Red-tipped hair swept to the side, Shana Tucker bites her lower lip before looking back at the camera.
“I learned today that someone that I grew up with is fighting for her life as a result of COVID-19,” she says through tears. “That's the first time that it sat me down and took my breath away.”
Over a few days, Tucker kept a video diary of her experience as an artist during the coronavirus pandemic to share with WUNC. Fear over finances, gentle frustrations of sharing an apartment with her 72-year-old mother and 15-year-old TikToking nephew, and personal news — she documents it all. At times, Tucker is her own cheerleader with positive self-talk, at other times, she lets herself fall apart, a little bit, just for a moment.
She is vulnerable when sharing the news of her sick friend in one digital diary. “We are the same exact age, we grew up together,” she says. “My God it's a totally different story when it's somebody that you know.”
In another entry, Tucker breaks to shout into the other room: “Nasir, I need you to keep your voice down please. Teenagers,” she grunts to the camera.
Tucker spent most of February on the road for her first West Coast tour. She’s a cellist, singer-songwriter and teaching artist who performs a unique style she calls “ChamberSoul,” a blend of jazz, pop, with elements of R&B. She lives in a third-floor apartment in Raleigh and financially supports her nephew Nasir and her son Sebastian, a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Spring 2020 was supposed to be a “very full touring schedule,” says Tucker. “Probably the best spring since I moved back to North Carolina, from Las Vegas when I was working at Cirque du Soleil.”
But it’s been far from it. Tucker’s concerts have been cancelled or rescheduled through mid-June. The word “postponement” is being kicked around as a “graceful alternative” to cancellation, she explains. “No one wants to tell audiences that the show isn't happening. Presenters don't want to tell artists that they can't present them. Agents don't want to return deposits.”
Make ends meet
Along with so many other performing artists in North Carolina, the cellist is deeply concerned about what her bank account will look like in the coming months. Tucker says she’s lost thousands of dollars over March and April. Much of her gross income is generally channeled back into operating costs, travel costs, and payments to collaborating musicians. She says she’s lucky to still work part-time at Electric Violin Shop in Durham. Her May financial situation “will be interesting,” but June is “the thing that keeps [her] up at night.”
More than 672,000 North Carolinians applied for unemployment benefits with the state between March 15 and April 19, according to figures provided by the state’s Division of Employment Security. Artists, who commonly have part-time jobs in the service industry, have been particularly hard hit. Americans for the Arts, an arts advancement nonprofit, estimates the state has lost over $15.5 million in arts-related income, based on the self-reporting of 826 arts organizations.
Tucker spent five days applying for unemployment through the North Carolina Department of Commerce. The website would spit out an error message, then issue an “under construction” alert, then prompt her to call the unemployment hotline where a recorded message recommended she visit the department website, before automatically disconnecting.
“I swear. I think that there is a part of this process that is designed for people to give up,” says Tucker.
The state unemployment website has experienced numerous tech issues in recent weeks, according to media reports. Department officials say they have taken measures to address the problem. Tucker also applied for a Small Business Administration loan, a process she calls “weird” because she received no confirmation the application went through. She’s doing just about everything in her power to avoid the last resort, a call to her father or step-father asking for help.
“I just don’t want to have to go there,” she says.
Keep the art flowing
Amid the efforts to ensure an income over the next few months, Tucker feels it's critical to keep producing art. Not just for the good of her audience, but also to stay relevant in these uncertain times.
“I'm here [trying] to work a full-time job that has absolutely no income so that whenever things go back to a new normal I will have the level of relevance and visibility where I'm going to get a first call,” she says.
And so nearly every day, Tucker is trying something new. Delivering a public live-stream concert on Facebook, guest-lecturing in a digital conference, talking about her experience on Instagram and Facebook. But she mourns connecting in-person through her art.
“When [the] audience comes in, the music shifts and it becomes something different. It becomes communal.”
Instead of a live audience, the performer has her mother and her nephew on the other side of the wall. She also has a downstairs neighbor, a drummer, whose own art bleeds upward through the floorboards. During a recent midnight drum session, she said he was playing so hard it sounded like he was processing some intense emotions.
Cracks of light
For Tucker, performance and cash flow aren’t the only issues. Mental health and connection to her artist community are vital for the cellist. In her videos diaries, she pivots from frustration to forgiveness.
“It's okay to admit that you're afraid,” she says as though coaching herself and her fellow artists. “It's okay to be angry about the way that you thought things were going, and how well they were going, and now nothing is going, you know? It's okay to think about doing your craft differently, it doesn't mean that you're giving up.” She brushes away a tear as her own advice sinks in.
Like so many other artists, Tucker is forging ahead, and creating a different kind of art for a different kind of audience. She doesn’t know yet whether her small business loan went through, or whether she’ll be receiving unemployment support anytime soon, but she did get word about some even more critical news.
“Her fever broke,” she says of her friend who was diagnosed with COVID-19.
As Tucker puts it, there is still a “lot of light” breaking through in these dark times.