"Get a room full of people," recites Tarriona "Tank" Ball, the 24-year-old lead vocalist of Tank and the Bangas, in an original poem. "Become completely naked while staying fully dressed." Ever since she quit her waitressing job at iHop by telling her manager she "wasn't emotionally there anymore," Ball has made a career as a poet and musician by doing just that.
Earlier this year, her band sent in an audition tape for NPR's Tiny Desk Contest, an annual competition for up-and-coming musicians. Within the first ten seconds of the video, Ball's personality is palpable. It is because of this quality and a trove of talent that Tank and the Bangas can call themselves this year's Tiny Desk winners. Since NPR posted their audition tape and announced their victory in February, the video has amassed over 10 million views on Facebook. In the last few months, the group has sold out a nationwide tour and jammed alongside Chance the Rapper and Norah Jones.
Ball has been in high demand and is quickly emerging as a role model for young artists and women of color; during the same month her band won Tiny Desk, she was asked to appear in StyleLikeU's What's Underneath Project, a video series that interviews guests about their journeys towards self-acceptance as they undress in front of the camera.
In her video, Ball recalls being proud of her blackness ever since she was little, offering examples of how she embraced this part of her identity, including using makeup as a way to "exaggerate her African traits." Part of her self-sufficiency is due to a tragic part of her past: In 2005, when Ball was just a pre-teen, she and her family were uprooted by Hurricane Katrina and forced to move to Indianapolis. This struggle allowed Ball to reinvent herself.
In the aftermath of Tank and the Bangas' newfound fame, Ball and her band members have had to adjust to being in the limelight and having their lives open for public consumption. Afterall, their audition tape was only a spur of the moment decision—not something they anticipated would change their lives. Ball tells Broadly that the band's manager, a close friend, had been pushing the group to audition for years now. This year, however, she finally got through to them. "I'm just so happy that she [pushed us to do this]," she says. On the last day of submissions, the band recorded the video in a friend's classroom at a New Orleans high school where Ball often teaches poetry.
The changes that followed success haven't only impacted Ball and her band mates—their fans seem to be hungry for whatever unnamable, magic quality the group exudes. In the wake of Tank and the Bangas's success at NPR, new fans have discovered that quality in Ball's earlier poems. One fan even considering tattooing a line written by the poet: "I'm like a star that hasn't paid my own light bill."
It would seem as if Ball's life has been altered drastically since her NPR win, but she doesn't exactly see it that way, describing her life as "the same, except for now the shows are sold out."
Amidst all this attention, the one thing she wants fans to understand is that the group is "truly a collective project," she says. "I couldn't do this without them." Ball met her bandmates—aka the Bangas: Merell Burkett, Joshua Johnson, Norman Spence, and Albert Allenback—at an open mic night in New Orleans six years ago. Though two members are from Alabama and Maryland, the group prides itself on its New Orleans origins. Their funk and soul beats make it obvious that they couldn't be from anywhere else, but the group brings a contagious, youthful energy to a familiar sound.
Ball's work is deeply rooted in both her community and literal livelihood; it's not about the acclaim. "If I wasn't doing this, I would die," she told StyleLikeU back in February. Simply looking at the group's packed tour schedule makes this clear: Tank and the Bangas have been on the road since April, with shows booked non-stop through November. For now, Ball says she's loving every minute of it, and says each night she's "surprise[d] that everyone is so lit."
Though taking a break doesn't seem likely anytime soon, when Ball does have downtime, she prefers to spend it hanging with her young nieces and nephews back home, or thrifting, a hobby she and her sister picked up after going through clothing donations for those affected by Katrina.
As she looks towards the future, Ball's goals are humble and personal. She hopes to focus on "just staying balanced, emotionally, physically, and trying to actually make sure we all glow." Her current joy extends beyond her own success. One of her favorite things about the past couple years has been "seeing the underground musicians come above ground," she says naming rapper Noname as an example.
The most rewarding and shocking thing to come out of all of this is meeting artists she's looked up to and finding that the admiration is mutual. "The most surprising part," Ball says, "is meeting people that have inspired you, to find that you actually inspired them as well."