Tiara Thomas is a Grammy and Oscar award-winning singer-songwriter who graduated from Ball State in 2012.
Tiara grew up in Indianapolis and, shortly after completing her undergraduate degree in telecommunications, landed a record deal that opened the door to her professional aspirations of becoming an artist.
In this episode, Tiara reveals how her dream of winning a Grammy began when she was just a young girl and how she recorded her first original song from the stairwell of her LaFollette residence hall.
She also reveals her belief in the healing power of music and describes what an unforgettable experience it was to win two of the world’s most famous and influential awards in 2021.
If you enjoy this episode, please leave a review to support the show.
Hello, this is Geoff Mearns, and welcome back to Our Call to Beneficence. My guest today is another graduate of our University. Her name is Tiara Thomas, and she’s a singer-songwriter.
Tiara is a native of Indianapolis, Indiana. She earned her undergraduate degree in telecommunications from Ball State in 2012.
In March of this year, Tiara won a Grammy for co-writing the 2020 Song of the Year, “I Can’t Breathe.” Tiara wrote this song in collaboration with another singer-songwriter, H.E.R. Only one moth later, Tiara and H.E.R. won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for a song called “Fight for You,” from the 2021 film “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
Tiara visited campus this Fall as a guest of our University’s David Letterman Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series. And during her visit, she agreed to speak with me. I’m grateful for this opportunity to get to know Tiara better as I introduce her to you.
Tiara, welcome back to our beautiful campus and thank you for joining me this afternoon.
TIARA THOMAS [1:08]
Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. I like your introduction. It gave me goosebumps on my knees.
GEOFF MEARNS [1:13]
Well, you should be proud and we’re grateful to have you here. So, I want to start with where you’re from—your roots. I understand you were born and raised in Indianapolis. So please tell us a little a bit about your family and your early childhood.
TIARA THOMAS [1:28]
Well, I am—yes, I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. I’m the youngest of three. And I’m kind of, I’ve always been kind of like the black sheep of my family. I’m the only person in my family who does music. I just decided at a young age that I really loved it. I found music and I was listening to a lot of different types of music growing up. My dad put me on to a lot of different—I mean, Prince, Elton John, Eagles, Sade, Kenny G, gospel music, all kinds of music. So, I was really influenced by a lot of different genres, and I just liked the way the music made me feel. So, I just remember liking music from a very young age. When I was around 12, I asked my dad for a drum set. And he said no, because we were living in kind of a little small house at the time—
GEOFF MEARNS [2:24]
He was concerned it was going to be a little loud—
TIARA THOMAS [2:26]
[laughs] Yeah, he wasn’t having the drum set. And so, I was like, “Well can I get a guitar?” And he was like, “Okay.” So, he bought me a guitar, and I remember at the time I was a huge fan of Lauryn Hill. I just loved the fact that, you know, growing up in Indianapolis, I didn’t know any Black girls that sang and played guitar. So when I saw Lauryn Hill, and her skin was brown, and she had like this raspy, deep tone to her voice, you know it’s very different than you know, the typical, I guess, R&B singer. And she played guitar, and her music made me feel good and I was like, “Wow, I want to do that.”
And so that’s why I ended up, you know, wanting to play guitar. So eventually I taught myself how to play guitar. I remember going to school, when I first got my guitar, I think it was maybe about sixth grade, and I’d just be carrying my guitar around school, telling people I could play, and I couldn’t really play. I couldn’t play yet. But I’d tell people, “You know, I can play guitar, and I’m gonna win a Grammy one day. You know, just talking. And uh, turned out, that’s, you know, what actually happened. So yeah, growing up was a lot of self-discovery. It was fun.
GEOFF MEARNS [3:34]
So were’ going to talk a little bit about how, at the age, not much older than 30, you already achieved the dream you set out when you were 12. What gave you that confidence—or that dream—that confidence to achieve something as extraordinary as winning a Grammy. What was that inspiration?
TIARA THOMAS [3:54]
You know, I go back and I think about, like, how did I have that confidence? Why did I say, “I’m gonna win a Grammy when I’m 12,” and I couldn’t even like, play music and I didn’t know how I was gonna win a Grammy, I just said I was. Because, I mean, Lauryn Hill did. And I liked Lauryn Hill at the time. And I saw what she doing and I said, “I want to do that.” And I just said it, and I believed that. That’s what I really believed. And so, I guess from then on, I just progressed a lot, musically, as far as learning to play guitar and my songwriting ability. I spent a lot of time, in high school, I did a lot of talent shows, you know, in school. Show choir was a big part of my high school career. I loved show choir so much, and you know, just performing and everything. I did a lot of shows throughout Indianapolis. Different coffee shops, clubs, lounges, and just kind of honing in on my craft. And I think the confidence of other people being like, “Wow she’s dope.” I think that made me feel more confident, like, “Oh, I’m dope.” Let me keep going, let me keep on doing this.
