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Tarriona 'Tank' Ball Gets 'Vulnerable AF'

In her debut poetry book, Vulnerable<em> AF</em>, Tarriona "Tank" Ball demystifies the fantasies in her mind.
Taja Janel
Courtesy of the artist
In her debut poetry book, Vulnerable AF, Tarriona "Tank" Ball demystifies the fantasies in her mind.

To the fiery powerhouse of Tank and the Bangas, Tarriona "Tank" Ball, rhythm is fundamental. It's in her rapping, the beats of her songs and the poetry she's been writing and reciting since her youth.

Before diving into Tank and the Bangas' Friend Goals tour this fall, Ball has been touring the country — not as banging Tank, but as spoken word Tarriona — in support of her debut poetry book, Vulnerable AF. In this compilation, Ball demystifies her mind, which is full of fantasies and characters. The musician says she's "interested in the wonder of falling in love," stripping her high-energy bounce down to sheer vulnerability and telling tales and lessons on life, like "[lotioning] the parts of your body no one can see."

Ball also wrote the poems in Vulnerable AF to process the spiraling love of a past relationship. She'd lay awake until the early morning, writing out her emotions. Sprinkled between 33 poems are diary-like entries called "Tank's Story Time," which contextualizes the important life lessons she shares throughout. The poems are a reflection of Ball's past, captured for future posterity.

Since winning NPR's Tiny Desk Contest in 2017, Tank and the Bangas have been on the road nonstop, with only a few moments of rest in between. Ball was back home in New Orleans when we caught up over Zoom, in what she said "[felt] like a needed break." We talk about the relationship that informed Vulnerable AF, performing spoken word, and how crowds can change the experience.

World Cafe: How does it feel to be back home in New Orleans?

Tank Ball: It feels amazing to be back home. I love being home right now. The sucky thing is that it's raining every day and they're canceling the festivals one by one.

That's a lot of whiplash. How have you been processing all this?

It's a lot to live through, to be an artist right now, because this is your main source of income. Artists are little interesting people, so this is the way they connect to the world. To shut that down for such an amount of time is crazy. Personally, I'm on and off, up and down. I don't want our Friend Goals tour to be cancelled. For one year, I needed that break, but another year? I don't know about that.

It felt like you needed that break?

Oh, yeah. We've been on tour ever since Tiny Desk in 2017 without stop. Trying to make the most of just having two or three days home at a time. Now, to be inside or out at night, riding my bike without nobody in the city, it felt like I had the whole of New Orleans to myself.

Let's start with how this book project came together. What was the arc of that journey?

I started the poetry book a couple of years ago. I wasn't thinking about publishing it at the time. I started it because I had somebody in my life that made me feel a lot of stuff that I had never felt before. I thought, "I really need to document this; get it out of my head, out of my heart and get it on paper." Not for anybody to specifically read at all. When I decided to give it to someone, I gave it to him. I gave it to him only, for a long time. In my heart, after a while, I decided it was time to share. It's time to show everybody that I've had these feelings as well.

What were you hoping when you gave the poems to him?

It feels so long ago. I was just like, "Here, I've been feeling this for you. You made me feel. I should tell you because maybe you don't know that somebody loved you so much; maybe you don't know that somebody cared about you as much."

There's an excerpt from one of your "Tank's Story Time" sections called "My Bad" that reads: "When I first met him, I had a little nickname for him. I would call him 'Sun' ... I even had a special little special ringtone for him that sounded like a bunch of drums because it was how my heart felt when he called, and they were also the instrument he played."

And in the poem "DRUMSTICKS" you write: "His hands are like drumsticks / Long Rough Delicate Smooth Rude Passionate / I would break if he touched me." There's a lot of parts of him that you bring to life. It's not the first time I've heard, "Don't date a drummer."

Well, when I wrote the line, "Never trust the drummer cause the beat keeps going ... on" from the song "Drummers," I didn't mean that literally. I was writing a story, one that didn't happen to me. If anyone dates a musician — period — you just gotta watch out. Because they're just number one, rock stars in their own life. They're looking down on people; people are looking up at them. When you're dating a musician, you have to be really secure. The music will really come first. It's hard not to be attracted to someone when their gift is right in your face.

