Tati performing her song "Better" at Young Chicago Authors' WordPlay open mike
On Saturday, June 16, at the Museum of Contemporary Art's 21Minus event, 20-year-old North side poet and rapper Tati debuts her first performance-art piece, Luvpotion—the result of a year's worth of emotional trauma, self-care, and spiritual growth. She's been writing raps (and rapping for her friends) since elementary school, but her first public performance as a rapper was only about a year and a half ago—part a rapid transformation during which she's brought several of her private artistic pursuits onto public stages.
At the start of 2017, Tati (full name Tatiana Rodriguez) was majoring in journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and working as a columnist for The Daily Illini. She wanted to get into journalism to harness her voice, but she quickly started to see it as a "safe" choice, a way of avoiding pushing herself to become a full-fledged artist. "It was like I was stuck, floating," Tati says. "I wasn't going anywhere and I wasn't doing anything fulfilling." As one of only a tiny handful of people of color at the paper, she felt like an outcast, and even worse, she says she received frequent insults and threats in response to her opinion pieces. She decided to return home to Chicago. She got a job at Ulta Beauty and started to rebuild.
What Tati saw in the city was a path to a recovery that required self-love and self-care, in the form of exploring her ancestral spirituality and continuing to write poetry, raps, and essays. However, just putting pen to paper wasn't enough. She yearned to bring her art to life onstage, something her bashfulness wouldn't at first allow.
"I just wasn't confident enough in saying 'I'm an artist'," Tati says. "I had to let my creativity slap me in the face."
The first time she rapped in public was at an event put on by south-side arts collective Las Topo Chicas in December 2017. She shuffled onto the stage with a disclaimer—"This is my first time doing this, so if it's trash, don't roast me too badly"—but the response was overwhelmingly positive. That performance was a major step in what she calls her "bad bitch evolution."
Luvpotion takes its title from a Spotify playlist Tati made and dedicated to someone left behind in her "pre-bad bitchified" life. The etymology of the name also owes something to her spiritual roots, which she identifies as the biggest component of the piece. "Part of this transformation was getting into my family's spiritual practices. That was reading books, herbalism, manifesting positivity, and witchcraft," she says.
A love potion is probably the most digestible form of witchcraft—but what if your target were yourself? Self-love is the message behind Tati's rap on the song "Luvpotion," which may or may not be part of Saturday's performance. On the hook she muses, "When shorty starts to feel herself, I can tell that y'all won't like me / I'm carefree, love myself, fuck the bourgeoisie / I'm a honeybee, I take care of me, I take care of me."
For Tati, her love potion was proving to herself that she could become an artist and discovering her spirituality—so in a slightly meta way, it was Luvpotion. In the performance piece, Tati hopes to rely heavily on audience participation—she wants the people who come out to define what their own love potion would be made of. In this case she's thinking of herself less as a performer than as a facilitator of what she describes as a "spiritual dialogue."
"Self-love is something that is unique to every person—and that it should be that way, so that it can be as easily accessible to you as possible," Tati says.
"This is queer art, this is brown art, this is black art," she says. "In every piece I loudly mention my queerness, my brownness, my spirituality." But as important as her identity is to her art, Tati doesn't want Luvpotion to be only about her struggles—she wants to help other people find their paths.
"One of the major themes is the accessibility of self-love. It's easier to love yourself when you see society valuing you and what you identify with," she says.
Last year Tati attended the MCA's 21Minus event—an annual museum takeover by artists under 21—and it was one of the places where she found the courage to become an artist. "I went last year and was so inspired, I had so many concepts that could work," she says. "I had to keep telling myself, I know that I can do this."
When the application window for the 2018 edition of 21Minus opened earlier this year, Tati pounced on the opportunity practically by instinct. After she was accepted, she says, the MCA's Grace Needleman and the museum's Teen Creative Agency played instrumental roles in the process of bringing Luvpotion to life.
When Tati performs Luvpotion at the MCA—she'll give three performances throughout the afternoon, at 1:15, 2:15, and 3:30—she wants more than anything for her audience to understand where she's coming from and get involved. "It's about reciprocity of energy," she says. "Self-love should be a practice, not a performance."