GEOFF MEARNS [5:14]
So, when you were doing those talent shows in middle school and high school, were you doing covers of music that you’d heard before?
TIARA THOMAS [5:24]
Yeah, I remember in high school, my high school talent show, I was so embarrassed because I messed up big time. I did a cover of Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Like a Star,” and I sang the song in a different key than I was playing on the guitar. And I could never—once you start doing that, once you start singing in a different key than what you’re playing, it’s kind of hard to get back into the same key. So I sang the whole song in a different key, and I don’t know, maybe I’m the only person who noticed it. But I remember I was like, traumatized after that. I was like, I did so bad. But nobody else said it was bad, but I remember being traumatized about that.
But with show choir, that was definitely, um, a fun experience, just because, I mean, really, I got to go out there and be like Diana Ross. You know, you wear all these crazy outfits, during competition season, like, if you’ve ever seen the show “Glee,” it’s like, really like “Glee.” And I think I did well in show choir. There was a couple performances during competition season where I got best performer, and that was just fun for me.
GEOFF MEARNS [6:29]
And did you come out with back-up singers, like the Supremes?
TIARA THOMAS [6:34]
[laughs] Yeah, for my solos, I did. One of the solos in particular, like, all the guys were on the risers, and they were all on their hands and knees and I walked down their backs on the risers. It was very Diana Ross vibes. So, uh, that was fun. That was in show choir…
GEOFF MEARNS [6:51]
So, when did you begin writing songs?
TIARA THOMAS [6:55]
Well, I think I’ve always written songs. If I can think back, even as early as fifth grade, you know, when you had to do a class presentation you could either do a PowerPoint or you could make a poster board. I was always the person to write the song. Write the original song that had my message in it. And so, you know, even then, I was doing it then with my class presentations in elementary school. But uh, I guess that was just kind of like, you know, for fun or whatever. But I think I really got into, um, serious songwriting, actually, when I was here at Ball State. And I’ve been telling a couple of people around here, my first YouTube video I posted was in LaFollette, in the stairwell.
I lived in Unit 824. And, um, yeah, I used to go to the stairwell and play my guitar. I used to get lots of noise complaints. [Geoff laughs.] That was definitely a thing that I remember was the noise complaints, because people would be studying and I’d just be going off in the stairwell. But uh, yeah, I posted my first YouTube video there. And at the time, you know, a lot of people were posting covers and stuff on YouTube, a lot of artists that were trying to get discovered. And so, I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to join the party,” and that’s when I started posting my Youtube videos, and that actually was my first original song that I fully wrote and that I posted on YouTube, and it was called “Little Miss Sunshine.”
GEOFF MEARNS [8:20]
So, I bet some of your classmates probably wish they had taken video of you recording in the stairwell instead of complaining, they probably would have had some of the original uncut—
Maybe so, maybe so… [laughs]
GEOFF MEARNS [8:32]
So, let me go back just a little bit. I understand you grew up in the church. [Tiara: “Mmm hm.”] How did that experience influence your music? And can you trace some of your current music and your lyrics to that experience?
TIARA THOMAS [8:47]
I grew up in church. I went to church every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, every Wednesday evening. We listened to a lot of gospel music. I couldn’t really listen to secular music, definitely not rap music or anything like that. Maybe like, some pop music. Like, Lauryn Hill, I was allowed to listen to her, as long as you weren’t cursing.
GEOFF MEARNS [8:47]
When you say allowed, were your parents controlling or influencing what you could listen to
TIARA THOMAS [8:47]
Yeah, yeah, my parents. We couldn’t listen to that kind of stuff, and you know, MTV was blocked on the TV. So, there was none of that.
