What Is Love? Taliwhoah Asks the London LGBTQ Community

What Is Love? Taliwhoah Asks the London LGBTQ Community

by Jhoni Jackson

Coming out being the personal, unique experience that it is, R&B artist Taliwhoah highlighted what's distinctly individual about that process with the release of "Love Cycle" last January. Lyrically she nods to fears around being openly out, and those issues are compounded in the video, which was inspired by her own story. The very serious relationship she was in years prior to starting her music career was, back then, "a touchy subject" because of family disapproval: "I was still trying to figure it out."

It's been four months now since Taliwhoah's public coming out. Today, she's paying tribute to the community that empowered her to proudly live her truth by debuting "What is Love," a short film in which other LGBTQIA folks share their own stories.

"I've always felt safe within my friendship circles, but as far as declaring and saying I'm proud to be that — with my whole chest, like, yes, I'm a bisexual woman — it didn't feel as prevalent until 'Love Cycle' was released," she says.

Through the community she's found in her hometown of London — particularly via Pxssy Palace, a platform for all identities, like femmes and QTPOC and intersex people, whose events and workshops have "intersected into a lot of homophobic environments and created a safe space for us to be" — she connected with many of the people featured in "What is Love." Others were Instagram friends, or folks recommended through friends.

"I just kind of put out the word that I wanted to express the opinions of those in my community and what their idea of love is," she says. The intimate, organic conversation flowed into topics of race, sexuality, coming out stories, discriminations faced, pride in queer identity and, of course, what love means to each of them.

"What is Love" is something of a bookmark between her Solar EP, released earlier this year, and her debut full-length album due in June, both released via Rostrum Records. But that's a bit of an understatement in terms of its importance: In making "What is Love," Taliwhoah made new connections, expanded her community, and evolved her perspective on how she can support that community.

PAPER caught up with her while she was in London — she maintains dual residency there and in L.A. — to learn more.

What have your relationships been like since January when you released "Love Cycle," coming out in a big way?

I've had a lot of very interesting conversations — [Laughs] — to say the least. With family members, and friends, that were always kind of suspicious but didn't really know. I think of all my interactions and communications, my interactions with my grandmother have been the most rewarding. She's very much so grounded in her beliefs, and I think me and her being able to have a conversation about our differences means a lot to me. I think I get a lot of my outspoken characteristics from her, like my tell-it-all-and-worry-about-how-you-said-it-afterwards kind of energy comes from her. I've been able to express myself so freely with the confidence that no matter what I say, she's always going to have my back and is always going to love me. That's given me a different type of confidence, but it's also kind of funny, because in that confidence, she's also able to kind of shut down me down — she doesn't realize it and she doesn't mean it, but she comes from a generation of saying things that aren't politically correct.

Being able to have such a transparent conversation with her forces me to articulate my stances and my point of view in a way that even if someone doesn't accept it, they still respect it. And you know, me coming out, and saying [certain things] — like she doesn't mean to, but I'm like, Grandma, that's really homophobic, you can't say that. It's kind of on us to break generational curses, to not be so hardened by our experiences, at least speak on them. Since December, or January I would say, that's really what I've taken away from me coming out: Me being confident to say who I am, what I am, and articulate enough to say who I am.

And what about your mother? How has that relationship evolved?

Do you know what's weird? I think I have a lot of moments with my mum where she's like, Oh my god, I'm dealing with me. [Laughs] I'm definitely a reflection of my mother, I'm just maybe a more advanced reflection of my mum. She has always been politically outspoken, she's always been an advocate for women's rights, and equal rights in the different platforms that the industry exposes you to. [Her mother is Toyin Adekale, a famed reggae musician, who later was a longtime member of Boney M. along with Taliwhoah's aunt, founding member Maizie Williams.] At first, I think I thought that she would be OK with [my coming out]; my mum is my mum.

But I think in coming out I learned about what desire means, and what you believe manifestations means. I think my mom believed that she did such a great job that I was gonna get married and I was going to marry a man and do all of these things that culturally disaligned her from her background. And I think that was the blow for her — understanding how you could still be a great mother letting your child be who they are. Moving on from that realization, I had to understand where she's coming from, but still speak my truth — and that's where me and her bloomed a beautiful relationship.

"That's really what I've taken away from me coming out: Me being confident to say who I am, what I am, and articulate enough to say who I am."

It sounds like the lines of communication are open and healthy.

It's like we are now aware that we speak two different languages, but we found a means to communicate, and understand one another, and at each point, exercise love for one another. There's things that mom does that I'm like, Why do you do that? I'm an adult now, I'm 27, I'm not a baby. She might do things that I question, and vice versa, but we exist in this space of like, I'm questioning you because I want to understand you, not because I want to tell you that the way I live is the way you should live.

I think understanding that my mom wants to understand me has taught me tact. Because not having a lot of rules when you grow up, you think you're grown, like, really, really quickly. You think you know everything, you think you can just walk through life saying "I'm woke," but there was so many moments where I realized I wasn't woke, and the first person I turned to was my mom. And she never made me feel a way about that. She always welcomed it; he welcomed questions, and in return, it made me welcome her questions as well, like, When did you know you were into women, when was your first experience with women? And it didn't feel like a point of judgment, it felt like, I'm asking because I need to know, I need to understand. So she's very understanding, she's very loving.

