One afternoon in late August of last year, my mom gathered the young girls, ages 9-14, in the den. She wanted to speak to them about how to “carry yourself” as a young lady. Recognize your presence.
“Walk with your head high. Remember that you are smart, loved, and pretty.”
I cringed slightly at the last word “pretty” when I heard it and became curious as to why I responded that way. That was the moment of conception for this yearlong project. My album came clear to me that afternoon in my little hometown of southern Virginia.
No one told me that image was everything, but the message was clear to me at a very young age. I was always encouraged to stand tall and look people in the eye. I am steeped in self-pride, yet still struggled with identity.
A big nose, huge glasses and short hair. I was in about 3rd grade when I lost my virginity to the “comb in the jar,” a hair relaxer for young black girls by Luster, affectionately called PCJ. I knew without anyone having to tell me directly that long, straight hair was associated with pretty and “short” hair came with the words “and nappy;” it was never good. Never. It was a marvelous occasion when my cousin made my hair grow during my first year of college. It was also the same year she supported me cutting it an inch from my head so I could get rid of the perm and “go natural.”
Natural was a place I went, to feel a certain truth. I became humbly confident and comfortable with the truth.
The word “pretty” is packaged.
I see an image with a bow on the beautifully wrapped present. Pretty is charisma. It is attractive and what pleases us at our outermost senses. Sometimes pretty is a story retold and sometimes retold with horrible occurrences purposefully left out. This kind of pretty became increasingly aware to me living in Southampton County, Virginia. The place Nat Turner carried out an uprising on a slave plantation. I learned how racism is kept tidy. Just don’t say anything or don’t say too much.
We should have dedicated an entire semester on this history, but it was delicately taught and glossed for consumption. What we seemed to learn was what happened in 1831, but did not fully engage in the “why.” The watered-down lessons from the industrialized American history being taught in school is what I call “Pretty” as well.
Tell the truth. Shame the devil.
“Pretty” the music project came as an exploration of my beliefs. What makes me continue to stand tall? What makes me believe certain things about myself? When and why I am silent? Why is there a societal disdain for my skin, my hair and my body?
When I began writing new lyrics for this project, my guitarist told me to write from the place of anger and disturbance. This album became an opposition to hate.
I hijacked the part of pretty that made me cringe and created a work of art.
Let me tell it.
I have a deep connection to the past through compassion and being a performing artist, singer and songwriter helps me feel that most intensely. To know that your ancestors’ names were stolen, religion was made illegal and you were dehumanized, I feel is my responsibility to claim, name for ourselves or be named for. Tell the truth. Shame the devil.
Let me tell it.
One of the reasons I wrote the album “Pretty” is because I wanted to examine and reclaim the word. This occurred through intentional play and having pretty parties with friends and music fans. I started paying attention to when and how I used this word. We practiced noticing all the “pretty” things in life and having conversations about what lies beneath all the seemingly pretty.
My journey to reclaiming pretty meant telling the truth first about how I relate to myself. It also meant showing understanding and simple respect to others, and lastly it meant most radically being kind and forgiving to myself about everything. Now, when I think about the time last year when my mother gathered all of girls to tell them as she told me, I don’t have that cringe.
As many of you are on your journey to restore a personal freedom, I’d like you to leave you with these three things that have helped me on my path:
- Have a party. Seriously, plan a party about any issue you have around image with friends. Explore, examine and experiment. One of my fans had a “pretty party” and invited friends to create a board envisioning a more beautiful world that included themselves. It was rich with food, laughter, music, and art.
- Be Careful (what you say.) In one of my songs on the album I speak specifically about how your words are the fuel of life. Use them wisely when speaking to and about yourself. Words manifest and they have life.
- Tell your story. Art is life expressed. Create it. Speak, draw, choreograph, design, write, and sing your story with the hurt, the joy and all. Don’t leave it for someone to tell.
Download the album here: www.cdbaby.co. It will be available on other outlets soon. Share with the hashtags #unpackingpretty #prettythealbum
What does “pretty” mean to you and how have you changed the definition?
For modern R&B singer Tamara Wellons, it’s been a beautiful struggle. It’s not easy being an independent artist with a family, but she’s found rewards in the journey. Aptly, she calls her third album, Pretty, and its birth has reconstituted her soul with wisdom and enlightenment. Tamara has had a profoundly diverse career as a performer and a recording artist. She performed nationally and internationally, including at the prestigious Jazz Café in London. Her debut full-length, Life Is (2008,), was released by OCHA Records.
[Feature Image: Tamara Wellons is pictured standing against a tan wall. She is wearing a red dress with a gold necklace and earrings and short natural haircut. Source: Tamara Wellons.]