In a time where just about everything seems complicated, sad or difficult, millions of Gen Zs and millennials have flocked to singer-songwriter SZA.
Her lyrics often deal with emotional, complex commentary on everything from self-love to the struggles of maintaining memories of ex-partners. And her music resonates during the Covid-19 crisis. Her 2017 debut album “Ctrl” has spent 192 weeks on the Billboard 200, still commanding a spot inside the top 50.
But being an Academy Award- and Grammy-nominated artist didn’t relieve her from the emotional turmoil of living through a pandemic. SZA spoke to NBC News’ “Stay Tuned” about dealing with her mental health and a new project to combat environmental racism across America.
Her track “Good Days” has gone platinum in the U.S., hit No. 1 on Spotify and was her first solo song to reach Top 10 on the Billboard charts. She says it was the song she needed to hear during this challenging time.
“We're all really sad and really looking for that outlet or even that glimmer or our own personal mantra to keep it going,” SZA said, “I really lost at least three friends, to suicide, a drug overdose, just going through heavy stuff during quarantine last year.”
“I genuinely lost my mind in quarantine last year,” she added, “I have nothing else but to believe in good days because if not, what? I'm just going to let it spiral out of control? And that's not an option.”
But SZA revealed the way she always picks her mood up is by switching up her environment.
“I just love being outside, like it's the only thing that makes me feel better, and working out.” she said, “Seeing more green and being around more oxygen. I'll drive anywhere to get near a lot of trees.”
But being surrounded by nature wasn’t always an option for SZA, who grew up in New Jersey and New York.
“In Dyckman,” in upper Manhattan, “they don't come and get the trash for quite some time in the summer, it's literally toxic,” she said.
Knowing how some communities can have limited access to trees and clean air was one of the primary reasons for partnering with TAZO Tea and American Forest to combat environmental racism. The organizations are creating a Tree Corps to actively fight environmental racism in Minneapolis, Detroit, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Bronx, N.Y., and Richmond, Virginia.
In part, communities of color often systemically live in areas with higher pollution, decreased regulation, less greenery and lower quality of natural resources, due to what experts say is environmental racism. The Flint, Michigan, water crisis has been an eye-opening example of the ways systemic racism can hit Black and brown communities hard.
“You basically have environments in neighborhoods that are like 20 degrees warmer than white neighborhoods, just based on the factors and the environmental things that they would never put in white neighborhoods,” SZA said.
While the lack of clean air is a clear concern, the impact on the mental health of communities is what the singer said sticks with her.
“I feel like there's no time that I feel more down when I just feel like there's nothing to remind me of my humanity,” she added.
This respect and love for the environment are also the source of SZA’s passion for astrology, which many of her fans will know from some of her Scorpio-themed Instagram stories.
Many of her dedicated listeners might be curious about when her next album will drop, since ‘Ctrl’ came out several years ago. She’s confirmed that the wait is almost over, her next album will be dropping this year.
Fans also expressed excitement over a collaboration with the singer-songwriter Frank Ocean she hinted at on her social media earlier this year. When asked about the status of the remix, she said she is respecting Ocean's space in light of the recent death of his brother.
“He is my friend. He loves the song. And I just want to give everyone what they want, while also giving my friend what he needs.”
However, SZA said there are other collaborations fans can expect, and a few are already in the works.
“It’s like I've done them, just when do they come out?” she said, adding, “I literally sat in a room with Stevie Wonder for like three hours at 9 a.m., and that was my biggest dream.”
As for dream collaborations, SZA said she wants to look internationally, mentioning three names in particular: “Blackpink, Rosalía, Bad Bunny.”