August 26, 2020 

Former WNBA teammates Essence Carson and Tina Charles spotlight Carson’s music career

Music has been “the soundtrack” of Carson’s life forever, including in the WNBA bubble

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Essence Carson was in her element when she sat down with Tina Charles (not pictured) earlier this year in a Los Angeles recording studio to discuss her music career. Screenshot from YouTube.

“This one’s called ‘Floss,’” Essence Carson told Tina Charles.

The former New York Liberty teammates met up on the West Coast in early 2020 to discuss Carson’s music career and lifelong passion for music. Their conversation was the second in a three-part video series that Charles and her company Thirty-One Enterprises co-produced with The Boardroom, a media company created by NBA star Kevin Durant.

“When I started crafting the list of who to feature for the series, Essence was on top,” Charles said in a behind-the-scenes video posted to Instagram. “… I don’t think too many people know this, inside or outside of our league, just all she’s accomplished as a musical artist and producer. So I was looking forward to the trip to LA just to provide her with the platform to celebrate her accomplishments off the court.”

Filmed in a Los Angeles recording studio, the full interview between Carson and Charles was released on August 5. Carson bookended it by playing her song “Floss” for Charles. “Look at the floss. I feel like a boss…” she rapped.

Carson’s love of music began at a young age, and those memories for Carson are inextricably linked to family. Growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, Carson’s Christmases were filled with the sounds of a record player, from the moment her family woke up until they went to bed. Her grandmother taught her piano despite knowing only three songs herself and playing on a rundown piano. Her father introduced her to hip-hop music, which she loved because “it made me feel like it was about where I was living … it sounded like the inner city.” And to this day, Carson told Charles, Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” a song Carson often listened to with her grandfather, is one of her favorites.

Music “became the soundtrack of my life” growing up, Carson said. “Everywhere I would go, music would just follow me. And when I would hear music, it would make me feel like how I would feel when I would play basketball.”

Carson learned to play piano, drums, bass guitar, and saxophone, and her love for sports and music made her a self-described “cool nerd” growing up. She balanced her dual passions throughout high school and college, even constructing a makeshift studio in her dorm room at Rutgers. She credits the people around her when she was young for making her comfortable in her own skin and encouraging her to pursue her passions.

In 2008, Carson was drafted by the New York Liberty with the No. 7 overall pick. She played there for eight seasons—the last two with Charles as a teammate—and averaged 7.7 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in over 200 games. In 2016, Carson joined the Los Angeles Sparks and won a WNBA championship, playing over 25 minutes per game in the playoffs.

After three seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks, Carson played for the Phoenix Mercury for the 2019 season. Here she shoots as Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas tries to contest during a game on July 12, 2019. Photo credit: Chris Poss

Carson often played overseas in the winters, and the schedule of practices, games, and not much else gave her ample time to write and record songs. (She handled production once she got back to the United States.) Injuries in 2013 and 2017 also gave Carson some unexpected downtime, which she devoted to her music career.

In November 2013—five months after a torn ACL cost her most of the WNBA season—Carson released her first album, Broken Diary, under the name Pr3pe (pronounced “preppy”). “I would like to welcome you to my broken diary. All my thoughts, feelings, my experiences,” began the first track, “Dear Diary.” Though written several years ago, the lyrics evoke today’s climate around social justice, particularly when Carson describes the experience of knowing that others don’t understand all that she’s been through—and sometimes don’t even ask:

“How I’m feeling, you ain’t asked yet. You just see that I’m ballin’, ain’t talkin’ baskets, but fail to realize that all of my people are in caskets. … Don’t tell me you know everything that my family lackin’, cause as far as I’m concerned, you actin’ and never will understand the basis behind their trappin. … Before you askin’, just go ahead and read this diary.”

In all, Broken Diary is comprised of 15 tracks that span nearly 50 minutes and cover topics ranging from “Independent Women” to “Suicide” to “Hope and Dreams.” Carson followed that up with the 13-track album No Subz, which she self-produced and released in 2016.

Carson has continued to discuss social justice in her music, which complements her efforts on social media and in interviews to use her basketball platform to push for change. This summer, she released a track called “Conversations Pt. 1,” which she described as the conversations she had been having with herself around the time that George Floyd was killed by police.

The track mentions voting, taking a knee, police sirens, gun violence, and Eric Garner’s final words when he was killed by police: “I can’t breathe.” Carson told the media last month that the inspiration came to her in the middle of the night, when she got “a little snippet” of music from her production partner in New York.