So, I grew up on church music, gospel music. And actually, still to this day, if you look at my Spotify, and see who’s the most streamed artist every year, it’s Kirk Franklin for me. Because I just love Kirk Franklin’s music. And I think his music gives me this nostalgic feeling from when I was a kid, riding around in the backseat of my mom and dad’s car, just listening to gospel music. And I just like the way it made me feel. I think Kirk Franklin, in particular, has some of the best singers I’ve ever heard. His choir and the soloists that he has, it’s like, “Whoa.” They just blow you away. His songs, they just make you want to cry, you know? So, just very powerful music, and I love the fact that he took gospel music—he was one of the first people to take gospel music and was able to make it secular. To have like, Salt-N-Pepa on a gospel song, you know, and like totally hip hop out a gospel song and make it sound cool. And you’re performing it on The Source Awards and the BET awards, you know, back in the day, so that was cool. And so, I really liked gospel music. But at the same time, like I said, I liked every kind of music. And I also liked, I think maybe I gravitated toward rap music, because I wasn’t allowed to listen to it.
GEOFF MEARNS [10:24]
There’s a lesson out there for us parents, right? [laughs]
TIARA THOMAS [10:27]
Yes, there is. And I think, definitely, I gravitated to that edgy, you know, that edgy essence, just because it was very, very taboo.
GEOFF MEARNS [10:43]
So, did that produce some tension in your relationship with your parents, as you started to gravitate that way as a young woman?
TIARA THOMAS [10:51]
They didn’t know I was listening to that kind of music at the time. Um, my older brother had mixed tapes and stuff, so I would get some of his mixed tapes. You know back in the day, people used to burn music on to CDs and so, it was various different songs and various different artists, and it was all on one CD. And so, I used to love that, I used to get his burned CDs. And I think my sister had a couple of those, too, and then, just like, you know school, listening to music with kids and stuff, so … my parents didn’t know I listened to that kind of music. In fact, I had a Lil’ Bow Wow album, and this was when he wasn’t even cursing or anything in his music, he was literally catering to the kids still. And I remember my mom went in the gas station and I pulled the Bow Wow CD out of my bag, and I put it in the CD player, and, uh, I tried to get it out before she came back outside and I didn’t get it out in time, and she took my CD and she threw it away. My Lil’ Bow Wow —innocent, didn’t even have a parental advisory sticker on there, it was just rap [Geoff laughs], and she didn’t want me to listen to it.
So, uh, yeah, I think now they’d probably say that they were like, freaking out a little bit, but you know, when you’re a parent, and you’ve got three kids, you’re just doing what you can do to try to make sure they don’t turn out to be hooligans.
GEOFF MEARNS [12:01]
I know that quite well. I’ve got five of my own and we’re fortunate to be on the other side of that.
You went to North High School (Tiara: "Lawrence North") and then you decided to come to Ball State. What prompted you to come to Ball State?
TIARA THOMAS [12:16]
Growing up, in my household, back then, you either go to school or you go to the military after high school. You don’t just sit around the house and like, do nothing. And so, I was never, like, the school type, really. I struggled … well, it’s interesting because I feel like I struggled in high school, but I was homecoming queen. So that means I had a GPA that was good enough at some point to be homecoming queen, but it was really the math that was getting me…it was getting me real good.
So, I struggled in school, wasn’t a huge fan of school, but I knew that I had to go to school. And so, I applied to one school, which was Ball State. And kind of like, how I’ve always been, I was just like, “Well, I just hope I get accepted,” because that’s really my only option, you know? It was a good school, and it was 45 minutes away from home, so I was like, “Well, that’s where I want to go.” So, if I don’t get in, then it wasn’t meant to be. And I got in, and everyone was really excited. I think people were shocked, like, oh yeah, I’m going to school! So that was crazy, the fact I was even going to college.
And I basically picked my major based off two things: one thing being what could I major in in order to have a career where I could be discovered as an artist. And so I was like, okay, telecommunications, I could get maybe an internship at MTV or BET or some music network or something and I could slip them my music and I could be discovered as an artist. So that was my plan. And then my second factor was picking my major based off of how many math classes I did not have to take. And so, telecommunications you only have to take one math class, so I got my math class out of the way, and I went on to finish out my degree.
GEOFF MEARNS [14:14]
So, when you were here at Ball State, you had to balance your classes and homework and even a math class [Tiara: “Mm hmm”] with continuing to pursue your passion for music and writing and performing. How did you strike that balance?
