Tarik Tesfu: The Power Of Trusting Yourself

Talent Tarki Tesfu

Words Christian Ruess

Labels prevent you from reaching your full potential – journalist, podcaster, performer, and an iconic advocate for genderless fashion, Tarik Tesfu is as real as all-around talents get. In conversation with Container Love’s founder Christian Ruess, Tarik opened up about growing up black and queer in Germany, why he doesn’t like to be called an activist, and how his brand new album, Mutterland, has led him into a new era of self-consciousness.

To me, fashion is about mirroring what’s inside. The way I feel is the way I dress.”

I remember the first time we met was at a fun Christmas party last year. I was dancing around in your shoes, which are now mine! You are a generous fashionista after all. Tell me, how would you describe the role fashion plays in your life?

I like looking at clothes, at garments, I like touching them and I like wearing them. What I love about fashion is that, depending on your mood, you can make yourself the center of attention, or blend into the crowd, disappear completely. It’s only up to you.

To me, fashion is about mirroring what’s inside. The way I feel is the way I dress, and even though I’m aware that I’m still subject to conventions, I try to be as free as possible. This is why I love dressing other people too, it’s just liberating, and a lot of fun.

Looking back, how did your ways of expressing your personality develop and evolve over your life?

Honestly, fashion has always been such a huge topic in our family. Being black in Germany, my mother was always afraid that we’d experience some sort of discrimination. She wanted to protect us and to do so, she wanted us to blend in as much as possible. Yet it did not matter what we were wearing, we still looked like a bunch of bed sticks in the crowd, turning heads and receiving way more attention than one likes to have as a child.

At some point, I thought to myself: well, as a black person in this country I stand out anyway, so why not take it to another level, and yet with style? By the time we were living in Recklinghausen-Süd, I already turned myself into some kind of a fashionista.

Maybe you remember when the music videos of Run-DMC came out and made Adidas Superstars a big deal. Well, not in Recklinghausen, of course. But my grandpa was kind enough to drive me to Dortmund just to get a pair. Blue ones. No one else had these shoes at the time, and it seemed like no one else wanted them: I was literally laughed at at school for wearing mine. Fast forward, a year later, and everyone is sporting Superstars, only the boring black and white ones of course, but that was already old news to me. I have many stories like that.

I wore the things no one else wanted, and this is why I could always snatch up some great deals later in the sales: I knew that whatever I found cool would still be hanging in the store by the end of the season.

I can’t really identify with the word “activist”. I believe it’s never yourself, but always other people who give you this label.”

I still remember being the first person rocking Buffalos and having everybody laughing at me in the small town where I grew up. Rightly so, I must admit, but hey, I was 16. I even wanted to wear foxtails on my pants at some point.

And then you ask yourself, where did they steal that trend from?

Exactly! It’s strange that if you look at all the campaigns, and all the catwalks, you can get the feeling that the world is somehow colorful, loudly diverse, and open. But, and I’m gonna say it, it’s just not the case. Do you believe that fashion has the power to change society?

Yes, I believe that fashion does possess that power. It’s all about the patterns we see around us, you know? That’s what makes representation possible: seeing different body types, sizes, people of different skin colors, with and without disabilities on posters will have an effect on society as a whole. The fashion industry is one that is more willing to change, but that doesn’t mean that what’s being done there is enough. Everyone knows that.

External representation is good. It’s a start. But it’s about who are the designers being celebrated, who is writing the script for the next diversity campaign, who is behind the camera. And regarding these fields, there is a lot of catching up to do.

What’s your prediction of where will trends lead us, and what will diversity representation look like ten years from now?

Just look at some of the small fashion labels out there. They are working with very, very modest budgets yet still leading the way for many well-established brands. The problem is that in Germany, we don’t consider and appreciate fashion as the cultural asset that it is.

There are such great brands here in Berlin and all around the country: Germany is once again having a fashion moment, and simultaneously we see the Berlin Fashion Week desperately fighting for funding. Berlin is a fashion city and our designers are in the same league as the ones from Paris, London or New York. They would deserve all the support.

Not only are you featured in our first-ever printed magazine, The Visibility Issue, but you were the host to our panel talks held during the Visible Love exhibition celebrating 10 years of Container Love. What made you decide to take on the social and political role of an activist?

I can’t really identify with the word “activist”. I believe it’s never yourself, but always other people who give you this label. To me, working toward a good cause is only common sense anyway. If saying that anyone who believes that their people deserve to have the same rights as everyone else does, that black people should not expect to get punched in the face for no reason while walking down the street makes me an activist, then so be it.

Do you remember what was the turning point for you?

Going public was a conscious decision. And it started in 2015, when I published a series of videos  called Tariks Genderkrise (Tarik’s Gender Crisis). If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have gone with this format, because it immediately pushed me into a role I never wished for. At the time I wanted to overcome the stereotype of the feministic gay guy who is into fashion. At the university, I studied gender as well as media studies and I thought this could actually work. I got some funding and convinced myself that if I did a couple of episodes in this format, someone, somewhere up high would notice me.

