Tiara Thomas, the Indy native, songwriter, and longtime collaborator with the R&B artist H.E.R., won a Grammy for her contributions to the song “I Can’t Breathe” in March, and then an Oscar in April for her work on “Fight for You,” from the soundtrack to the film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” We caught up with her for an interview where we discussed her recent work, her Indianapolis roots, and much more.
Can you tell me a little bit about your Indianapolis upbringing and how music played a part in it?
I grew up on 82nd Street. When I was 12, I started playing guitar. I was always interested in music, just from the radio and stuff that my dad would play. I was influenced by a lot of different styles. I listened to a lot of ‘90s R&B and ‘90s rock. A lot of Coldplay, Elton John, John Mayer, 2Pac. Any type of music that made me feel something, I wanted to listen to.
Growing up I was in kids’ choir at church, so I was always singing. I was in show choir at Lawrence North, and that was one of my favorite experiences from high school. It was so much fun. You had a class where you’d go do choreography and get ready for competition season. I also did talent shows. Especially when I really started writing songs, I just wanted to perform wherever I could. I did talent shows at Lawrence North, and when I got to Ball State I would do talent shows there too.
When was the moment you realized your music career was on an upward swing, and what were some of the steps you took to get there?
I met Wale on spring break when I was in college my sophomore year, and then I ended up working with him. I did this song called “The Cloud,” and he put it out on his More About Nothing mixtape. When that came out I was in college, so that was really cool. People all over campus and around Indianapolis started knowing me for it. I was doing covers and stuff on YouTube [before that]. In the dorm rooms I got noise complaints because people were studying or whatever.
How did you first meet H.E.R., and how has the relationship between you two blossomed over the years?
I signed a record deal with Rico Love when I graduated from college. When I signed with him, I had just gotten out of a management deal with someone else, so I didn’t have management. Someone that worked for Rico Love’s label said, “Hey. I know this woman. Her name is Suzette Williams. She managed Lauryn Hill’s career. She works with this guy named Jeff Robinson, and they’re great people.” I ended up meeting her, working with her, and also working with Jeff Robinson, who signed H.E.R. years prior to that. I think I met H.E.R. when she was 15.
I remember I was in New York. I pulled up to the studio, and she was in there singing and playing guitar. I took out my phone, started recording her, and was just like, “Wow.” I’m from Indiana, so I hadn’t met a whole lot of Black girls that sing and play guitar. And she was good — real good.
We built a close relationship. [She was] just like my little sister. We started writing songs together. I remember the first song we wrote together was called “Sleep,” when she might’ve been 16. I was like, “Yo. I really love this song!” We cut it, and it’s probably terrible now. [laughs] We’ve just been working together for years, even before the name H.E.R. was thought of.
You and H.E.R. won a Grammy for your song, “I Can’t Breathe,” which came out less than one month after the murder of George Floyd. Can you reflect on the writing of that song, and what was on your minds at the time it came together?
I think I can speak for a lot of people in saying we were exhausted, tired and angry. There was also the fact that everyone was stuck in the house, so you had no choice but to pay attention to it, hear about it or watch it on TV.
We ended up getting on a FaceTime call and were just talking about everything that was going on. She wanted to put that into song. She was at her mom’s house in the Bay, took out her guitar, and we just started writing a song on FaceTime, line for line with everything that we felt. I remember when we got to writing the hook, she just started singing, “I can’t breathe,” like she does on the song, and it just gave me goose bumps. I was like, “That’s it. That’s the hook.”
You and H.E.R. also won an Oscar for your song, “Fight for You,” which was featured in the movie “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
It’s funny because all these songs H.E.R. and I do always come up very casually. We were working on her album that week in L.A., so I was already coming to the studio everyday to work with her on finishing it up. I knew she was supposed to do a song for a movie, and she just hadn’t gotten around to it. So she hit me up and was just like, “Yo. Are you coming through to the studio today? We’ve gotta write a song for this movie, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah.’”
So H.E.R., [producer and songwriter] D’Mile and myself went to the studio, along with Walter Jones from Universal and our manager Jeff Robinson. We watched a rough cut of the movie, and man, it really hit. Obviously I’d heard of the Black Panthers before, but I had never heard of Fred Hampton. I was just excited it was a story that was going to be told, and I was excited to be a part of the song.
I never, ever thought, “Ah, I want to win an Oscar one day,” before we got nominated for that Oscar. Obviously, it would’ve been nice, but I just never thought about it. [laughs] The thing that means the most to me is that these songs were songs that mattered. They really say something, have a message and speak for our culture and our pain. So I was just honored to be a part of that.
In reflecting back on the successes you’ve had, what advice would you give a young artist who’s looking to make their way up in the music industry right now?
A, Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. B, You’ve gotta just keep going. Take “no”s when people tell you no. No matter what happens, you just have to believe in yourself because ultimately nobody knows what you’re capable of more than you.
What projects have you recently had a hand in, and what do you have on the horizon?
I’m wrapping up my own project right now, so I’m really excited about that. And then H.E.R.’s album “Back of My Mind,” just dropped, and I worked on quite a few songs. That was in the works for the last few years, so I’m happy to have that out.