TIARA THOMAS [14:32]
Man, it was hard. It was hard because I really wanted to be an artist. And at the same time, I mean I didn’t really have too much of a plan. I was like, you know I need to finish school, and I always had the whisper from my parents in my ear, letting me know how much I took out in student loans, and so that I need to finish, so that was an important factor. But, um, it was hard, uh, I had to try really hard at Ball State. I know some students are just like, naturally …and I’m not saying I’m not naturally smart, but some students you don’t even have to study and you come take a test and you get an A or B. I had to actually go to the Student Center, and go to a tutor often. And uh, you know, with math, just to make sure I knew what I was doing, I had to visit with my professors a lot, try and check in, to make sure, you know, how I could do anything extra, or how I could do better. And so, that was definitely hard, going from getting on stage, in front of 1,500 people, and, you know, everyone’s loving you, and then you come back to school and you’re in class. So that was definitely, um, I think it kept me grounded. It was a very humbling experience.
GEOFF MEARNS [15:54]
Right. You had to navigate two very different environments.
TIARA THOMAS [15:57]
Yeah, two different worlds. It was definitely hard, but I mean, I just knew I just had to do it. The school, I had to do that. That wasn’t an option, so I just made it work. I would be in hotel rooms, typing an eleven-page paper, go down to the lobby, and find out how the person at the front desk could help me fax over my paper that was due at nine o’clock. So, it was definitely challenging, but it was fun—it was kind of fun at the time, too. Because you’ve got so much energy when you’re 20, 21, you just like, don’t know anything, and you’re just like, you know, wide eyed, running out there, just doing stuff.
So, I was just like, yeah, I’m running around, doing stuff.
GEOFF MEARNS [16:43]
Yeah, you don’t think about it, you just react to it. I think you mentioned that you taped a song, you recorded a song, in your dorm room, what room was it, 832? Was that the song that you sent to Wale?
TIARA THOMAS [16:58]
No, the song that I did, it was actually in the stairwell of LaFollette. That song that I wrote, “Bad” is what you’re talking about, the song that I sent to Wale, was the song I wrote when I was living in Windermere [Place Apartments], and that was my senior year of college. And yeah … that was, um, I put it on YouTube after I recorded it, and, um, it was on YouTube maybe about a year, eight months, and I’d already been working with Wale, because I met him during spring break, during my sophomore year here at Ball State. So, I sent him the song, and about eight months later, he put some verses on there, put his own verses on the song, and he put the song out and, you know, it blew up to be this huge song. And that was about when … I graduated from school, my mom and dad … I told my mom and dad, I was like, “I need a little bit of time to now try to pursue my music without you guys being down my back.” Because it was always, “When you going to get a real job?” You know, just being a parent, they weren’t trying to be discouraging or anything, but you know they just didn’t want me to a bum.
GEOFF MEARNS [18:08]
They wanted to be practical.
TIARA THOMAS [18:10]
Yeah, they wanted to be practical. So luckily for me, about three months after I graduated, that song came out. And about three months after that, I signed my first record deal. So about six months out of college, I signed my first record deal. So, I was like, “Well here’s my job that you guys were asking about.”
GEOFF MEARNS [18:25]
And what was their reaction?
TIARA THOMAS [18:26]
Oh, they were excited. Well, the song ... It’s interesting, because the song “Bad” is … it’s pretty provocative, and I just told you how I grew up. And my parents, they never heard my music or anything like that. So, I didn’t even want the song to come out. I didn’t want them to hear it. And they were saying like, “Oh yeah, we’re going to put the song—this is going to be the Wale single and it’s going to go on the radio,” and I was like, “No, my mom’s going to hear it.”
GEOFF MEARNS [18:52]
What was their reaction when they did?
TIARA THOMAS [18:54]
Well, I told my mom, I said, “Mom, there’s a song coming out and I’m saying some curse words on it, and I’m saying some things on there,” and she’s like “Oh, okay…” I was like, “So it’s playing on the radio everywhere.” And like, she didn’t even know how big the song was getting. And so, she’s like, “Okay, I’ll listen to Hot 96.3 and see if I can hear the song, see if it’ll come on the radio,” and it did come on one day and she called me one day and she’s like, “Well I heard your song on the radio. I’m sure glad it was the radio version I heard.” And I was like, “Yeah, me too.”
GEOFF MEARNS [19:23]
[laughs ] What was it like when you first heard your hit on the radio? The first time you turned on the radio and there it was?
