With her deep, soulful voice, Tianna Esperanza’s debut album, “Afro Gypsy,” evokes the smoky speakeasies of the past while grappling with the racial inequalities that have influenced her life as a young woman of color.
Esperanza, a 20-year-old native of Cape Cod and rising junior at Lesley, was not looking for her face on an album cover when she joined the guitar club at Sturgis Charter Public School, but as the only female in the group, she was urged to step up to the microphone.
“I sang for all of our little school gigs and stuff and it went from there,” says Esperanza, who goes by Tianna Romero McLardy at Lesley.
Despite being the granddaughter of ’70s punk rocker Paloma McLardy, better known as Palmolive, the founder of The Slits, Esperanza pursued dance growing up. Yet, as a biracial ballerina, she felt herself pushed to the periphery of a world dominated by wealthy white mothers and their children. As she got older, the feeling of being an outsider in a mostly white context continued, and she began to realize the subtle and not so subtle racism around her.
“There’s not a lot of places where I feel at home, if anywhere,” says Esperanza, who has often been the only person of color in her friend groups. “I second guessed myself all the time, whether racism happened or not in certain instances.”
Finding her voice
But performing with the guitar club on Main Street, Hyannis, Massachusetts, during her school lunch breaks, she got her first inkling of what she could do with her voice.
“I just remember there were hints of feeling like I had a lot more power in my voice than I realized, and I thought if only I could just figure out a way to get it out, I think I could be really good at this,” says Esperanza, who frequently performs on the Cape.
Although she didn’t always have words to express the racism she experienced and witnessed, Esperanza had always been a writer first, and as she became more aware of the inequalities around her, it came out through her pen. One of her first songs, written around age 13, reflects her growing interest in civil rights.
“Lewis,” which is also the opening song on her record, invokes the words of Lewis Michaux, a Black nationalist whose Harlem bookstore became a hub of Black literature in the 1930s-1970s. Themes of racism continue throughout the eight-song album, ending with “Truth,” which evokes images of police brutality.
“The topic of race is pretty clear throughout most of the songs,” says Esperanza, an expressive arts therapy major with minors in digital filmmaking and creative writing.
Driving to Lesley from Cape Cod has been fertile ground for her songwriting. The long commute “gives me hours to think of ideas,” she says.
Esperanza wrote or arranged most of the songs on the album and drew from her heritage with the style of the music and the record’s title. “Afro Gypsy” represents Esperanza’s African American ancestry on her father’s side and her Spanish heritage on her mother’s. The musical style shifts from African-inspired beats along with jazz, funk and hip-hop into more experimental folk as the tone shifts toward Esperanza’s Roma roots.
“I grew up visiting Spain and being surrounded by Roma culture,” she says.
Gypsy is a term often used in a derogatory way to describe the traditionally nomadic Romani people, but Esperanza feels a kinship with the term.
“I just like that duality of the word and how I just never fit in anywhere. It felt like a connection to my roots and also a feeling of who I am.”
While “Afro Gypsy” is out today, Esperanza is already contemplating how her music will evolve as she spends the summer in an artist residency in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. She wants to experiment with her style as well as the subject of her songs, giving herself the freedom to sing about something other than race. Only five years into performing, Esperanza has “no regrets” about the trajectory of music thus far but is ready for new territory.
“I feel like by the end of it I was starting to talk about race because I didn’t know what else to talk about,” she says. “I’m more complex and I want to explore different things.”