And they did. I became this cool presenter who is not afraid of politics, and is versatile enough to cover an array of topics. So I landed more and more jobs, most of them coming with political undertones. Then George Floyd died and suddenly, everyone got really interested in black content creators. What a coincidence! That was the moment when I said, now hold on for a minute: are the only things people want to hear from us anecdotes about how we’ve been victims of racism? That’s disgusting. I’m not gonna play along with that. So I stood up, took a step back, and started covering what has always been my passion: fashion. And I’ve been approaching fashion from the aspect of gender. Why couldn’t I wear whatever I feel is right for me, why should I consider what others would find pretty?

In my book, it’s never about what you are wearing, but why you are wearing it. And then you realize, it’s political. It always has been.

Genderless fashion is about dissolving stereotypes, about getting rid of labels that hold us back. Just like our film, Love Has No Label, which explores what labels can do to us and how we can break out of them. What would it take to bring these stereotypes to an end?

I refuse labels, I refuse pronouns, I refuse anything that forces a person into a box of a stereotype. But I gave up on the idea of an optimal world. It’s a utopia. Our words express the realities we are living in, and although the distance between these realities can decrease, it’ll never get fully eradicated.

Labels can prevent you from reaching your full potential or having your talent recognized, and putting yourself out in the world. You deprive yourself of the things you’d love doing, only because you think going ahead would make you into something in other people’s eyes. Admit it or not, to a degree we all are influenced by the norms of society.

Think about it. For a long time, I was hesitant to pick up learning ballet, because I was afraid that it would make me exactly who they said I am. Just think about how many youngsters choose not to do something they might be extremely talented at. This should stop. We need to use our own resources and tell these kids that every idea about themselves that makes them feel like they are going against strangers’ expectations, is a good idea.

Labels can prevent you from reaching your full potential or having your talent recognized, and putting yourself out in the world.

You are a podcaster, a fashion icon, and lately also a musician. How did you get your start in music?

To be fair, I was already trying to do music way back in Recklinghausen. When I was 18 or 19, I was taking singing classes, but then, once again, refused to trust myself and my own ambition enough to give music the role in my life that it deserved.

A couple of years ago I reached a point, when I said to myself, this has been a dream of mine for too long, I better make a go for it, because who knows how much longer will I be around. We are speeding through life so fast. It’s pretty much, blink and you miss it. And why pop? Because I get bored easily and I thought this would just the right playground for me to be creative. It’s a good feeling, finally trusting myself enough to do what I always wanted to.

Your EP is called Mutterland (Motherland). Why did you choose this title?

This EP is political. For over two years, I wanted to write songs in German, and I’m not only talking about the lyrics: I wanted to create something that carries a special meaning in Germany. Of course, there is a political aspect to it, but most of all I wanted the EP to be pop and made together with people who are fun. And that’s exactly what Mutterland is. 

Of course, being the person who I am, I’m already thinking about what’s next, what are we gonna do now? The EP was in the works for one and a half years and that’s, for an inpatient person like myself, an eternity. With two new, unheard songs still in the pipeline, now it’s time to let this wonderful Baby that I’m so proud of out in the world. I’m trying really hard not to get carried away and just let myself exist in the moment, enjoy this present that we’ve been working so hard for.

I especially love the last song on the LP, a striped down, piano version of Mutterland, that I played live together with Hallelujah a little back before it was released. I’m very happy that we went with this one as a closure and I’m curious what Germania will have to say about my Mutterland.

You have an album release show coming up on the 26th. Is that true that you are set to unveil some never-heard songs that are not on your EP?

Well, it’s more of a question of opportunities and time management. For now, we’ll have the EP release show on the 26th together with the wonderful Brenda Blitz to focus on. Seems like the process of bringing out a single, and getting it on people’s playlist has its own, unspoken rules, but since the noise one needs cut through is so loud, I’m thinking of getting a little unconventional and just do it my way, anyway.

As a public figure, you embodies queer strength, while fighting societal dogmas. How would you describe your own safe space?

I usually find peace in the time when I’m alone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a social person, I love being around people, but I also have a great need to be alone time to time. Probably it’s because when I’m with others, I try to channel my all my energy toward them which is an amazing thing to do, but you can easily drain yourself. I know, I’ve been there too many times.

When I really need to switch off and recharge my batteries, there is no better combination than my bed, and a never-ending stream of movies and series. I love movies, to me, watching something is the ultimate creative way to relax and get inspired at the same time. There is always an inspiring look, a great idea for a future video, or a new story out there that’s worth your time.

Talent Tarik Tesfu, Photography Joanna Legid, Words Christian Ruess

Check out Tarik’s new EP Mutterland here.