TIARA THOMAS [19:30]
Um….where was I? I think I was actually in Indianapolis. Everyone had been telling me from different cities and stuff, and different states, “Oh yeah, I heard ‘Bad’ on the radio, and I was in Indianapolis,” and I was like, “Yo, I haven’t heard my song on the radio.” I called the radio station, and I was like, “Hey, it’s Tiara Thomas, and, uh, you guys haven’t played my song, and I’m from here.” And they were like, “Oh shoot.” Well, you know, B Swift from the radio, that’s how I ended up meeting him from Hot 96.3, and they ended up playing my song because I called up the radio station and made a big deal about it.
GEOFF MEARNS [20:09]
And I suspect they continued to play it.
TIARA THOMAS [20:12]
Yeah, they did.
GEOFF MEARNS [20:14]
So, when they signed that record deal, is that when you realized that you were on the right path professionally? Or did you still have some doubts about whether this would actually lead to the kind of career you’re having?
TIARA THOMAS [20:32]
Well, I had a lot of doubts. I messed up, and, uh, while I was here at Ball State … one thing my dad always told me every time I left to go travel somewhere or have a meeting with a music executive or go work with so-and-so in the studio, every time I left, my dad, he doesn’t know anything about the music industry, but what he did tell me was, “Don’t sign nothing." And what’d I do? I signed something. When I was a junior, I think, a sophomore or a junior. Some really bad management paperwork that had me tied up until about, 2018? And, uh, so my introduction into the music industry, I had this management contract before I signed my record deal. And um, I had already…at that point, I’d already been taken advantage of, and I didn’t really know what to trust. And then I ... I just signed the record deal, trying to get away from my management, because I didn’t want to sign anything they were associated with. And um, I just went way far left and signed with someone else. I didn’t know. Nobody knows, when you’re young and you’re just starting out, you don’t know anything about the industry. You don’t have any guidance. You just know you want to make it. So, I did sign this record deal. There ended up being a lot of creative differences. I wanted to be a certain type of artist and they wanted me to be a different type of artist. SO, luckily, one thing that did come out of that record deal situation was, because I’d gotten out of my old management situation, I didn’t have a manager, and I needed new management. So, my record label introduced me to a woman who actually managed Lauryn Hill’s career, some years prior. And I ended up being associated with a management company called MBK, and, um, they did Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys and H.E.R.—and that was H.E.R. before her name was H.E.R. She was 13 at the time, 15, you know? So, I ended up meeting that management company, and they actually got me out of my record deal. And yeah, since then, I’ve been independent.
GEOFF MEARNS [22:50]
And so, you spoke about H.E.R. I think her name was Gabby Wilson. How did you meet H.E.R.?
TIARA THOMAS [22:56]
Through my management. So, when I got this new management, and they were located in New York. And I’d fly out to New York and there was a studio in the office, in the management office, so I would go work in the studio. And they had this little artist—you know, H.E.R. wasn’t even thought of. They had this little artist, she was 14, 15, and she could play guitar. She was Black, and she could play guitar. That’s—I didn’t know, like I said, coming from Indiana, I didn’t know very many people who did that. And not only that, she could play guitar, like really play. And she could sing, like really sing. Like, at the age of 15, sound like a grown woman. So, I was like, “Wow, she’s dope.” And uh yeah, us being on the same management team … I was good at writing songs, and I was like, “Hey, I want to write some songs with her.” I love her, I think she’s dope. And we just got really close. And, so, we started, we’ve been writing songs together since she was like, 15. And then, you know, they came up with the H.E.R. concept when she was about, maybe 18, 19, and her stuff just took off in a crazy way. And I just continued to write with her, and I’m kind of like her go-to person of, you know, when she wants to write a song, she calls me because she knows we have a good vibe in the studio, and she knows we’re going to make something dope, so …
GEOFF MEARNS [24:19]
And one of the songs you wrote with H.E.R. received the Grammy for the Best song of the year. It’s a song called “I Can’t Breathe.”
TIARA THOMAS [24:28]
GEOFF MEARNS [24:30]
The song was inspired by the murder of George Floyd. So, was it your collaboration that led to writing and performing and producing that song?
TIARA THOMAS [24:41]
Was it—what do you mean, was it my collaboration?
GEOFF MEARNS [24:43]
Your collaboration with H.E.R. Was it the development of your relationship that eventually lead to that song?
TIARA THOMAS [24:46]
Yes. Yeah. Because before that, I can’t even tell you how much songs together. A lot of them they’re never going to come out. A lot of them, it’s just, we were bored, and we wanted to write songs. That’s what artists do, you just always write, always creating, doesn’t mean it’s going to come out.
