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SZA
Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for BET

SZA

Biography
(1990–)
  • Publish date:
American singer and songwriter SZA's music blends R&B, rock and soul; her first album, 'Ctrl' (2017), was certified platinum.

Who Is SZA?

SZA is often called an R&B singer, though her music also encompasses elements of rap, rock and soul. Her first studio album, Ctrl, launched at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. As a songwriter, she draws upon her own insecurities and concerns. Having felt ostracized in her youth, SZA is very welcoming to her fans. Her artistic collaborators include labelmate Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, Doja Cat and Justin Timberlake.

Early Life, Education and Real Name

SZA was born as Solána Imani Rowe in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 8, 1990. The name SZA, pronounced "sizzah," is an acronym of words from the Supreme Alphabet. The Supreme Alphabet is part of a philosophical system established by a former member of the Nation of Islam.

SZA grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey. She has said her family was "one of the only Black families in our five-block radius." Her father worked at CNN as a producer, while her mother had an executive role at AT&T. Her father was Muslim, and SZA attended an Islamic prep school, though she later stepped away from that faith.

SZA has described a lonely childhood. "I didn't have any siblings that lived with me, all my siblings are 10 years apart, and when you don't have any friends or playmates there's a lot of room to get weird." She was a gymnast and a dancer, but she was also an outsider who was bullied in school.

Growing up, SZA listened to all kinds of music, from jazz to indie rock to boy bands. Yet she didn't expect to pursue a career in the music industry. She went to Delaware State University to study marine biology. She transferred schools once, then dropped out.

Breaking Into the Music Industry

SZA had a rapper brother who had her sing hooks for his mixtapes. This led to SZA creating her own music while working jobs such as salesperson at Sephora and strip club bartender. SZA used SoundCloud to share songs like "Aftermath," which attracted fans. Her debut EP, See.SZA.Run, came out in 2012.

In 2011, SZA encountered Terrence "Punch" Henderson, the head of Top Dawg Entertainment. After hearing some of her music, Punch was impressed enough to continue listening to SZA's work. In 2013, SZA released another EP, S. That same year she signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, making her the first female artist to join the label. She released the EP Z in 2014.

First Album: 'Crtl'

SZA's debut album, Ctrl, was subject to numerous delays before it came out in June 2017. SZA had wanted to include her song "Consideration," but after Rihanna heard the tune, the superstar added it to her own album, Anti. SZA still produced and was featured on the song. The album-making process also forced SZA to deal with other issues. As she explained after the album's release, "I have some anxiety. It’s hard for me to complete things because I feel like people will hate it."

When Ctrl finally arrived, it was greeted with acclaim. SZA's mix of R&B, rock and soul, accompanied by her mother speaking, unveiled vulnerabilities that connected with twenty-somethings, particularly younger Black women. Issa Rae was so drawn to the record that she used multiple Ctrl tracks on the second season of her TV series Insecure.

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One popular song from Ctrl, "Drew Barrymore," had a cameo from Barrymore herself in its video. On another tune, "Doves in the Wind," SZA sang with Kendrick Lamar. The singles "Love Galore" and "The Weekend" went platinum. The album resulted in five Grammy nominations for SZA, which made her the most nominated female artist that year.

Yet at the Grammy Awards in 2018, SZA didn't win a single statuette. The experience was initially upsetting, but ultimately one she took in stride. SZA told Cosmopolitan in 2021, "I'm just a girl from the 'burbs. I never had dreams of being nominated for a Grammy." The losses also didn't keep Ctrl from remaining on the Billboard 200 for more than 200 weeks.

SZA's Next Phase

While on tour in 2018, SZA needed a break to tend to her vocal cords. After Ctrl, SZA also had to cope with the 2018 death of her friend Mac Miller and the passing of her grandmother in 2019. She found comfort in Pilates, meditation and sound bowls; she has even performed using the latter.

As with her debut album, SZA's next album has encountered delays as she continues to be wary of sharing her music with the world. She admitted in a 2020 interview, "I just don't know what represents me at this time.... It's just a matter of what picture I want to paint. What world do I want to build? That's what makes it scary."

Yet the wait for a second studio album hasn't kept SZA from exercising her talent. She collaborated with Lamar on "All the Stars" for the soundtrack to Marvel's Black Panther (2018), and with Justin Timberlake on "The Other Side" from the Trolls World Tour (2020) soundtrack. In 2020, SZA's successful singles "Hit Different" and "Good Days" came out. "Good Days" reached No. 9 on Billboard's Hot 100.

In 2021, SZA joined Doja Cat on "Kiss Me More" and released another new song, "Shirt." SZA teamed up with Grey Goose Essences to stream a virtual concert, In Bloom, on July 1, 2021. The spectacle used a drone to capture footage and had 14.1 million live viewers on YouTube.

Environmental Activism

In February 2021, SZA coordinated with American Forests and TAZO to form the TAZO Tree Corps. The group will employ individuals to plant trees. Their efforts are intended to combat the type of environmental racism that affects many Black and Brown neighborhoods, which often have few trees and high rates of air pollution.

"I feel like clean air and having trees shouldn’t even be a conversation," SZA told Billboard. "It's kind of dumb that's it even a privilege, or something great that you can add to a community. How is it that we all don't have the equal experience?"

SZA has also worked with the group Lonely Whale to protect the ocean and has advocated against food deserts.

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