Photo: Nabihah Iqbal

“If you truly love music, you can’t be narrow-minded”

Interview with Nabihah Iqbal

You were recently robbed and lost two years of recordings, then you were stranded in Karachi due to the pandemic and then finally got back to the UK only to end up under lockdown. How has this series of disasters impacted upon you and your work? Is it going to be hard to come back from that?

The last few months have been some of the toughest times of my life so far. Losing all my work and my new album has been really difficult to deal with. Then all of that stress got eclipsed by the fact that my grandad fell really ill in Pakistan so I had to rush out to see him. Luckily he’s made a full recovery. Now that I’m back in London, I just want to try and fully focus on getting back into making music. I have to start my album again from scratch, which feels quite daunting, but I’m also looking forward to it now that I’m over the shock of the burglary. Plus, with lockdown and all my gigs being cancelled I’m in London indefinitely at the moment and so can devote myself to the studio. I’m just trying to stay positive and hoping that the next few months will be productive for me. 

Your music has a diverse range of influences. We love it. What is it that speaks to you about any particular artist, song or genre?

I love all different types of music. I feel that if you truly love music, you can’t be narrow-minded about it. There is so much to listen to and learn from, from different cultures all across the world. So it’s hard for me to pick out one specific genre. I think the most important thing that music offers us is spirituality. It’s the deepest and most ancient art form. Music gives us feelings and experiences that we can’t get from anything else. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, about the essence of music and how some musicians are able to tap right into it. The whole process of making music is a journey, and a quest to find this answer. Not everyone gets to it, but we all have to try. 

Photo: Nabihah Iqbal

What have your experiences been like as a woman in the music industry? Has it been a particular challenge?

In any industry where you don’t fit with the status quo, there are going to be particular challenges you face because of your gender or your appearance. There have definitely been times where I’ve felt this, but I try not to dwell on the negativities too much. It’s important to focus your energy into doing your own work and being the best you can. No one can take that away from you. Now we’re in the internet age, everyone’s music is accessible to everyone. If people are genuine fans of what you do they will support you without thinking about what you look like or whether you’re female.

You’ve studied music at university. How was that experience? How does the knowledge you’ve accumulated through your studies feed into your creativity?

I studied Ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in theUniversity of London as an undergraduate and it was an amazing experience. It was the first time I’d really got the opportunity to immerse myself in different music cultures from around the world and be able to learn about them. It changed my whole outlook and the way that I think about music. It’s hard to say exactly how my knowledge feeds into my creativity, because when I’m making music, I’m not thinking about these things overtly. It’s more about having a solid appreciation for music, realising the depth of this artform and striving to give my own work that depth and meaning. 

You also produce a fortnightly podcast. Can you describe the process of coming up with a theme and guests for each podcast?

I’ve been presenting a fortnightly show on NTS Radio for over seven years now and it’s one of my favourite activities. Some shows have themes and guests and some shows are just made up of different music that I might be into at the time. It just depends on what I’m listening to and what music I’m thinking about. One of my most popular shows to date was on ‘Muslim Jazz’ where I explored music by African-American Jazz musicians who converted to Islam at some point during their careers. I also put together shows on country themes. When I travel to a new place, I like to buy some local records and make field recordings and then put them all together in special shows. I’ve done themed shows about Pakistan, Jamaica, America, Japan, China, South Africa, Georgia, Sierra Leone and more. 

Can you explain what the Glory to Sound project is, and why you started it?

Glory To Sound is a project I launched at Somerset House in London at the end of 2018. It’s inspired by my love of music and through a series of events, we explore what music really means to us and why we need it. I organized a mixture of talks, live performances and club nights and all the events we’ve had so far have been so fun. Unfortunately, 2020’s series has been put on hold but I hope things get back to normal soon so I can resume the project. 

You wrote
a blistering article for Dazed where you claimed your identity as a South Asian woman, through defying stereotypes of the kind of music you should produce and listen to. What was the outcome of this? Do you see positive changes?

The article sparked an important discussion around race in the music industry and I hope it opened people’s eyes to issues that they may have been oblivious to previously. South Asian artists are massively under-represented in the mainstream music scene as well as the underground music scene and this is something that needs to change. I’m definitely noticing more diversity compared to when I was a teenager going to gigs in London, but there’s still a long way to go and lots to be done. 

You’ve played at venues from festivals to art galleries. What kind of venue do you enjoy performing in the most?

I’ve had some great experiences such as performing with Wolfgang Tillmans at the Tate Modern in London, and playing my first DJ set at Glastonbury Festival a couple of years back. But I have to say that my favourite venues to play in are probably small ones, where everybody’s crammed in and dancing hard. I like to be close to the crowd and feel their energy. 

How are musicians like yourself coping without being able to perform live or collaborate in person? How do you see the coronavirus pandemic impacting music in the future?

At the moment there are no live events or club nights going on and this is quite difficult to deal with. I really miss listening to loud music and having a dance with people all around me. I really hope things go back to normal because I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like to be a musician living in a lockdown that lasts forever… what a nightmare!!!

Nabihah Iqbal’s video for ‘Zone 1 to 6000’

What are your plans for your second album?

I’m starting the second album from scratch again now… and working out what I’m trying to do with it. What am I trying to say? I think the events of the last few months have had a really big impact on my thoughts and feelings. I feel like the new attempt at album two is going to take the music in a whole different direction from the music I lost in the burglary. 

What’s on your lockdown playlist?

I’ve been listening to the radio a lot lately – I’ve found two really cool stations called Back 2 Back FM and Point Blank FM. I think they’re UK pirate radio stations but you can listen to them online too. I’d recommend checking them out. I’ve also been listening to a lot of reggae – old Bob Marley and the Wailers, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown…