Ever since Tierra Whack burst onto the scene at the age of 15, she has consistently defied the conventional route to fame. Whether gaining attention by showcasing her rap skills on a Philadelphia street corner or captivating audiences with her unconventional and vibrant music and videos, Tierra has consistently embraced unpredictability. And her most recent film collaboration with sports and pop culture company Andscape, Cypher, is no different.
Described as a “hybrid documentary-fiction film,” Cypher traces Whack's rapid ascent to superstardom at the age of 15, but this isn't your typical narrative. “Unexpected,” as the rapper herself describes it to Complex, is, in fact, the most fitting descriptor for the film's plot.
“The movie was an experiment in genre,” Chris Moukarbel, who wrote, directed, and co-produced alongside Whack, states. “I was really interested in taking the very familiar format of a music doc and using it as a way to surprise an audience with something that bends genres and becomes a psychological thriller… It asks the viewer to question everything they’re seeing and in that way, the entire idea of essential truth in documentary is being challenged.”
Without giving away too much, the film delves into themes such as online conspiracy theories surrounding celebrity in the music industry and secret societies like the Illuminati. And while these topics have been in the shadows of the music industry as a whole for decades, Moukarbel says Tierra Whack was the ideal subject to explore them on-screen because “she's always up for a creative adventure. She challenges expectations in her own work and she was excited about this concept right away. She also brought so much humor and play to the film.”
Cypher is now available to stream on Hulu. In celebration of the film’s release, Tierra Whack spoke with Complex about how it came together, and her new era of music, which was recently kickstarted with the release of her first solo release in two years, “Chanel Pit.”
What initially inspired you to begin the process of filming this documentary?
Well, I was getting a lot of calls of people reaching out for me to step all the way into the film world. And when Chris came to me, it just felt like it was time. I'm never going to do something if I don't feel like it's for me. Me and my team, we talked about it and we were just like, this is something that we need to explore.
Was there a point during filming when the film was solely meant to be a documentary or did you intend on incorporating the fictional elements in there?
It was all intentional.
What was the goal that you wanted to achieve going into this film?
I just wanted to show that I can act. I feel like with my fans, I set the standard to always expect the unexpected. That's my catchphrase. It's just simply that. So you think it's one thing, but it's a whole other thing. You got to stay on your toes the whole time.
I don’t know if you peeped the crowd’s reaction at the New York screening, but it was a rollercoaster of emotions for them trying to figure out what was going on.
Yeah. Everybody was comfortable laughing, having a good time. And then, it was like, wait! Then they're side eyeing, which I love. That's the exact response I want.
"I just want people to know that fame is whack."
What’s the difference in the process of doing a film like this and in creating your music and videos?
I would say it's one and the same, because it's just like, OK, I'm an artist: Tierra Whack. That's who I played in the film. I had a script to memorize, but it still was me being me. Even within the music, I'm always pulling from different artists and films and all of my experiences in life and then just pouring it into the music. So I'm always making sure that I just pull from my life experiences and influences.
Were there any moments where you and the cast went off script or blooper moments?
A few, but not really. Chris was just filming and capturing us in our natural state, and then he blended it all so well to make it feel like we weren't even acting. At times I was like, “wait, Chris, what's my line again?” But we didn’t want to overthink it.
And a lot of the stuff I was kind of creeped out about, like he would put the eyeball on my hand and it's like, wait, this is crazy! So it was all a natural reaction.
What was your favorite thing about working on this film?
I liked when we improvised, like, when things went wrong, because they felt so right. When I was in Chicago performing and I fell off the stage, that was my favorite part because I was like, “oh my God, we had stuff planned.” But then that mistake happened. That fall was not planned at all. But Chris was like, “oh no, this is perfect! We gotta keep this. We want to write this into the script. It's going to bring it all together.” But you know, it was just me being me. It just added to the film. Chris was wary for me because I really did fall, and it wasn't scripted, but he also had like this spark in his eyes. He asked if I was OK with him using it. And I'm like, “yeah, go ahead.” I fall all the time, so people need to know I'm human.
