Shaking yourself free of Asian stereotypes is a burden that most second-generation immigrants have had to deal with. Indeed, for British Pakistani musician Iqbal, perhaps the only one that rings true is having parents who worry about their children getting what she laughingly describes as a “proper job”.
The eldest of six siblings, Iqbal grew up in Regent’s Park, London. It was later, while working in human rights law, having passed her bar exams, that she developed various musical projects. Of these the most significant was her work under the moniker Throwing Shade (slang for a subtle insult), through which she established herself as a DJ and presenter on radio station NTS, where, 100 shows after her debut, she is noted for her selection of global sounds.
“I don’t think my parents were OK with me making the transition from law to music to begin with,” she says, sipping a hot chocolate to fend off the cold, “but they slowly came around to it. I played at Tate Modern last year with Wolfgang Tillmans, and I think for my mum that was affirmation that ‘OK, she’s doing something people are into’.”
The worry of “people being into it” must, at this point, be a dwindling concern for the woman who has a black belt in karate and a degree in ethnomusicology and history from the Soas University of London. The week before our interview, Iqbal played her first headline show, a sold-out performance at east London’s Archspace, where her set of tender dreampop included a magical cover of the Cure’s A Forest.
Iqbal is a warm presence on stage. Dressed in a tailored tartan suit and zebra print brogues, her bouffant hair tucked beneath a black beret, she wields her guitar with a subtle power. “Someone came up to me at the end of a show saying it was really good to see me,” she says with a smile, “because it was the first time they’d seen a brown female on the stage playing guitar music.”
This is a hot topic for Iqbal. While her handful of EPs as Throwing Shade were electronically driven and suited to nightclubs, last year’s debut album, Weighing of the Heart – released under her real name – boasted far more live instrumentation.
“Your first album is a culmination of the whole life’s experience that’s gone before so you can really indulge it,” she says. It is heavily influenced by the music of her teenage years – everything from Michael Jackson to Britpop to the ska-punkbands she would go to see perform in north London’s Camden “every weekend”. Meanwhile, on the synth-laden tracks, such as the sparse but emotional Slowly and the swirling Saw U Twice, Iqbal invites comparisons with the likes of New Order and Pet Shop Boys.
Her decision to drop the Throwing Shade moniker was, she has said, because she wanted to embrace her British Asian heritage. This led to one particularly jarring review (since taken down) on music site XLR8R, which commented on how “white” her album sounded, prompting Iqbal to take issue on social media with its presumptive and patronising racial bias and to write a piece for Dazedmagazine headlined: “My name is Nabihah Iqbal, and I make guitar music”. “Why do I come under fire for having passions and inspirations that aren’t overtly linked to people’s stereotypical views of ‘being Asian’?” she asked.
Standing up to injustice is important to Iqbal. When she returned from a recording session with Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project in South Africa earlier this year, she joined the Cape Town-raised artist Petite Noir in criticising what they regarded as unfair contracts. The pair were concerned that the agreement asked the acts involved to sign off the rights to the music created in exchange for a £1 fee.
But doesn’t she find it risky, talking back to publications and established artists?
“People always ask me questions like, ‘What does it feel like to be a female producer or a female DJ?’” she says. “And, yeah, there are obstacles. But the fact that I’m doing it proves something, right? At the same time, what’s the point of being me – what’s the point of being an Asian female British artist doing what I’m doing, occupying this space [if I’m] staying quiet when I see stuff like that happening? I could have easily ignored [the review], but I feel that if our generation doesn’t start speaking up about these things, when is it actually going to change?”
While event promoters have become more open to booking women, Iqbal believes that ethnic minority women are still often sidelined into niche spaces – be it “urban” music stages, Bollywood-themed nights, or a spot as the solitary woman of colour in a line-up. Iqbal, then, is a trailblazer, one of only a handful of women of colour in the history of British guitar music (X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, the Selecter’s Pauline Black and Skunk Anansie’s Skin are others who spring to mind). Performing under her real name and making music that has no clear link with her heritage shouldn’t feel radical, but it is.
None of this is to say she has no interest in south Asian music. While studying ethnomusicology, Iqbal learned how to play the sitar, which has informed how she thinks about music in general. “In western culture we listen to music as purely entertainment,” she says, “but as soon as you look at what music means to people in cultures and communities across the world you realise it takes on a much more malleable, significant role – whether it’s a Native American healing song or devotional Sufi music.
“The sitar is so intricate and profound: it makes you think about music in a different way… The way that it filters through in my work was that with this record I wanted to make music that would evoke an emotional response in the listener – whatever that is. You can’t really define that or demand what it should be, but I just didn’t want it to be background music.”
Background music it is not. On stage at her recent east London show, Iqbal recalled receiving a number of messages from fans who reacted to her album by crying. “In a cathartic way… hopefully,” she laughs. “Not like, ‘Oh my God, I’m completely depressed.’ It just feels really surreal and overwhelming to think that music I made is having that effect on people. It’s cool.”
It’s not just the music that resonates: Iqbal places great emphasis on the importance of words, choosing two poets as her support acts at Archspace, her brother Haseeb Iqbal and Sana A Rashid. “I asked them to write a new work specifically based on the same kind of inspirations that I was looking at for my music,” she says. “I sent both of them excerpts from books or poetry I was reading while I was writing the album.”
The themes the two poets consider – notably the fleeting nature of life and love – can be heard throughout Weighing of the Heart. In Saw U Twice, Iqbal ruminates on a classic romantic conceit (“Saw you on the train/ Will I see you again?”), while standout track Zone 1 to 6000 is a striking exploration of people young and old adapting to the numbing life of the capital. The album sounds like an ode to Iqbal’s home town, and that track in particular – with its spoken-word refrain of “it’s always work and never love” – was inspired by William Blake’s poem London. Allusions to history crop up elsewhere, too – in fact, the title, Weighing of the Heart, refers to the ceremony ancient Egyptians believed took place immediately after death.
But Iqbal’s interest in older cultures doesn’t mean she’s not forward-thinking. “Our parents’ generation sometimes say that we should be grateful to be here – but there’s a difference, I think, between being grateful for what you have, but also standing up for yourself. I am so happy to be from here, so happy to be able to focus on what I love the most – but at the same time, I’m not going to go along with injustices that really stand out to me. It’s just not who I am.”
Source Link: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/mar/31/nabihah-iqbal-interview-album-weighing-of-heart