And so, yeah, we were actually, yeah, she called me and um, this was a couple weeks after the George Floyd murder. And she called me because man, it was just so dark and heavy on everyone, and we were just talking about it on Facetime, and we just started writing this song.
She took her guitar out and she started playing these chords, and we were just kind of bouncing lines off each other, which is how we always write songs. And, um, it just came together very naturally. I think we put it together in a couple of hours. And, um, I don’t think either one of us thought, “Oh yeah, this song is going to be nominated for a Grammy.” I mean, I definitely never thought that. She’s won Grammys before, I haven’t. So, I was like, I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought it was an awesome song. And I felt good, getting that off my chest.
So, when we saw it was nominated for a Grammy, we were like, “Wow… Song of the Year at that.” I was like, “Wow that’s crazy.” And then, when we won, I was like, “What’s going on here?”
GEOFF MEARNS [26:08]
So, I’m going to ask you how it felt when umm—but we talked earlier about how music can inspire a person, can inspire various emotions. But do you believe that music can also contribute to our collective efforts to create a country or a world that is more peaceful and more justice?
TIARA THOMAS [26:32]
Definitely. I mean, with songs like “I Can’t Breathe” and just with different songs in general. I mean, music is so universal. You know, like, you play a song for a six-month-year old baby and they’re bobbing around, you know, they’re smiling, and they don’t understand the lyrics, but they know, like, “I like this, this feels good.” So, I definitely think just music in general is a way to bring people together. I mean, there’s people in … I don’t know, Australia … there’s people in Afghanistan, they know these songs that are on the radio. And they may not even speak English, but they know how to sing this song though. And so, um, I think definitely, music is—it’s so universal. It’s like a smile. It’s like love. Everyone can enjoy it worldwide. And, yeah, I think, that’s what I love most about making music is that, you never know, your song can end up way down the pond.
GEOFF MEARNS [27:35]
So, when they announced it. It’s the Song of the Year. Did you reflect on that dream you had told other people about when you were 12? What was going through your mind at that moment?
TIARA THOMAS [27:49]
Well, I was just happy to be at the Grammys. It was during COVID, and so I wasn’t even supposed to go. And, um, I was like, man I got to go, because I’m nominated for the first time ever. So, I mean, like I said, I’m not trying to be negative, but I didn’t think we were going to win. Because, it was, honestly it was the least popular song in the category. As far as like, these other songs were big radio hits. You never know with the Grammys. You just never know. So um, yeah, I was just happy to be at the Grammys. And you know, be on the red carpet. It was outdoors, we were like, kind of under a tent area, so they gave everyone blankets. And so, I was literally sitting there with my blanket on, before they were about to announce the awards, I had it wrapped around my body. Cause I’m just sitting there, and I see Beyoncé walk in and sit at her table and I’m like, “Oh, there’s Beyoncé!” Cause I love Beyoncé, and I’m like, oh, Beyoncé’s definitely going to win. Cause why would she just be walking in right now—
GEOFF MEARNS [28:46]
She must know what the result is, right?
TIARA THOMAS [28:50]
Yeah, exactly. So I’m sitting there, and he’s about to start opening up the envelope and I’m like, let me put on some lip gloss, you know—
GEOFF MEARNS [28:55]
Just in case.
TIARA THOMAS [28:56]
[laughs] Just in case. I put on a little bit of lip gloss, and soon as I start putting my lip gloss in, he’s like, “I Can’t Breathe. “ I was like, noooo…I was like, what? I kind of like, dropped my blanket. I just left my blanket where it was. And, uh, I was not wearing contacts, I wear glasses. And so, I couldn’t see anything, but I could see Beyoncé because I know what Beyoncé’s silhouette looks like and her hair and everything, and she was right there. I was on stage and Beyoncé was right there and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m standing up here in front of Beyoncé at the Grammys, and we won.” And it’s for a song we never thought would win a Grammy..
Man, that was crazy, I ain’t gonna lie.
GEOFF MEARNS [29:35]
And did you take a picture of it in your mind’s eye so you can play it back for the rest of your life?
TIARA THOMAS [29:41]
I did. And if you go look at the reaction from winning the Grammy, you can see it all over my face. I go back and watch and I’m like, dang, man, I wish I could have held it together just a little more. Because you just see me like, just shocked. I clearly looked so shocked. And yeah, I couldn’t believe my dream came true … I couldn’t, that was just unbelievable.
But I definitely did take a — I will never forget that moment. Never.
