Nick Canonica, Creative Director, Designer, and Photographer for Tierra Whack, opens up about their Grammy nomination, insights on artist-team compatibility, and the future of his career.
Nick Canonica was the friend we all had—the one with the camera strapped around their neck like a weighty chain, constantly snapping photos of the people and places that surround them. Both Philadelphia natives, the now 25-year-old Canonica met Tierra Whack backstage through a mutual friend. The two quickly hit it off and built a friendship. Since their serendipitous first encounter, Canonica has grown into the role of Tierra’s creative director, but he’s always found a way to channel his creative impulses outward. Photography was his introduction to the creative arts. While attending the University of Temple for Entrepreneurship, Nick took his passion for photography a step further by launching SAVETHEFACE—a social media platform and creative agency that encouraged users to explore the city and try new activities. Canonica also founded SAVEPHILLY—an Instagram page focused on showcasing Philadelphia creatives. It was quickly met with success and gave Nick the traction and artistry he needed to explore his full creative skillset. Tierra and her team, including Canonica, received a Grammy nomination for Best Music Video in 2018 for “Mumbo Jumbo.” In this interview for Yayainthecity, we’ll dive into the roots of Nick’s career, his creative director duties and the necessary groundwork for artist’s teams.
How did you and Tierra Whack meet and work together in the early stages of your career?
We met backstage at a show through a mutual friend and per usual, I had my camera with me. Immediately we clicked and exchanged numbers. We would hang out and take pictures and really developed a friendship. Eventually, things started getting serious and I had to decide between school and touring with her.
You posted an Instagram picture back in 2015 of Vince Staples performing with the caption, “Vince was cool. Tierra is going far.” Can you tell me about that post and what it means to look back 6 years later?
I believe that was the first show I shot for her. She was opening for Vince Staples in Philly. Truthfully, I struggled with a lot of photos that night due to poor lighting and still adjusting to shooting live shows. But she liked all of my other work that night and thankfully she didn’t give up on me. Looking back, I knew she was going far. I knew that the first time we met. She’s a very creative and intriguing person. She means everything to me so it means a lot to be part of this journey.
“Mumbo Jumbo” was Grammy nominated for best video in 2018. How does it feel to have that sort of recognition?
It meant a lot for the whole team. It’s crazy because that was the first music video she ever released. We dropped that right before Whack World. So, when we heard about the nomination, we thought it was for the album. We work every day and a lot of what we do will never see the light of day. Having the ability to pick and choose what feels right and it be recognized to that extent, it’s a great feeling.
“I’ve never felt the need to leave Philly. It’s a very underdog city. I’ve always wanted to do something special here. It has everything I need.”
What is your biggest success and toughest learning experience?
At Coachella, I missed an opportunity to get a photo of Kanye West. Things happen in a split second and you just have to be ready and assertive. Working every day and being part of Tierra’s team feels like my biggest success. I don’t take it for granted. The cover of Whack World is something I’m proud of as well.
Creative directing can be a broad title. What do you work on and what’s the process like?
I work on merch, cover art and photos mostly. But with Tierra, anything is on the table. She’ll give me random projects that make me stretch my creative boundaries like making a sock or a couch. It really varies. For merch, I try to create timeless pieces like “I was adopted by Tierra Whack” and the “Weird Hype And Creative Kids” that are still being sold today. Most recently, we released the ‘Whack Crewneck.” Right now, she’s working on a project so there’s a lot of creativity flowing. If we’re in the studio together, I’ll be designing and getting feedback. We DM and text pictures to each other of old magazines, books or album covers. We may like a specific color and use it for something completely different. I’m an artist at heart and as Tierra’s career grows, I get more opportunities to share my creative vision. I grew into this role naturally.
You recently worked on the collaboration between Tierra Whack x Adobe for a commercial. What are the biggest differences when working with a corporation opposed to a self-made team project?
