When I saw Tank and the Bangas headline at the Apollo Theater, I saw a woman like myself—Black, voluptuous, creative—commanding center stage with her nine-piece band. Her bun stood half-a-foot tall and glittered with pearls. Her fuzzy, green cape cascaded around her shoulders. When she got serious, she hung her floral scarf on her microphone. A large, green balloon floated beside her head like a bright idea.
“Sometimes,” she said, “a Black woman needs to save herself.”
Like many Black Americans, I grew up watching Showtime at the Apollo. The historic venue boasts a litany of performers; if you wanted to make it in Hollywood, you’d have to go through the Apollo first. Their infamous Amateur Night featured entertainment hopefuls, whose rub of the Tree of Hope, a stump preserved on a pedestal stage right and spotlighted, could be the key to success. The night of the show, I watched one of Tank’s bandmates touch the stump for good luck.
Tarriona “Tank” Ball is a monument of a woman. She began her career as a spoken word poet and masterfully blends genres—using funk, soul, rap, rock and jazz to brew a sonic gumbo. Her memorable lyrics are meditations on life, love and pleasure: “I need more space than thoughts can give me / More sky than God provides me,” she explains; “I’ve suddenly become arithmetic / Too much magic and math to watch for too long,” she laments.
Tank’s dynamic storytelling is amplified by her gifted band, who she met at an open mic in 2011. The group’s funky melodies and rich vibrations ground us in the musical traditions of New Orleans. Their latest album, Green Balloon, is a soundtrack to growing up, a musical memoir of a child-turned-adult who never stopped dreaming and believing in herself.
The Bangas—drummer Joshua Johnson, Norman Spence on synth keys, Jonathan Johnson on bass, Merell Burkett on keyboard, Albert Allenback on saxophone and flute, Etienne Stoufflet on tenor saxophone and DJ RQ Away—are the chorus of comrades Tank’s enlisted to help tell her story. The group’s fraternity is delicious, bearing strange, sweet fruit. On stage, they talked about taking a tour bus, all crammed together for hours on the road. Most wore bright colors and busy prints, with Albert wearing a multicolored short-suit and Jonathan wearing a glow-in-the dark mask covering his nose and mouth. Their stage presence enveloped the entire theater.
At the show, Tank invited us to visualize with her on “Spaceships.” As she sang of money falling from the sky, green balloons fell from the balcony and bounced around the audience gleefully. For 90 minutes, we saw a woman in full control of her splendor, bringing us along a journey to knowing herself better and loving herself. Tank’s childlike voice and facial expressions were dramatic and playful. She knew how to use them to activate our imaginations, transporting us back to Saturday morning cartoons and cereal for breakfast.
Tank does more than just say a Black woman can save herself. She reminds us how. She takes charge of her own fate, is vulnerable in her art and humbled by her blessings. Seeing “Green Balloon” live reminded me to not forget the child in me that stayed up late to watch The Apollo.
During the set, Tank warned her younger self, and the audience not to “grow up too fast.” Without missing a beat, she responded, in an innocent voice: “I won’t.”