GEOFF MEARNS [30:06]
And so, it’s only a few weeks later, it’s now April. You’re at Union Station in Los Angeles. And once again you hear a song that you wrote with H.E.R. selected for an Academy Award. What was that like?
TIARA THOMAS [30:20]
I think they announced the Academy Awards, the nominations, the day after the Grammys, and so I was like, “Man, can I catch my breath?” You know, like, I couldn’t even—it was so much. I didn’t even, I couldn’t even—I didn’t sleep well for like a month.
Because I was just like—
GEOFF MEARNS [30:35]
A little adrenaline—
TIARA THOMAS [30:37]
Yeah, it was a lot. Like, I would go to sleep and my heart would just be like, beating out of my chest, and I’m like, I need to just relax somehow. I don’t know, because there’s a lot going on. But uh yeah, we found out we were nominated for “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and I was just like, “Dang, that’s crazy.”
You know, award season, they had the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, and there was something else…and we got nominated for those awards, but we didn’t win for any—we didn’t win.
And so yeah, we got nominated for the Oscar, and I’m just thinking, “There’s no way I’m nominated for an Oscar.” Right? This is next level, at this point. Like, Grammys? Okay. Oscars? Never thought about it one time, ever in my life. That, I want to win an Oscar one day. Never considered it. Now, here we are nominated for an Oscar and so ... uh … just being there at the Oscars, it’s a lot different crowd than the Grammys, you know. Cause it’s actors, you know? Harrison Ford—
GEOFF MEARNS [31:32]
And it’s Los Angeles, it’s Hollywood—
TIARA THOMAS [31:34]
It’s Hollywood. Like, literally like, “Oh I see Spiderman!,” you know? Someone you saw in a movie, and you see Viola Davis and you see Halle Berry and Harrison Ford standing right there and it’s like, “Indiana Jones, hey…” That’s not my crowd at all, and so it was cool being around them. And just like, it was COVID, so, all the stars weren’t there, it was very much like—kind of like a, hang out with your friends, eat food and drink. And again, I was just happy to be there, didn’t think we were going to win, and we won and I was like, “Come on, this isn’t real.”
GEOFF MEARNS [32:09]
Was that your thought? That maybe this isn’t real? Did you pinch yourself a little bit?
TIARA THOMAS [32:14]
Yes. I thought it wasn’t real. I’m like, this is not real, why am I at the Oscars? You know, but I’m like, I know why I’m at the Oscars. It’s just God’s plan, I guess.
GEOFF MEARNS [32:24]
And did you call your parents? Were they watching?
TIARA THOMAS [32:26]
Yes. I called my parents—I called my parents right after the Grammys, and I was shaking and crying. And I called my parents after the Oscars, I know my parents were probably like, looking at each other like, “What’s going on?”
GEOFF MEARNS [32:38]
They’re probably pinching themselves.
TIARA THOMAS [32:40]
Yeah, they’re like, my daughter just won a Grammy and then the next month, she’s at the Oscars and she won an Oscar and she’s standing on stage at the Oscars, you know, so…man, that was just…uh, man…I’ll never, never forget that feeling.
GEOFF MEARNS [32:55]
So, today, you’ve had an opportunity to do a couple workshops with Ball State students, and talked about some of the technical aspects of what you do. But did you also give them any personal or professional guidance or advice?
TIARA THOMAS [33:15]
Well, as far as like, we talked about a lot of songwriting techniques and, you know, being frustrated as a songwriter, kind of feeling like you’re stuck, or kind of feeling like you’re stuck with the same ideas you been using, and so we did talk about kind of getting out of that rut as well as being able to take criticism on your work and also self-criticism that you may have when you’re working on music and you’re like, “Ahh, this sucks” or spending a lot of time on one thing during a song, because, you know, as a creator, you’re really close to your music, and sometimes I feel like, I think you dissect parts of—you dissect parts that you don’t have to dissect or you, you know…too married to what you’re doing, to what you’re working on.
We definitely talked about that. Personally, as far as, I mean, I don’t know what examples you mean—
GEOFF MEARNS [34:14]
Meaning, pursuing a career, balancing studies and a passion, as you say, not just criticism but maybe even disappointment.
