For Vagabon, Indie Rock Is About Creating a Voice and a Community
Tamko: “Part of the appeal of making underground music is you can figure out your voice as you’re performing."
At a Vagabon show in February at Baby's All Right, in Williamsburg, 24-year-old Lætitia Tamko stood onstage dressed in black, toting a sunburst Fender Stratocaster and facing an audience who looked nothing like her. A handful of Black faces in a sea of white ones. Still, the place was packed, and the crowd was there to experience her.
Tamko uprooted from Cameroon to Harlem at the age of thirteen, then again to the suburbs of Yonkers. She started writing songs in high school, after her parents gifted her with a guitar and she used an instructional DVD to teach herself how to play. She spent her time at the City College of New York studying electrical and computer engineering — a career path with enough promise and practicality to appease African-immigrant parents. But Tamko picked up pen and guitar again, secretly crafting her album while working full-time. She quit engineering, moved to Brooklyn, and stumbled into the New York's indie rock scene, forging her own space there.
The chords she once played in the dark took the spotlight that night at her album release show. The stage is where Tamko's passion and skill meet, and where her worlds collide.
Two young women convened in the bathroom after her set and relished in reassessing what they'd just witnessed. One said, "She's like Kings of Leon, but better." The other said, "She's like Nina Simone."
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Neither was right, but maybe both had a point. The familiar yet fresh music of her debut, Infinite Worlds, revolves around the nostalgic sound of alternative rock from the Nineties to the early millennium. It's charged by songs that take us inside her outsider world. She's hiding, revealing, traveling, unpacking, and affirming that the discomfort of it all is worth the journey.
But artists don't share the same paths and purposes. For Nina Simone, an artist's calling was to function within the framework of being political, to reflect the times and not equivocate when doing so. Tamko veers more toward everyday resistance. She evades the procrustean bed of performative-explanations-through-art that appeals to the white gaze of Blackness, and she doesn't carry the load of amplifying her message. She remains quiet in her fight, but her voice still rings. The power in that speaks for itself.
"There's a lot of radical action in just existing," she told me when we met at McNally Jackson in Nolita. Her shaved head mirrored the usual style of West African schoolgirls, as if she carried a piece of warmth from back home with her on a bitterly cold New York afternoon. "There's a lot of self-preservation. You have to take care of yourself as well, you know. And sometimes talking about it does more harm than good, personally. Sometimes I have to refrain from doing that and just work on being strong enough for the next, you know, however many years."
The politics of identity can overwhelm Black women in music. Their artistry and musicianship are placed on the backburner, behind a ceaseless dissection of purpose and belonging in a world that otherwise casts them out. To endure in that world is a feat in itself; to make good art in that position is the ultimate exultant. To be afforded the mental space to reflect and create outside of Blackness, womanhood, and foreignness is a luxury that artists like Tamko can either hope to have or demand for themselves.
Tamko knows her calling. "I just want to provide a sense of community for people who don't have it," she said. "If my existing or my making music can make someone feel like they're less alone, or more powerful, or more represented — to do that for as many people as possible is where my agenda besides the love of making music comes from."
The delicateness of her speaking voice is matched by the soft strength of her singing, which she calls a "learned skill." "I taught myself how to be good," she said. "I don't think I was bad but, like anything, it can be learned. And part of the appeal of making underground music is that you can kind of figure it out — you can figure out your voice as you're performing, as you're making music. You don't have to be as seasoned. I haven't taken vocal classes. I'm sure they're super helpful, but I have found a way to use my voice the way that I want to."
The bellows, yelps, and harmonizing on Infinite Worlds were a product of her dedication to honing imperfections. Tamko played nearly every instrument on the album — guitar, drums, synth, keyboard. On the surface, it's indie rock. Underneath, something different is happening. Tamko doesn't subdue her narrative, nor relinquish the weight of it. What Nina Simone would shout, Tamko whispers in subtle tones. "You will raise your voice and talk aloud, but once, you didn't have a voice at all," she sings clearly over the quiet acoustic guitar and drums of "Cleaning House." "My standing there threatens your standing, too."
Growing up, Tamko didn't see artists she could identify with, who looked like her and represented the skilled, unpolished musician. But the subtleties in her vocal riffs, polyrhythms, guitar strokes, and synths reflect the inner layers of the music she consumed through the years. The discography of her childhood included everyone from Cameroonian songwriter and novelist Francis Bebey and Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré to Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey. These days, she plays Migos on repeat, vibes out to Solange, and takes in as much pop music as she can, too.
There's more semblance of herself in genres like trap and alternative r&b than in the one she's chosen as her own. "Women of color exist in this scene," she said. "Just not many. I'm not an anomaly, or a 'special one,' but I just wanted there to be more. The more the merrier."
On the night of her album release show at Baby's All Right, the crowd that looked nothing like her grew quiet between songs. But the solitariness was familiar territory for Tamko. Onstage, she was in control, thwarting any inclination of awkwardness as she spoke softly: "I love silence."
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