tt the artist is the baltimore club queen bringing women to the front
Whether she's running a feminist record label or painting 'Black pop art,' TT won't be confined to one discipline.
Photography Crystina Bond
TT the Artist strides on-stage at Warehouse on Watts in Philadelphia wearing a Melody Ehsani x Lauryn Hill suit and an enormous gold chain that swamps her petite frame. She looks like she’s done this a hundred times – and she has, but this one feels special. The club queen recently started splitting time between Los Angeles and Baltimore, but she’s back on the East Coast to perform at Red Bull Music Presents: United States of Bass, with other sub-loving trail-blazers from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Jersey.
The community spirit of the event is in keeping with TT’s focus on collaboration, but she has a more specific objective: uplifting other women, particularly women of color. “Whether it’s owning your sexual freedoms or creating your own narratives as a woman, I feel like working together is so important, because you need to be around people who understand what you’re trying to do,” she says, perched in an armchair in a downtown Philadelphia hotel earlier that afternoon. “And who can better understand a woman, or a woman of color, than another woman?”
TT (real name Tedra Wilson) has been building a catalog of work spanning hip-hop and club music, film, and fine art over the past decade, since she moved from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Baltimore. Her wide-ranging work is unified by a common goal of empowering women, which was informed by her childhood in a restrictive Pentecostal household and seeing her mother abused by her father. “Seeing abuse happen with my mother kind of set things up for me where I was like, ‘When I get older I will never let a man disrespect me like that’, you know?” she says. “I held myself to certain standards after that. It taught me how to be stronger and more transparent.”
After her parents divorced TT found her own independence at Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art. Seeing it as a “new beginning,” and having “always wanted an around-the-way-girl nickname,” she introduced herself as TT for the first time at a college orientation, and it stuck. She added "The Artist" later, because she wanted people to know she’s “an artist first” — one who isn’t confined to one discipline.
While she was studying she discovered the vibrant Baltimore club dancing style — characterized by a series of dizzyingly fast-paced moves over hard and heavy beats — and was instantly hooked. “I had never seen anything like it,” she says, her eyes sparkling. “I was like, ‘This is so different!’ And it’s very Baltimore. It literally makes my heart beat fast, it’s a thrilling experience to see it live.” She likens it to other “non-traditional dance forms, like breakdancing and voguing,” “because it represents such a diverse and rich side of African-American culture.”
Performing with her own crew of dancers, TT rose to become known as the Club Queen of Baltimore, releasing hundreds of songs that eschewed modesty for explicit sexuality, like “Pussy Ate” and “Touch Myself.” Her unfiltered approach, energetic performances, and unique combination of club and hip-hop on debut album Queen of the Beat gained her respect outside of her intimate Baltimore community, and she soon found herself on tour with other innovators like Peaches and Big Freedia.
After a decade in the music business, during which she has collaborated with Diplo, been sampled by Jennifer Lopez, and had her music featured on films and series like Dude and Insecure, TT launched her own label, Club Queen Records, this past May. “It’s a women-focused label, especially women of color, because we’re so underrepresented in the dance music world and in the hip-hop world,” she explains. “Club Queen defines women running the music business. We’re the queens and we’re running these clubs.”
To this day TT’s dancers still traverse stages with her, freeing her up to focus on rapping, singing, and hyping the crowd. In Philadelphia, her crew effortlessly busts out signature Baltimore moves at blistering pace on her command: “Do the Two-Step! Do the Crazy Legs! Do the SpongeBob!” They then jump into the crowd and pull people on-stage to try the moves for themselves. No one’s worried about looking silly, they’re all just having fun.
TT says she’s seen film crews come to Baltimore from all over the world to try to capture the city’s unique music and dance style over the years, but she’s been underwhelmed with their attempts. Having studied video production at MICA, she felt compelled to give it a shot herself, and in 2011 she set about making a musical documentary on her adopted home’s club music and dance culture.
Seven years and many steep learning curves later, Dark City: Beneath the Beat is nearly ready to be shared with the world. “Everything that could go wrong, went wrong,” TT sighs. “From hard drives blowing out, to gear getting stolen. I went into a deep cave, like, ‘Am I ready to do this?’” she shakes her head. But the idea “kept haunting” her, so she kept going. “I felt like this is really something that I’m supposed to do, and this could be the reason I’m in Baltimore.”
As the film’s spring premiere approaches, TT says she hopes to shift the narrative on Baltimore, from “trauma, drugs, violence, and crime” to the amazing talent it holds. “I feel like if people just knew the gems that were there — people who are spending their time not getting paid, transforming young people’s lives, taking them from street to dance — more resources could come from outside.”
Around the same time that her documentary is set to drop, TT plans to launch another creative pursuit: an exhibition of pop art paintings that celebrate Black culture. She’s calling it “Black pop art,” and hopes it will make the traditionally white male-centric style more inclusive and humorous. “I’ve always been fascinated with how the Black woman was portrayed in media,” she explains. “Looking back on advertising and pop art, you didn’t see a lot of representations of Black women or Black culture. So it started feeling satisfying, as I worked on it, to think what things would be like if we were to create billboards and posters advertising our beauty and our culture.” One of her pieces depicts Wonder Woman with an afro, and TT says its title — “More Women More Power!” — has become her new mantra.
The productive positivity instilled in everything she does comes from understanding how deeply compassion and community is needed nowadays. “The world is so fragile right now, I feel like we’re at a point where people need to hear music that’s gonna motivate them, or help them get through something. I’m just trying to find a balance between that and making it upbeat.” The Club Queen is truly a woman of the people.