseudoacoustic, Flaming Yoni, 2006.
Psychochamber Ensemble est. 1998, Flaming Yoni, 2006.
At a Glance …
Born c. 1973 in Brooklyn, NY; married to Greg Tate, a journalist and organization executive.
Career: Musician, 1992-; joined band Funkface, 1993; worked as belly dance instructor; formed production company, Flaming Yoni Productions.
Addresses: Office—Flaming Yoni Productions, 1151 Dean St., Suite 4B, Brooklyn, NY 11216. Web—www.flamingyoni.com/home.html.
Afro-Punk: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger Experience (documentary), 2003.
Essence, May 2001, p. 164.
Newsday, May 18, 2005, p. A14.
Washington Post, July 15, 2000, p. C1.
Tamar-kali,www.flamingyoni.com/home.html (August 12, 2007).
"Tamar-Kali: geechee goddess," Exit the Apple,http://exittheapple.com/fresh/index.php/2004/Tamar-kali (June 14, 2007).
"Tamar-kali: A Punk Artist with Soul," News & Notes, National Public Radio, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9238260&ft=1&f=1039, March 30, 2007.