When you work on a self-made team project, there’s more creative freedom and a voice for everyone involved. There’s also disadvantages that come with that. Corporations allow more resources and provide knowledgeable people about the project. Yet they usually have their own vision for things and that can box you in. Adobe was not like that at all. They were so great to work with and they gave us a lot of creative control.
TikTok released a 2020 report stating Hip-Hop/Rap claims over 50% of all music played on the app. Does the success associated with going viral factor into your creative process?
I don’t think it goes into the process of creating music itself. Fortunately, the music she makes is already suitable for apps like TikTok. I can see why other artists take advantage of the opportunity and make music that can go viral.
Who has taught you the most in the industry?
Both of Tierra’s managers, Johnny and Kenete. Kenete especially has been the biggest inspiration for me. He’s someone who’s really held the team together and that’s important when you go through ups and downs. I think he’s a genius. He engineers and produces as well. He teaches all of us a lot.
Tierra went viral for a freestyle video when she was 15 years old. I noticed that she was versatile with her pitch/tone in that video, something she still does to this day, nearly 10 years later. It’s rare for an artist to find that niche so early on in their career. Can you tell me about the progressions you’ve seen in her art?
The biggest progression I’ve seen was her go from Dizzle Dizz to Tierra Whack, which is her legal name. I believe she had that conversation with Kenete. He encouraged her to just be yourself and embrace it. Her brand identity became a lot more organic and that’s what the world likes and needs. She’s always been herself, but this allowed her to really grow as an artist. She can make so many different sounds with her voice and create music in different genres. That was a big challenge with Whack World. It’s 15 songs and all different genres.
As her photographer, some of your best work is candid. What makes those shots special opposed to photoshoots?
Organized photoshoots have a lot to account for. There’s a schedule and you have hair, makeup, design etc. Candid shots are more meaningful because you’re capturing a moment. You don’t know what you’re going for and it’s an amazing feeling to be part of it. From shots with Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Demarco to Gunna and Billie Eilish, you never know what the moment will bring.
Has quarantine negatively impacted your work and have you found ways to rejuvenate it?
It really stunted my creativity and made me depressed early on. I didn’t feel inspired and I wasn’t waking up when I normally did. I started meditating and taking care of my mental health. I had to double my energy to help myself. We go through phases but now I feel like I’m taking advantage of this time. Being in the studio every day and surrounding myself with a creative team. I had to force myself to just do things and stop overthinking. Eventually the creativity followed.
A Grammy nomination along with highly rated reviews for her sole album, Whack World, made Tierra highly respected within the industry. What will it take to make Tierra Whack a household name for years to come?
She needs to continue being herself and remember, she’s not just a rapper. She’s a great rapper but moreso, she’s an artist who can do whatever she sets her mind to. She’s working on a project right now, so TV and film, all these opportunities that are becoming available are on standby for now. But in the future, those are things that can play a major role in growing her notoriety. It starts with the music though. She doesn’t make music for an audience. We emphasize community, we want everyone to listen.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m really into writing, producing, and directing. I plan on working with other artists in the future and carrying over my creative ability through music videos and photoshoots. My job with Tierra is full time though, so branching out is something I’ll work towards. Bringing back SAVETHEFACE and really putting on for Philly is up there for me when the time is right. I want to give creatives the space and resources to work.
What advice can you give to aspiring creatives?
I want people to know you don’t have to go to art school and get a degree or have the most expensive equipment to be successful. You don’t need to work with A-list celebrities to make a name for yourself. Surround yourself with friends who believe in you and want to grow with you. With the resources and technology available, anyone can be an artist. So many people give up on a project and start another. Build a vision for what you want and stick to it. There were a lot of times when I was working and not getting paid, none of us were. We all knew where we wanted to be. Now we’re here and it’s special.
You can follow Nick Canonica at @savenick on Instagram and Twitter.
Written by Josh Moreno
Edited by Ben Prasifka