“Once I heard it, it just inspired me. So what I did is I went and I laid some keys on top of it and layered some other instruments on top of that,” Carson said. “And once I finished, I was like, Man, I really still have that feeling. So when I still have that feeling of inspiration, that means that it’s time to write something. It was about one o’clock in the morning, and I just wrote the conversations that I was having in my head.”

Carson wrote an essay in The Players’ Tribune earlier this year that described in more detail what she feels when she makes music. “I journal through music. I’m not just talking about writing lyrics either,” she wrote. “Journaling is a form of art. It’s an expression. It’s a reflection of your innermost emotions and what you see in the world. … When I sit at the keys and just play, a lot of times my emotions reach the music — a kind of quiet exchange happens between my fingertips and the keys that feels closer to my idea of journaling than anything I could produce with just my words.”

In 2017, the Women’s National Basketball Players’ Association helped Carson land an internship with Capitol Records, a record label whose roster of artists includes The Beatles, Katy Perry, Erykah Badu, Ne-Yo, and Paul McCartney. Carson told Charles that the internship gave her experience in production, project management, finance, and marketing—a breadth that she said is rare in the industry.

“I just keep getting blessed with these opportunities to do things that may not have been done before and just taking them head-on,” Carson said. “Of course there’s uncertainty when those opportunities present themselves. Of course. But it’s just like, go for it. … You hit some speed bumps and might have some setbacks, but … looking at the long game, it’s like, in that fourth quarter, I know that I’m going to arrive and the game’s going to be on the line and that I’m going to be on the winning team.”

Carson parlayed her internship into a permanent role with Capitol Records and has been working for the company from home since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. That includes working from the WNBA bubble this season, where she has a full studio set up in her room.

Balancing two jobs in basketball and music might seem like a tall task, but Carson told the media last month that it’s “the only life I know. I started music when I was nine [and] started playing for a basketball team when I was 11.” The trade-off she gladly makes is that she does not watch much TV or go out often. “All my time is used and dedicated towards the things that I do love,” she said, “and that’s basketball and music.”

Carson’s coaches and teammates support her dedication to both of her passions. Before joining her current team, the Connecticut Sun, on August 17, Carson played the first half of the 2020 season with the Washington Mystics. Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, who played the drums and trombone growing up and hoped to become a rock ‘n’ roll musician before he went into coaching, particularly enjoyed talking about music with Carson.

“When you’re talented like [Carson] and you’re immersed in it, it’s almost like you’d have two careers, and [music] will be something that she can have [for] a lifetime … when she’s done playing basketball,” Thibault said recently. “… I always admire the players that have something else in their life besides the game that they can use either as a hobby or as a future career.”

Alaina Coates, Carson’s former Mystics teammate, said she didn’t know before this season that Carson was so musically inclined.

“Essence, she’s so cool,” Coates gushed. “She’s a very creative soul. … She cleansed my aura the other day. She’s just really dope and she’s really down to earth, and … I’m so glad I had this opportunity and I was able to meet her.”

In the long term, Carson has several goals for her music career. She told the Los Angeles Times in 2018 that she had her sights set on a Grammy Award, calling it “kind of like winning a championship.” And in the interview with Charles earlier this year, Carson revealed that she eventually wants to become a music executive and run a company.

“My endgame is to be successful and to … be on a platform where I can deliver my message through music, whether it’s behind the board, where you don’t even hear my voice, or whether it is in the forefront on the microphone,” Carson said. “I want the world to hear my message and be able to connect with [it]. Because music is a universal language just like basketball is.”

Shortly after the interview was released, Carson reflected on her experience participating in Charles’ video series. “Filming that was cool,” she said. “… I love supporting friends that are doing big things. Tina started her own production company; that’s amazing, and then her wanting to shed light on us, it’s just amazing. … We were helping each other. And again, [I] love Tina. An awesome player, but an even better person.”

Tina Charles (right) watches appreciatively as her friend and former teammate Essence Carson performs. Screenshot from YouTube.

At the end of the nearly 20-minute interview, Carson is shown again performing “Floss,” and Charles bobs her head along with the music, clearly enjoying seeing her teammate so in her element.

“You ain’t never seen another girl like me,” Carson raps.

That’s true—her path has been unique. But hopefully it will inspire a whole new generation of “cool nerds” to chase their dreams both on the court and in the studio.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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