TIARA THOMAS [34:23]
Oh yeah, that’s one thing I definitely briefly brought up was just about the feeling of discouragement. You are going to feel that in the music industry because the music industry is—it’s like a roller coaster, it’s very much like this … no one’s career—I know you guys can’t see it on the podcast, but I’m doing a wave with my hand y’all. Um, but, people think the music industry, you’re a successful artist, it goes straight up like this and you just keep going on and you just stay up there and that’s not how it goes at all. It’s very much, you know, there’s people in this industry—I’ve had a lot of money, and gone broke, and, you know, gone back to where I’m at it. It’s very up and down, and you hear a lot of “nos”. You hear a lot of nos and you get taken advantage of in a lot of ways. And that’s not to be negative, but you have to be realistic. I mean, you can’t just go in assuming everyone’s going to take advantage of you, but at the end of the day, the music industry is driven by money. And so, you know, if you think everyone’s just going to be your friend, and want to just help you out out of good faith, that’s not going to happen.
You definitely hear a lot of nos, hear people tell you it’s not good, or they don’t see the vision in what you’re doing. They don’t see your vision. And so, you feel like, “It’s not good, then” just because someone else doesn’t see it the way you see it. I was basically just telling them that you have to have enough confidence in yourself and believe in yourself to keep going. And to —you know, being discouraged is inevitable, but being able to, you know, be able to be consistent and persistent in what you’re doing and not really listen to the otherness of everything that’s going on. Because the reality is, a lot of people, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re just, you know, giving you opinion from their own perspective, and a lot of times they’re not even really thinking about what they’re saying, they’re just like, listen to it, “Nah it sucks” and on to the next thing, and the whole time, that person’s thinking, “My dreams are ruined,” you know what I’m saying? So basically, just knowing how to overcome discouragement and all the nos that you may hear, or, you know? Cause when you’re persistent and consistent in what you’re doing, you run into the right people and you get the right opportunities, you know. Opportunities will always come to you.
GEOFF MEARNS [36:35]
That right balance of humility, and courage—
GEOFF MEARNS [36:44]
And confidence. So, I want to ask you one more question—
GEOFF MEARNS [36:48]
And it’s a question that I ask at the end of my podcast. You probably remember the statue of Beneficence.
TIARA THOMAS [29:41]
Yes. Is it still over by the advisors ...?
GEOFF MEARNS [27:35]
Yes, across from the Student Center, over on the south side of the old quad. And Beneficence, as we all know, is really the tangible symbol of our mission and our enduring values. We believe our mission is to empower our students to have fulfilling careers and also to lead meaningful lives. Beneficence at its core means the quality of doing good for other people, through service and through philanthropy. So the question I ask, and that I want to ask you, is what does beneficence—what does doing good for others—mean for you as you continue on a path to your fulfilling career and to continue leading a meaningful live?
TIARA THOMAS [37:46]
Well, doing good for others…it’s really easy for some people, once you get to a certain position in life, to like, kind of forget where you came from, or you know, kind of leave folks behind. And I think one thing that has kept me in a good position in the music industry is that I don’t …I’m a loyal person. And I help a lot …where it’s needed. I work with a lot of people, they may have thought, “She’s not going to work with me,” and I work with them, why not? Because I was just in this position a few years ago, so, why not? And, you know, that kind of opportunity could really make someone’s life or give someone the confidence that, wow, you know, I can do this. And I feel like, always, once you get to a certain point in your life or in your career, to always share the knowledge or the information you have with people who are coming up as well. Because, I mean, I wish I had that when I was younger, and I didn’t really have any guidance like that. And so, for me, I do gravitate towards helping people who are, you know, trying to figure out their way, coming up in the music industry, because I didn’t have that. And so, I always think that comes back around to you. Good karma, in a good way.
You run into so many people in this industry, that, you know, they’ll take advantage of you, or they’ll, you know, get to a certain point and they forget about, you know, the others behind them that helped them. And for me, I just feel like, always being in good faith, treating people well, treating people with respect, goes a long way.. it goes a long way in the industry. I mean, even outside of having talent. Like, when people you that you’re a good person, and they want to work with you, they’ll continue to come back to you. So that’s one thing for me, I always want to try to give back by my knowledge, things that I learned, and just also working with people that are trying to be on the come up as well.
GEOFF MEARNS [39:58]
Well, thank you. As we say, one of those enduring values of Beneficence is gratitude. (Tiara: Yes) And we define it as expressing appreciation to others, but by demonstrating that appreciation through our actions.
TIARA THOMAS [40:12]
GEOFF MEARNS [40:13]
Very grateful that you’ve joined me today for this conversation, we’re delighted to have you back on campus. Thank you very much and we wish you all the best.
Thank you so much for having me.