Any LGBTQIA person whose family is supportive is quite fortunate. We know that's not always the case.

I'm blessed. I think that's another reason I wanted to do the "What is Love" video. I'm aware that not many people have had the same experience as me. For me to come from an already privileged background where I can kind of be outspoken and be liberal, like that is so different to the experiences to other people of my community. There are so many people that come from third-world countries, extremely religious countries, that are never going to be able to seek that safe space of liberation. It makes me sad. I'm aware of it, and I couldn't imagine my life being like theirs. For that reason alone, it makes me always want to help them speak about their truth because that's just, in my eyes, what we're supposed to do. When you come from a certain understanding, you're supposed to shed light on it, so that spaces in the universe and in the world can accommodate people that are coming from other backgrounds.

I think my mum is a prime example of that — being a reggae artist but then transitioning to pop music, you've got a lot of liberal opinions in creativity there. She really always taught me to live in my truth and not be afraid to say who I am despite who you're around constantly. She really helped me grasp that, understand it, and respect it from her perspective, too. She really helped me find my footing in terms of my identity.

Can you tell us about the process of making the "What is Love" video? Did you make specific plans for guiding the conversation?

I was actually the one interviewing all of the participants. When I first mapped out how I wanted this whole interview and process to go, I said I do want to be very conversational. My mind jumps from thought to thought at rapid moments throughout our conversation, so I did set some basic guidelines. I wanted to know: what are your pronouns; how would you like me to address you respectfully; are you in a relationship right now; are you seeking a partner; if you're not seeking a partner, what do you seek in a partner when you are seeking one; what are your limitations in relationships and partnerships.

Because there's a lot of stereotypical assumptions in how you approach people that are a part of our community. For instance, if you see a very butch girl, you're going to assume that she is the masculine one, and that's not even true. Masculinity honestly revolves around what you feel within; there's so many different ways to project that masculine energy. What I originally wanted to solidify in the interview is how you identify, and let me just explore you and your experiences, being this outspoken person that you are. I had a very strict male participant that was also misconstrued — as being a very femme type of energy and demeanor, then we had to dive into what it meant to be metrosexual, what it meant to be bisexual as a man. There were so many different identifications and classifications that I wanted to leave open for discussion without projecting my experiences or the experiences on others onto the topic that was at hand.

"There are so many people that come from third-world countries, extremely religious countries, that are never going to be able to seek that safe space of liberation."

It sounds like you didn't put many expectations on the conversation, but instead let things flow organically.

Yeah, I had zero expectations. I was scared that no one was going to show up; I was so scared that people were going to think this wasn't serious. I thought that people were going to think, This girl is taking on the trend. I have anxiety, so I just overanalyze everything. For it to turn out and be what it was, for people to hang out after the fact, to smoke a joint with me after the fact, like just chill and see what other people were saying in their interviews, for other people to get involved like it was a group discussion — it was like a community discussion. That was way beyond my expectation. I was really overwhelmed by that.

I created again another extended community from just doing that. All of the participants that I've spoken to on that night have reached out to me and checked on my mental health, checked on my emotional state. It just has become so much more than what I anticipated. I wanted to tell the stories of others, but now I've become a part of their story. It's a bit much — it's so much, but I'm so happy at the same time.

You've noted that you wanted to make this video as a way of redirecting attention to the community that gave you the strength to live your truth. I really appreciate that; it wasn't until I found queer community that I was able to fully come out myself. I feel I owe a lot to them.

We tend to be this version of ourselves; we know it's a very limited version of ourselves, and it's like Duh, I'm going to be this limited version of ourselves [because] I don't feel comfortable and I don't feel welcomed. But I'm so true to me and my essence that I'm still going to let that piece of me live, regardless of who you are. I always talk about omnipresence, and this elevated sense of consciousness that we could reach if we were really comfortable at all points in our life. Imagine if we were allowed to reach our highest potential at all points of our interactions, at all points of our communications, at all points of our experiences and adventures. We would be some fucking unstoppable beings. Call me optimistic, call me a flippin fairytale princess, but I think we can reach that state of elevation if we build those communities within ourselves.

If we don't rely on social rubrics and social media and all of these guidelines on how to be, if we actually focused on the energy source within, I think we could reach that level of elevation because we would not be fearful anymore. Imagine the moment that you realized who you were, what at you were, how you identify; imagine if you got to say that shit right then and there with no pressure to even maintain that image, but with all the freedom to say I feel so confidently. Imagine how powerful you would have been. How sooner you would have met someone like me, or how sooner you would have met your community — we would have been a lot safer.

There is safety in the bond of community, for sure. And comfort and confidence in that solidarity. I appreciate that you're open about that.

I want you to feel like you know me when you speak to me. I don't want you to feel like I'm too far removed from your experiences, or your understanding. I don't want to create a false perception of Oh, I'm this mysterious being. I don't know how to be mysterious. I don't know how to shut up. I don't know how to do all that. You can come to my house and meet my family right now if you wanted to, and I think that should be OK. Of course, I'm going to protect them to some degree, but I'm not trying to falsify this perception of what it means to be connected anymore. We need to strip that away. We need to have conversations. We need people we can call at 2 AM and talk to. I want my music to always lead that motive and that kind of energy.

Photography: Marta Literska