To what degree do you believe in things such as the ritualistic practices to become famous or things like industry plants?
Well, I've never personally experienced anything like that, but of course, we've all been down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and secret societies. That's what really intrigued me when Chris brought the script to me. I was like, this is crazy. This is like the Blair Witch Project, so I was like we got to do it.
What is the overall message you want people to take away from this film?
I just want people to know that fame is whack.
Fame and privacy is another trend that came up in the film. How do you find a balance between sharing your life with the world and maintaining some level of privacy?
Everything isn't for everybody. And for my own sanity, I'm not going live or posting every single thing or every single step of my day, because, my family, my mom still want privacy. I just like being with my people. I read something the other day, it said something like, “the best moments are not filmed.” I'm not filming if I'm helping somebody. It doesn't feel authentic to me. If I didn't have this career, I would not have social media. My team have to constantly remind me. When TikTok first came out, when Vine came out, they're like, “yo, these are your platforms.” Eventually I got on them, but I gotta do things on my own when I'm ready, on my terms. But it's still not natural for me to just pull out my phone or post every single thing I'm doing. So if you see me posting, I'm doing it because I want to do it and I'm in a really good mood. If I ain't posting, I'm just chilling.
You released the music video for “Chanel Pit” at the end of the film. What inspired the record?
I remember being in the studio with the producer, Nick Verruto, and I was like, “I need something that slaps and it's clean and it's just fun and upbeat.” And that's exactly what he made. And I always have notes that I take randomly throughout the day. I remember my friend, years ago, was at an event or a show… I don't know if I feel like it was an Earl Sweatshirt show. But I was in the mosh pit going crazy with everybody. And then I went backstage and my friend came a little while after and he's like, “yo, I knew you were here. I smelled your Chanel.” He's like, “you had the mosh pit smelling like Chanel.” I just wrote that down in my notes. So when I was scrolling in my notes, while the beat’s playing, I'm wrote the “mosh pit smell like Chanel, hm/ Yes, Microsoft, I'ma excel, hm,” and I was like, “oh yeah, I like that.” And, yeah, it just flowed and it felt fun and free. I didn't have to think about it. That record happened so fluidly, so quick and easy. That's how art should be.
"I set the standard to always expect the unexpected. That's my catchphrase. It's just simply that. So you think it's one thing, but it's a whole other thing. You got to stay on your toes the whole time. "
The music video shows you going through a car wash without a car. What was the hardest part about shooting that?
So I had to rehearse. I had rain boots, the raincoat, shower caps, you know, Black girl, we gotta cover our hair. And I just got my hair dyed red again, so I couldn't let it bleed. I had the cornrows straight back. So I had the shower cap on, hoodie, the whole nine. I went through about five times and the director who's a white man, Alex Lill, he's one of my favorite directors ever. And he's like, “yeah, I went through like 10 times. It's fine. It's not even scary.” And I'm like, “yeah, but you're white.” Then we all started laughing, because white people aren't afraid of anything. You know like in a scary movie, they're like, “hello?” And they're walking towards the killer. I'm leaving the house. I don't even want to know why you're here… So, long story short, I went through the first time and I was like, whoa. The first time we had the bubbles and my eyes were burning. So we had to take the bubbles out. So, I said no to the bubbles and the chemicals because at the end of the day, these are car chemicals. Once we got the bubbles out, I went through a few more times. But each time, I thought I was ready, but I just couldn't prepare for it. Each time, I thought the waterfall was about to fall down on me or I think it's about to hit me from the left side. And I'm just still trying to perform directly into the camera. I was so scared, my butt cheeks were clenched the whole time. But yeah, it didn't hurt. It just was scary as hell. And I was starting to get claustrophobic.
Got you. So I know I have to wrap up soon but the film also teased that you have an upcoming album coming out. It’s been some time since your last LP. Why did you feel like 2024 is your time?
Now is the right time because now I've made something that I'm proud of.
What’s the most important thing people should know about you right now?
I'm human, and I'm going to make mistakes. I'm just learning as I go. I'm not perfect.