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Shirazette Tinnin Beats the Odds

The drummer has overcome many career and life challenges through determination—and physical conditioning

Shirazette Tinnin
Shirazette Tinnin (photo: Bex Wade)

The word “resilience” well describes the life and career of Shirazette Tinnin. During the course of her 41 years, the drummer, whose latest album Sonic Wallpaper Volume 1: The Cards that Life Can Deal was released at the onset of the pandemic, has faced plenty of setbacks—physical, emotional, and economic—yet she has persevered. Perhaps some of her indomitable toughness can be traced to her background as an athlete. Born and raised in a small town called Pleasant Grove, near Burlington, North Carolina, Tinnin began playing basketball when she was nine, won a weightlifting competition in her teens, and eventually received a hoops scholarship to Appalachian State, where she majored in music performance and music industry.

Her affinity for drums and percussion began even earlier. Raised in a musical family—her mother marched trombone and was homecoming queen at North Carolina A&T, while her father was a gospel singer who performed with his brothers in a vocal group à la the Dixie Hummingbirds—she’d been banging on pots and pans since she was four, until she saw Sheila E. on TV. “The drums were glowing in the dark,” she recalls, laughing. “I told my parents, ‘I WANT THAT!’ I just loved rhythm, so by the time I was in middle school I was playing drums in the jazz band. My band director said I had to study clarinet for two weeks. I counted down the days until I could say, ‘Can I go to the back?’ I went to the back and never looked back.” Tinnin would eventually adopt the moniker “She-Beats” to describe both herself and her music.

At App State, as it’s known to locals, music won the battle over sports for Tinnin’s attention, though physical fitness would remain a passion as she sought a career as a professional musician. Through a university internship program, she made her first attempt at the requisite move to New York, connecting with drummer/DIVA Big Band leader Sherrie Maricle, going over scores with pianist/conductor Skitch Henderson, and assisting the engineers at Quad Recording. Sans income in the costliest city in the U.S., she got a job at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, while staying in an apartment without heat in Brooklyn. “I said to myself, ‘I can’t survive this,’” she recalls. “When I say I came from nothing, I mean I came from nothing.” The tipping point came when her car was towed and she had to make that tough call to her parents, who had a limited income themselves, to bring her back.

Tinnin relocated to Winston-Salem, where she established herself on the music scene, playing with noted locals such as trumpeter Joe Robinson and vocalist Melva Houston. Eventually, she was steered by a fellow musician to the graduate jazz program at Northern Illinois University, where she received a scholarship and ended up staying for nearly four years. It was there that she received her first big break, through Peruvian jazz bandleader Gabriel Alegria; hearing Tinnin’s rhythmic feel, he challenged her to learn the beats of his homeland. “I heard it and was like, ‘This is like Afro-Cuban, but it’s not,’” she explains. “It has a different pulse.” Alegria offered her a gig at a new club in NYC, but told her that she had to learn those rhythms on the cajón first and then transfer them to the drum set. “I didn’t touch my drum set for two to three months,” she says. “That’s how I came back to New York. With at least one gig.”

She had learned a lot since her first time in the Apple. For one, she had developed as a musician through her time in Winston-Salem and Chicago, where she had worked with Nicole Mitchell. She also knew the value of a day job. “I had always loved athletics,” she says, “so while I was in Illinois, I got my certification in personal training because I wanted to connect musicians with fitness. I wanted musicians to understand their bodies and take care of themselves.” She got a job at the New York Sports Club as a personal trainer; they fired her when she went on the road with Alegria.

As she worked to establish herself in NYC, her father was suffering from throat cancer and her mother was struggling financially, emotionally, and physically. At a time when she should have been on the upswing, thanks to a stint in The Meredith Vieira Show house band and regular gigs with Tia Fuller and Allan Harris, Tinnin was working various day jobs, driving back and forth to N.C. to help her mother, and providing financial support to her family. As if that weren’t enough, she was beset with sciatica so bad she could hardly walk. “Even breathing would hurt,” she says. “After back pain, I feel like I could take on anything.” Including her third album.

Tinnin started writing The Cards that Life Can Deal when her father was battling cancer in 2016 and finished after he died in 2017. While she was recording it, her mother was diagnosed with kidney disease, going on dialysis and eventually passing away in June 2019. In short, it was a lot to handle.

The trials in her life are reflected in the album, which is neither angry nor sad yet very emotional. Sampling distraught phone messages from her mother as touch points, Tinnin mixes jazz, hip-hop, and world music. The vocals are by Steffanie Christi’an, Shayna Small, and Charenée Wade, but the lyrics are all Tinnin, as she processes her own personal relationships and her family’s various challenges in songs like “Drowning” and “Past Tense.” “It’s hard to categorize me as one thing or another,” she explains. “The album is about my life.”

In the end, she managed to cope with the support of friends and mentors like Maricle, Alegria, Mitchell, Harris, Mimi Jones, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. “I had a lot of people in my corner,” she says. “As my mom would say, I have a lot of angels.”