Tell me about how you create through emotional experiences, how you made a book from heartbreak.

It's just ... doing what it do, doing what it does. It's the next step. Writing came from a straight-up natural place of, "Let me document how I'm feeling inside." I sat with it for some years before I decided it was time to put this out.

It always comes from a personal place. Then it gets shared and you think, "Somebody else is going through this." That's when you are able to not be so embarrassed of the hurt or the pain or feeling played. When you decide to put it in the world and share it with somebody else, it still belongs to you. But now it's in the hopes that somebody else will understand and connect with it. Honestly, I want to help people.

You're used to the stage, but [spoken word] is a totally different type of performance than Tank and the Bangas. How did this stage feel different?

With the Bangas, it's this big sound; it's freaking fireworks. It's always pretty amazing. It's like being in a revival church tent and when I'm by myself, it's like the intimate prayer corner where I'm going to confess to the priest. All of it is a kind of church in a way, a kind of sanctuary. I get free in both places but the Vulnerable AF tour allowed me to take my time, remember my poetry roots, which is where I started from. I had such a beautiful time just centering myself.

There's many different types of writings in the book. Some have turned into your songs like the poem "Damaged Goods," which became "Walmart." "Tank's Story Time" reads like diary entries that feed into the next poem, like how "Take the L" describes a vicious cycle and then the poem "The Cycle" follows. Which pieces came first?

What happened was the writing definitely came first. The poems — they came first. When I decided to get the book published, I thought "Tank's Story Time" would be so perfect to go in between some of the poems, as I was reflecting after all these years. I wanted people to get a real understanding of where I was in the place of this relationship.

So, there's a mix of fantasy and reality in your storytelling. Are you more imaginative, or do you tell things as is?

Both. I will write it as it is, but I will use an imaginary world to make it more relatable, or interesting or fantasy — like comparing this guy to aWalmart full of damaged stuff. No matter what you're buying, something's going to be damaged. But then again, aren't we all so freaking damaged in some way?

In the poems, you ask a lot of self-doubting questions like, "Is it me?" Have those thoughts changed?

I think when I was asking him a lot of questions, it was because I felt like he pulled away from me. I just didn't know why. I thought it was me, but I think that it was him. But at this point, I don't have no more questions. Like, "Why couldn't we be happy? Why didn't we work out?" I don't have no more questions. I am good. No, no more questions.

What did it feel like to open up in this way?

I go back to what I like to call the "graveyard" feeling. It's crazy to go back there. It's like a graveyard and the theme park at the same time. You're interested in the wonder of falling in love and then you'll get that moment where you actually fall — and you hit your ass. This is love, too. You go through these feelings of something you don't feel anymore, especially since it's a relationship that didn't last. It's crazy; I had to open myself up to that every night, especially during "Rollercoasters."

You were mentioning the spiritual-like experience of performing at a church revival tent, a traditionally Black space. Does the diversity — or lack thereof — of the audience affect your performance? Is that on your mind?

You want your music to be able to touch everybody, but when you go up in a crowd and it's more white than Black, you definitely notice it. And you're like, "Damn, where my people at? Because they understand what I'm really talking about."

I had moments on tour where white people would laugh at something that just wasn't funny to me and I would be surprised. It's the same thing that used to happen in slam: You would get up there and there would be five random judges. So, these judges could be people on the street — Black people, white people, anybody. If they were white judges, you don't say something like, "Dedicated to the boy with the deepest mud puddles I've ever stepped in (the dedication of Vulnerable AF)." You'll see a bunch of white people start laughing.

Why? What's funny?

It makes me think about the climate of the entire world and what we find to be serious, because everybody's obviously not feeling the same. We're not thinking the same and we're not registering the same. Cause that's not a funny line to me; it's serious.

On this tour run, depending on the crowd, they would laugh. That's how it feels when you're in a non-diverse crowd, You feel like, number one, "Where's my people?" And number two, "I hope they get this. I hope they understand."

Copyright 2021 XPN

Mira Kaplan is a Boston-born and Philly-based freelance writer. With a background in Urban Studies and Art History, her work lies at the intersection of music, art and community engagement. Whether creating soundscapes from traffic noise or photographing pink things in public spaces, curiosity drives her storytelling.